Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Nativity Prep

There's a great story at NPR about Nativity Prep in Wilmington, Delaware. It will make you proud to be a Catholic. If you know Latin, it will make you proud of that, too.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

March Sadness

I picked Duke to go all the way in my local pool, but although their chances of winning may be good, I didn't manage to pick some of the upsets that have already occurred. My pool is calculating the scores by multiplying the round number by the seed number, so even if I picked the champion there is still a very good chance that I will not win the pool.

Only four months until football preseason!

Heirs by Adoption

Speaking of Saint Joseph, I'm often struck by how some folks continue to view adoptive children as, in some sense, not the "real" children of their adoptive parents. It is a strangely old-fashioned, parochial view, I think, to regard biological children as somehow more "authentic" than adoptive children. You don't run into this attitude all that often any more, but it has not disappeared by any means. When I was a kid it was endemic. You still find references to it in the popular culture--claims made by mean siblings that "You must be adopted" to siblings who aren't really adopted, or "I must be adopted" being said as a way of distancing oneself from the wacky shenanigans of the rest of the family. I suspect that these kinds of jokes are not all that funny to kids who really are adopted and who may have been struggling to come to terms with their status.

There are two manifestations of adoptive status in the Christian religion that ought to make us think twice about that sort of attitude. The first and most obvious is the relationship between Our Lord and Saint Joseph. Jesus, the Martyrology reads, "wished to be called the son of Joseph", and "He was obedient to him just as a son to his father". The second is the status of every Christian as an adoptive heir to the Kingdom of God. Through Christ, who lived as an adoptive child, God has adopted all of us as His children. That status makes us ontologically different, and the relationship that exists between us and God is no less authentic for being an adoptive relationship.

Whether thoughts along these lines will serve to comfort those who struggle with the fear that their "natural" parents somehow didn't want them or love them enough to keep them is perhaps difficult to know with any certainty. The Gospel message itself doesn't always comfort everyone, even though it should. Human nature is too weak to understand what it does not experience for itself, to paraphrase Plato.

Sollemnity Transferred

For the two or three people who actually read the Martyrology over there on the right hand side of the screen let me just note that it is always keyed to the calendar date, not to the liturgical tables of precedence. So it shows tomorrow as the Sollemnity of Saint Joseph, even though in the dioceses of the United States the liturgical celebration of that Sollemnity has been transferred to Monday since tomorrow it is impeded by the Third Sunday of Lent.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Every Jot and Tittle

If you've ever browsed around in various translations of the Gospel of St. John, you may have noticed that there is some difference of opinion as to how best to punctuate verses 3 and 4 of the first chapter. In the King James Version, for example, the two verses read
(3) All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. (4) In him was life; and the life was the light of men.
This punctuation was maintained in the Revised Standard Version, which reads
(3) all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. (4) In him was life, and the life was the light of men.
In the Revised New Testament of the New American Bible, however, the verses are punctuated this way:
(3) All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be (4) through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race.
If you look into this matter further you will find that the majority of translations made before the 1980s favor the punctuation adopted by the King James Version and retained in the Revised Standard Version, but that there is a growing preference for the punctuation adopted in the New American Bible. What difference, exactly, could any of this possibly make?

Punctuation as such was not something that was in widespread use in antiquity. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find it much in evidence anywhere in the 1st century, when the Gospel texts were first being committed to writing. In fact, putting spaces between words was not exactly a common practice, let alone putting in little marks to indicate new sentences or breaks in thought. The text of these two verses on most manuscripts would have looked vaguely like this (I'm attempting to imitate the look of uncials here--it's only an approximation):
ΠANTA∆IAYTOYEGENETOKAIXΩPICAUTOYEGENETOOY∆EEN
OGEGONENENAYTΩIZΩHHNKAIHZΩHHNTOΦΩCTΩNANΘPΩΠΩN
If it's hard to imagine reading a text like that for very long you needn't worry: not many folks in those days could read anyway. These manuscripts weren't for the idle middle classes lounging around after an eight hour day down at the office. The market for these texts was primarily a scholarly one (the word "scholar" is derived from the Greek word skholê, which means "leisure time"). The scholarly set was familiar enough with the writing conventions of the day to be able to read such texts with (relative) ease. I suppose we could get used to it, too, if we had nothing else to compare it with. To see some samples of manuscripts of the Greek New Testament, check out the website for the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts.

In the case of John 1.3-4 the problem of breaking up the text into sense units is an interesting one. We have evidence that St. Jerome punctuated these two verses differently at different stages of his career. In his commentary on Habbakuk, dating from around 391-392, he cites the verses in the form employed in the New American Bible. But in many of his works dating from the period 401-416, including his Homily on the Gospel of John (401-410), he cites these verses in the form employed by the King James Version and the Revised Standard Version. So within a period of about 10 years, it seems, St. Jerome changed his mind about the best way to read these verses. What may have prompted the change?

The Macedonians were given their name from the fact that it was thought that they were followers of Macedonius, Bishop of Constantinople from around 342 until he was deposed in 360 by the Arian Council of Constantinople. Although the association with Macedonius is doubtful, the Macedonian heresy, for better or for worse, was attributed by St. Jerome to him. The fundamental feature of this heresy is the denial of the divinity of the Holy Spirit (hence the Macedonians are also known as the Pneumatomakhoi). In his Homily on the Gospel of John St. Jerome notes that there are many who read these verses "badly" (male legunt), and he goes on to explain their error this way. The heretics appeal to the punctuation that we find nowadays in the New American Bible, and that St. Jerome himself had used in his commentary on Habbakuk. Since it is the Holy Spirit that gives life through Christ, the heretics argued, we must read the Gospel as telling us that the Holy Spirit is a creature of the Word, since the Gospel itself tells us that "what came-into-existence through him was life, and that life was the light of men." In other words, the Gospel itself clearly tells us that the life that was the light of men, i.e., the Holy Spirit, was one of the things that came-into-existence through the Word. So St. Jerome, in his Homily on the Gospel of John, recommended reading the verses differently--in particular, he recommended the punctuation that we find in the King James Version--in order to avoid the possibility of reading the Gospel in the Macedonian, Pneumatikomakhoi way. Subsequent Fathers relied on St. Jerome's recommendation, changing the punctuation of the verses so that they say rather explicitly that only those things that came-into-existence (i.e., not the Holy Spirit) came into existence through the Word. Period. New Sentence. "In Him was life," etc.

It is worth pointing out, I think, that the older reading, the punctuation adopted by St. Jerome in his Commentary on Habbakuk, is preferable to the later, anti-Macedonian reading. First, the anti-Macedonian reading is extremely ad hoc, and has the Gospel telling us something rather banal, namely, that the things that came into existence came into existence through the thing that brought them into existence. That's like saying that all paintings are painted by painters. It's true, but trivially so. Second, it has the Gospel informing us that there was life in the Word, and that life was the light of men. Taken with the previous verse, this is just a restatement of the same thought: the Word is what brings things into existence and, in the case of living things, causes them to be living things. None of this is very interesting, but of course trivial truths are certainly truths, so we cannot accuse St. Jerome of perverting the meaning of the Gospel for purely polemical purposes.

