Monday, July 30, 2007

PD James

I just finished The Children of Men, by PD James. It's quite a read--good, fast, full of suspense, and philosophically interesting. The premise is brilliant: what would happen if human beings simply lost the ability to procreate? Her descriptions of a world with no children (the book opens with the death of the youngest human alive, a 25-year old) are eerie. Her predictions of subsequent human behavior are fascinating. And the story itself is pretty good, even if the end leaves you unsatisfied.

The most interesting part for me was that she confronts the relationship between sexual intercourse and children with a genuine curiosity: what would we do if... In other words, she's not writing the book to warn us or frighten us (although she does a good job of it). I think she sincerely just wants to look at the question.

Her answer is this: when procreation is no longer a possibility, the result is ugly. Both men and women (and here she's right on) lose pleasure in sex and, thus, desire. The youngest generation feels an increasing sense of entitlement, a lack of interest in honest work, and a general lethargy that results in deadly amusements. Middle-aged women substitute dolls, cats, and dogs for the children they cannot bear. Priorities are put on security, physical comfort, and contentment rather than on courage, the arts, contemplation, and the high adventure of love. The intensity of reality has become too painful for human beings to consider: extinction, helplessness, joylessness.

There is a redeeming element, however, that makes the book bearable. James's description of the (apparently) miraculous birth of one child gives every reader new eyes with which to view the world, infants, and themselves.

It's worth a read.

A movie was made not too long that apparently wasn't bad (although some plot and character details were changed). Here's an excellent review. But James's language mustn't be missed.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

On happiness and the human thing

The following piece by Miss Christine Neulieb (aka, "Jacques") is simply brilliant and is part of an ongoing blog discussion at Dave's on hedonism. I'm wiped from wedding parties in VT, so here's the quote entire.

Another Topic (warning: philosophy ahead!) (by Jacques)

"Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." -- Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

"Sinners are all alike; only saints attain true individuality." -- G.K. Chesterton (and that's a rough paraphrase, sorry.)

There's definitely a tension between those two ideas, but I don’t think they conflict. I think they’re two sides of the same coin.

The Tolstoy quote is very anti-relativist. A relativist would say things like "well, this [e.g. living chastely] is right for me, but who am I to say whether it will make you happy? Everyone has to do whatever floats their own boat!" If you don’t want to be a relativist, you have to admit that because we are all human, what makes us all happy is the same thing. We can describe it, give a name to it: virtue. If all human beings share a common nature, then it must be the case that we share a common moral code, that murder and rape and so on are wrong for everyone and not just for some people, depending on the circumstances.

The reason every unhappy family (or person) is unhappy in its (his) own way is because virtue makes up one complete whole. You need all the virtues to be truly happy. Thus, if someone is truly happy, we can reliably expect to find in him all the virtues, but if he is unhappy, he might be missing any number of things. One person might be unhappy because of lust, another because of greed, another because of envy and sloth combined...

I would only disagree with Tolstoy if he means his statement to imply that happy families are boring, and only unhappy ones make interesting subjects for fiction. I don’t think Tolstoy would say that, but there are plenty of people around who would. It’s such a modern idea, that it’s only worth writing about [messed] up people, because goodness is boring. In actual fact, goodness is much more difficult to describe, because it’s rarer and more creative. Epic, as a genre, is more difficult than the modern novel because it describes heroes, while the novel describes people just like us, and it’s a lot harder to make your reader believe a hero than it is to make him believe someone who’s like people he meets every day. Very few people can actually predict what a wholly virtuous person would do in circumstances X or Y, because they confuse virtue with decency, or repression, or any one of a million other things that it isn’t. Flannery O’Connor said she only wrote about twisted people because she wasn’t a good enough writer to capture the reality of good people.

What virtue is, is the full and complete flowering of a human personality, and as such it cannot help but be interesting. Chesterton is describing that other side of the coin. Yes, we all share a common nature, but it is also true that, as St. Therese said, "souls are as different as faces," and somehow we become more individual, not less, when we develop in virtue. The cardinal virtues are the same for everyone – prudence, justice, temperance, courage – but what they look like realized in a teacher is subtly different from what they look like in an accountant; what they look like in Dick is subtly different from what they look like in Jane. Goodness is not generic: it is the same for all men and yet unique to each individual. That is one of the greatest tensions, one of the greatest paradoxes, of the Christian life.

