Christ and the Alien

Pretty soon my students will be asking me questions about how aliens from other planets factor into the economy of salvation.  No, seriously.  It’s one of the most common questions I face throughout the spring semester as we talk about human nature, Original Sin, and Christ’s saving work.

I first encountered this line of worry in my college metaphysics class, taught at Franciscan University by the most fittingly eccentric metaphysics professor one could ever hope to have.  Naturally, it was the delightfully weird professor himself who brought it up; I’ve been fascinated ever since.  What follows is roughly how I walk my students through the issue when they ask.

First thing’s first: despite the wonders of imagining, despite the fact that I myself am a sci-fi and fantasy nerd who hopes that all such enchanting things are real, despite the fact that pop science remains committed to it, it really must be said that there might not be any other rational creatures in the universe.  Maybe the universe really is just vast and beautiful so that we can marvel at it and never travel to see any of it.  I don’t really want that to be true but it’s worth considering.  More to our point here, maybe the universe is teeming with bizarro aliens but none of them are rational creatures.  The only way the alien question becomes theologically interesting is if there are Predators or Klingons or Goa’uld or whatever out there.

Listen, Catholics already believe in the existence of non-human rational creatures.  If you ask Aquinas, there’s like billions of species of them out there.  We call them angels.  There doesn’t seem to be any requirement that all rational creatures in the universe share biological descent.  Getting weirded out by Necromongers seems a little silly at that point. And yes, I’m going to keep flashing my nerd cred until someone is impressed. Continue reading Christ and the Alien


How Tall Are You?

I believe I’ve noticed for the first time a way in which modern English preserves a distinction between adjectives used attributively or predicatively.  What’s that you say?  Such terms never featured in your grammar education?  How appalling!

One of the basic things you have to learn about adjectives in ancient Greek is when the adjective is simply modifying a noun (attributive) and when it is serving as a predicate (predicative).  No big deal.  In Greek the adjectives have the same morphology but are placed differently relative to the noun and the definite article.

Generally English doesn’t have nearly the same synthetic features that ancient languages do, and so it’s always fun (well, my kind of fun) to see where English still conjugates verbs (ever so slightly) or declines nouns (pronouns, relative pronouns), and the like.

At the lunch counter my Hispanic friend asked why some Anglos say “four foot, five inches” and others say “four feet, five inches.”  After making a joke about one foot, two foot, three foot, four foot…, I decided to try to work out a rule.  Bonus: when I posed the question about the rule to some of my students, one of them quickly worked it out on his own.  So I must be right!

The rule: Units of measurement are “always” in the singular when used attributively; i.e., as an adjective simply modifying a noun.  Units of measurement are “always” in the plural when used predicatively; i.e., when serving as the predicate of a sentence or clause.

Example 1:

I bought a twenty-five foot length of rope at the store.

The rope is twenty-five feet long.

Example 2:

This twenty-pound baby is breaking my back.

My son weighs twenty pounds or more.

Example 3:

Please hand me the 100 cubic centimeter flask.

The flask holds 100 cubic centimeters of liquid.

And so on.  I’m pretty sure this rule applies to all units of measurement but is applied inconsistently when it comes to measuring the height of a person.  Lots of people tend to one usage or the other when it comes to measuring humans, and lots of people freely shift between the two usages.  But otherwise, I claim my rule is sound.

And sure, I probably could have looked this up in a textbook for teaching English to non-native speakers.  But what’s the fun in that?

A Budding Austen

My daughter has NAILED the horrible Lifetime movies my wife likes to watch.  At age 8, she’s already writing on their level.  True conversation while watching the latest Dean Cain offering:

Daughter: How is this a love story if they are already married?

Wife: They’re not married.

Me: Usually they don’t make love stories about people who are already married.  Although they could!

Wife: Yeah, that’s right!

Me: But you’re right, a love story is usually a boy meets a girl and they fall in love.

