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…

Ahem.

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

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Orlando Furioso: Regnative Prudence

The most outlandish and wonderful tale in Orlando Furioso, in my opinion, is Gryphon At The Gates.  It also has an important lesson on the virtues of the king.

First, a recap of dark hilarity:

The naive Gryphon travels to Damascus in the company of his “true love” Origilla and her “brother” Martano.  The reality of course is that Origilla is a promiscuous harpy and Martano is her feckless lover; when Gryphon crosses paths with them quite by accident and wonders why his “sick” love is not resting in Constantinople, the deplorable duo concoct an outlandish fabrication that the naive super-knight happily accepts.

At Damascus Martano foolishly decides to participate in King Norandino’s tournament of thanksgiving.  After he humiliates himself and, by extension, his companions, Gryphon takes the field to make amends.  He obliterates Norandino’s champions one and all, nearly killing some in the process in his zeal to restore the honor lost by Martano.  All are in awe of this mighty white knight, but Gryphon returns to his lodging and promptly falls asleep.

While he slumbers, Martano steals his armor and presents himself, Origilla at his side, at the victory banquet as the champion of the event.  When Gryphon arrives to set the record straight, the nobles of Damascus, thinking him the cowardly Martano, jeer at him. Norandino orders him arrested, beaten, and thrown in prison for daring to steal the honors of a great knight. Continue reading Orlando Furioso: Regnative Prudence

And The Rock Was Christ

Brethren, let not your instruments of music rest in your work: sing one to another songs of Sion. Readily have ye heard; the more readily do what you have heard, if you wish not to be willows of Babylon fed by its streams, and bringing no fruit. But sigh for the everlasting Jerusalem: whither your hope goes before, let your life follow; there we shall be with Christ. Christ now is our Head; now He rules us from above; in that city He will fold us to Himself; we shall be equal to the Angels of God. We should not dare to imagine this of ourselves, did not the Truth promise it. This then desire, brethren, this day and night think on. Howsoever the world shine happily on you, presume not, parley not willingly with your lusts. Is it a grown-up enemy? Let it be slain upon the Rock. Is it a little enemy? Let it be dashed against the Rock. Slay the grown-up ones on the Rock, and dash the little ones against the Rock. Let the Rock conquer. Be built upon the Rock, if you desire not to be swept away either by the stream, or the winds, or the rain. If you wish to be armed against temptations in this world, let longing for the everlasting Jerusalem grow and be strengthened in your hearts. Your captivity will pass away, your happiness will come; the last enemy shall be destroyed, and we shall triumph with our King, without death.

–St. Augustine, Ennarrationes in Psalmos, 136

Conversational Pelagianism

Last year I had the good fortune to accidentally end up teaching Pelagianism to my Third Formers.  Like many accidents in teaching, it worked out very well and I think I’ll repeat the lesson this year.

As the academic year came to a close I realized I had a timing problem.  With only 3 or 4 class days left, I did not have time to teach my usual close-out lesson on the basic moral content of the Gospel.  Typically I take 5 or 6 class days to go through the Sermon on the Mount and the basic Pauline exhortations so that my students will have some idea what Catholicism is about outside of their primary source of information, the TV and the internet.

Since I was short on time, I let my students choose their final lesson.  I could teach a shortened version of my Sermon on the Mount material, or I could teach any topic they wanted me to tackle.  Any at all!  I have a lot of theological hobbies and many had come up over the course of the year without us having a chance to do more than touch upon them.  New astronomy?  Church history myth-busting?  Thorny scriptural interpretations?  Philosophy of science, the nature of numbers?

Most students were indifferent but the active voters lobbied for “cool-sounding heresies.”  I’d already covered the most famous ones–you can’t teach Trinity without talking about Arius, for example–and in fact I’d already covered Pelagianism indirectly.  It’s quite astonishing just how much of the basic Catholic catechism is influenced by a repudiation of Pelagianism and the later battles over the same topic (*cough* Protestantism *cough*).  But when I suggested Pelagianism they jumped, with one of them slyly asking me if I’d ever heard the tragedy of Darth Pelagius the Wise (that’s a Star Wars joke, for my non-nerd audience).  Topic settled!

So how do you teach Pelagianism to 9th-graders?  I’m glad you asked! Continue reading Conversational Pelagianism

Septuagint

A few months back I went down a rabbit hole studying all the different ways to talk about swords and spears in the Old Testament (in Hebrew, in Latin, and in Greek).  It was a fun research project but it touched upon a much more fundamental problem when talking about the Old Testament.  Rather than write a long introduction to an already long survey, I let the draft languish.