However, the older punctuation tells us something quite extraordinary and remarkable. It tells us about something specific that came about through the agency of the Word, namely, the renewal of that eternal life that was lost by men at the Beginning. It is worth pointing out that this was the reading favored by St. Jerome when he was translating the Scriptures into the version that we now know as the Vulgate. This means, in my opinion, that it is arguably a more authentic reading of the tradition, since it was not influenced by a polemical purpose, namely, the combatting of a semi-arian heresy.

Little differences can add up to big ones, and the ways in which we read our texts are not always matters of easy and unambiguous decisions. In the present case the placement of a single comma can make an enormous difference. Imagine having to sort things out without any punctuation marks at all!

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Properly Formed Conscience

In a statement released yesterday by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinals Keeler and McCarrick, along with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, re-iterated the Church's infallible teaching on abortion in response to a recent public statement by 55 Democratic members of the House of Representatives who also happen to call themselves Catholics.

In their statement, drafted by Rosa L. DeLauro of the 3rd District in Connecticut, the Democrats allowed as how they "agree with the Catholic Church about the value of human life and the undesirability of abortion" BUT
In all these issues, we seek the Church=s guidance and assistance but believe also in the primacy of conscience. In recognizing the Church's role in providing moral leadership, we acknowledge and accept the tension that comes with being in disagreement with the Church in some areas. Yet we believe we can speak to the fundamental issues that unite us as Catholics and lend our voices to changing the political debate -- a debate that often fails to reflect and encompass the depth and complexity of these issues.
This is a claim that pseudo-catholics often make: they love having dialogue with the Church but, when push comes to shove, they'll be the arbiters of what's best for us. It's nice of the Church to give us advice and all, but we'll be the ones who decide whether or not to accept that advice. For such persons, that is all that is meant by "following your conscience": do whatever you want to do, as long as you can give some kind of a reason for it, and as long as you've listened respectfully to opposing points of view.

This understanding of the "primacy of conscience" is distinctively American, growing out of not a Catholic understanding of autonomy but a distinctively American Protestant understanding of the primacy of the individual. We live in a country, after all, where every opinion is sacred simply by virtue of being an opinion. We don't live in some third world backwater where people are put in jail for having the wrong opinions, after all--it's the American way to live and let live.

All of which is fine and dandy as far as it goes--the problem is that it simply doesn't go when it comes to moral truth. Every American may vote however he pleases, and may express whatever opinion about morality that he pleases. Indeed, any and every American is free to dissent from what the Catholic Church teaches--politically free, that is: we are not morally free to dissent from infallible truth. To dissent from the Church's teaching on abortion is not something that will get you put in jail, but it is something that makes you the moral equivalent of someone who refuses to believe that 2 + 2 = 4.

Many people--including many Roman Catholic people--simply do not understand the Church's teaching on the primacy of conscience. That's why the statement of the USCCB is so salutary, because they put it quite nicely:
As the Church carries out its central responsibility to teach clearly and help form consciences, and as Catholic legislators seek to act in accord with their own consciences, it is essential to remember that conscience must be consistent with fundamental moral principles. As members of the Church, all Catholics are obliged to shape our consciences in accord with the moral teaching of the Church.
In short, if you find yourself in the position of disagreeing with an infallible teaching of the Church on the grounds that you are following your conscience, then you are fundamentally mistaken about the nature of what you are doing. You do not have a right to follow the dictates of a poorly formed "conscience", any more than a criminal can argue for an exemption from the law on the grounds that he feels differently about the legality of his acts than the rest of society. Imagine how folks would feel if a member of the clergy accused of child sex abuse were to say "I know that most of society views what I did as wrong, but I think our social mores are hopelessly old-fashioned--I was just following my conscience, which tells me that man-boy love is not only appropriate, it is the most perfect form of love there is." Nobody outside of NAMBLA would take that line of defense seriously for a nanosecond, and rightly so.

The American Bishops are to be congratulated for making this response so quickly and so pertinently: they were not duped by the language of the statement, which presumes to teach the Church what Pope John Paul II meant in his Apostolic Constitution Christifideles Laici and what role--if any--the Bishops of the Church can hope to have in teaching the truth to the lay members of Christ's faithful people.

Existential Mystery

In spite of previous death of Carrol O'Connor, Archie Bunker found dead in prison in The Hague.

Kent State 72, Ohio 59

Oh well, you win some you lose some. The Ohio Univeristy Bobcats lost to the Kent State University Golden Flashes (yes, that really is their team name, but it's better than the Akron University "Zips") last night in the MAC semifinals. Last year OU won the MAC tournament and got an automatic bid to the NCAA. Don't laugh too hard: they almost won their first round game.

I can't feel too bad about this since Kent State University is where I did my undergraduate work and I sort of grew up in and around Kent and Stow, so my loyalties, such as they are when it comes to sports teams, are rather divided. Living so near Cleveland didn't stop me from rooting for the Steelers in the Super Bowl, as traitorous as that is for a Browns fan, so you can see what kind of a sports person I am. My wife is always particularly on me about my loyalties in the ACC (we both attended UNC, but only I attended Duke--she's a Michigan girl), because she accuses me of rooting indiscriminately either for Duke or for UNC depending on who looks to be most likely to come out on top. I'm thinking I'll go with Duke this year.

The only sport in which I am not so capricious in my loyalties is golf, where I root for Tiger Woods no matter what, and go into fits of rage and endless bouts of pouting when he loses. I'm not entirely fanatical, though, because I do enjoy it when Tiger is given a run for his money, and I was not the least bit disappointed when Phil Mickelson won the Masters because I think he really deserved it and I genuinely like the guy and wish he would win more often, but I have to confess that if Tiger is not at least two strokes ahead going into the weekend I get knots in my stomach that don't go away until Monday.

So much for the life of rational contemplation. I guess Aristotle never imagined a sport like golf, otherwise he never would have written that tenth book of the Nicomachean Ethics.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Book of Divine Worship

David Bennett of An Aid to Memory has a post about the Anglican Use Book of Divine Worship, the service book for Roman Catholics of the Anglican Use (basically, Anglicans who have converted to Catholicism but for whom the spirituality and liturgics of Anglicanism are too precious to abandon forever). The book may be ordered from here. You can learn more about the Anglican Use here.

Reason and Racism

I quoted at some length the other day from Dummett's preface to his book on Frege's philosophy of mathematics. The purpose of that quotation was to raise what I thought were interesting issues related to the every-growing demand put upon young scholars to publish or perish. While it is disappointing to me that my original post was so badly misunderstood by some of those who kindly took the trouble to read it, the experience has at least had the salutary effect of prompting me to go back and read some more Dummett, who was something of an inspiration to me while I was in graduate school.

Michael Dummett, who retired from the Wykeham Professorship of Logic at Oxford University in 1992, and who was knighted in 1999, has been a leading critic of the racist attitudes of his native Britain. He was raised in an Anglican family but like many young folks he regarded himself as an atheist by the time he was a teenager. In 1944, however, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church and remains a very orthodox Catholic. For those of us who have struggled with materialism and empiricism--and particularly within the context of departments of philosophy, where standing apart from the dominant orthodoxy is often an occasion for ostracism--it is refreshing and invigorating to know that some of the smartest people on the planet have no trouble accepting the ontological claims of the Christian religion. I suppose that if Daniel Dennett is right, the ease with which even these brilliant thinkers accept Christianity is nothing more than a manifestation of some inner psychic virus, but perhaps that does not matter, since if Dennett is right then every view of the world is nothing more than a manifestation of some inner psychic virus.

