“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

A Magnificent, a Wonderful Encyclical

In his weird and partly brilliant book on infinity, David Foster Wallace writes, “what the modern world’s about, what it is, is science.” That is, the heart of the modernity as a project is the new science developed in the 17th century, which consists in the application of a certain kind of symbolic-calculation to nature through experiments for the sake of technological power over nature. This science was “new” because unlike the old science its goal was not the contemplation of the truth in the forms of things; the goal of the new science was and is practical. As El Mono Liso recently noted, “the attempt to analyze the world as a series of mathematical equations or chemical formulas is ultimately not an unbiased analysis of static essences, but a blueprint by which civilized actors seek to bend all things to their own will, in our case, the will of capital.” The reference to capital is crucial. The new science was wedded to a new attitude toward external wealth: capitalism. For the first for the first time in history “the economy” emerged as self-regulating system aimed at the measureless increase of exchange value. And it was capitalism that provided the main measure of the growth of technological power. Unlimited technological progress is the engine of economic growth, and unlimited economic growth the measure of technological progress. 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

Desire and the Good

Match-Ice-Cream-Advertisement-Its-Year-PublicationOver at The Josias I have put up thirty-seven theses on the good. Since the good is the cause of causes, errors about it are in a way the most fundamental errors. There are three main errors about the good that I try to correct in my post. The first one has to do with the relation of goodness and desire: the error is to think that desire is not caused by the intrinsic goodness of things, but that rather things are only considered good because people happen to desire them. This seems like a small error, but has terrible consequences, it undergirds the typically modern view of the world as inert facticity upon which human desire projects ‘value,’ which therefore really refers to something in human desire and not something in the objects themselves. Marcus Berquist writes in a paper on the common good (p. 4) that one might see in this error the fundamental difference between modern philosophy and the tradition of Aristotle and Plato (and of Catholic moral theology). And this fits with his argument in another paper that the most fundamental disagreements among philosophers, the sources of all their other disagreements, are not about what is true and what is false, nor about what is most certain or most obvious, but about what comes first. In this case the question is: What comes first, the good or desire for the good? I think it is true to say that the typical modern view answers this question wrong— it sees desire as a kind of primary fact of human life, not as following on the genuine goodness of things. Aristotle and St Thomas of course give the opposite answer, but strangely enough they are often subjected to a strange mis-interpretation according to which they give basically the same answer as the moderns. Both certain would-be supporters of Aristotelian and Thomist eudemonism (such as Ayn Rand), and as well as certain thinkers who protest against it (such as Dietrich von Hildebrand) adopt this misunderstanding.

The second error that I try to attack is closely related to the first: the error of thinking that all desire for the good is essentially selfish. Von Hildebrand (and before him Luther), accuse a eudemonistic account making the love of God mercenary, as though on the classical account one loves God only as a means to one’s own satisfaction. I try to show that this is the complete opposite of what St Thomas actually teaches. god is to be loved with a love of benevolence not of concupiscence.

The third error is again closely related to the first. It is the view that the common good is merely an useful good for allowing people to get the private goods that they desire. I try to so that since the good is really in things, there can be a common good that is more desirable for me than any private good.

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

Garrigou-Lagrange on Kingship

Andrew Strain has posted his translation of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s preface to St Thomas’s On Kingship. I first heard about Garrigou’s piece from Alan Fimister’s brilliant study of Catholic Social Teaching and European unification. Fimister is a republican, but a republican of a very unusual kind; an Hillaire Belloc style republican. He would be willing to defend both the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. At any rate, Fimister objects to Garrigou-Lagrange’s royalism, and disagrees with his reading of On Kingship. Fimister seems to have three main objections to Garrigou’s piece:

  1. that Garrigou does not distinguish enough between the principles that he takes from St. Thomas, and his own conclusions that he draws from those principles, but which Fimister thinks St Thomas himself would not draw.
  2. that Garrigou exploits a terminological confusion between ancient and modern senses of ‘democracy’: «Garrigou uses the various criticisms Thomas makes of Democracy (the corrupt form of rule by the many) and of rule by the many as such as if they were criticisms of a mixed polity founded on universal franchise, which is what most moderns (but not Thomas) mean by Democracy and the system which Thomas proposes as the best. »
  3. that Garrigou reads Summa Theologica IaIIæ, 105,1 as calling for the aristocratic element to be elected by and from the people, but not as saying that the monarch should be so elected. Fimister thinks that this is the plain meaning of the text: «Garrigou omits to mention […] that Thomas also said that the monarch should be elected from the whole people by the whole people. This of course does not fit with the Royalism the twentieth-century Dominican seeks to foist upon his thirteenth-century confrere.»

