Theological Virtues

Brandon has a thoughtful piece on the virtue of hope which I enjoyed very much and yet with which I find myself in several points of disagreement.  Much as I typically agree with Brandon, that I might disagree on a few points here is no surprise: the nature of the theological virtues and their relation to the other virtues is notoriously problematic.  Perhaps putting down my own thoughts on the matter can mark a return to active blogging!

Caution: what follows is my idiosyncratic attempt to re-invent the wheel.  It is not really a proper response to Brandon either, more of a set of counter-thoughts inspired by him (much like his original post with respect to the article, I think).  Caveat lector. Continue reading Theological Virtues

Rhomphaia in the New Testament

Remember when I was playing with biblical weaponry and speculated on a muddy, probably-impossible-to-prove distinction between rhomphaia and machaira as divine and human swords, respectively?  You have suggestive uses like the cherubim wielding a rhomphaia to keep people out of the garden; you have an explicit contrast in Ezekiel’s doom against Egypt between the machaira Pharaoh wields and the rhomphaia God will give to Babylon; but mostly you have an unclear mixture of the two throughout the Old Testament.  It feels to me like there’s an idea lurking behind it all but much too obscure and inconsistent to do much with it.

Well, enter the New Testament.

New Testament authors refer to swords 36 times and there is a very strong pattern indeed.  Here’s a quick list, with commentary to follow. Continue reading Rhomphaia in the New Testament

Biblical Weaponry

[This is an old draft I want to push out, warts and all, so that I can riff off of it with another post coming up.  It’s verrry imperfect but hopefully amusing.  This investigation is what inspired me to write my post on the Septuagint and the Masoretic text two years ago.]

You know who likes ancient weapons?  This guy.

Trying to get a handle on the use of framea for spear in the Vulgate sent me down a rabbit hole of Biblical word studies for naming all the different tools you can use to kill people.  There’s quite a tangled web of words and strange choices by biblical authors.

I’m no closer to being an archaeo-armorer, but I can share the fruit of my paltry labors.  Think of it as another “how to say ‘tree‘” post, but with gore this time. Continue reading Biblical Weaponry

Aquinas Against the Death Penalty

The most crushing objection I’ve ever seen against the use of the death penalty is given by St. Thomas Aquinas as the first objection in ST II-II Q64 a2.  Let’s marvel at the objection for a bit and then look at how Aquinas responds.

In the Summa Theologiae, very often the first objection of an article is the conclusion of a previous article.  You might think of these as consistency objections, or an introduction to further refining a point.  “But wait a minute, you just said…” in the most annoying student voice you can muster.

On the other hand there are many objections which are just very intuitively powerful or insightful.  Reading the really great objections, being rocked on your heels, finally seeing the problem, really seeing it for the first time–these are perhaps the greatest the pleasures of reading St. Thomas.

The first objection against the use of death as a penalty is one of these, but with a bit of a twist: it’s a quotation from Sacred Scripture.  Why is that weird?  Well, very often I find his Scriptural objections fairly week or formulaic, or at least a bit of an interpretive strain to see how it really works as an objection.  There are exceptions of course, but I usually steer my students away from these so they can focus more on the main argument.

Well this is definitely one of the exceptions.  I’m not sure Aquinas ever gives a Scriptural citation with as much power as this one.  For those who know the reference, you probably don’t even need to see the text or have it explained to realize the problem for someone inclined to argue in support of the death penalty.  It is the famous parable of the wheat and the tares from the thirteenth chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.

The text, si placeat: Continue reading Aquinas Against the Death Penalty

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