Although my interest in the philosophy of mathematics is not small, I did not sit down and re-read Dummett's book on Frege's philosophy of mathematics. I decided instead to read his book on Frege's philosophy of language, since that is the direction in which my own interests have a tendency to wander more often than not. Unfortunately, the difference in my relative interest in the two subjects is more than equally matched by the difference in the respective page counts in the two books (331 in the former, 708 in the latter).

Rather than bore folks with the details of the argument in Dummett's Frege: Philosophy of Language, I will regale you instead with an excerpt from the preface to that book (p. xii):
There is some irony for me in the fact that the man about whose philosophical views I have devoted, over years, a great deal of time to thinking, was, at least at the end of his life, a virulent racist, specifically an anti-semite. This fact is revealed by a fragment of a diary which survives among Frege's Nachlass, but which was not published with the rest by Professor Hans Hermes in Freges nachgelassene Schriften. The diary shows Frege to have been a man of extreme right-wing political opinions, bitterly opposed to the parliamentary system, democrats, liberals, Catholics, the French and, above all, Jews, who he thought ought to be deprived of political rights and, preferably, expelled from Germany. When I first read that diary, many years ago, I was deeply shocked, because I had revered Frege as an absolutely rational man, if, perhaps, not a very likeable one. I regret that the editors of Frege's Nachlass chose to suppress that particular item. From it I learned something about human beings which I should be sorry not to know; perhaps something about Europe, also.
Perhaps because of my view that they constitute one of the most important instantiations of that imago Dei that makes human experience meaningful and importantly different from other modes of existence, I have always found anti-Semitism towards the Jews to be one of the most offensive sorts of injustice. (A close second, at least for me personally, is racism against blacks. Dennett would no doubt dismiss this as just an artefact of my having an African-American daughter, but even when I was in junior high school I was enraged by expressions of racism against blacks. I did not know any blacks at the time, so I'm not all that sure where the feelings came from. Is it possible that I was simply outraged by the injustice?) With Dummett, I find myself perplexed whenever I encounter such an attitude in an otherwise rational person. Like Plato, I regard this sort of moral wrong an instance of ignorance of a certain kind, and in particular I regard it as a kind of ignorance that one ought to find more rarely in intelligent, well-educated persons.

But such expectations are not well-founded. The correlation between poor education and racism appears to be only very loose, and I have run into plenty of academics with advanced degrees who are also racists or bigots of one form or another. Readers of this forum will know, of course, that this kind of bigotry is often extended to Roman Catholics--there is a book that many of you will have heard of, written by another religious academic whom I admire: The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, by Philip Jenkins (Oxford University Press, 2003). Jenkins ably illustrates how philosophical ideologies easily translate into real prejudice and, ultimately, injustice.

When smart people can make such obvious mistakes, and, what is more, act so outraged when their mistakes are pointed out to them, it is difficult to avoid falling into a kind of despair. Despair, however, is a sin against hope. Since I'm constantly telling my son that patience is a virtue, it would be more than a little hypocritical of me to abandon hope because of my own impatience, particuarly impatience with people and their little foibles. Racism is not a little foible, mind you, but no sinner is irreformable, and it is that fact that ought to be kept in mind, I suppose, if one is to maintain Christian charity. Indeed, it may be a particularly Christian form of charity, since the desire for punishment, revenge, retribution, seems so rampant in our culture. So perhaps the reasonable thing to do is not to give up on the racists, but to work harder to eradicate the conditions that lead to such deleterious failures of rationality as one finds in them.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Mini Darwin

I'm afraid that in all of my pouting and rambling of late I've completely neglected paying any attention to the truly miraculous: the birth of a new baby to the DarwinCatholics. I feel particuarly bad about this neglect because, although I don't know them personally, the Darwins have been very kindly towards me and my blog, acting as though it's actually worth reading. In addition, as I read their blog, not only on religious and political topics, but just about their overall home life, I feel that they are genuinely kindred spirits, and I wish that I did know them personally. That new baby is lucky to have found such a good home.

Anyway, a happy and heartfelt congratulations to them, and my warmest prayers:

Et pax Dei, quae exsuperat omnem sensum, custodiet corda vestra et intellegentias vestras in Christo Iesu. Philippians 4.7.

Publish or Perish

I just got an email notification from Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews of a book by Jennifer Wright Knust called Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity (Columbia University Press, 2006). The review includes this brief description of the book:
Abandoned to Lust, a revision of Knust's Columbia University dissertation, examines the ideological and theological commitments undergirding the early Christian use of sexual slander. According to Knust, the Christian appropriation of longstanding assumptions about sexuality played an essential role in the formation of Christian identity: sexual invective functioned not only to distinguish the followers of Jesus from both pagans and Jews, but it also proved effective for demonizing "others" in intra-Christian debates. The first chapter, an outline of gender and the function of sexual rhetoric in the Greco-Roman world, acts as a foundation for analyzing Christian invective against non-Christians (chapters two and three) and the use of vituperative discourse within the Christian tradition (chapters four and five).
The title of the introduction to the book is "Who's on Top? Sex Talk, Power, and Resistance."

This sort of thing was already becoming popular when I was in graduate school in classics way back in 1978. That's coming up on thirty years ago, and it's a little surprising that the archeology of sex is still such a profitable vein to mine. I suppose what's a little new in this is the focus on Christianity, but even that is becoming so mainstream now that one wonders what the continuing thrill consists in. In particular, one of the central theses of the book, according to the reviewer, is downright old-fashioned:
Knust argues that the rhetoric of sex and gender represents an effective strategy of resistance. Specifically, when Christians promoted themselves as the sole practitioners of sexual morality, they indicted non-Christians for their vice, effectively challenging the legitimacy of both the Roman empire and the emperor. In essence, they adopted the rhetorical invective of the Greco-Roman world and turned it against the empire.
Instead of raising what I would have thought to have been a centrally important question--what are the hermeneutic principles that compel us to accept Knust's reading of the events rather than some other--the reviewer simply purrs
Knust's study is a superb addition to recent works that have explored the relationship between sex and gender, culture, and power in early Christian discourse.
Although I'm sure the book really is every bit as superb an addition to that body of work as the reviewer claims it is, I am prompted to agree with Michael Dummett, who had this to say about the pressure put upon young scholars to publish as much as they can as soon as they can:
Academics who delivered their promised manuscripts twenty years late used to cause us amusement; but it was a respectful amusement, because we knew the delay to be due, not to idleness, but to perfectionism. Perfectionism can be obsessive, like that which prevented Wittgenstein from publishing another book in his lifetime, and probably would have done so however long he had lived; but, as the phrase goes, it is a fault on the right side. Every learned book, every learned article, adds to the weight of things for others to read, and thereby reduces the chance of their reading other books or articles. Its publication is therefore not automatically justified by its having some merit: the merit must be great enough to outweigh the disservice done by its being published at all. Naturally, no individual writer can be expected to be able accurately to weigh the one against the other; but he should be conscious of the existence of such a pair of scales. We used to be trained to believe that no one should put anything into print until he no longer sees how to make it any better. That, I still believe, is the criterion we should apply; it is the only means that exists of keeping the quality of published work as high as possible, and its quantity manageably low. The ideologues who in their arrogance force their misconceived ideals upon us attempt to make us apply virtually the opposite criterion: publish the moment you can get editor or publisher to accept it. We are compelled outwardly to comply with their demands; let us inwardly continue to maintain our own values.