Having read Garrigou’s text I would reply as follows to Fimister’s objections:

  • ad 1. this is quite true.
  • ad 2. this I don’t see. Garrigou uses St Thomas’s general arguments against polyarchy, and these seem to me to apply to mixed constitutions in which the polyarchical element is dominant (such as the Third French Republic) as well as to democracies in the ancient sense; it does not however apply to a mixed constitution in which the monarchical element is dominant, which St Thomas thinks is the ideal, and which Fimister falsely claims is the same system as modern ‘democracies’ such as the Third Republic.
  • ad 3. this turns on the interpretation of IaIIæ, 105,1, which is by no means as simple as Fimister would have us think. St Thomas says there that “the rulers” plural (principes) are chosen by and from the people. Garrigou interprets this to mean that the aristocratic element is chosen by the people, Fimister that both the aristocratic and the monarchical elements are. Both interpretations are possible. Garrigou’s is however more plausible in context, since St Thomas is arguing that the government of Israel during the exodus was fitting, and when he applies his model it is the aristocratic element that he sees as being chosen from the people (citing Deuteronomy 1:13). He sees the monarchical element as being realized in Moses, who was of course not chosen by the people.

The Our Father and Spiritual Exercises

I recently preached a retreat on the Our Father, and it struck me again how the order of the Our Father is virtually the opposite of that of St Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises. St Ignatius has one begin by considering one’s sins, and ends with a contemplation of God’s love, whereas the Our Father begins with the Father in heaven and ends with ‘deliver us from evil.’

In his division of the Our Father, St Thomas poses the following objection: “Further, one must withdraw from evil before attaining good. Therefore it seems unfitting for the petitions relating to the attainment of good to be set forth before those relating to the removal of evil.” This could be taken as a positive argument for the order of the Exercises. St Thomas replies as follows:

Since prayer is the interpreter of desire, the order of the petitions corresponds with the order, not of execution, but of desire or intention, where the end precedes the things that are directed to the end, and attainment of good precedes removal of evil.

Thus in the body of the article St Thomas argues that the Our Father looks first to God as final end,

first, by our willing the glory of God [hallowed be Thy name], secondly, by willing to enjoy His glory [Thy kingdom come]. The first belongs to the love whereby we love God in Himself, while the second belongs to the love whereby we love ourselves in God.

Then we pray for that which is immediately ordered to the end, namely that we do God’s will. Then for the things instrumentally ordered to attaining the end (daily bread). And then finally for the removal of sin, temptation, and all evils which hinder us from the perfect possession of the end.

St Ignatius was a man of action, and it makes sense that he takes the opposite order. Nevertheless, before beginning the first exercise he puts “The Principle and Foundation,” which is about the final end.

De Lubac and His Critics Make the Same Error

In an essay on integralism I took issue with Steven Long’s claim that the natural and supernatural desires for God have formally distinct objects. Long claims that the natural desire to know the first cause of all things is only materially, not formally, a desire to know God–just as the desire to know Einstein under the ratio of “man wearing a raincoat” is only materially, not formally, a desire to know Einstein. To this I replied:

[The] relevant distinction between objects of natural and of supernatural desire is not matter and form, but rather confused and distinct. That is, to desire God based on one’s natural knowledge of Him through His effects is really to desire God, in Whom those effects really participate. Here the Platonic notion of anamnesis that Ratzinger takes up […] is extremely helpful. When one comes to know God by natural reason, one “recognizes” in Him the infinite ocean of perfection in which one’s own and all created being participates. But of course this knowledge is very imperfect, confused knowledge; the light of faith gives a much more distinct knowledge of Whom it is that one desires. [… The] natural desire to attain to God is really a desire to attain to God, and thus the desire given by grace really perfects, elevates, and completes that desire by revealing both more about Who God is, and by revealing an unspeakably perfect and beatifying  mode of attaining to Him; it does not add another, independent desire.

Long himself sometimes speaks as though this were the case. Thus, a little after the Einstein-raincoat example he writes:

Where revelation makes the real possibility of beatific vision known, this renders the otherwise conditional desire to know God to become unconditional. Apart from revelation the desire would be conditional— “were it possible” one would will it. Just as one might wish to live forever, or never to make a mistake—both logically, but seemingly not really, possible—so one would wish to know the essence of the First Cause, save that in this case one genuinely would not know what one is wishing for. After revelation, the desire becomes unconditional. Once God reveals Himself and his gift of divine life, the natural desire thus elevated and supernaturalized in grace inclines toward it absolutely by inclining toward the infinitely higher end of union with the Uncreated Persons of the Holy Trinity. For the object of the natural desire for God under the ratio of “cause of these effects” is incorporated within the graced desire of God as God. (Natura Pura, p. 21)

 What Long says here fits quite well with my position. He is suggesting that the desire for God elicited by natural reason’s consideration of the things that He causes makes one desire to know God as much as possible. That desire would not be in vain in a state of pure nature, since to know even a little of God makes one happy, but the desire would not be so satisfied that one would not wish to know Him more. One would see that one’s knowledge of Him was indirect, through effects that fall infinitely short of Him, and one would wish “if it were possible” to know Him directly, in His essence. And so grace opens up a way of satisfying the natural desire infinitely more fully than it could be satisfied naturally. But if, on the other hand, the natural desire is really a desire for a formally distinct object, then this is much more difficult to see.

