Artificial Things

Monday, 03-22-2021



I have a question for you about artificial things and their dependence on the human intellect.  Thomas Aquinas writes in the Summa Theologiae (First Part, Question 17, Article 1) that "natural things depend on the divine intellect, as artificial things on the human."

How would someone like St. Thomas understand a dam that a beaver builds or a nest that a bird builds?  Can some artificial things depend on things without intellect?



Glad to respond.  St. Thomas recognizes, of course, that a beaver makes a dam.  However, to call the dam “artificial” is a little ambiguous, because by “artificial things” St. Thomas means things that are the result of a finite being's rational planning and deliberation, and the beaver’s work isn’t that.  Rather it is a natural product of activity that the beaver does not understand, just as the apple is the natural product of an activity that the tree does not understand.

Of course the beaver, unlike the tree, has a mind, and in that respect it is much more like us than the tree is.  However, it doesn’t have a rational mind.  Plants seek their ends automatically, without even knowing what these ends are.  Animals “know” their ends in a sense, but not in the reflective sense; they do not grasp the concept of an end.  We know them, pursue them, and know that they are ends – we know them not just as felt impulses, but as meanings, as rational purposes, as reasons for doing what we do.

The beaver doesn’t ask itself “Why am I doing this?”  It isn’t intelligently participating in God’s providential care for it, as we are when we take thought for our lives and for those persons and matters that are entrusted to us.  Deliberately directing ourselves to purposes is a property of man, for though subrational things also act for purposes, only man does so under his own agency and direction.

For this reason, St. Thomas says that although, in a sense, all creatures participate in the Wisdom by which God created and governs the universe, man participates in it “in a more excellent way.”


Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Happiness and Ultimate Purpose


The Docile and the Non-Docile

Thursday, 03-18-2021


The coronavirus epidemic has laid bare a number of fissures in the commonwealth, but one of the most prominent is the cleavage between the docile and the non-docile.  Although it correlates to a degree with other fissures, such as the one between Left and Right, it doesn’t line up with them perfectly, and may even have produced some conversions -- in both directions.

The meek will inherit the earth, but we must not confuse the meek, who suffer in patience, with the gullible and compliant.  For the docile are true believers, of a sort.  They accept every shifting, contradictory thing they are told by authorities, or by the media, or by people in their social networks, and they obey even the most extreme edicts of politicians and politicized experts who have something to gain from the prolongation of public hysteria -- such as abandoning the lonely, the vulnerable, and the dying, and making children wear masks even while bicycling in the fresh air, or not allowing them outside at all.

The non-docile are cautiously skeptical.  They examine the evidence for themselves, consider how things are going, and take common sense precautions, but they refuse to neglect their dear ones, and they weigh the social costs of extreme restrictions -- such as the well-documented rise of drug and alcohol abuse and of suicide among isolated, despondent people.

There is a limit to the docility of the former group, but it does not lie where one would think.  Many of the docile lay down their docility and become positively aggressive in condemning the non-docile as anti-health and anti-science.  Imagine an angry sheep.

Yet I am not writing to condemn the sheep, even the angry ones.  Or, for that matter, to praise the non-sheep, some of whom have their own problems with anger.  I am trying to understand.

Encouraging such a fissure in the body politic isn’t a good way to run a republic, which depends on both a shared sense of the common good and a healthy independence on the part of the citizens -- not, by the way, the easiest combination.  It's a very good way to rule if you don't care about that sort of thing.


Why It’s Becoming Harder to Teach

Monday, 03-15-2021


I have been reading about the plans of the University of Leicester, England, to drop medieval literature and English from the curriculum in favor of “a range of modules which are excitingly innovative,” such as courses on race, ethnicity, sexuality and diversity.  The University is calling this a “decolonized curriculum.”

Dr. Shazia Jagot, a Leicester alumnus of South Asian and working class background, asks “"What happens when you remove the opportunity for students, particularly black and ethnic minority students, to read Beowulf, Chaucer and Milton?”

Such developments shouldn’t astonish anyone.  They merely continue trends well advanced on both sides of the Atlantic, replacing a broadening education with a narrowing indoctrination.

In some ways, more educated people are better informed, even today.  In an era of ideological education like ours, though, in other ways they are less so.  Unsurprisingly, the honors students in my classes are much more eager to please their teachers than my other students are.  So, by and large, they are more susceptible to indoctrination – and by this time in their lives, more thoroughly indoctrinated -- than students of middling ability.  They believe what they’re told, if told by the right sorts of persons, but they may not talk at all to the other sorts of persons.  One would think they would always be better at critical thinking, but they are often more naïve and closed-minded.  They may have more numerous sources of information, but their sources are often less intellectually diverse. 

Being young, they have too little self-knowledge to recognize themselves in such a description, and tend to believe exactly the opposite of themselves on all counts.  As one told me when I asked what she was learning, “We can do everything.”

