What it Really Means to Be Great

Monday, 01-09-2017

In a conversation with one of the Athenian bully boys, Socrates suggested that what makes statesmen great is not whether they are good or bad at doing things and at giving the people what they want -- but whether, by their conduct and rhetoric, they leave the people better or worse than they found them.

Making allowances for the fact that today, statesmen practice rhetoric chiefly by tweeting and playing the fool on late night talk shows rather than by orating, the question is still a good one.  Socrates posed it about recent Athenian statesmen.  We ought to pose it about recent presidents, and it is not too soon to begin posing it about the president-elect.  For although he has not yet entered upon his rule, he has certainly begun to influence the character of the people.

Here is how Socrates presented his suggestion, in the great Platonic dialogue Gorgias.  I am using the well-known translation of Benjamin Jowett.

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Socrates:  I am contented with the admission that rhetoric is of two sorts; one, which is mere flattery and disgraceful declamation; the other, which is noble and aims at the training and improvement of the souls of the citizens, and strives to say what is best, whether welcome or unwelcome, to the audience; but have you ever known such a rhetoric; or if you have, and can point out any rhetorician who is of this stamp, who is he?

Callicles:  But, indeed, I am afraid that I cannot tell you of any such among the orators who are at present living.

Socrates:  Well, then, can you mention any one of a former generation, who may be said to have improved the Athenians, who found them worse and made them better, from the day that he began to make speeches?  For, indeed, I do not know of such a man.

Callicles:  What!  Did you never hear that Themistocles was a good man, and Cimon and Miltiades and Pericles, who is just lately dead, and whom you heard yourself?

Socrates:  Yes, Callicles, they were good men, if, as you said at first, true virtue consists only in the satisfaction of our own desires and those of others; but if not, and if, as we were afterwards compelled to acknowledge, the satisfaction of some desires makes us better, and of others, worse, and we ought to gratify the one and not the other, and there is an art in distinguishing them — can you tell me of any of these statesmen who did distinguish them?

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Callicles:  But surely, Socrates, no living man ever came near any one of them in his performances.

Socrates:  O, my dear friend, I say nothing against them regarded as the serving-men of the State; and I do think that they were certainly more serviceable than those who are living now, and better able to gratify the wishes of the State; but as to transforming those desires and not allowing them to have their way, and using the powers which they had, whether of persuasion or of force, in the improvement of their fellow citizens, which is the prime object of the truly good citizen, I do not see that in these respects they were a whit superior to our present statesmen, although I do admit that they were more clever at providing ships and walls and docks, and all that.

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Trusting in Princes

Monday, 01-02-2017

 

Commenting on CBS This Morning on the end of her husband’s term of office and the election of a rival, the outgoing First Lady said “We feel the difference now.  See, now, we’re feeling what not having hope feels like.”

It is said that in Washington, she and her husband attend an Episcopalian church.  I guess the following passage has never been discussed during worship.

Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help.  When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish.  Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry.

-- Psalm 146:3-7 (RSV-CE)

The Infant’s Voice

Sunday, 12-25-2016

 

Yesterday I displayed a few gems from a Christmas Vigil sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux.  These are from a pair of his sermons for Christmas Day.  I have taken a few liberties with the translation, which is a bit dated.

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Christ is born in a stable, and lies in a manger.  Yet is He not the same that said, The earth is mine, and the fullness thereof?  Why, then, need He choose a stable?  Plainly that He might repove the glory of the world, that He might condemn its empty pride.

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I have already said that He preaches to you even in His infancy:  “Do penance, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”  The Stable preaches this penance to us; the Manger proclaims it to us.  This is the language which His infant members speak; this is the Gospel He announces by His cries and tears.

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And lest thou should say even now, I heard thy voice, and I hid myself, behold, He comes as an Infant, and without speech, for the voice of the wailing infant arouses compassion, not terror.  If He is terrible to any, yet not to thee.

More Than Long Ago

Saturday, 12-24-2016

 

These rubies are from a Christmas Vigil sermon by Bernard of Clairvaux.