It's true each sinner may have his own preferred set of sins, but let's be honest, in this fallen world there are a lot more of us sinners than there are saints, and so sanctity is just for that reason surprising. We are barely even aware of what God could do with us, were he to bring us to the fulfillment of what our natures can be. We cling to our faults in the erroneous belief that they make us individual, distinguishing us from others, but that belief only means we have not begun to scratch the surface of who we are. We fear that if we became wholly virtuous, overcoming all our faults, we would be just like everyone else, but we fail to realize that evil is only the privation of good, that a vice is a lack of something rather than a real thing in itself, and that what distinguishes us as individuals ought to be positive and not merely negative. It is far better to be defined by strengths than by weaknesses.

Whew, this post is getting long, and I still feel like I'm articulating myself poorly. I think I just realized that this topic might be a little bigger than my blog can handle...

Thank you, Jacques, for the thoughts. You may be studying Plato, but--whoa!--that was some hefty Aristotle! Much love, etc., the Philosopher Mom et alia.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

And while I'm away...

this lively philosopher gent was highly recommended by Jacques (aka, Christine Neulieb).

Off to VT.

The Philosopher Mom, the Scientist Dad, and Miriam (aka, the "Winky") are off to VT until Sunday. Enjoy summertime, read lots of lovely books, and don't forget to contemplate.

See y'all Monday.

Monday, July 23, 2007

My mother predicted it.

Which Jane Austen Character are You?
You scored as a Emma Woodhouse (Just barely. Apparently, I'm also Elinor Dashwood.)
Emma is possibly one of the most loyal characters of Austen, always wanting better for those around her and doing all she possibly can to make it happen (read: I know best what's best for you!). Her motives sometimes get in the way of her good intentions and her own opinions can end up ruling her actions, but she has a good heart. She loves to be social (er, no.) and is welcoming to most, unless they are too silly to tolerate. While she sometimes changes her behavior to make others feel comfortable, she knows who she is and is always bettering herself (Deo gratias. And I'm as beautiful as Gwyneth Paltrow.).

Emma Woodhouse


Elinor Dashwood


Jane Bennet


Elizabeth Bennet


If you're dying to know which Jane Austen heroine you most represent (sorry, Philosopher Gents!), here's the quiz.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Machiavelli's Beef

To return briefly to our friend, Machiavelli, the father of modern political philosophy, I'd like to summarize his beef with Christianity.

He saw all around him, in almost-Renaissance Italy the entanglement of Church and state. It was a mess. The problem, as he saw it, was that the Church is a universal institution (i.e., open to everyone) while the state, or principality, is a local institution (i.e., exclusive to a certain group of people, the citizens). The result is a group of citizens with two allegiences: one to the local polity, the other to the universal Church. Machiavelli saw this conflict as a source of political unrest and a threat to the stability of the state.

Two solutions have arisen in modern politics, as I 've mentioned before. The first is a nationalization of the Church, as happened in England under Henry VIII and his progeny. The second is the "separation of church and state" as in the USA.

Machiavelli's second and perhaps bigger beef with Christianity was that it introduced the problem of "the other world." The highest good for human beings is, in the Christian faith, heaven. This, cries Machiavelli, "has rendered the world weak." Christian citizens do not care enough about saving this world, for all their hope is in the next; they are bad citizens.

Machiavelli's solution was to work within a sort of hardline, secular realism: the entire focus of his Prince is on solving the problems posed to princes in this life. He does not hold the ruler or the ruled, for that matter, to any standard outside of this world. In this way, he works to remove the problem of heaven from the problems of politics and found a city based on human reason alone.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Another new link...

This lady's a feisty one. I like her style and (most of) what she has to say. And more than anything, a blog with which you can have the odd quibble captivates.


With all the attention surrounding the Motu Proprio, Benedict XVI's letter to the faithful in China went largely unnoticed. It is a remarkable document. The pope's tone is one of the gentle father, his awareness of the history of the Church-state relations in China is that of a statesman and scholar, and his challenge to the bishops, priests, and laity of that country is that of a prophet. It's worth a read, as is some of the commentary surrounding it. The Holy See's "Letter of Explanation" is also a fascinating history of the Vatican-Chinese relations. You might also google (my new favorite verb!) "benedict xvi, letter to China" and learn more.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Light Blogging Ahead

Although I'll be posting every other day or so, the next three weeks involve:
(1) a reunion with the Scientist Dad after two weeks' absence
(2) a roadtrip to Burlington, VT
(3) a roadtrip to NYC
(4) a roadtrip back to the Deep South via Philadelphia, PA

NB: If you have any hints for how to keep a 2-year-old happy in a small sedan for over 30 hours, please pass them along...

So, the Philosopher Mom will be wimping out and quoting other people a lot. Dumpster diving has its place, indeed.