Oddly enough, De Lubac himself also distinguishes between two desires to know God with formally distinct objects–only he sees them both as natural desires. In The Discovery of GodDe Lubac distinguishes between the “philosophical” desire to know the cause of all things, and the “mystical” desire to know the One as the One. By “mystical” in this context he does not mean something that comes from an infused gift of the Holy Spirit, but rather a natural desire for the beatific vision presumably common to Christian and non-Christian mystics.  The philosopher, he argues, wants to “comprehend the universe,” and treats God only as an aid to explaining the world. The philosopher as philosopher is satisfied by this: “he does not ask for more.” (p. 148) The mystic, as mystic, who may be the same person as the philosopher but considered under another finality, does ask for more. De Lubac quotes a great many passages fro St. Thomas about how philosophy only knows God as cause of the world. But I think he is making a great mistake here. To say that philosophy only knows God through his effects does not mean that it is only interested in him as an explanation for His effects. All it means is that the highest knowledge which is what the philosopher really wants, that werein wisdom really consists, is only accessible indirectly. Consider the following passage of Plotinus:

We must ascend, therefore, once more to the Good, which every soul desires. If anyone […] passing in his ascent beyond all that is separative from God, by himself alone contemplates God alone, perfect, simple and pure, from Whom all things depend, to Whom all beings look, and in Whom they are, and live, and know. For He is the cause of Being, Life and Intelligence. If, then, anyone beheld Him, with what love would he be inspired! With what desire would he burn in his eagerness to be united with Him! With what bliss would he be overcome! (Ennead I,6,7)

Presumably De Lubac would call this a mystical rather than a philosophical text. And yet, it is wholly consistent with St. Thomas’s account of philosophy. Plotinus here has come to knowledge of God as the cause of being, life, and understanding; he does not see how God is in Himself, but he does see how he is not i.e. not-finite, not-complex (simple), not-mixed (pure). He is “perfect,” but his perfection is only known through imperfect things, by denying their imperfections of God. This leads Plotinus to wish for a more perfect knowledge:

How shall a man behold this ineffable Beauty which remains within, deep in Its holy sanctuaries, and proceeds not without where the profane may view It?  (I,6,8)

De Lubac argues that St. Thomas sometimes confuses the philosophical and the mystical desires for God, and that he was unable fully account for their relation to each other:

St. Thomas, therefore. seems to have failed in his attempt to establish continuity between philosophy and mysticism, between the dynamism of the intelligence and the desire of the spirit. The doctrine of “the natural desire to see God” is central to his thought, and he has not succeeded in completely unifying it. N0 one will succeed where he has failed. (The Discovery of God, p. 151)

But St. Thomas did not have to integrate these two desires, because they are simply the same thing. Consider St. Thomas’s treatment of the question in the Summ Contra Gentiles III,25 (often quoted by Long, but interpreted by him with unnecessary subtly):

The ultimate end of each thing is God, as we have shown. So, each thing intends, as its ultimate end, to be united with God as closely as is possible for it. Now, a thing is more closely united with God by the fact that it attains to His very substance in some manner, and this is accomplished when one knows something of the divine substance, rather than when one acquires some likeness of Him. Therefore, an intellectual substance tends to divine knowledge as an ultimate end. […] Besides, a thing has the greatest desire for its ultimate end. Now, the human intellect has a greater desire, and love, and pleasure, in knowing divine matters than it has in the perfect knowledge of the lowest things, even though it can grasp but little concerning divine things. So, the ultimate end of man is to understand God, in some fashion. […] Besides, there is naturally present in all men the desire to know the causes of whatever things are observed. Hence, because of wondering about things that were seen but whose causes were hidden, men first began to think philosophically; when they found the cause, they were satisfied. But the search did not stop until it reached the first cause, for “then do we think that we know perfectly, when we know the first cause.” Therefore, man naturally desires, as his ultimate end, to know the first cause. But the first cause of all things is God. Therefore, the ultimate end of man is to know God.