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Let no one be so indevout, so ungrateful, so irreligious, as to say:  This is nothing new; it was heard long ago; Christ was born long ago.  I answer:  Yes, long ago and before long ago.

No one will be surprised at my words if he remembers that expression of the Prophet, in aeternum et ultra, “for ever and ever,” or “for ever and beyond it.”  Christ, then, is born not only before our times, but before all time. ...

That this mysterious Nativity might to some extent be made known, Jesus Christ was born in time, born of flesh, born in flesh, the Word was made flesh.

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Tomorrow, therefore, we shall see the majesty of God, but with us, amongst us, not in Himself.  We shall see Majesty in humility, Power in weakness, the God-man. ...

He chose a stable and a manger – yes, a despicable hut, a shed fit only for beasts – that we may know that He it is “Who raises up the poor one from the dunghill” [and] Who said, “Unless you be converted and become as this little child, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”

Off With Their Heads!

Tuesday, 12-20-2016

Two small errors turned up in the hardcover edition of my Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law.  Although they were corrected in the paperback, a reader suggests that I post the corrections here too.  Good idea.

The first error is rather funny:  On the cover, the word Commentary was spelled with three M’s.  If you have one of those copies, better hold onto it:  Odder things have become collectors’ items.

The second error was on page 28, in the discussion of Question 90, Article 2, “Whether the Law is Always Something Directed to the Common Good?”  St. Thomas’s answer is “Yes,” but the Article begins with three Objections – reasons why someone might think the answer “No.”  Right after the paragraph beginning with the words “More broadly,” the text and paraphrase of Objection 1 were omitted.  Here is what the Objector says:

The omission is now fixed, and everything else was where it should have been.  To show how it all goes, here is my line-by-line commentary on Objection 1 (which of course is only a small part of the Article):

“The Latin expression [the Objector] uses here for the shared or common good is bonum commune, which can equally be translated ‘the good of the community.’  He is thinking of the community not merely as an aggregation of individuals who may be at odds with each other, but as a true partnership in a truly good life.  To further develop the idea, however, we need to distinguish between two senses in which a good can be common.

“In the weak sense of the term, a good is common merely when it is good for everyone, like pure water.  Different people in the community may enjoy different amounts of goods that are common in this weak sense.  In fact, if one person grabs more of a weakly common good, then other people have less.  For example, I might divert part of the river away from your property and onto mine.

“In the strong sense of the term, though, a good is common when one person’s gain is not another’s loss, so that our interests literally cannot diverge. For example, the goods of character are strongly common -- I do not become less wise, or less just, or less courageous, just because my neighbor becomes more so.  Another example of a strongly common good is the security of the community -- if you and I are fellow citizens, and our country is invaded by a hostile power, then it is invaded for both of us.  It is impossible for our country to be invaded for you but not for me.

“Sometimes [St. Thomas and the Objector] use the expression ‘common good’ in the strong sense, but sometimes only in the weak.  One must pay close attention to keep from getting mixed up.  Consider his discussion of distributive justice in II-II, Q. 61, Arts. 1-2.  Distributive justice is the allocation of certain things to members of the community according to what is due to them.  Now it is good for the community as a whole that its greatest benefactors attain the highest honors and offices; everyone is better off as a result.  This shows us that distributive justice is a strongly common good.  But St. Thomas also calls the honors and offices themselves ‘common goods.’  What kind then are they?  Since some citizens receive a greater share of them than others, obviously they are not common in the strong sense; they are merely things that anyone may see as good.  We see then that although distributive justice is a strongly common good, the things that it distributes are only weakly common goods.

“More broadly, the aspect of justice that concerns the common good is called ‘general’ justice.  Special justice is doing good and avoiding evil in relation to my neighbor, with a view to what I owe him.  But general justice is doing good and avoiding the opposite evils in relation to the community, or to God.  [II-II, Q. 79, Art. 1; compare II-II, Q. 58, Art. 6.]