Daughter: No, a love story is when a girl meets a boy at work and they get embarrassed into each other and then there’s a problem.  The woman is an aunt and her niece helps her solve it and then there’s an oopsy-daisy [like he catches her when she falls or she bumps into him or whatever] and the boy and the girl go on a date and they are happy.

Chess and Practical Reason

I watch chess videos on the internet.  Yes, that makes me a super-nerd.  But it also gives me a great example for explaining STA’s account of practical reasoning!  See, it’s the medieval philosophy interest that saves me from being a real nerd…


When you watch certain chess instructors online, they are teaching a class at a chess center.  Sometimes they have just a few players in attendance, other times many.  The instructor will play through a game to teach a key theme or idea of chess.

Often in the course of these lectures the instructor will pause at a critical moment in the game and ask the students to answer basic chess questions.  How do you assess this position?  What are the advantages and disadvantages for each side?  Most importantly, what is your plan?

There’s a funny moment in a lot of these classes where the students will shout out things like, “d5!” or “Nf3!”  The GM instructor will laugh to himself a little and say, “No, I’m not talking about a move.  What do we want to do here?  What do we want to accomplish?”

While watching one of these videos where the students continued to give moves instead of plans, I realized we could map this perfectly to the account of practical reason given by Aquinas in ST I-II Q11-17.  These kids (some quite a bit older than mere kids) were thinking in terms of moves instead of plans or, to put it another way, means instead of ends.

Actually they were thinking in terms of means with no end, which is pure gibberish.  A means can only exist as the thing that moves me from where I am to the end I want to reach.  Sure, in a game of chess you could name every legal move on the board and eventually, accidentally, hit upon the “right” move.  But what is it that makes it the right move? Continue reading Chess and Practical Reason

Future of SAAS

What is the future of a school like St. Anselm’s?  We find ourselves in a difficult situation, as shifting cultural values put the squeeze on our student pool.  Can we last?

There will always be boys schools.  No problem.  Plenty of people believe in the benefits of single sex education.  If the last fifty years have not driven that out of our culture, I doubt anything can.

There will always be Catholic schools.  No problem.  We may be in hiding some day, there may not be a lot of us, but there will always be a reason for these to exist.  Frankly, if things got bad for Catholics in this country, we’d probably see more, not fewer.

There will always be a demand for classical liberal arts schools.  But do you see how our pool is winnowing?  Still, all this is ok.  We are fine so far.  It’s the next part that is the problem.

I am not sure how much space is left in the world for a classical liberal arts Catholic school for boys that aims to serve the top 10% of academic achievement and ability.  Two factors coincide: Continue reading Future of SAAS

Lost Scholarship

[Somehow wordpress swallowed this post back in February and never published it.]

I’ve started digging around in the scholarly lit on the authorship of the prayers of St. Anselm.  While JP Migne records 72 prayers (it’s his numbering that I have been using when I post translations), things apparently stand quite a bit leaner than that.  It’s “well known” that many are composed by another Benedictine abbot from the same era, John of Fecamp.  Still others seem to be the work of yet other hands.  My English translation prepared by Benedicta Ward only gives 19 prayers to St. Anselm, which she bases on the critical edition prepared by Dom Schmitt.

Sadly, her introduction does not go into any of the text criticism.  Why these nineteen?  What are the marks of authenticity?  Who wrote all those other prayers?  Are there degrees of uncertainty or have we successfully identified the authors of all the other prayers?

I write sadly because no one else has gone into that detail either—not in English, anyway.  Her introduction would have been an excellent place to centralize that information.  Southern’s magisterial biography doesn’t either.  So, irritated and wanting to know how the questions stood, I went to Schmitt.  No-brainer, right?

Schmitt’s five-volume work doesn’t give the reasoning either!  Instead, there is the apologetic note that the grandfather of this field of study, Dom Andrea Wilmart, had been the intended preparer of the critical edition of the prayers.  Wilmart having sadly died before he could complete the work, Schmitt finished his manuscript.  Neither volume one nor volume three give any of the reasoning behind the exclusions. Continue reading Lost Scholarship

A Benedictine Joke

How can you tell the difference between a Benedictine and a Dominican?  A Dominican thinks the Latin word conversatio means “conversation” [insert sarcastic guffaw].