(From Frege: Philosophy of Mathematics, p. x.)
There isn't really anything all that unusual in publishing one's dissertation as a book or as a series of journal articles, at least not these days. But Dummett is right that the best ideas require time to come to fruition, and this time is not often given to young scholars who must publish whatever they can get into print if their hopes to earn tenure are themselves to come to fruition. It is an unfortunate state of affairs, not only for the young scholars who must rush into print whatever banal ideas they have floating around in their dissertations, but also for the students who must be taught by young scholars who have yet to learn the most fundamental strategies and methods of teaching and who will put off learning those things while they collect their meagre thoughts for publication.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Argumentum ad scientiam

There is an informal fallacy that is sometimes referred to by the Latin name Argumentum ad auctoritatem, which means, more or less, "appeal to authority". But an appeal to authority is not always fallacious. If you are having a dispute over what the weather tomorrow is going to be like, it is not fallacious at all to appeal to the authority of the weatherman, even though weathermen are not exactly the safest bets in town either. So to distinguish the non-fallacious appeal to authority from the fallacious kind, the latter is usually referred to as "appeal to unqualified authority." You commit this fallacy when you appeal to the authority of someone who is not really qualified to settle an argument on some particular topic. For example, if you are arguing with somebody over whether or not creationism should count as a science, you don't appeal to the authority of your local astrologer. You shouldn't appeal to the authority of your local creation scientist either, but that's another story.

I used to teach logic out of a textbook called A Concise Introduction to Logic by Patrick Hurley, but I will never use that book again. There is an exercise in which the student is instructed to "Identify the fallacies of relevance, weak induction, presumption, ambiguity, and grammatical analogy committed by the following arguments...If no fallacy is committed, write 'no fallacy.'" It then gives the following as one of the sample arguments:
Pope John Paul II has stated that artificial insemination of women is immoral. We can only conclude that this practice is indeed immoral.
You know how some books have the answers to selected questions in the back of the book? Well, it just so happens that this question has an answer at the back of the book, so I looked to see what the student was supposed to write. The answer: appeal to unqualified authority. Never mind the fact that it is highly disputable whether this is actually an appeal to unqualified authority--unqualified authority isn't even one of the fallacies the student was supposed to be looking for!

Well, it's one thing to be accused of appealing to an authority that isn't really an authority, but I think that I've identified a new fallacy, one that has not been identified before to my knowledge, the reason being, I think, that it is a fallacy of a sort that is not likely to be intentionally committed by very many people. I call it the Argumentum ad scientiam, or "appeal to knowledge". This fallacy occurs when you accuse somebody of knowing what they're talking about with a view to making it seem like what they're saying is irrelevant or unimportant.

How could that happen, you ask? Well, let me give you an example. Just the other day I was engaged in a dialectical exchange in which I made a claim about what followed from something somebody else had said, and my interlocuter replied that I was making "a fetish out of philosophical rigor." (Logical) Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, after all. It is totally accidental and beside the point that I am a philosopher, but by pointing out that not everyone makes "a fetish out of philosophical rigor" my interlocutor subtly suggested that, precisely because I am a philosopher and hence prone to drawing useless and pedantic distinctions, we need not take seriously the point that I was making. In other words, he used my own expertise in critical analysis as a point against me! An "appeal to my knowledge/expertise" in an attempt to discredit my point has got to be one of the most sophistic fallacies ever but, in a way, I have to admire it. To quote Jerry Seinfeld: I'd like to meet his balls.

I'm not the only victim of the Argumentum ad scientiam. I've actually seen it used quite often, though not often intentionally. You will often find references to "academics" made in such a way as to suggest that academics are unrealistic, or just a little bit weird, or dangerously out of touch with "reality". When I was in graduate school at Duke I used to drive over to Durham from Chapel Hill every day for classes, and to pass the time (even though it is only 6 miles away, traffic usually made the trip last about 30 or 40 minutes) I would often listen to Rush Limbaugh. One afternoon he was laughing very hard about a book he had recently heard about. The reason for his merriment: the book had raised a question about the evolution of sex, wondering what sort of advantage it offered that would make it something that was selected for by natural selection. He thought that was just about the funniest thing he had ever heard--only an egg-headed brainiac academic would be puzzled about how on earth sex could have been selected for, it seems. So even though the book was actually very scholarly and scientific, Limbaugh wanted to leave us with this impression that it must actually be kind of kooky and, hence, untrustworthy--precisely because only some kind of academic weirdo would even think of such a project.

Although it is rather tempting to wonder what on earth Rush Limbaugh could possibly know about sex, that would be the fallacy of Argumentum ad hominem, so we won't go there. Suffice it to say that in the popular culture the disdain for academics and intellectual pursuits is endemic and at least partly explains the culture of mediocrity that prevails in many school systems, where being intellectually curious is so uncool that some students actually avoid it and ostracize those who do not avoid it. I was not exactly a little Einstein when I was in grade school, and I remember how the kids who were perceived as geeky and smart were treated by the rest of us. I think things are marginally better in some school districts these days, but I'd be willing to bet that in other districts things have gotten worse, if only because the prevailing mediocrity of the popular culture has itself gotten much worse. Is it any wonder that more and more people are choosing to home-school their children?

I worry a little about my own son in this regard. He is finishing up the sixth grade this year, and next year it's on to middle school--in a different building from where he has spent the last seven years and with kids from all over the district (there are four elementary schools in Athens, but only one middle school). He has never been a bad student, but in the past two years he has become a great student, earning all As this year. I don't even want to think about the grades I used to get when I was his age. Is F-- a grade that lots of people used to get, or was it just me? But I have noticed that he has many fears and apprehensions about moving on to middle school and I wonder how much of that is connected to a worry that he will be perceived--and treated--as different.

Because I work closely with the Honors Tutorial Program here at Ohio University I get to see plenty of students for whom hard academic work and intellectual curiosity are ways of life. I am very fortunate, too, that most of the regular students I see have a healthy respect for learning even when they struggle with their own grades. But I also see students for whom the whole college experience is nothing more than a ticket to a job, and for whom critical analysis of arguments is just a waste of time. For these students, there is no need to think carefully about whether or why abortion is right or wrong, or capital punishment, or physician-assisted suicide, or gay marriage. They just form opinions and stick to them no matter what any old "argument" might suggest. For these kinds of students arguments don't do any good anyway, because they often are immune to the compelling power of logical validity. I'm not saying that there are tons and tons of these kinds of students around, but there are more than you might think, and it's more than a little disheartening to think that they could be informing themselves and strengthening their reasoning skills with logical rigor and critical acumen, except for the fact that their culture has persuaded them that it's just too uncool to make "a fetish out of philosophical rigor."