[1] [The Objector] does not mean that the law only commands and forbids; as he explains later, in Q. 92, Art. 2, its acts also include permitting and punishing.  Commanding, forbidding, permitting, and punishing are direct acts of law.  Doesn’t it accomplish other purposes as well, such as directing, rewarding, and encouraging?  Yes, but these purposes are achieved indirectly, mainly through commands and prohibitions, backed up by punishments for failure to comply.  For example, the law directs traffic through forbidding excessive speed, and it rewards acts of valor through commanding that soldiers who have performed them be awarded medals.

“It might seem that permitting is not so much an act of law as the omission of an act, because we take anything not explicitly forbidden to be permitted.  However, certain kinds of permissions must be made explicit, because they provide individuals with ways to modify the legal obligations they would otherwise have.  For example, the law encourages home ownership and construction through explicitly permitting homeowners to deduct mortgage interest from personal income taxes.  By taking advantage of this permission, homeowners alter the amount of taxes they would otherwise be commanded to pay.

[2] Individual goods are goods of particular individuals.  Sometimes the law issues commands like ‘No one may steal the property of any other person.’  This is quite different from a command like ‘No one may pollute the community water supply,’ because the other person is not the community as a whole, and his property, unlike the water supply, is an individual good, not a common good.  From this, the Objector concludes that law does not always aim at the common good.”

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The Object of Uttermost Longing

Monday, 12-12-2016

Query:

What would you say is the single most compelling, prima facie argument for God?

Reply:

The argument I find most compelling is sometimes called the Argument from Desire.

At the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas says that “To know that God exists in a general and confused way is implanted in us by nature, inasmuch as God is man’s beatitude.”  What does this mean?  We naturally long for beatitude, for that complete and utter happiness which would leave nothing further to be desired.  But “nature makes nothing in vain” – thirst is quenched by water, hunger is filled by food, and in general, for every basic desire there is something that can satisfy it.  So there must be Something that could satisfy the longing for beatitude.  That Something, that supremely loveable object of the longing for beatitude, is God.

Ah, but how far short of knowing what God is such knowledge falls!  If we know God only as the mysterious object of the longing for beatitude, and if we mistakenly suppose beatitude to lie in some merely natural good – say, pleasure, beauty, or erotic love – then we will mistakenly take that good as our “god.”  So can we go further?

Fortunately, we can, because experience shows that every natural good leaves something further to be desired.  In fact, the totality of all natural goods leaves something further to be desired.  The world is so achingly beautiful, and yet it keeps breaking our hearts.  We keep asking, “Is this all there is?”

It follows that if the longing for beatitude really does have an object, it must lie not within nature, but beyond it. 

Taken together, the various arguments for the existence of God tell us quite a bit about Him:  For example, that He is the First Cause of all things and the Source of all Good, and that there is only one of Him.

That isn’t enough, is it?  Not even all the philosophical arguments together can tell us that He has come among us, shared our burdens, and atoned for us.  For that, we must consult testimony of witnesses -- which is to say, the Gospels.

Even so, the philosophical arguments do faith a great service.  They are preambles to faith, because they show it to be reasonable to believe in the sort of God of whose deeds the Gospels teach.

The emeritus Pope has remarked that Christians used to say to pagans that the God whom we worship is not some god of myth, like theirs, but the God of whom the philosophers spoke -- but whom they did not worship.

They knew Him only as a theorem.  We know Him as Immanuel, God with us.

You might be interested in this little riff on the Argument from Desire.  It was my pre-Christmas post two years ago:

“God Rest Ye Merry, Melancholics”

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Full Circle

Monday, 12-05-2016

Men think they may do as they please.

In order to limit them, among other things the law of Moses prohibits disproportionate revenge:  One may take an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but not a life for an eye or a limb for a tooth.

To men who have been successfully shaped by that wise law, Christ explains that in fact, the God Who gave it does not desire men to take revenge at all.

Some centuries later, theological revisionists argue that if revenge is really wrong, then the law of Moses is defective.

Still later revisionists conclude that if the law of Moses is defective, then Divine Revelation is illegitimate.

In that case the revelation of Christ is illegitimate too.

Men think they may do as they please.

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