In October, a conference on “Christianity and the Common Good” was held at Harvard Law School. My own talk at the conference, “Faith, Natural Law, and the Common Good,” is now available for viewing, and has been added to the Underground Thomist Talks Page. If you prefer, just listen to the audio. I hope you enjoy it!
The conference was sponsored by Harvard’s chapter of an excellent organization called the Thomistic Institute, with the help of Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule. The Thomistic Institute is an initiative of the Dominican House of Studies. Students, why not establish a chapter of the Thomistic Institute at your own university?
If you should chance to be near Oxford University on Saturday, March 2, I'll be giving one of the talks at the Annual Aquinas Colloquium, which is about “Aquinas on the Development of Law” this year. The other speakers are Ryan Meade (Loyola University, Chicago), Jonathan Price (Oxford University), and Richard Conrad, OP (Aquinas Institute).
In studying Old Testament law, I am repeatedly struck by the fact that often what seems weird and obsolescent is not only realistic but very up to date. Deuteronomy commands the Hebrew people as follows:
“When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an augur, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord; and because of these abominable practices the Lord your God is driving them out before you.”
It would be unwise to consider ourselves above all that weirdness. Although we no longer sacrifice our sons and daughters by fire to the gods of fertility, we sacrifice them by knives to the gods of sterility. As to the rest of the practices mentioned, it is immaterial to the validity of the precept whether people can really tell the future, speak to the dead, or cast evil spells. Those who think they can – both practitioners and clients – do a great deal of harm even in the present life. Moreover, they are ruining not only their own souls but also those of others, by promulgating false beliefs such as the omnipotence of fate and the associated denial of personal responsibility. Their purpose is to gain favors, or attain mastery, by placating false gods, conniving with evil powers, and perverting the course of nature.
Do you think I exaggerate? Curiously, the high-tech forms which charms and wizardry sometimes take today are not usually recognized for what they are. A person who ingests hallucinogens because they make him feel divine, more than human, or in touch with another world, is really practicing what used to be called mediumistic sorcery. Similarly, a man who uses the “date rape” drug Rohypnol to induce a woman’s sexual compliance is employing what used to be called a love philtre. The authentic means of contacting divinity are to pray and practice charity, and of cultivating love, to be kind and chaste.
Gentle Readers: I’m glad to say that you can now watch the video of my talk, “What Makes Men Men?”, as well as the videos of the other speakers’ talks at the October 2018 conference “Patriarchy: Fatherhood and the Restoration of Culture.” I enjoyed listening to them all.
If you’d like to see what else is new, you can mosey on over to the Underground Thomist Talks page.
In the generation of Burke and Kant, people who thought about art were fascinated by the fact that beauty does not exhaust the range of aesthetic values. Something is beautiful, they said, if it evokes admiration because of its grace of form and color, but it is sublime if it excites awe because of the vastness or mystery of its object. An object can be beautiful without being sublime, and sublime without being beautiful. In fact, an object which is sublime may even include elements of the jarring or grotesque, which are opposed to beauty in themselves. A painting of the crucifixion in which Jesus does not seem to suffer does not awe.
Already things are becoming complicated, but even beauty and sublimity together are far from exhausting the qualities that people look for in a work of art. I am not here thinking of attractions which are separable from the work, such as how much its great expense will delight my friends or how well its color scheme blends in with the rest of my decor. Rather I am speaking of attractions which are intrinsic to the work itself, those it would possess even if it I had picked it up cheap at a garage sale and it looked out of place in my house.
It might be neither beautiful nor sublime, but intriguing. It might be none of these things, but faithful to its object. It might call my attention to something I had not thought of before. It might catch or fool the eye. It might suggest an episode in a story, or convey a lesson. It might symbolize a concept. It might excite admiration because of the labor which went into its composition. It might evoke a mood, such as boredom, a philosophy, such as nihilism, or a psychological state, such as obsession. It might call up a whisper of memory. It might challenge, comfort, or irritate. It might build up, or it might inflict damage and harm. It might signal that the maker holds one of the currently fashionable views (or, more rarely, that he doesn’t). It might do nothing more than express his attitude toward himself, other people, God, or the viewer, in the manner of a joke, a prayer, a sob, a sin, or a curse.