Enjoy the sweet summer heat. Eat, drink, and wear cool sunglasses.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Adding a link...

Here are the musings of a soon-to-be-EX-philosophy student to whom I am much indebted and ought to have been linked long ago...

Friday, July 13, 2007

Human Rights, Part II

I was on the phone on Friday with a good friend, Sr. Anna, OP, of the Nashville Dominicans. Something she said made me want to revisit the blog on "rights" I posted last week.

I was trying to describe the modern idea of rights and wrote:

"In the state of nature, each individual claims the "right" of self-preservation and can use any means necessary to achieve it. He uses his reason to achieve that preservation and, after his survivial is ensured, anything else he wills that he has the power to get. The purpose of government, then, becomes to protect our "rights" to whatever we will. That is, the state exists to ensure a space where men can exercise their wills. The perfect human life would be one in which all the individual's "rights" were fulfilled."

Sr. Anna was talking about her high school students this past year and how hard it was to communicate to them the goodness of life. "I tried to show them," she said, "that simply to exist is good in any circumstance--the sheer goodness of life. That's how good life is."

I wonder, then, if talking about the "right to life" is as helpful or true as pro-lifers seem to think it is. As you may have noticed, I find "rights" language off-putting, because rights talk inherently hinges on each individual's will to power in isolation from others and God. To say we have to protect the "right to life" is pandering to individualism.

But what if we changed the language of the debate: Life is a good. Without this most fundamental good, no other good can be even pursued.

The sheer goodness of life. The life of an infant who is miscarried is good. The life of an impoverished child is good. The life of the 90-year-old, forgotten man in a nursing home is good. The circumstances may not be good or feel good, and those who believe that life is a good have a responsibility to care for life, but simply to exist is a good.

I wonder if Christians would be more accurate, then, in emphasizing the radical idea that life is not so much a "right" (as if even God owes us our existence) but a good. It is radical because I have heard more women than I care to count say, "Well, we don't want to raise children in a world like this." Or, "I've had my two children and feel it would be selfish of me to have any more." Or, "I don't want to be a burden on anyone when I'm old." But without life, there are no other goods.

Oh, my breaking heart. Life is good in any circumstance. We must receive it in all circumstances or lose ourselves.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Great Mom

This Philosopher Mom has succumbed to the pangs of being an embodied soul. Yes, the dregs of bodily existence have dulled the flight of the fancy today.

So, here's a link to a page about a mother, Gianna Beretta Molla, now a saint in the Catholic Church, who embodied the incarnational philosophy we talk about here in her virtue, courage, and joy. This book is the best biography on her.

She's also our daughter's (Miriam Gianna's) patron saint.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Late Night Laughs

Newsflash: The Philosopher Mom and her Pediatrician Dad just smeared the rest of the family in a rousing game of Cranium. Smashing.

And now, I must rebuke the Feminine Genius for accusing me of having only Augustine and Hans urs von B. on my shelf. I also own a copy of Philosophy According to the Simpsons (not very funny, but trashy) and enjoy a good Monty Python re-run once in a while (very funny).

Here's the International Philosophers' Futbol League.


Machiavelli comes up a lot: "Hitler was a Machiavellian ruler." We think of him in terms of "the end justifies the means," or "do whatever you have to do to rule effeectively."

He deserves the attention. Machiavelli almost single-handedly founded modern political thought as over-and-against classical politics. If you want to understand what happened in Western civilization in the move from Christendom to the modern state, you must understand Machiavelli.

Aristotle's politics was based on the notion that man is a political animal. There is a common good that brings human beings together in political communities, which are the only place that common good can be found.

Machiavelli starts from radically different premise. What human beings have in common is not a good, but only fears and self-interest. This suggests that, although he calls man a "political animal" as well, Machiavelli sees man rather as an apolitical thing. Humans have nothing in common but selfishness.

Politics, then, becomes something "effected by thought," not natural. The state is what the ruler creates in order to deal with the basic self-interest of his subjects. Thought is freedom and self-determination, not a way to discover what is good for all or what is the end for all human beings.

Machiavelli sees the idea of the common good as useless to solve the "problem" of politics--who has the right to rule? His solution is a kind of tyranny that actually gets rid of politics, understood as an observation of human community life, altogether. Force becomes the basis of society: "If we only had the power, we could fix everything!"

Remember that next time the power shifts in the House, Senate, or Executive office. Good old Machiavelli...

Monday, July 9, 2007

Rights Talk

In modern political philosophy and newspeak and, well, just about everything, "human rights" is the watchword.

