Saturday, February 20, 2016

Better Than What Is Made

This is Aquinas's Summa Theologiae Part I, Question 25, Article 6, as translated, very roughly, by me. The Dominican Fathers translation is here; the original Latin is here.


It seems that God is not able to make better than He makes.

(1) For whatever God makes, he makes most powerfully and wisely. But something is made better to the extent that it is made powerfully and wisely. Therefore God is not able to make better than he makes.

(2) Further, Augustine (Contra Maximin.) argues thus: "If God could, but would not, beget a Son His equal, he would have been envious." By the same reason, if God could have made better things than He made, and would not have, He would have been envious. But envy is in every way removed from God. Therefore God makes of everything the best. ThereforeGod is not able to make something better than He makes.

(3) Further, that which is in the best and most intensive way good, is not able to be made better, because nothing is better than best. But, as Augustine says (Enchiridion), each single thing that God has made is good, but all together as a whole (universa) very good, because in all consists the amazing beauty of the whole (universitatis admirabilis pulchritudo). Therefore the good of the whole (bonum universi) is not able to be made better by God.

(4) Further, the man Christ is full of grace and truth, and has the Spirit beyond measure, and so is not able to be better. Created beatitude also is said to be the highest good (summum bonum), and so is not able to be better. Also, the Blessed Virgin Mary is exalted above all choirs of angels, and so is not able to be better. Therefore not everything that God makes is able to be made better.

But contrariwise is what is said in Ephesians 3, that God is able to do all things more abundantly than we wish or understand.

I reply that it must be said that the goodness of any thing is twofold. (1) That which belongs to the essence of the thing, as being rational belongs to the essence of the human being. And with respect to this good, God cannot make something better than it itself is, although He is able to make something other than it that is better, just as He cannot make the number four greater than it is, because, if it is greater, it is not four but some other number.For addition of a substantial difference in definitions is just like the addition of one in number, as is said in Metaphysics VIII. (2) Another goodness is what is in addition to the essence of the thing, so the good of man is being rational and wise. And according to this good, God is able to make better the things made by Him. But simply speaking, God is able to make something better than any thing made by Him.

Therefore to the first it must be said that, (1a) when God is said to be able to make something better than He made, if the 'better' is taken as a noun, it is true, for He is able to make some other thing better than any particular thing. (1b) Likewise, He can make it better in one way and not in another, as was said. (2a) But if the 'better' is taken as an adverb, and indicates the manner of the making, then God is not able to make better than He makes, because He is not able to make it from greater wisdom and goodness. (2b) But if it indicates the manner of the thing that is done, then He is able to make it better, because He is able to give a thing made by Him a better accidental mode of being, although not a better essential one.

To the second it must be said that it is of the nature of a son to be equal to the father, when he comes to be complete, but it is not of the nature of something created that it be better than God has made it. Therefore the analogy fails.

To the third it must be said that the whole being supposed, it is not able to be better; due to the most appropriate order given to things by God, in which the good of the whole consists. For if some one thing were better, the orderly proportion would be corrupted, just as, if one string were drawn more than it ought, the melody of the harp would be corrupted. But God is able to make other things, or to add other things to the things that are made, and then there would be a better whole.

To the fourth it must be said that the humanity of Christ, from the fact that it is united to God, and created beatitude, from the fact that it is enjoyment of God, and the Blessed Virgin, from the fact that she is Mother of God, have a sort of infinite dignity from the infinite good that is God. And given this there cannot be something better than these, in the sense that there cannot be something better than God.

Lent X

Christ Himself is the tower, Himself for us has been made a tower from the face of the enemy, who is also the Rock whereon has been built the Church. Are you taking heed that you be not smitten of the devil? Flee to the Tower; never to that tower will the devil's darts follow you: there you will stand protected and fixed. But in what manner shall you flee to the Tower? Let not a man, set perchance in temptation, in body seek that Tower, and when he shall not have found it, be wearied, or faint in temptation. Before you is the Tower: call to mind Christ, and go into the Tower.

Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 61 (i.e., what we usually call Psalm 60)

Friday, February 19, 2016

Umberto Eco (1932-2016)

Umberto Eco has died.

Perhaps at some point later this year, I'll do The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum for the Fortnightly Book, as I did last year for The Island of the Day Before (Introduction, Review). I also have a copy of Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language somewhere, so I might do something with it, as well.

The Walls of Vatican City State

Due to various political indignations that I will not go into (in part because it looks to me like it is all obviously ginned up by a press looking to make a story), the walls of the Vatican City State have been in the news recently. I normally wouldn't comment on such a thing at all, but I have been reading up on Vatican City in recent months, so the claims about the walls have caught my attention. I would point out three minor things that I have seen ignored in multiple places.

(1) Most of the walls of the Vatican City State predate the Vatican City State. Indeed, the borders of Vatican City were largely chosen because the walls were already there, not vice versa -- it made it easy to lay out the borders in the Lateran Treaty by which Italy conceded Vatican City to the Holy See. A few walls were put up where there weren't any already in order to better delineate the border for treaty purposes.

(2) Vatican City is not 100% surrounded by walls. Famously, you can walk right from Rome into Vatican City by stepping over a line painted on the ground in St. Peter's Square.

(3) It is nonetheless true that immigration into and residency in Vatican City is highly, highly restricted; if you are not Swiss Guard or Curial official, or given special permission by the Pope, the chances of you ever being able to immigrate to or reside in Vatican City are very, very slim. Although you probably wouldn't want to do so; it is, for all practical purposes, a museum complex maybe half the size of the National Mall in Washington, DC. It would be like hoping to live in a storage closet at the Smithsonian -- no doubt interesting, but you could certainly do better.

Lent IX

Christian teaching reveals God and His infinite perfection with far greater clarity than is possible by the human faculties alone....From that same teaching we learn prudence of the spirit, and thereby we avoid prudence of the flesh; we learn justice, by which we give to every man his due; fortitude, which prepares us to endure all things and with steadfast heart suffer all things for the sake of God and eternal happiness; and, last of all, temperance through which we cherish even poverty borne out of love for God, nay, we even glory in the cross itself, unmindful of its shame. In fine, Christian teaching not only bestows on the intellect the light by which it attains truth, but from it our will draws that ardor by which we are raised up to God and joined with Him in the practice of virtue.

Pius X, Acerbo nimis.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

A Dream a Little Less Inconstant

386. If we dreamt the same thing every night, it would affect us as much as the objects we see every day. And if an artisan were sure to dream every night for twelve hours' duration that he was a king, I believe he would be almost as happy as a king, who should dream every night for twelve hours on end that he was an artisan.

If we were to dream every night that we were pursued by enemies and harassed by these painful phantoms, or that we passed every day in different occupations, as in making a voyage, we should suffer almost as much as if it were real, and should fear to sleep, as we fear to wake when we dread in fact to enter on such mishaps. And, indeed, it would cause pretty nearly the same discomforts as the reality.

But since dreams are all different, and each single one is diversified, what is seen in them affects us much less than what we see when awake, because of its continuity, which is not, however, so continuous and level as not to change too; but it changes less abruptly, except rarely, as when we travel, and then we say, "It seems to me I am dreaming." For life is a dream a little less inconstant.

Pascal, Pensées

A Poem Draft

Moon and Lake

I spoke a word to the silent moon;
the starlight witnessed what I said was true.
The moon herself in reflection shone
on the little lake where the rowers row,
the glassy land where the rowers row,
the silvern mirror that in moonlight shone.
I spoke a word, my word was true,
and she smiled with light, did the silent moon.