Such qualities have always been present in art. The difference is that now they are at the center of the enterprise. Mind you, though I could do without some of them, I am not at the moment passing judgment on all of them, but only pointing them out. I am not one of those who hate all modernist art, though much of it leaves me cold. It is often interesting -- even though it is not often what I would call beautiful.
I used to be puzzled by those who protested, “No, it is beautiful.” But people who speak that way are not usually speaking of beauty per se. They are merely using the term “beauty” as a lazy label for all of the things some people look for in art. Where I might say that a given painting is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene, but not beautiful, they would call it beautiful because it is mesmerizing, playful, ugly, or obscene.
So, I think much of the appeal of modernist art for those who do fancy it arises not from the fact that they see something beautiful (or sublime) that other ages would have missed, but that, for better or for worse, some other quality than beauty or sublimity appeals to them much, much more.
Your blog site seems to be having problems. I am missing one of my better sources of sanity.
Thanks for the heads-up. I’m afraid various pages at the website will be intermittently unavailable until the difficulties are fixed. In the meantime, if a page you are looking for is hiding, just try again to reach it a little later in the day.
Since this problem has me pulling out my hair, I am most encouraged to learn that I still give an impression of being sane.
Having seen the "Query" posts on your blog, I was hoping you might take one from me! I have an unshakable sense that we are all endowed with immortal souls. However, I’m puzzled. Our souls are immortal in a future-facing direction, but are understood to have distinct points of origin in time. From whence do they arise? Are they perhaps derived from the very substance of the Creator himself in some ineffable manner, or do they originate from, as it were, a void of nothingness?
I've cautiously approached two Christians about this. Neither was able to offer a particularly cogent answer; the gist was “We are but humble humans, and that must remain a wondrous and holy mystery." Maybe that’s fair, but it feels like a bit of a punt. I have been influenced by the Vedic sage, Sri Aurobindo. but I'm wondering whether Thomas Aquinas might have pondered the issue. I hope this isn’t a dumb question.
Your questions aren’t at all dumb. Taking them in turn:
1. From whence do our souls arise?
The soul is the form or pattern which makes the difference between a human body and a human corpse. Our souls are created directly by God. They are not made from anything that already existed, but brought into being immediately, at the same time they are infused into bodies.
2. Are they perhaps derived from the very substance of the Creator himself?
No. You know that I am a Christian; by faith, through the grace of Jesus Christ, I am assured that God dwells in me. However, He isn't the same as me, He isn't a part of me, and He isn't a "higher" me. I am made in His image, but I am not Him. I’m not the same as Him, I’m not a part of Him, and I’m not a "splinter" of Him. Nor will I ever be, even though I hope one day to see Him face to face. He doesn't depend on anything else, because He is what everything else depends on. He can't be explained by anything else, because He is what everything else must be explained by.
3. Or do they originate from a void of nothingness?
Depends on what you mean. When we say that God created us ex nihilo, “out of nothing,” we don’t mean that nothing is some kind of stuff from which He fashioned us. Rather we mean that until He created us, we were not.
By the way, this reflects another of the fundamental differences between God and us. We produce things from pre-existent matter, as a farmer grows his crop from the seed, a sculptor molds a statuette from clay, or an engineer assembles a mechanism from parts. God does not produce; He creates. He does not require pre-existent matter. Until He made matter, there wasn’t any. It is said that Friedrich Nietzsche once hurled at God the challenge, “I too can make a man.” God replied to Nietzsche, “God ahead and try.” Nietzsche took a fistful of dust and began to mold it. God said, “Disqualified. Get your own dust.”
Thomas Aquinas writes, “To say that the soul is of the Divine substance involves a manifest improbability.” Why so? He explains that sometimes the human soul is actualizing its powers, but sometimes they merely lie fallow. By contrast, in God, nothing lies fallow; everything that He can be, He always is.
In St. Thomas’s view, the error of thinking that our souls are made of God’s substance probably arises from two other errors, which have been around for a long, long time.
One is the mistake of thinking that God, and our souls, are both matter – both stuff -- so that the stuff of our souls was made from the stuff of His. However, God is not matter. Several reasons can be given why He couldn’t be, but the simplest is that He is the first cause of all things, the reason for their existence. Matter – stuff -- could not be the first cause of all things, because it has whatever form it takes only because of something else, not from itself.