Monday, March 06, 2006

A Tale of Two Augustines

Anyone who professes to have even the least interest in the life and work of Saint Augustine of Hippo will have read Peter Brown's magisterial Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1967, new edition 2000). It has been, and remains, the principal authority in English on the subject, and in addition it is a model of the genre, written in a style that is both readable and scholarly, accessible and authoritative. The much shorter Saint Augustine by Garry Wills (Viking, 1999) was never intended to compete with Brown's book, but it is difficult to avoid comparisons nonetheless: Brown's book is scholarly, thoughtful, insightful, and meticulously fair, while Wills' book is marred, in my own opinion, by some of the peculiar conceptions of the Catholic Church that appear to have motivated him in such works as his Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit and Why I Am a Catholic (talk about your false advertising). Wills is an excellent scholar, however, and I won't pretend that my reading of his work is not motivated by biases of my own.

Now another biography has come along by another scholar just as great, Augustine: A New Biography by James J. O'Donnell (New York: Harper Collins, 2005), more scholarly by far than the Wills book but clearly not on a par with Brown's. In fact, it is plainly a popularizing account in many aspects, which is somewhat surprising in some ways. The book has some scholarly apparatus (629 footnotes, for example, and an impressive list of references), and makes rather extensive use of that academic argot of literary criticism that is strangely technical and accessible at the same time. Indeed, the book reads almost like a blog at times. In itself this is not surprising: O'Donnell describes himself on his website as "a recognized innovator in the application of networked information technology in higher education" and one almost expects him to be able to straddle easily the line between the technical and the popular. He is an active contributor to the classics discussion listserv list (archived here), he has held graduate level seminars on Augustine on the net, and his impressive edition of Augustine's Confessiones has been made available on the web. Certainly there is nothing per se wrong with adopting a certain prose style (I hope). In a couple of cases I was somewhat startled by what struck me, personally, as rather forced intrusions of contempoary ideas or attitudes into the assessment of a very different cultural milieux ("Augustine's god was off the charts" or "To read much of Augustine requires or facilitates a respectful bond between reader and author. Call it codependency or Stockholm syndrome at its mildest....") but by and large the book is an enjoyable read.

As in the case of reading Wills' book, however, one is regularly struck, while reading O'Donnell's book, by what comes across as a kind of dissonance in the text, a tension between a sense of the greatness of the subject matter, on the one hand, and on the other hand the creeping feeling that one's tour guide is surreptitiously sneaking in derogatory remarks about the scenery even while he praises its beauty. It's not that O'Donnell is overtly critical of his subject: although he goes to great lengths to distance himself from Augustine's way of life and from Augustine's view of the world, he makes it quite clear that the man was truly remarkable, whatever we might make of his quaint little religion or hopelessly backwards (that is, pre-post-modern) way of experiencing things. There is this tone, however--what comes across almost as a kind of ironically self-conscious disdain for the subject matter--that continues to gnaw at the joists supporting the reader's growing admiration for the Saint. It really is the strangest sensation; I cannot say whether or not O'Donnell intended this effect, but it is arguably one of the book's most fascinating aspects.

I think that some post-postmodernists have been too quick to dismiss some forms of criticism as mere sophistry or jargonics-infused academic time wasting. O'Donnell's book nicely skirts the boundary between mere supposition and genuinely interesting speculation informed by real documentary evidence in a way that much contemporary analysis has not succeeded in doing. That might sound like I'm saying that it "pushes the envolope" or some such, but I don't mean for it to come across as that naive. What I would like to emphasize about the reading of this book is that it is more of an experience than a mere opportunity for learning. Upon reading and re-reading certain chapters in this book, for example, one sometimes gets a distinct impression that the author is trying a little too hard to do what his own text shows to be impossible: to adopt a stance that is at once critical and "value neutral" if only with respect to its subject matter, while trying to pay lip service at the same time to an ideology according to which there is no such thing as value neutrality. One is tempted, on such occasions, to respond with something along the lines of "this project is conceptually impossible." By contrasting O'Donnell's book with Wills', however, it is possible to find ways in which O'Donnell has succeeded, because his critical stance comes across as far more neutral (and nuanced) than Wills', while endorsing the same critique.

Is it purely coincidental that both Wills and O'Donnell are carrying a lot of Catholic Baggage around? I have no way of knowing for sure, but based on what they've written in their respective biographies of Saint Augustine one cannot help but suspect that neither can be very happy about the most recent Papal election. Even a casual reader will be struck by certain passages:
I have resisted--some will undoubtedly think perversely--calling Augustine a "catholic" until now....in one...compelling way he succeeded in being just that half-second ahead of his time that marks the true leaders...among the failures....

One essential part of his argument against the Donatists was his interpretation of "catholicism." We have seen how the Donatist reading of that word could emphasize a completeness found within the walls of a single African town, but for Augustine it evoked instead a universality of church across the Mediterranean world. To be "catholic" for Augustine meant to be in communion with people one had never seen, people who lived across seas one would never dare to cross....

But it was an idea with a future. Augustine supported that future, and that future supported and received him....the high-concept notino of a church that would reach out to embrace the whole world...is an idea that has triumphed, lapsed, and triumphed again in all the centuries since, though the power of the institution and the power of the idea are often out of synch with each other. The Jesuits of the sixteenth century spoke for a vision of universal Christianity that went beyond what the papacy of their own time could tolerate, and the lapse that followed as they were pulled back from China and checkmated in South America begat centuries of narrow community-building. The twentieth century saw another exhilarating movement into openness in the papacy of John XXIII, but popes since have retreated into narrow definitions of community.
The vision of the Church stretching, without boundaries, "across seas one would never dare to cross" is indeed a compelling one, and yet I cannot help but sense, in the last paragraph quoted, a feeling on the part of our author that there are certain seas that ought not to be crossed whether we dare to do so or not. That is, one gets the impression that the vision of the Church as inclusive is being interpreted here in that way so familiar in our own time: we ought to include all points of view except those points of view that we find uncongenial. Points of view, for example, that strike us--we 21st century inclusivists--as rather more narrow than we had hoped. Did John XXIII represent something else? Some folks certainly seem to like to think so, and, like John Kennedy, he died at a time that was most opportune for his legend. The four Popes since him have only moved the Church "backwards", to a time earlier even than the origins of the Jesuit Order--to a time when the Church saw itself, unfortunately, as a repository of truth, and it saw the truth, unfortunately, as something objective.

It is really quite telling, I think, that in the many pages of analysis and assessment on offer here, there are relatively few normative claims, but in this passage we get several--Augustine was, as it were, a kind of "success among the failures"; certain conceptions of ecclesial community are "narrower" than others; and, in a rare moment of personal revelation, O'Donnell avers as to how John XXIII's aggiornamento was "exhilarating", while the papacies since then have represented a "retreat" of some kind.

