Addenda

27 Oct

What Ockham severed

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/27/15

Jean-Charles Nault on the advent of sheer freedom

“For the philosophers of Antiquity, and for the whole Christian tradition, freedom is the ability that man has — an ability belonging jointly to his intellect and will — to perform virtuous actions, good actions, excellent actions, perfect actions, when he wants and as he wants. Man’s freedom is therefore his capacity to accomplish good acts easily, joyously, and lastingly. This freedom is defined by the attraction of the good.

“William of Ockham, in contrast, makes freedom a moment ‘prior’ to intellect and will. In Ockham’s writings, the word ‘freedom’ is almost synonymous with Will. Man is no longer attracted at all by the good. He finds himself in a state of total indifference with regard to good and evil. In order for him to be able to choose between good and evil, therefore, the intervention of an external element will be necessary, which Ockham identifies with the law. From then on, according to this concept, obedience to the law is what defines the good: ‘It is good because the law requires it of me’, instead of ‘The law requires it of me because it is good.’ This is a veritable ‘revolution,’ which will eventually lead to what would be called ‘legalism,’ whereby the law alone is the criterion of good. Today we can recognize the havoc caused by all sorts of legalism.

“With Ockham we are confronted with what can be called an ‘extrinsicist’ concept of action: not in himself or in the goodness of the object does man find sufficient reasons for choosing one act or another; he chooses under the influence of an element outside himself, hence, the name extrinsicism. Once again we perceive the radical change of concept in this way of thinking about the good and this way of tending toward it.

“If there is no longer an attraction that impels us toward the good, that means that man no longer has within himself what St. Thomas called the ‘natural inclinations’, which he made a key feature of his moral doctrine. Natural inclinations are ‘natural’ dispositions, which is to say that they are dependent on the spiritual nature of man, potentialities of the whole person that set him in motion toward his own activity. They are the basis of the natural law. By virtue of being created in the image and likeness of God, man is naturally oriented toward the truth, toward the good, toward God, toward the opposite sex, toward the preservation of life. Founded on these inclinations, freedom is qualified by the attraction that it spontaneously experiences to what is true and good, or at least what appears to it as such. Thus man is free, not despite his natural inclinations, but on the contrary because of them. Of course man can be mistaken, but even sin does not present an obstacle to these natural inclinations. If man chooses evil, it is not because he was attracted by evil, as we have already explained earlier, but rather because evil, in the particular situation in which he finds himself, appears to him as a good — a deceptive one, no doubt, but as a good.”

—from Jean-Charles Nault, O.S.B.,  The Noonday Devil: Acedia, The Unnamed Evil of Our Times (Ignatius Press, 2015)

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27 Oct

Progress in the void

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/27/15

R. J. Snell on modernity’s preference for freedom over the good

“The Western tradition has long grappled with the question of freedom within the limits of natural right and natural law, a distinction vital to so much of our understanding of the rule of law, human dignity, the meaning of human freedom and responsibility. If right is determined only by what we arbitrarily choose, then right is fundamentally unstable; but if there is a natural right, then justice is beyond mere caprice or accident but normative and binding. The explanation of how things were right by nature took many forms, and the West exists as the tension between the explanations offered by Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome. By the time of early modernity, however, a new consensus emerged that nature (or creation) did not provide an explanation of the good. John Locke, for example, rejected the ‘old view of nature’ and the understanding that ‘human beings . . . were directed to a highest good under which all goods could be known in a hierarchy of subordination and superordination’ — there simply was no such good. In the absence of a normative ordering of goods, it became difficult, but essential, to explain the meaning and foundations of justice, and Locke and the liberal tradition declared that justice was contractual rather than rooted in nature.  As George Grant articulates it, the fathers of modernity knew that their version of justice required ‘giving up the doctrine of creation as the primal teaching,’ for if there was truth ‘deep down things,’ if things were heavy in their interiority and made demands on us to be respected in their integrity, and if we were charged to work, attend, till, and keep the garden through good work, offering both the perfected garden and our work-perfected selves as adornments for God’s cosmic temple, then our contractual agreements were bound rather than free-floating. More succinctly, if there was a truth about the good, then we were not entirely free to make justice in the image of our own unfettered wills; we were not sovereign, not autonomous, but remained ruled rulers. Modernity chafed on these limits, viewed them as obeisance rather than freedom, and determined that humanity ‘depends for its progress not on God or nature but on its own freedom, and the direction of that progress is determined’ by our own self-understandings, although it is unclear whether those self-understandings can secure anything like the common good.”

—from R. J. Snell, Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (Angelico Press, 2015) Internal quotes are from George Grant, English-speaking Justice (Anansi Press, 1985)

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26 Oct

Command and liberation

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/26/15

Oliver O’Donovan on the freedom of living under authority

“Where authority is, freedom is; and where authority is lost, freedom is lost. This holds good for all kinds of authority. Without adults who demand mature behavior, the child is not free to grow up; without teachers to set standards of excellence, the scholar is not free to excel; without prophets to uphold ideals of virtue, society is not free to realize its common good. To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent. The centurion of Capernaum addressed Jesus with the memorable words, ‘I, too, am a man under authority. I say to this man “Go” and he goes, and to another “Come” and he comes’ (Matt. 8:9). He exercises authority because he is under authority. Authority communicates itself through him, liberating his capacity for effective action and command. We catch the idea in our expression, ‘to be authorized to do something,’ a condition in which one is at the same time dependent upon authority and freed by that authority to act. When a group of followers identify themselves with a leader, they experience their leader’s command as freeing them. That is true of any social movement: a political party, a school of intellectual criticism, an artistic fashion, or a gang of thugs — Augustine famously understood that certain social principles equally applied to kingdoms and to robber bands!