In a Benedictine author like St. Anselm, if you see conversatio it should almost certainly be translated in light of the Benedictine promise of conversatio morum, or “daily conversion of one’s life.”  This is made a little trickier by the fact that St. Benedict’s use of the word would be something of an archaism by the time of St. Anselm, but we are going to trust his grounding in the Rule.

So when a Dominican author copies a Benedictine author’s use of conversatio, now how should we translate it?  The standard use of the word by the time of Aquinas is simply “conversation” as we would use the term.  See opening joke of this post: my English translation of St. Thomas’s prayer gives “discourse” where the saint has conversatio.  He’s only a Dominican, right?

But he is lifting directly from St. Anselm’s prayer, another way in which the Abbot of Bec exerted enormous influence over the scholastic era.  Here’s the side-by-side: Continue reading A Benedictine Joke

Vergil to Augustine: Inanitas

My friend Adam has hit upon a quite nice little idea in his translating of the Aeneid.  The general idea is that Vergil is a cynic who ends all his most epic scenes by throwing shade on them.  I’ll let Adam speak for himself on the details, but I was pleased to play a small auxiliary role in the hashing out of the idea.

Initially I resisted his take on the pictura inani, or empty picture, that Aeneas used to feed his soul.  Why not instead stay local and contrast Aeneas feeding his soul (animus) with a soulless (inane) picture?  But once we got talking, his cynical read started to grow really nicely.

While Adam ran off to do some real work (prep for a class), I played the role of research assistant gunning down every use of the adjective inanis in the Aeneid.  Again, God bless the internet.  And indeed, it is quite remarkable how often inanis shows up just in an amateur little word search, and what it ends up modifying (hope, rage, tears, etc.).

It was also fun because our discussion of Vergil’s agenda–pro Augustan or not?–sparked an idea about another field full of expert scholarship: the writings of St. Augustine. Continue reading Vergil to Augustine: Inanitas

Is Math Persuasive?

Continuing my flogging of the issue: is it the essence of a mathematical proof to be persuasive, such that someone who fails to persuade has failed to engage in “mathing?”

I ran across this fun little Numberphile video which raises in passing an interesting and important point.  Fermat came up with an idea (not his super-famous one) about some primes being the sum of two squares (like 17=16+1).  What the video goes on to mention is that many mathematicians after Fermat–the super-heavyweights like Euler and Gauss and Dedekind and Co.–all came up with proofs of this idea.

Each of those proofs is different.  Very different.  If the goal of mathematical proof were simply to persuade, the proofs would be valued for getting different “mathematical demographics” to agree to the truth of the conclusion.  Or perhaps, even more simply, one could insist that everyone should agree to the conclusion of the first, rational proof and then get on with life.

But this is not the role of mathematical proofs, any more than it is the role of the scientific method or logical argumentation.  The various proofs are valued because each of them illuminates different aspects of the problem as well as different areas of the wide world of mathematics. Continue reading Is Math Persuasive?


Why should I think artificial intelligence is on the near horizon when we can’t even make artificial animals?

Teaching is not like astronomy.  It’s like saddle-making.  You know, except with living beings instead of leather.

(Almost?) every child I’ve ever taught has or will turn out just fine.  Not all of them will do it at my school though.

Teaching grammar functionally is one of the most colossal mistakes American “grammarians” could have made.  It’s like teaching algebra before arithmetic.  Actually, now that I think of it, we have some pretty bad ideas about basic maths too.

Learning Latin would be a lot easier if my students knew English.

Justice is the state of affairs where I get my way vs. Justice is the habit by which I happily give others what is theirs.

Pokemon Go is going to be the downfall of human civilization.  Pure, unadulterated cupidity unchained.  At least we have the solar flares to save us some day.

One day I will have all the time in the world to develop notes into topics and write on them at length.