Clearly one can write objectively and well about Augustine--or any other Christian--without sharing any of his beliefs or his worldview, and it can be done without a secret partisanship regarding the various factions within Christianity--that has already been proven by Peter Brown, whose attitude towards Christianity is that of an outsider, but one who has managed to pull off a detached treatment of Augustine and "his religion". O'Donnell's book is no less compelling for being less detached. Detachment has its value, of course, within a scholarly context; but within the context of biography it may be less useful. One of the greatest biographers of our time, Peter Ackroyd, writes with an excitement and inspiration that draws upon a geniune interest in and love for the subject matter, and his writing is the more animated, stimulating, and brilliant for all that. Whatever animus O'Donnell may harbor for Augustine and "his religion", it clearly affects his work and gives it a sense of power and focus that it would not otherwise have. We all have our axe's to grind, and in grinding them we advertise who we are no less accurately than the sights, sounds, and smells of the smithy tell you what's going on in there when real axes are being ground.

In the book's epilogue, "We are Not Who We Think We Are", O'Donnell seems to come closest to telling us what he himself thinks of himself as doing in the book:
It is only in late-modern and postmodern times that the self has been dethroned from self-knowledge and others reinstated. The biographical tradition embodies that arrogance of the other, empowered by trains of thought for which Freud can stand as the patron saint. The analyst, the biographer, the journalist--by now, anyone at all is presumptively a better authority on the innermost thoughts and motivations of the object of public attention. Only the other can surmise the hidden springs, plumb the subconscious motivations, and see the patterns the self is too close to see. Pirandello's Right You Are (If You Think You Are) ends on a refusal to determine identity that leaves people playing different roles to different audiences, and for good reason.
Here the reader is openly invited to make of O'Donnell himself what one can on the basis of this text. That is a very dangerous, but a very generous, invitation.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

History as Philosophy

In light of my post yesterday, I thought the following blurb from Princeton University Press would be of interest:

The Sense of the Past: Essays in the History of Philosophy
Before his death in 2003, Bernard Williams planned to publish a collection of historical essays, focusing primarily on the ancient world. This posthumous volume brings together a much wider selection, written over some forty years. The subjects range from the sixth century B.C. to the twentieth A.D., from Homer to Wittgenstein by way of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Hume, Sidgwick, Collingwood, and Nietzsche. Often one would be hard put to say which part is history, which philosophy. Both are involved throughout, because this is the history of philosophy written philosophically. Historical exposition goes hand in hand with philosophical scrutiny. Insights into the past counteract blind acceptance of present assumptions.

In his touching and illuminating introduction, Myles Burnyeat writes of these essays: "They show a depth of commitment to the history of philosophy seldom to be found nowadays in a thinker so prominent on the contemporary philosophical scene."
More details at Princeton University Press.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Examined Life

The Winter Quarter here at Ohio University is drawing to a close: the last week of classes is coming up, then there is a week of final exams and then a week for Spring Break. I have been remarkably fortunate this term: I taught a seminar on Plato's Theaetetus that has been, in the twenty years that I have been teaching, one of the very best classroom experiences I have ever had. It's nothing to do with me, mind you--the success of the seminar has been due entirely to the quality and intensity of the student involvement in the project.

I teach Plato in most of my courses. In my Introduction to Philosophy course I have students read the Gorgias and selections from the Theaetetus. In my survey of ancient Greek philosophy we read those dialogues and selections from many others. The Plato seminar is usually dedicated to the intensive study of a single dialogue or very small group (two or three) of dialogues. Often the class has only four or five people in it, but for some reason this particular instantiation of the class drew an enrollment of 19. When I realized that nobody was going to drop the class I began to panic, because that many people often means that the seminar format has to be abandoned: there simply isn't enough time for the intensive discussion and lengthy student reports that are the hallmarks of the traditional seminar. But I decided to stick with my original plans and see how it panned out.

I'm very happy that I did, because the 19 people in that seminar have been some of the best and brightest students I've had the pleasure to work with. Just because of their numbers, I suppose, a considerable variety of viewpoints has been represented, and class discussions have been interesting, challenging, and fruitful. To give you an idea of how closely we read the text: the Theaetetus is roughly 100 pages long; the seminar meets for two hours twice a week for ten weeks; we just barely finished the text. Although that averages out to about 2.5 pages per hour, there were some meetings where we spent the entire period discussing a single argument covering only two pages. If anybody was skipping class regularly, I did not notice: the room in which we met barely seats 20, and it always seemed to me as though it was standing room only in there.

Of course I would like to say that the instructor has something to do with the success of the class, but I can't say that in this instance, and for two reasons. First, I'm not at all sure that all of the students would agree with me about how great the seminar actually was. Some of them might have been showing up only because they didn't have anything better to do, or because they were afraid that maybe I would notice regular skipping and take vengeance at grading time. If anyone was simply going through the motions like that, however, they did a remarkably good job of disguising their true attitude behind a veneer of animated curiosity, and for that I'm grateful. But I suspect that the real reason for the success of the seminar has nothing to do with me and everything to do with Plato.

Many of Plato's philosophical dialogues center on the search for understanding--usually the search is nominally limited to the understanding of some central normative term, such as piety, justice, friendship, courage. In the Theaetetus the search is for an understanding of knowledge itself. Somewhat typically, however, the dialogue comes to an end before the participants in the conversation have satisfied themselves that they do, in fact, fully understand the nature of knowledge itself. I say "typically" because many of Plato's dialogues end in this way, with everyone agreeing that a fully satisfactory answer to the question at hand has yet to be achieved. This continued puzzlement (aporia in Greek) can be interpreted in many ways. Superficially the most obvious interpretation is that Socrates has, in fact, accomplished his mission, if the mission consists of nothing more than demonstrating to his interlocutor that it is dangerous to think that you know all about something when in fact you know very little about it. This is what Plato has Socrates say of his own mission in the work called Apologia, Plato's account of Socrates' speech in his own defense at his trial in 399 B.C. The way it is put at the very end of the Theaetetus is as follows (210c):
And so, Theaetetus, if ever in the future you should attempt to conceive or should succeed in conceiving other theories, they will be better ones as the result of this inquiry. And if you remain barren, your companions will find you gentler and less tiresome; you will be modest and not think you know what you don't know. That is all my art can achieve--nothing more.
Students sometimes find this aporia to be something of a stumbling block. They tend to want answers to questions, not further questions. Plato, however, appears to have conceived of philosophy in just this way: it is not the sort of domain of expertise that yields ready and obvious answers to clear and unambiguous questions. It is, rather, a dialectical process, a cooperative search for the truth. In some cases, as the Theaetetus nicely illustrates, much progress can be made in the absence of any great discovery of some new fact, some new result. In the immortal words of Aerosmith, life's a journey, not a destination ("Amazing"). Sorry, I couldn't resist.

Late in one session of the Plato seminar a student voiced a concern about this conception of philosophy. It is depressing to think that philosophy makes no progress, he said. What is the point of studying it, if we can gain no advantage over Plato or others in the history of the discipline by continuing to study the great issues and questions that they raised? It is a very good question. Arguably it is the question that every parent asks upon hearing that his or her son or daughter has decided to major in philosophy: what the hell are you going to do with that? Philosophy will never cure any disease other than ennui. Whatever truths are out there to be discovered by philosophy have already been discovered, and long ago--probably before even Plato. So why continue to study it at all?