Providing promising students with the opportunity to become liberally educated without merely puffing up their egos and setting them up to be brainwashed is hard and getting harder.  Finding ways to teach the liberal arts outside of colleges and universities is of the first importance to civilization.


Which Diversity Matters (If Any)


Intelligence Is Not What You Think

Monday, 03-08-2021


A few fortunate persons really are ahead in almost every intellectual category, and a few unfortunate ones deficient.  Whether there exists a single quality we should call general intelligence – rather than a large collection of very different intellectual qualities – is an altogether different matter. 

In fact, an awful lot of what we call general intelligence is merely having certain very narrow intellectual traits that are admired or considered unusual.  For example, persons who are good at mathematics or scholarship are generally regarded as “smart,” and persons who are good at building cabinets aren’t usually given that label.  But a fellow who can build a cabinet may be good at lots of things, including learning how to do other things -- and a genius at manipulating abstractions or writing research articles might be a dope in every other way.  Mind you, I am not dismissing mathematical genius or scholarly excellence.  I admire them.  But they are special, not general, mental traits.

It also seems that a great many supposed differences in intelligence are really differences in personality.  Consider innovators.  We suppose that a person who often does something original has more of some hypothetical intellectual quality called “originality,” and perhaps he does, but I am not convinced that any such quality exists.  Perhaps he is just more easily bored by doing the same old thing, or less afraid of being mocked for following a different path, or more persistent at explaining to other people why the odd thing that he’s doing ought to interest them too.

Finally, intelligence isn’t the same as wisdom, which is not a kind of intelligence but an intellectual virtue.  One would expect the two to go together.  After all, if you haven't the equipment for forming good judgments or for readily drawing inferences from premises, you may have a hard time perceiving the shape of things or grasping how to live.  But it doesn’t always work that way.  Innovators are often so obsessed that they can do something that they fail to ask whether it should be done.  Intellectuals are more likely than others to be arrogant.  Persons who live badly, or who deceive themselves, may bend each of their substantial intellectual talents to maintaining their self-deceptions, rather than seeking the truth.

On the other hand, a person who is not very clever himself, but who has the moral virtues, may possess among other good qualities the old-fashioned intellectual virtue called “docility to counsel,” enabling him to exercise good judgment about who he should listen to, and who he shouldn’t, concerning matters that he understands poorly.  Wisdom comes in degrees, more and less, but in all its degrees, it is more about having a rightly ordered intellect than a big one.

None of this is an excuse for anti-intellectualism.  It does oppose a certain kind of meritocracy.  We ought to be ruled by wisdom, not by the particular sort of intellectual talent that happens to be admired in our circle.


A Modest Resolution

Monday, 03-01-2021


Just because disorder is so spectacular in public life, it is easy to confuse causes with symptoms.  I am all for political reform, but our decline cannot be cured just by better policies, strategies, candidates, inventions, or techniques, for its ultimate causes are moral and spiritual.

On the whole, these causes are no better understood by the various factions of reformers than by those whom they are trying to reform, and they affect them just as strongly.  This is why our choices become less and less attractive, and why more and more of the things that pass under the name of making things better actually make them worse.

“All right, wise guy.  If our disorder can’t be cured by politics, what’s your big idea?”  I haven’t one.  But I can suggest a place to start.

Let each of us resolve, once and for all, I will not do evil so that good will result.

Think it over carefully.  Consider all the things that a person must stop believing, start believing, or remember, just for the resolution to make sense.

Reminder:  On Tuesday, March 2nd, at 1:30pm Central Time, I’ll be speaking about “The Flavors of the Common Good.”  This will be the second in a series of Conversations offered by the Common Good Project, a new initiative of the Law School, University of Oxford, England.  Anyone who would like to hear it streamed can sign up here.


The Flavors of the Common Good

Saturday, 02-27-2021


I happen to be on the board of advisors for the Common Good Project, a new initiative of the Law School, University of Oxford, England.  On Tuesday, March 2nd, at 1:30pm Central Time (that's night in Oxford), I’ll be speaking about “The Flavors of the Common Good,” which will be the second in the Project’s series of Conversations.  Anyone who would like to hear it streamed can sign up here.


New Stuff!

Thursday, 02-25-2021


For those who read my longer items, the next of my commentaries on Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Divine Law, will be published in May by Cambridge University Press.  This is not the same as my earlier Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Treatise on Law.

Three new articles and book chapters of mine have also just been posted to the Read Articles section of this website:

Of Course Human Law Develops. Can Natural and Divine Law Develop?  In a symposium on “Aquinas on the Development of Law,” Aquinas Institute, held at the Blackfriars, Oxford University, Oxford, England, March, 2019.  Published in Law and Justice, No. 183 (2019).

Thomas Aquinas on Marriage, Fruitfulness, and Faithful Love.  In Theresa Notare, ed., Humanae Vitae 50 Years Later: A Compendium (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2019).

’The Same as to Knowledge’.  In Christopher Wolfe and Steven Brust, eds., Natural Law Today: The Present State of the Perennial Philosophy (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2018).