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

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Aquinas Doesn’t Care That Much About War

When the ethical topic of war comes up, as it does often enough and with intensity every so often, St. Thomas Aquinas is usually mentioned as a defender of a long-standing Catholic endorsement of the idea of “Just War.”  That’s not wrong exactly, but let’s subvert the claim for a bit.  I’m a teacher; being ambiguously provocative is basically my whole life. Continue reading Aquinas Doesn’t Care That Much About War

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

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

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

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

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

A Heresy on Charity?

Many years ago I had a terrific argument with one of my Ethics students in which he gave the most cogently argued objection I’ve ever fielded as a teacher.  We were going over St. Thomas’s definition of enjoyment in the Summa which is, boiled down to simple terms, “to adhere lovingly to a thing for its own sake.”

My student (does he even remember that he did this, I wonder?) argued that this was an impossibility, since we would know that this brings us happiness and therefore “for its own sake” would be lost in favor of “for the sake of something else (my happiness).”  I don’t think he was working off of any research or prior reading.  I think he’d argued his way directly into a famous self-interest objection against eudaimonism.

We went back and forth a little and I went the boring route of talking about intention and whatnot and that was the end of that.  But for some reason this moment came back to me powerfully this year as I worked my juniors through another section of our Ethics class: Pieper on Prudence.

So here’s my potentially crazy thought.  What if I bite the bullet on my former student’s objection and say, “You are 100% correct.  We can never love any end with the kind of perfect self-forgetfulness necessary to meet this definition.  Our wills just don’t work that way.  And that is why we require the supernatural virtue of charity.” Continue reading A Heresy on Charity?

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

A Book Review on Faith, Long Deferred

Well nigh 20 years ago I, a hapless college student, bought a dusty old book at the Sacred Heart Used Book Store in Pittsburgh: The Theological Virtues I: On Faith, by Fr. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, OP.  The day has come to write a review!

To appreciate the irony of this purchase, you must understand that I was at that very moment being trained in the Nouvelle Theologie both in my classes and in my various hobby-discussions with classmates.  I loved De Lubac and Company, and Lagrange was the probably-villainous Grand Inquisitor who had waged war against these holy theologians who were clearly doing no more than enlivening a dusty theological tradition with rich, ancient sources of reasoning.

Even more amusing, I was in the company of a friend (now with the CFRs in New York) who had guided me into the world of Nouvelle Theologie and knew far more about the history of the controversy than I did at the time.  He commented, if I recall, that Lagrange’s book on charity was supposed to be very good, so perhaps (begrudgingly) this book on faith would be as well.  To perfect the irony, I’m pretty sure I bought Further Paradoxes by De Lubac at the same time and dropped them in the same bag. Continue reading A Book Review on Faith, Long Deferred