Some mistaken thinkers do grasp that God is not matter but spirit – so far, so good. But they make another mistake, thinking that just as man’s soul is the form of his material body – let us say, the pattern of an embodied human life – so then God is the soul of the whole world, the form of the entire material universe. According to St. Thomas, the main problem these thinkers have is that they fail to recognize the differences among different kinds of spirits -- in this case, human souls and God -- except in terms of their relationship to bodies.
Why is that wrong? Because although we and God are certainly different, the difference is not that we have a different relationship to our bodies than He has to “His body.” In His own Being, He doesn’t need a body. The Son chose to incarnate Himself in Christ -- but that was a free act for our salvation.
This should give you a start! If you want to read St. Thomas himself on these questions, begin with the Summa Theologiae, First Part, Question 90, Article 1, “Whether the soul was made, or was of God's substance?” You can find the whole Summa online.
Bacon, who was wrong about many things, spoke truly when he said, “Reading maketh a full man; conference a ready man; and writing an exact man. And therefore, if a man write little, he had need have a great memory; if he confer little, he had need have a present wit; and if he read little, he had need have much cunning, to seem to know that he doth not.”
Although I am not often asked about conference, I am often asked about reading and writing. Here are a few of things I have learned over the years.
Preparation for the Act
Build quiet into your life. Listen.
Turn off the television and social media. Don’t monitor messages continuously, but only at fixed times. Don’t pretend that you can multi-task.
Turn off anything that thumps, even if it is supposed to be a pleasant thump.
Spend time with friends. Love those entrusted to you. The strings of the mind lose their tone if their tension is never relieved, so play sometimes.
Don’t skip necessary sleep. You will lose more time through fatigue and confusion than you think you have gained by staying awake.
Never suppose that if your subject is one of the humanities you don’t need to learn logical reasoning and mathematics – and conversely.
Learn your mind’s rhythms. There is a time for lying fallow, and a time for sending up shoots.
Learn how your mind understands. An example: Some can’t teach anything until they understand it, but others can’t understand anything until they see how they could teach it.
Fish don’t know they are wet; and not just fish. Try to become aware of what you take for granted.
Don’t worry about the fact that everything can be doubted. The question is whether you have good reason to believe it.
Don’t worry about finding yourself. If you try to acquire the virtues, your self will take care of itself.
Do not be misled by those who say that seeking is an end in itself. Seek the truth to find it; find the truth to yield to it.
The Act of Reading
It is better to read a few good books well than to read many books poorly. Seek guides who can tell you what they are. But don’t rely exclusively on them; explore.
Whenever you read something difficult, read it out loud. Whenever you read something beautiful, do the same. Do not shun the difficult; seek the beautiful; avoid the foul.
If a book is worth reading, it is worth reading more than once; and in order to take it in, you may have to.
Read about subjects other than the one you are studying.
Read real books, not just internet postings, and read in many styles and genres.
Avoid reading books about books until you have read the books they are about.
Read more old books than recent ones. Get outside the little island of your own time.
Learn what an author teaches not for the sake of knowing what he teaches, but in order to find out whether it might be true.
Reach across time to ask the authors questions. Have them reach across time to ask you questions. Make them ask questions of each other.
Never confuse a mere rebuff with a thoughtful objection.
If you do raise an objection, give the author a chance to answer.
Don’t worry if you find yourself reading more slowly. You will.
The Act of Writing
Don’t write “about” a “topic.” Claim something; solve something; answer something. Everything begins with asking something.
Don’t just write about theories of things. Write about things.
No matter how much you love and cherish that unnecessary part of your book, essay, chapter, paragraph, or sentence, remove it. This is the only meritorious form of murder.
Don’t hurry in framing your questions. A badly framed question invites a badly reasoned answer.
Write often. If you have no reason to write on Tuesday, think of one. You don’t have to write all day.
If you suffer writer’s block, warm up by writing something else for twenty minutes. A letter. A limerick. Anything will do.
Outline your arguments before you write them. Eventually you will do this in your mind. Eventually it will be second nature.
Don’t talk too much, or too soon, about what you are writing.
Don’t revise your draft until a day or two has passed since writing it, so that you can read it as if it were written by someone else.
Always remember that your reader can’t read your mind; all he has are your words.
Whatever you can’t make interesting isn’t interesting to you.
Whatever you can’t explain in simple language, you don’t understand.