“Together with freedom there is awe, a wonder that is both delight and terror. Freedom begins in delighted astonishment: at the beauty of the object which the artist will paint, at the complexity of the thought which the philosopher will tease out, at the God who reveals himself in the burning bush. This is a normal element in the genesis of any worthwhile project: a rational action which looks from one point of view like the pursuit of a good may from another point of view look more like being stopped in one’s tracks. The parable of the pearl of great price is a parable about how any great thing comes to be done. Wonder contains dread as well as delight, and it is this that is especially prominent in response to authority. Those who present us with something we must do impose responsibility on us as well as freedom, and they become the immediate object of our fear of responsibility. The police officer waving down the car, the teacher setting the exercise, the physician recommending the operation, are all in varied ways our judges, should our response prove inadequate or unseemly. Only desire can make this dread tolerable, only love can make it welcome.”

—from Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment (Eerdmans, 2005)

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21 Oct

The religious character of medieval secular life

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/21/15

John Milbank on the sacred canopy of premodern Europe

“[F]rom Augustine onwards, the Church showed a desire to infuse secular practices of warfare, punishment, trade and feudal tenure with the exercise of mercy and forbearance. Even in relation to the function of doing justice, it is arguable that Christianity had an innovative impact: Oliver O’Donovan plausibly contends that St. Paul for the first time made judgement (the provision of equity) the sole legitimating ground of government and no longer also the guarding of a terrain, which paganism had always included. This renders rule purely active and donative rather than reactive and defensive. . . . And if Christianity asked the State to attend more closely to mercy and justice, inversely its own ‘household' communities from the outset took over in part from the polis the ‘political’ function of paideia: training in ultimate virtues. Moreover, salvation itself was not simply an individual matter in the Patristic and Medieval period: redemptive charity, for example, was a state pertaining between people, not simply a virtue exercised by an individual. The Church itself was a complex multiple society and not simply the administrative machinery for the saving of souls which it later tended to evolve into. Hence to speak of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ concerns in this period can be to overlook the fact that monasteries were also farms, that the Church saw to the upkeep of bridges which were at once crossing places and shrines to the Virgin and that the laity often exercised economic, charitable and festive functions in confraternities that were themselves units of the Church as much as parishes, and therefore occupied no unambiguously ‘secular’ space. . . .

“One should remember too that the supreme laymen, namely kings, were anointed, and assumed that they had thereby received a Christic office in another aspect to that received by the priesthood: Christ being understood following the New Testament as fulfilling the offices of prophet, priest and king.

“So to speak of the secular in the Middle Ages can be problematic. For this period the Saeculum was not a space but the time before the eschaton: certainly some concerns that were more worldly belonged more to this time, but this did not imply quite our sense of sheer ‘indifference’ and ‘neutrality’ as concerns religious matters when we speak of ‘the secular.’ Indeed one can go further: ‘temporal’ concerns existed in ontological contrast to eternal ones, but both were ‘religious’ as falling under divine judgement.”

—from John Milbank, “The Gift of Ruling” (New Blackfriars, Vol. 85, No. 996 [March 2004])

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21 Oct

In praise of the reality of things

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 10/21/15

Kenneth L. Schmitz on the dissolving effects of modern modes of thought

“[I]t is no secret that, since the philosophers tossed out the four causes of Aristotle in the seventeenth century, things as such have absented themselves from the mainstream of modern thought, and from respectable intellectual conversation, as though pouting over their unmerited dismissal. In modern times, things seem to have lost their substance in reality, their significance in modern scientific and intellectual discourse, and their credit in modern minds. . . .

“Would I be far wrong were I to suggest that our modern intellectual culture convinces us that we ought not to really believe in things anymore? Or at least, that our intellectual culture discourages such ‘primitive’ belief? I must explain myself. You and I handle things as we make our daily rounds, and we may respond to things with feeling and imagination as we read the poets. We do not think things, that is, with scientific or intellectual rigor. We do not let things enter into the ‘serious’ passes of our minds. . . . As evidence of this, I offer the following reflection. Initiated into modern culture, if we were asked to give a rational account of some thing such as the tree in the garden, I suspect that we would first of all describe a set of colours and shapes, its bark rough or smooth; well enough! But if we were pressed to penetrate more deeply to its ‘real constitution’ in an effort to understand the makeup of the tree and to give a rationally coherent account of it — would not the tree as a thing dissolve into a cloud of particles and processes, of cellular structures and photosyntheses? For we are taught to think that there are particles, waves, and processes governed by systemic laws, but not things.

“Is the tree, then, more than a collection? . . .”

“[I]f we persist in asking for an intellectual account of the tree in terms other than cellular structures and processes, we will have fallen — perhaps unintentionally, even unwillingly — into the pit of metaphysics, unless we have the imagination and good fortune to fall onto the pad of poetry.”

—from Kenneth L. Schmitz, The Recovery of Wonder: The New Freedom and the Asceticism of Power (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005)

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