It's tempting to say: Because ennui is a real disease, and it's destroying the youth of America--but I'll resist that temptation. There are even better reasons to study philosophy. Philosophy is not like physics, that's true enough, or chemistry, or medicine, or even mathematics. I'm not going to argue that it "teaches you how to think" or anything of that kind, although I've certainly heard plenty of folks claim that to be philosophy's greatest virtue. I've found that people generally already know how to think before they come to college--they just need to hone their skills a little, that's all. My own experience has been that Plato was right: one studies philosophy for its own sake. In doing so, you do not discover any new truths about the world. Rather, everything that you discover in studying philosophy has to do not with objective truths about the world, but with self-knowledge. Socrates claimed, in the Theaetetus (150c):
The common reproach against me is that I am always asking questions of other people but never express my own views about anything, because there is no wisdom in me; and that is true enough. And the reason of it is this, that God compels me to attend the travail of others, but has forbidden me to procreate. So that I am not in any sense a wise man; I cannot claim as the child of my own soul any discovery worth the name of wisdom.
In other passages in other dialogues Socrates (that is, Plato, using Socrates) draws a distinction between two kinds of ignorance. One kind is the straightforward ignorance of objective facts for which no one can be held morally blameworthy unless they claim to know something that they know full well they don't know. But the other kind, which Plato appears to have regarded as a moral failing, is ignorance of the fact that one is ignorant--a kind of ignorance of one's own limitations with regard to expertise. Although Socrates always professed to be ignorant in the first sense, he admitted that he did not believe himself to be ignorant in the second sense--the sense that, for Plato, was far more important. It was precisely because Plato regarded Socrates as wise in this latter sense that he regarded Socrates as the paradigm case of a wise person.

If it accomplishes nothing else, philosophy will teach you about your own limitations, even as it illumines the limitations of others. You come to understand very quickly that, not only is there no such thing as progess in philosophy, but there is not really any such thing as progress at all, other than the banal sort that allows us to build better bridges or manufacture better textiles, machinery, and medicines. We are more technologically advanced today than the ancient Greeks were, but morally, psychologically, philosophically--in any really important sense, we are no further than they. In some ways, I imagine, we have yet to catch up with them.

But that's not necessarily a bad thing. We have plenty of time to catch up, and for the philosopher, catching up is far more than half the fun: it's all the fun.
Perhaps someone might say: But Socrates, if you leave us will you not be able to live quietly, without talking? Now this is the most difficult point on which to convince some of you. If I say that it is impossible for me to keep quiet because that means disobeying the god, you will not believe me and will think I am being ironical. On the other hand, if I say that it is the greatest good for a man to discuss virtue every day and those other things about which you hear me conversing and testing myself and others, for the unexamined life is not worth living for men, you will believe me even less. What I say is true, gentlemen, but it is not easy to convince you.

--Socrates, Apology 38a

It's not an Exclusive Disjunction

About nine or ten years ago my good friend Paul Halsall (until recently an assistant professor of history at the University of North Florida) said that in his opinion all Republicans are either stupid or evil. At first I thought he was just kidding. I'm not a member of the party, mind you, but he knew my politics. He made it quite clear, however, that he was completely serious. Not being the sort of person to let petty political squabbles stand in the way of a valuable friendship, I refrained from telling him that I felt exactly the same way but about the other political orientation.

His view, though crudely put, is not all that far removed from Plato's. In the Gorgias Plato famously argues that vicious behavior is the result of mistaken moral reasoning. People who do wrong do so because they have a false belief about what the right thing to do actually is. Everybody, according to the view that is put into the mouth of Socrates, will do what he thinks is the best thing for him to do; the problem is that some people believe that really nasty, vile ends are the best things for them to pursue. What such folks need is a kind of re-education. They need to be taught how to understand what is really the best thing to do, what is objectively the right thing to do. Then, since they will still desire to do what they believe to be the best thing to do, they will wind up doing the right thing--and wanting to do the right thing, rather than mistakenly wanting to do the wrong thing. So people who commit evil acts do so either because they are mistaken in some way (and to make mistakes is, I suppose, "stupid" when viewed from a certain perspective) or because they want to commit evil acts--that is, because they are evil (interestingly, Plato seems not to have considered this a possibility; in his view they're all just stupid--er, I mean, mistaken). Well, anyway, I call this the Halsall Disjunction.

I was put in mind of all of this upon reading today's issue of the Wall Street Journal, where Cathleen Cleaver Ruse of the Family Research Council has an essay on the Stenberg v. Carhart partial-birth abortion case. There is a great deal of eyewitness testimony regarding such procedures on file in that case, and Ruse mentions the following testimony of a physician who opposes a ban on partial-birth abortions:
I mean, I know what my purpose is...to empty the uterus in the safest way possible. Yet, this language [in the statute] implies that I have this other purpose, which is to kill the fetus. So, to me, it's like--kind of like there is an elephant in the room besides me and my patient...there is somebody judging what my purpose is in bringing the fetus out a certain way.
This has got to be either the most inept attempt to appeal to the Principle of Double Effect that I have ever seen, or else this woman is liable to the Halsall Disjunction. She is either monumentally stupid, or else she is just plain evil. Let's consider the possibilities in turn.

To say that one's "purpose" in performing an abortion is "to empty the uterus in the safest way possible" is, of course, true. But how stupid do you have to be to overlook the fact that completing this "purpose" has a necessary effect, namely the death of the fetus? By "necessary effect" I mean not that the death of the fetus is merely foreseeable--it is literally unavoidable. Especially when you crush its head first with steel forceps. What this woman has said in her sworn testimony is not very different from telling the police, after shooting your husband in the face, "I'm sorry officer, but you're really confusing me--I didn't kill my husband at all, I merely pulled the trigger on this gun. It was the bullet that came out of the gun that killed him." I say it's not "very" different because, of course, when you shoot a gun at somebody it is possible that you will miss and the person will not die. When you crush the head of a fetus with steel forceps there is no way that you are not going to kill it.

I don't think that this woman would want to confess to that kind of spectacularly obvious stupidity. She knows perfectly well that, in order to empty the uterus in this particular procedure it is necessary first to kill the fetus. The only other alternative interpretation is that she is purposely turning the focus of her language to the "purpose" of the procedure as stated in terms of one of its results--namely, the "safe" (for the mother, anyway) emptying of the uterus--and away from the necessary means for obtaining that result. To argue in this way--using language to obscure one fact and highlight another one with the effect of diverting attention from what is really at issue--is Sophistry in the highest degree. What would be the purpose in diverting attention in this way? It can only be because you know perfectly well that the other effect of this procedure--the intentional killing of the fetus--is something that most people--even people who otherwise support abortion rights--will find abhorent. To use language in such a way as to produce pleasure in an audience who might otherwise experience displeasure is also a hallmark of Sophistry.

Is Sophistry evil? It depends, I suppose, on your point of view. This particular physician may think that the problem is not that she is evil, but that her audience is either stupid or evil (maybe she thinks that they're all Republicans) and will have no conception of the value of what she does for a living, so she has to pretend to be befuddled by the whole thing so as to make it seem that only a moron would question the morality of what she does every day. So instead of being either stupid or evil she is merely arrogant and hubristic.