On all days and seasons, indeed, dearly-beloved, some marks of the Divine goodness are set, and no part of the year is destitute of sacred mysteries, in order that, so long as proofs of our salvation meet us on all sides, we may the more eagerly accept the never-ceasing calls of God's mercy. But all that is bestowed on the restoration of human souls in the various works and gifts of grace is put before us more clearly and abundantly now, when no isolated portions of the Faith are to be celebrated, but the whole together. For as the Easter festival approaches, the greatest and most binding of fasts is kept, and its observance is imposed on all the faithful without exception; because no one is so holy that he ought not to be holier, nor so devout that he might not be devouter.

Leo the Great, Sermon XI on Lent

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ginsburg on Scalia

Justice Ginsburg and Justice Scalia were at opposite poles on most matters of law; but they were extremely close friends. So it's unsurprising that Ginsburg's tribute to Scalia is perhaps the best tribute, coming as it does from someone who disagreed with him all the time but knew him better than almost anyone else:

Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: "We are different, we are one," different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots-the "applesauce" and "argle bargle"-and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his "energetic fervor," "astringent intellect," "peppery prose," "acumen," and "affability," all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader's grasp.

Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance. He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.

Both Scalia and Ginsburg shared an enthusiasm for opera; when this became more widely known, a law student, Derrick Wang, asked them if he could make a short comic opera based on their disagreements. They both replied (as you might expect from Supreme Court lawyers) that he had every right to do so by the First Amendment, anyway -- but that even if he needed their permission, he certainly would have it. NPR had a story with some selections from the opera; you can find the libretto here.

Lent VII

As then we must with the whole heart obey the Divine commands and sound doctrine, so we must use all foresight in abstaining from wicked imaginations. For the mind then only keeps holy and spiritual fast when it rejects the food of error and the poison of falsehood, which our crafty and wily foe plies us with more treacherously now, when by the very return of the venerable Festival, the whole church generally is admonished to understand the mysteries of its salvation. For he is the true confessor and worshipper of Christ's resurrection, who is not confused about His passion, nor deceived about His bodily nativity.

Leo the Great, Sermon VIII on Lent

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lent VI

[W]e shall be rightly attacked with rebukes, and through our fault ungodly tongues will arm themselves to do harm to religion, if the conduct of those that fast is at variance with the standard of perfect purity. For our fast does not consist chiefly of mere abstinence from food, nor are dainties withdrawn from our bodily appetites with profit, unless the mind is recalled from wrong-doing and the tongue restrained from slandering. This is a time of gentleness and long-suffering, of peace and tranquillity: when all the pollutions of vice are to be eradicated and continuance of virtue is to be attained by us. Now let godly minds boldly accustom themselves to forgive faults, to pass over insults, and to forget wrongs. Now let the faithful spirit train himself with the armour of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, that through honour and dishonour, through ill repute and good repute, the conscience may be undisturbed in unwavering uprightness, not puffed up by praise and not wearied out by revilings.

Leo the Great, Sermon IV on Lent, section II.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Hume's Uses of the Power/Exercise Distinction

In the Treatise of Human Nature 1.3.10, Hume rejects the idea that we can draw a principled rational distinction between causal power and causal act (i.e., exercise of that power). (This is, in fact, much of the source of his skepticism.) However, he is faced with an interesting problem: an adequate account of human passions and motivations seems to require something like such a distinction. He addresses this at some length in 2.2.5. He first notes the contrast (paragraph 4):

It has been observed in treating of the understanding, that the distinction, which we sometimes make betwixt a power and the exercise of it, is entirely frivolous, and that neither man nor any other being ought ever to be thought possest of any ability, unless it be exerted and put in action. But though this be strictly true in a just and philosophical way of thinking, it is certain it is not the philosophy of our passions; but that many things operate upon them by means of the idea and supposition of power, independent of its actual exercise. We are pleased when we acquire an ability of procuring pleasure, and are displeased when another acquires a power of giving pain. This is evident from experience; but in order to give a just explication of the matter, and account for this satisfaction and uneasiness, we must weigh the following reflections.