"Rights" are a relatively new invention of human thought, however. The beginnings of rights talk are in Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan--an enormous and even more enormously influential work of 1660. Rights arise from the state of nature, the pre-political war of all against all. As I mentioned in the Arendt post, modern political philosophy tends to see men as a mass of individuals rather than as naturallly social.

In the state of nature, each individuals claims the "right" of self-preservation and can use any means necessary to achieve it. He uses his reason to achieve that preservation and, after his survivial is ensured, anything else he wills that he has the power to get. The purpose of government, then, becomes to protect our "rights" to whatever we will. That is, the state exists to ensure a space where men can exercise their wills. The perfect human life would be one in which all the individual's "rights" were fulfilled.

The point is not that we don't have rights. Catholic social talk is all about "the right to life"--yes?

The point is, however, that when we talk about human rights or the right to life, we have to realize that what, say, John Paul II meant by "rights" and what, say, Planned Parenthood means by "rights" are vastly different things. The difference is crucial: the former speaks of rights as the dignity that must be acknowledged in every human being as created by God; the latter speaks of rights as essentially dependent on human will--what I want is my right.

To be continued...

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Motu Proprio

Vatican Information Service
has posted the letter of explanation from Benedict XVI and the "Summorum pontificum" concerning the celebration of the 1962 (i.e., "Tridentine") rite. The Latin Mass, as it is popularly called, arguably goes back over a millenium in Christian worship--long before the divide between Protestant and Catholic. The pope's concern to elevate the rite, which became nearly extinct nearly overnight over 40 years ago, is, he writes, "a matter of coming to an interior reconciliation in the heart of the Church."

One (among many) interesting point theologically is this: the liturgy is divine, not human. Its various decorations are cultural, but its heart is Jesus Christ. It is an encounter with the Incarnation of God, the Word made flesh. Like a human being, the liturgy grows organically through continuity amid change. "In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us, too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful." Neither rite may be excluded; each enriches the other. Benedict has opened the doors to a new reverence and love for the liturgy--both in its older and newer rites.

And here's another thought on liturgy not from the pope (that was my disclaimer!): "What Chesterton understood was that it was precisely one of the great graces of the Catholic Church that she makes it possible for people, poor as well as rich, to transcend their cultural limitations, to rise above their cultural poverty and be citizens, or rather subjects, of an eternal city..." ~Tracey Rowland, Culture and the Thomist Tradition: After Vatican II

So let it be written. So let it be done.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Thank you!

And a thanks to everyone who responded to my call for thoughts on choosing a Catholic/Christian school for your children. Here's the link to all those comments.

Ah, the passions run high. The basic points seem to be this:
1. If you have a solid, Catholic school--run by faithful religious--then this is certainly a viable option. I would add that there is a new crop of Catholic independent schools, run mostly by laity, that also provide a solid Catholic education. Check out the NAPCIS directory for examples.

2. For some, even these schools, however, are too expensive.

3. Parents have the vocation to be the primary educators of their children. No matter how awesome your local Catholic schools are, nothing substitutes for the example of devout parents.

4. Most homeschoolers saw a home school as the best way to guide their children in faith, education, provide individual attention. No one mentioned wishing their child was "more socialized."

So there's the thoughts. Thank you, again! And a special thanks to Danielle Bean, blogging genius extraordinaire!

Fascinating question.

Fr. Schall, SJ, wrote a thought-provoking article for June 2007 Homiletics and Pastoral Review: "The culture of modernity and Catholicism."

Lofty name, I know, but BE NOT AFRAID: the periodical is quite brilliant. If any of y'all find your Sunday homilies lacking in, er, inspiration, it includes a homily for every major feast day and Sunday each month as well as articles like this. They're worth checking out on the web.

Schall's article opens with a quote from Pascal (hearts) and this:

“According to the modern project, philosophy or science was no longer to be understood as essentially contemplative and proud but as active and charitable; it was to be in the service of the relief of man’s estate; it was to be cultivated for the same of human power; it was to enable man to become master and owner of nature through the intellectual conquest of nature.”

– Leo Strauss, The City and Man, 1964.

This quote illustrates the point I've been making about the modern project vs. the Aristotelian/Catholic understanding of philosophy and its role in politics.

And the article is quite provocative. Did the Catholic Church during Vatican II fail to address the fundamentals of modern thought? What would it mean for Catholics truly to take on or evangelize modernity's specific culture? What is the culture of modernity? Is it compatible with Catholicisim?

(Ah-ha! Rock on philosophers, rock on.)

The political space

Hannah Arendt (1906-1975). In The Human Condition, she compares the Greek idea of politics with her assesment of modern politics. (If you note her dates, she had ample experience with the very worst of modern politics, living through two world wars and the communist rise.)

