Which Is Strongest?

Wednesday, 09-17-2014

Once upon a time, three noble young men in the bodyguard of Darius, the Persian king, competed over who could give the best answer to the riddle, “Which one thing is strongest?”  The first said that wine is strongest; the second that the king the strongest; the third that women are the strongest, but that truth conquers everything.  By the way, the third fellow wasn’t cheating by giving two answers.  He was punning on the Old Testament personification of Divine Wisdom as a woman.

After each of the young men had presented his arguments, Darius delightedly declared in favor of the third, urging him to ask for whatever he wished.  Seizing the moment, the young man asked Darius to remember the vow he had once made to rebuild Jerusalem.  True to his word, the king set the project in motion, whereupon the three young men broke out into thanks to God.  This story is found in the Greek version of Ezra, sometimes called Eszra or 1 Esdras – a book which is read and respected but not accepted as canonical.

Thomas Aquinas has a little fun by reconsidering the third young man’s answer to the riddle in Quaestiones Quodlibitales (“questions about whatever you want”), XII, Question 14, Article 20.  In his day, philosophy and theology professors had to appear in public twice a year to answer questions anyone could pose on any subject, so presumbly someone at the University of Paris really asked him this question.  The audience would have demanded that the answer make sense, and surprisingly, it does.

He writes, Our next inquiry is about the virtues, and first, about a certain intellectual virtue, that is, truth:  Whether truth is stronger than wine, the king, or woman?

Objection 1.  It seems that wine is, because it affects man the most.

Objection 2.  Again, it seems that the king is, because he sends man to what is most difficult, that is, to that which exposes him to mortal danger.

Objection 3.  Again, that woman is, because she commands even kings.

On the other hand, Eszra 4:35 says that truth is stronger.

Here is my response:  This is the question proposed to the youths in Eszra. One should realize that if we consider these four in themselves -- wine, the king, woman and truth -- they are not comparable, because they do not belong to the same genus.

Nevertheless, if they are considered in relation to a certain effect, they coincide in that respect, and so can be compared with each other.  The effect in which they come together and can be compared is the effect they have on the human heart.  One must consider, therefore, which among them most affects the heart of man.

Man has a certain ability to be affected corporally, and another to be affected in his animal powers. The latter are of two kinds, sensible and intelligible faculties. The intelligible faculties may be further divided into two kinds, practical and speculative.

Among those things which affect the disposition of the body, wine is stronger, because it causes drunken speech.  Among those things which affect the sensitive appetite, pleasure excels, especially sexual pleasure, and so woman is stronger.  Again in practical matters, that is, things which humans are able to do, the king has the greatest ability.  But in theoretical matters, the highest and most powerful is truth.

Now bodily powers are subjected to animal powers, animal powers to intellectual, and practical intellectual powers to theoretical.  And so, in itself, truth is greater in dignity, more excellent, and stronger.



Tuesday, 09-16-2014

My upcoming lecture in Arlington, Virginia:

“Worm of Remorse, Balm of Atonement”

“A revelation has to be related to mind in such a way that it does not, in making itself known, destroy the mind receiving it.  Making good to be evil, or impossibilities to be possible, voluntarism, in other words, destroys what-it-is-to-be-mind. If everything here and now can be other than it is, then, logically, we can know nothing.  Everything that exists could be otherwise.”  --  James V. Schall

Fatherly Authority

Monday, 09-15-2014


"Our inherited family structure had fathers as the notional heads of families, a situation which allowed in practice a good deal of delegated authority to wives and elder children.  No doubt this convention of authority subjected many families to the petty tyranny of tiresome fathers, but its overthrow in our generation, while no doubt liberating some families from tyranny, has liberated others from family life altogether.”  -- Kenneth Minogue, "The End of Authority and Finality”


How Is This Not Incoherent? No. 1

Sunday, 09-14-2014


Two stickers, seen on the same bumper of the same van in Austin, Texas:

#1:  Stop the Dissections:  Have Respect for Life.

#2:  Pro-Choice and Proud of It.


Not Safely Forgotten

Saturday, 09-13-2014

"Government does not rest on force.  Government is force; it rests on consent or a conception of justice.”  -- G.K. Chesterton, What's Wrong With the World


Telling the Truth and Shooting Straight

Friday, 09-12-2014

Friedrich Nietzsche claims that each nation “creates” its own good and evil as an expression of its will to power.   In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, he puts into the mouth of his title character the aphorism that “A tablet of the good hangs over every people.  Observe, it is the tablet of their overcomings; observe, it is the voice of their will to power.”  He illustrates with the Persians:  ‘Speak the truth and be skilled with the bow and arrow’ – this seemed both dear and difficult to the people from whom my name derives.”

When I was in grad school, this argument seemed utterly convincing, as it does to many of my grad students now.  How different Herodotus sounds where he says “Persians educate their boys to ride well, shoot straight, and speak the truth” than Torah sounds where it says “Hear, O Israel:  The Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”  Truly, I thought, there are no universal goods and evils.  Each nation sets up its own.

But these differences are superficial; they lie in detail and emphasis.  The Persians detested lying, but didn’t Torah too?  Torah instructs Israel to love God, but didn’t even the idolaters know that deity is to be obeyed?  As to telling the truth and shooting straight, don’t all peoples admire the courage and skill of those who fight for the homeland?

Nietzsche speaks of overcoming, of doing hard things.  But telling the truth was not harder to the Persians than to the Israelites, nor loving God to the Israelites than to the Persians.  These things are hard for all nations.  The glory of Torah was that it more perfectly expressed what was written on the Persian heart too.

(Translation of Nietzsche by Adrian del Caro;

of Herodotus, by Andrea L. Purvis; and of

Deuteronomy 6:4-5, from the RSV-CE)



Thursday, 09-11-2014


“Adultery is bad morals, but divorce is bad metaphysics.”  -- Charles Williams