Personally I don't see why we have to be so exclusivist about all of this. Why can't some people be both stupid and evil? It's not like the two properties are mutually exclusive, after all. And in the case of this particular physician it seems to me that we actually have firm empirical evidence that the intersect class is not empty. Indeed, there seems to be a class of persons who are both stupid and evil because of the fact that they are arrogant and hubristic. They are evil principally because they are, in Plato's more charitable terms, mistaken about what is right, and they are mistaken about what is right because they are too arrogant and hubristic to consider the possibility that they may be mistaken.

Wrongful Life

If you thought that last story was something, don't miss this part of the AP story:
Ohio and several other states have previously rejected a different type of claim, called "wrongful life," in which the disabled child is the plaintiff.
Is it just me, or couldn't the plaintiff in this case take care of the, um, "decision" himself? Just move to Oregon.

Wrongful Birth

In a 4-3 decision the Ohio state supreme court has ruled that doctors may be sued for "wrongful birth" if they fail to detect certain birth defects by means of genetic screening. The decision limited the liability to costs associated with pregnancy and birth--so-called "pain and suffering" damages and the costs associated with raising the child are not covered.

If it weren't for that pesky conatus just think of how much better off we all could be.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Talk About Your Neo-pagan Goddess Worship...

A recent announcement from Princeton University Press heralds the publication of a book called Women at the Beginning: Origin Myths from the Amazons to the Virgin Mary. I've often thought that if I weren't a Roman Catholic I would have no religion at all: the claims of all other religions strike me as patently silly. In fact, the claims of Roman Catholicism would seem patently silly if there were no reasons to believe them literally true. Intelligent folks will disagree over whether there are good epistemic reasons to think the claims of Roman Catholicism literally true; I happen to believe that they are, but others, obviously, disagree. If they are literally true, however, everything else follows rather nicely.

Patrick Geary--the author of Women at the Beginning--is one of the pre-eminent historians of the medieval period, but it is difficult to know how seriously, if at all, he takes the historical claims of the Christian religion. There isn't any empirical evidence, after all, to support the boldest of the claims. So perhaps it should come as no surprise to find the Virgin Mary being mentioned alongside the Amazons as an example of a woman in an origin myth. In the introduction to the book he cites no Scriptural texts, only Gnostic ones, so it seems he takes the "Mary Story" as just one more example of a trope from antiquity. His project is at least partly sociological:
The men who wrote about these women often held ambivalent attitudes toward them, attitudes that are evident in the contradictory images produced and reproduced across the centuries. As the French historian Jean-Claude Schmitt has written concerning the powerful but ambivalent images of Eve and Pandora, when studying these accounts the historian must understand the different meanings that they held for the societies that produced them, taking into account in particular the variants chosen or invented in the course of their reception. The representations of women in stories of beginnings, as Amazons or saints, monsters or troublemakers, are too complex to categorize. They remain problematic and contradictory figures. And yet they continue to fascinate, to tempt us to consider them, to ask what the place of women at the beginning tells us about women, about beginnings, and about the present and future.
All of this is perfectly consistent with seeing Mary as a historical figure, of course, or even with seeing all of Christianity as historically true. It's just that it's also consistent with regarding the whole religion as a myth, and it's difficult to know which way the author himself would go on that one.

Does it matter? Can one benefit from reading a book written by a non-believer if that book is logically consistent with a book written on the same topic by a believer? Certainly. Is it somehow dangerous to read that kind of book? That might depend, I suppose, on whether one thinks that there is a real danger of someone coming to disbelieve the truths of Christianity on the basis of the reading of the book, and precisely what that danger is believed to be. When someone reads a book, I suppose it might be possible for their minds to be completely turned around by the text in some powerful case of negative metanoia, but I suspect that it is much more probably that a single book can serve only to tip in one direction an already tottering scale. It seems silly to lay full blame for the result on one book alone. But if the scale gets tipped, need we really fear that the person riding in the scale is lost forever?

Generally speaking, when someone has been duped by a con artist, we don't hold the victim guilty of any wrongdoing. Generally speaking, we would say that the con artist has done the morally blameworthy thing, and the victim should be receiving pity, not punishment. In the case of religious belief, however, it may not be so simple. What you believe, apparently, can make a real difference to the relationship that exists between you and God. But possibly God is not so literal minded that he won't make any allowances at all for the fact that simple people often get defrauded. If the Church can abandon all of Saint Thomas Aquinas' hard work on the nature of limbo on the grounds that God may possibly want to save even those who have not been baptized, then perhaps we are permitted to believe that someone who has been tricked into not believing what he ought to believe may yet be forgiven for having been too trusting of the wrong sorts of sources.

We are judged, I take it, by what we make of the real Gospel, not by what we do with the false gospels that are constantly coming our way. We are cautioned to watch out for the false prophets and the teachers of untruths, to be sure, but the overall message appears to be that only by rejecting the true Gospel can you reject God himself, and you cannot be held guilty of rejecting the true Gospel if the true Gospel was never preached to you. Ought implies can, and if you cannot understand the difference between the true Gospel and the false Gospels, then your moral burden is arguable lessened. God does not try us beyond what we are able to bear.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

And This is News to Whom?

An Italian commission has discovered what many of us suspected already: the KGB was probably behind the 1981 attempt to assassinate Pope John Paul the Great. Given JPII's obvious influence in world politics at the time the discovery that the former Workers' Paradise was somehow responsible should come as a surprise to no one. Granted, the commission can't prove anything--it's more a matter of reasonable doubt, they say. You know, like OJ and Nicole.

I suppose those folks who endorse the notion of corporate guilt are going to be in something of a quandary here: since the Soviet Union no longer exists as a corporate entity, how on earth are we going to use it to transfer the moral culpability for this act onto the entire Soviet people? Oh well, maybe the Russians will do in a pinch.

Purification of Spirit through Fasting and Almsgiving

From a Sermon by Saint Leo the Great, Pope

Dear friends, at every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvelous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of its gratitude.

But with the return of that season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit.

The special note of the paschal feast is this: the whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins. It rejoices in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered among God's adopted children.

Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there is still required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.

Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.

There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.

The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very variety brings this advantage to those who are true Christians, that in the matter of almsgiving not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

A Broken and Contrite Heart

The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise (Psalm 50[51].17)

Following the example of the Ninevites, who did penance in "sackcloth and ashes", today we humble ouselves by going to a priest, who will sign our foreheads with ashes both to humble our hearts and to remind us not only of our mortality on Earth, but also that the only Redemption is with Our Lord.

Ashes are a symbol of penance made sacramental by the blessing of the Church to help us develop a spirit of humility and sacrifice. The custom is from an old ceremony. Christians who had committed grave faults were obliged to do public penance. On Ash Wednesday the Bishop blessed the hairshirts which they were to wear during the forty days, and sprinkled over them ashes made from the palms from the previous year. Then, while the faithful recited the Seven Penitential Psalms, the penitents were turned out of the holy place because of their sins, as Adam, the first man was turned out of paradise on account of his disobedience. They did not enter the Church again until Maundy Thursday after having won reconciliation by the toil of forty days' penance and sacramental absolution. Later on, all Christians, either public or secret penitents, came out of devotion to receive ashes.