This is that long introduction.

(Warning: much of what follows is a gross simplification of a complicated scholarly field.  I know no shame and I’m not consulting sources from my old training.) Continue reading Septuagint

Old Testament Adventures: Jotham’s Parable

Toward the end of Gideon’s tenure as Judge, the Israelites offer him a pretty sweet deal: be our king.  Gideon, knowing that God is the king of Israel, declines and that is the end of that.

Just kidding!  This is the Bible (AKA Reality), where everything humans do turns to rot and final victories have to wait for, you know, the end.  After Gideon dies, his bastard son Abimelech murders all his legitimate brothers in an attempt to claim the throne his father declined.

Well, almost all.  Abimelech misses out on one fleet-footed son, Jotham, who runs away from the train wreck he can see coming so clearly.  But before he heads for the hills, he delivers a pretty sweet curse-parable to the people of Shechem who are crazy enough to entertain making this deal with Abimelech.

The parable of the trees serves up a healthy dose of insight wrapped in a delightful cover of mockery and condescension: Continue reading Old Testament Adventures: Jotham’s Parable

Form III Final: Anselmian Dialogue

One of my bright Form III (9th grade) students decided to imitate his older brother and compose his final exam essay question as a dialogue in imitation of St. Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo.  He’s nailed the tone of St. Anselm and thrown back some of Boso’s most sycophantic replies.

Somewhat like my previous Final post from my Quaestio-spinning junior, this answer format puts more focus on his argument and cuts out a lot of flim-flam.  His order of presentation is also quite nice–a good streamlining of St. Anselm’s work.  A fine project: Continue reading Form III Final: Anselmian Dialogue

Form V Final: Strength of the Quaestio

Many years ago, one of my juniors answered one of his his mid-term exam essays in gorgeous, Ciceronian Latin.  It was a pretty fine essay; with a bonus for the Latin I gave him 9.5/10.  It will come as no surprise that he went on to study Classics at the University of Virginia.

I have never seen such a performance since then, but I encourage my students every year to try to dominate the essays with more than mere knowledge.  Wisdom!  Synthesis!  Be remarkable!  This year, for the first time, one of them tried his hand at composing all his essays, both mid-term and final, in the quaestio format of the Scholastics.

Regrettably, this more recent student is not quite as good as my classics genius from bygone years.  The content in each respondeo is just too thin, barely stating the conclusion and devoid of argument or exploration.  Many claims are dubious or flat-out wrong.  In comparison to the excitement of seeing the format, the delivery is a letdown.

However–and this is a big however!–this all turns out to be for the best.  The failed content delivery makes all the more evident the strengths of the quaestio format, which in turn allows me to see the things my student does get right.

The objections are extremely well-chosen and show a nearly perfect framing for the question even when he makes mistakes in them.  They could be worded better to imitate St. Thomas, and they could certainly be polished up for greater argumentative effect, but for a student effort they are really good.  By laying them out in system, he made it easy for me to see that he gets the question–something many of my students with higher test scores fail to do.

The method makes all the more evident that his argument–what I call the kung-fu stage of each article–is weak.  The faults are glaringly obvious when stripped of all the rhetorical flim-flam that students use in hopeless attempts to veil their ignorance.  It’s my job to see through the flim-flam and not be cozened by it; in the quaestio method we have an honesty and humility that makes my job far easier.

It’s not just easier to grade.  It’s easier to correct.  I could sit down with a student and conference over such a project to dramatic effect.  Redirection is easy when the work is laid out so nicely.  Indeed, I could run a suitable Oxford tutorial-style class around this kind of project (assuming I had the luxury of time and assuming all my students put forth a commitment equal to this one).

So here is the glorious failure in all its hideous strength (numerous spelling errors of a dyslexic boy corrected).  Enjoy: Continue reading Form V Final: Strength of the Quaestio

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

Form I Final: A Good King Is Hard To Find

On the first day of school I give my Form I (7th grade) students a 1-inch binder full of the course materials they will need for the first month or so.  One of the first pages of that first packet, right behind the syllabus and class procedures, is the final exam essay question they will have to answer at the end of the year:

What makes a good king of Israel?

Everything we read throughout the year, from Judges 1:1 to II Kings 25:30, plus whatever we can squeeze out of Isaiah, answers this question.  This is one of the ultimate set-up questions for reading the New Testament and really understanding what is going on throughout all four gospels (especially St. Luke’s).

So what’s the answer? Continue reading Form I Final: A Good King Is Hard To Find