Both De Lubac and Long understand the desire to know God qua cause of all things as being the desire to know an object formally distinct from God as God. But there is absolutely no need to make this distinction. Both De Lubac and his critic make a mistake common among very clever people: thinking that things must be more complicated than they are. The most profound things are the most simple and obvious.

De Lubac notes that in fact every philosopher is more than a philosopher and “the labor of elaborating an intelligible world does not save him from ‘the nostalgia of Being’,” and he adds in a footnote: “This is true even of Descartes, so often accused since the time of Pascal of only being interested in God for the sake of possessing the world.” (p. 153 with note 19) Here we perhaps see the real origin of De Lubac’s conception of the role of God in philosophy: Descartes! Descartes’s philosophical account of God is indeed only an aid to explaining the world, and this is what distinguishes “the god of the [French Enlightenment] philosophers” from the God of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. Descartes’s philosophical approach to God (as opposed to his religious approach) is not an approach to God at all, and his desire to know that “God” is a desire to know an object not only formally but also materially distinct from his desire to know the One True God. But that is just because the “god” of Cartesian philosophy is not God at all, but just a useful fiction.

A First Communion Sermon

Johannes and Tristan, the Blessed Sacrament, which you will receive today for the first time, is a miracle. St. Thomas Aquinas said that it is the greatest of all the miracles of Christ our Lord. But for such a great miracle it is not very amazing to look at and to taste. All we see is a little white disk, all we taste is a little baked flour. Why is the greatest of all of Christ’s miracles so uninteresting on the outside? Why doesn’t Christ do something that everyone can see, something really impressive? Christ is all-powerful, all-mighty. What would you do if you were all-mighty?  If I had been given infinite power at your age, I would probably have flown around through the air, with a long cape trailing behind me, and have killed all the “bad guys.” Why didn’t our Lord do something like that?

Two of his apostles wanted him to do something like that. They were two brothers James and John, and they were called the “sons of thunder”— maybe because they liked loud noises. Once Jesus was traveling in in an area called Samaria and James and John went into a village to ask the Samaritans whether Jesus could stay there. But the Samaritans said no, because Jesus was going to the temple in Jerusalem, and they did not believe in the temple. So James and John went and told Jesus that the Samaritans would not let Him stay there. And they asked Him should we call down fire from heaven to destroy them? What do you think? Did Jesus do it? Did He call down fire from heaven to destroy those unbelieving Samaritans? [Johannes and Tristan shake their heads]. You are right; He didn’t do it. Would you have done it? [More head shaking] Ah, you are wise. At your age I would have done it. I would have sent fire from heaven down on those people. Probably even now, even though I am four times older then you, I would still do it. But our Lord Jesus did not do it. He didn’t want to destroy the Samaritans; He wanted to change them from the inside. In today’s reading we heard how after Jesus had died and risen from the dead, one of his disciples (Philip the deacon) went to the Samaritans, and this time they believed. When the Apostles hear about this they send Peter with one of the “sons of thunder,” namely John to the Samaritans. John who before had wanted to call down fire to destroy the Samaritans now calls down another kind of fire, the Holy Spirit, to change them from the inside.

They are able to do this because of what our Lord did in His death. Our Lord did not have to die. In the Garden of Olives He tells His Apostles that He could call more than twelve armies of angels to defeat the people that want to kill Him. But He decides to suffer death. And by suffering He defeats death on the inside; He transforms it into a sacrifice of love that leads to new life. And so He is able not just to defeat His enemies, but to turn them into His friends. After Pentecost, Peter preaches to the crowd that put Jesus to death, and they are converted.

Before suffering His death our Lord gave His Apostles the Blessed Sacrament, which showed them the meaning of His death, and (more importantly) gave them a way of making the power of His death work on us now. In the Blessed Sacrament bread and wine are changed, not in their outer look and taste, but in their very being. The whole substance of bread is changed into the substance of Christ’s flesh and the whole substance of the wine is changed into Christ’s blood. When you receive this Sacrament, our Lord will come into you, and He will change you. He wants to change your life into His life. He wants to change all of your selfishness and brattiness, your disobedience and cowardice and greed and meanness, and give you His own courage and gentleness and obedience and love. He wants to give you the courage to take up your own crosses, all the hard things in your lives, and unite them to His sacrifice, out of love for Him. The great miracle of the change of bread and wine should lead to a change in you, Johannes and Tristan, a change by which you become holy. When you receive Christ our Lord into your mouths today, thank Him for coming to you, and ask Him to stay with you and change you.

[Preached on the Sixth Sunday of Easter. The main ideas were taken from a sermon of Pope Benedict XVI’s at the World Youth Day 2005, and a much earlier sermon of Ratzinger’s included in this collection.]