He then argues that this passional power/exercise distinction does not derive from philosophical accounts of free will (i.e., accounts that depend on a notion of power that can be contrasted with a general doctrine of necessity, which eliminates much of the need to talk about powers). Indeed, he thinks the common notion of power that's required for making sense of our passions is quite different: "according to common notions a man has no power, where very considerable motives lie betwixt him and the satisfaction of his desires, and determine him to forbear what he wishes to perform." As he notes, we don't think we are 'in someone's power' just because they happen to walk by with a sword; we know the magistrate would punish them for doing anything. But we do think we are in someone's power if they have power to reward and punish as they please.

On the basis of this, Hume draws from his discussion of causation and probability. In the first case, we expect on the basis of our past experience that he will not do anything to us; in the second case, we do not have this solid expectation, but find our expectations split among several ideas for what might come next, among which is the possibility that they might do something to us. He then concludes:

Since therefore we ascribe a power of performing an action to every one, who has no very powerful motive to forbear it, and refuse it to such as have; it may justly be concluded, that power has always a reference to its exercise, either actual or probable, and that we consider a person as endowed with any ability when we find from past experience, that it is probable, or at least possible he may exert it. And indeed, as our passions always regard the real existence of objects, and we always judge of this reality from past instances; nothing can be more likely of itself, without any farther reasoning, than that power consists in the possibility or probability of any action, as discovered by experience and the practice of the world.

Thus we get a deflation of the power/exercise distinction into a matter of uncertain expectation, and Hume can make use of it to handle the aspects of our passional life that seem to require a distinction between what we can do and what we do. It depends, of course, on Hume's account of causation. I'm still not sure that it's an adequate handling of the problem; there's no need to appeal to a full philosophical account of free will to suggest that something like it is at least a contributing factor, and we get cases like appealing to someone for mercy even when we don't expect it to be granted, for which a reduction to uncertain expectation alone would not be straightforward. But it is, in any case, an interesting example of how Hume's causal considerations affect his explanation of human life.

Bede's World

Bede's World is a museum in Jarrow, England, devoted to the life and times of the Venerable Bede. It seems to have been fairly highly regarded, and you can easily find good reviews of it, as well as people putting videos from their tour of the place on YouTube with laudatory comments. However, it had been having some difficulty with funds, and suddenly a few days ago they suddenly shut down for insolvency.

There's a fundraising endeavor going on trying to raise 10000 pounds to re-open the museum, which is fairly important to the community; and, of course, is a supplementary source of income for staff who were expecting at least to close out another season. So I give the link in case anyone's interested. They are already over a fifth of the way, in a matter of days.

The following is a tour of what they did at the museum that was put up on YouTube a couple of years ago:

Lent V

Therefore, dearly-beloved, seeing that, as we are taught by our Redeemer's precept, "man lives not in bread alone, but in every word of God," and it is right that Christian people, whatever the amount of their abstinence, should rather desire to satisfy themselves with the "Word of God" than with bodily food, let us with ready devotion and eager faith enter upon the celebration of the solemn fast, not with barren abstinence from food, which is often imposed on us by weakliness of body, or the disease of avarice, but in bountiful benevolence: that in truth we may be of those of whom the very Truth speaks, "blessed are they which hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled." Let works of piety, therefore, be our delight, and let us be filled with those kinds of food which feed us for eternity. Let us rejoice in the replenishment of the poor, whom our bounty has satisfied. Let us delight in the clothing of those whose nakedness we have covered with needful raiment. Let our humaneness be felt by the sick in their illnesses, by the weakly in their infirmities, by the exiles in their hardships, by the orphans in their destitution, and by solitary widows in their sadness: in the helping of whom there is no one that cannot carry out some amount of benevolence. For no one's income is small, whose heart is big: and the measure of one's mercy and goodness does not depend on the size of one's means.