For the Greeks, she says, politics is a science that emerges after the fact that humans are social. This seems like a no-brainer, but ever since the darling Enlightenment brought us Hobbes, Locke, and all the other brialliant bulbs of modern thought, politics has been seen as something individuals do prior to coming together socially.

That is, for the moderns, individuals human beings are isolated and self-interested. The private realm is where everything "happens," and at heart humans are the type of thing that are alone with themselves. All social interaction must be regulated by political forces.

For the Greeks, Arendt says, the family and small social structures are natural, not forced. Politics, then, is not regulating individuals who come together out of fear but rather is a particular realm of human action where humans come to gether to act in a specifically human way. It's not about laws enforcing stability, but rather about individuals and social groups coming forward into a common space to be seen, to demonstrate the great virtues, and to find immortality in their great actions.

There is truth in almost any human thought--sometimes it's more hidden than obvious, but it's interesting to consider the truth in both the modern and Greek political philosophies. Link

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day

Galatians: “For freedom Christ has set you free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Freedom is the freedom to choose to do good, to be good. For freedom, Christ has set us free.

Happy 4th of July.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Christianity and politics

For the ancients (Aristotle, Plato, etc...), there was no conflict inherent between church (religion) and those who governed. The rulers of the Greek city-state were guardians of the religious practices of their city; being a good citizen was being a good Greek was being a good religious believer.

With the coming of Christianity--and, to a more limited extent, Judaism--a sudden dichotomy appeared. Now there was the earthly kingdom and the Kingdom of God, the temporal powers and the eternal powers. This was a split made possible by Christ's radical call to "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and unto God what is God's."

Philosophically, this was an enormous problem. Augustine tackles it in City of God. What is the relationship between the city of God and the city of man? What is a Christian to do, who is called to evangelize and serve on earth while belonging solely to the kingdom to come?

There is no such thing as "Christian politics" in the Bible. There is no civil law in the New Testament. The Christian does not see revelation as a revelation of law, but rather as a revelation of truth in the person of Christ. The only law is "to love," which does not translate into any one particular political program. (If you have difficulty finding a candidate to vote for in each election who does not support one nasty program or another, you know what I mean.)

The problem is that, in everyday life, the two kingdoms overlap. My obedience to the state and to the Church do come into conflict at times. Because of Christianity, political thinkers have an endless intellectual and practical problem to tackle (what fun!): how does one run a state in which its religious citizens have a divided allegiance? how do rulers engage or control citizens who care more about the next world than this world?

The two classic solutions are: (1) Build a state church. For example, the Anglican Church of England was a state church in which to be a good chruchman was to be a good Englishman. (2) Tolerate all religions equally.

Now the fun begins. Dead white guys and many more all jump into the fray to defend their favorite model or seek out the best model. And all because God became a man...

Monday, July 2, 2007

The drama of politics

In general, political philosophy is concerned with the distinction between the ruler and the ruled. That is, who ought to be in charge and why? How much power do various rulers have and why?

The interesting question for political philosophy, though, is whether it should be practical or theoretical. Should philosophers concern themselves with what is possible in human politics or with what is the best inhuman politics?

The divide is largely historical. Aristotle, and most philosophers of the tradition, did politics by contemplating the best human society and describing existing human societies in comparison to the best. He was not interested in directing human affairs, but in discovering the nature of human affairs.

Machiavelli (1469-1527) came along and said, no, political philosophy is a matter of finding the most effective way to get the job done. The idea of the best is impractical, because it cannot be realized in the "earthly city," as Augustine would call it. Looking at human nature is not a major concern, either, because whatever that nature is, it is clearly corrupted.

Which side you fall on depends on your answers to a few questions. Is there a human nature that has a determined best? Is there a knowable best human political associations? In other words, is there an end in human politics that humans do not create for themselves?

Without an end, or a best, political philosophy cannot be contemplative (or theoretical). There would be no ideal against which to judge the actual communities and governments we live in. Without an end that is built into human nature, politics becomes a matter of getting power in order to enforce your own, self-determined purposes. (See "ends and purposes," June 2007)

That's the drama of politics.

And one more...


I just couldn't resist this picture.

July is politics. Light summer fun.

I've decided to take a little sojourn from the Aristotle introduction to something a little more... spicy.

Here are some of our upcoming characters.

On the top: Hannah Arendt (this is breaking the rule to talk only about the dead white guys, but isn't her loveliness a bit of a respite?)

To your right: Hobbes (isn't he a jolly fellow?)

and most likely, more Aristotle...