Leo the Great, Sermon 40 (Sermon II on Lent)

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Hume's Infinite Regress Arguments


Though the mind in its reasonings from causes or effects carries its view beyond those objects, which it sees or remembers, it must never lose sight of them entirely, nor reason merely upon its own ideas, without some mixture of impressions, or at least of ideas of the memory, which are equivalent to impressions. When we infer effects from causes, we must establish the existence of these causes; which we have only two ways of doing, either by an immediate perception of our memory or senses, or by an inference from other causes; which causes again we must ascertain in the same manner, either by a present impression, or by an inference from their causes, and so on, till we arrive at some object, which we see or remember. It is impossible for us to carry on our inferences IN INFINITUM; and the only thing, that can stop them, is an impression of the memory or senses, beyond which there is no room for doubt or enquiry.

Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, Appendix 1:

It appears evident that—the ultimate ends of human actions can never, in any case, be accounted for by reason, but recommend themselves entirely to the sentiments and affections of mankind, without any dependance on the intellectual faculties. Ask a man WHY HE USES EXERCISE; he will answer, BECAUSE HE DESIRES TO KEEP HIS HEALTH. If you then enquire, WHY HE DESIRES HEALTH, he will readily reply, BECAUSE SICKNESS IS PAINFUL. If you push your enquiries farther, and desire a reason WHY HE HATES PAIN, it is impossible he can ever give any. This is an ultimate end, and is never referred to any other object.

Perhaps to your second question, WHY HE DESIRES HEALTH, he may also reply, that IT IS NECESSARY FOR THE EXERCISE OF HIS CALLING. If you ask, WHY HE IS ANXIOUS ON THAT HEAD, he will answer, BECAUSE HE DESIRES TO GET MONEY. If you demand WHY? IT IS THE INSTRUMENT OF PLEASURE, says he. And beyond this it is an absurdity to ask for a reason. It is impossible there can be a progress IN INFINITUM; and that one thing can always be a reason why another is desired. Something must be desirable on its own account, and because of its immediate accord or agreement with human sentiment and affection.

Hume has other arguments that appeal to infinite progressions -- infinite diminution arguments based on the idea that a finite is exhausted to nothing by infinite diminution, or arguments that justification will be inadequate even if it is carried on infinitely; but these are, as far as I am aware, his only explicitly espoused infinite regress arguments, taken in the proper sense.

Maronite Year XXIV

All the Sundays of Lent in the Maronite calendar are concerned with types and emblems of our salvation, and the readings for Sundays in Lent after Cana Sunday all concern restorations. We have two healings (the leper, the hemorrhaging woman), then the parable of the prodigal son, and then two more healings (the paralytic, the blind man). We begin with the cleansing of the leper.

Sunday of the Healing of the Leper
Romans 6:12-23; Mark 1:35-45

Christ our God! Physician of souls, of bodies,
with compassion turn Your gaze upon us;
heal us of the leprosy of wickedness,
strengthen us in the weakness of our flesh,
cleanse us from all stain in action or in thought.

By Your word, from Your grace, forgive us, heal us;
bring back in penitence the wanderers,
strengthen the weak and console the sorrowful;
feed the hungry, give aid to the needy,
Son of David, have mercy! Make our souls clean.

People of Christ! Your scarlet sins are washed white.
The law's burden Christ bore upon His cross.
Conform not to the world; be transformed by Christ.
Hate the evil and cling to what is good;
Do not let sin reign in your body's desires.

Let nothing in you be evil's instrument;
Offer yourself to God who gives you life.
Because of grace, sin is no more your master,
and you are raised to be children of God.
He has healed you; draw close to His majesty.

Cleanse your hands, O sinners, purify your hearts;
know that penitence may exalt your heart.
Those who are humble God will lift to heaven.
Repent, live in love, and do not be proud.
Son of David, have mercy! Make our souls clean.