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

Physics of Deliberation

I ran into a new, weird idea filtering down to my students this year.  Whence came it?  God only knows, although it seems to be a distillate of scientism/materialism.  What is this monster?

In my Ethics class it manifests as a perversion of practical reasoning.  I had several students tell me this year that, after willing an end, the act of deliberation begins automatically.  One explicitly claimed that deliberation on means (counsel, in the Aquinas lingo) is an unconscious act.

My colleague saw a speculative variant in his Form VI Philosophy of Religion class.  Discussing inference, several students denied that it is possible to have a properly basic knowledge of anything–all is inference, all the way down.  After a bit of discussion, it became apparent to me that they were implicitly committed to saying that people who think they have basic knowledge are making an inference without being aware of it.

I typically mock the academy’s infatuation with talk of “intuitions” but in this case I’ll make an exception.  I can’t think of too many ideas that more violently oppose my intuition than the one my students are espousing above.  A rational deliberation being unconscious?  Rational operation that we are not aware of at all?  Ugh.

I can trace this back to another idea that I’ve been seeing for the last few years.  I think I may have ranted about it previously: the claim that emotions are what make us human. Continue reading Physics of Deliberation

Aquinas on Grace

What’s new in my Ethics class these days?  New insight (for me) on the structure of STA’s Prima Secundae.  Because of it, I did a much better job teaching the necessity of grace this time around.

When I teach STA’s ethics, I work the boys slowly through I-II Q6-19 (a few technical spots omitted for time and condescension to adolescent frailty).  When we get to the end of Question 19, all of Christian ethics is laid out before us waiting to be developed in detail.

It’s a critical moment, in the wonderful Greek sense of that word.  If we stop right here after Q19, I run the risk of teaching something very close to pure Pelagianism.  And yet, mirabile scriptu, if we stop right here after Q19 we actually have everything necessary to avoid Pelagius entirely. Continue reading Aquinas on Grace

Prime Movers

Brandon roused me from my mathematical slumber with a post on one of my hobby-horses, prime numbers.  Just enough impetus to put down a thought I was mulling over last week.

Primes are the delightful irreducibles of the number world.  As a kid I thought of them as weird exceptions to good, common-sense mathematics–the kind of things you memorized and played goofy games with.  But that has things almost backwards.

The Fundamental Theorem of Arithmetic says that any integer can be expressed as a unique prime factorization (this is what Brandon was posting about, so I shan’t repeat him).  Said in reverse, primes are the building blocks of the number world.  Everything traces back to them.  That got me thinking about primes as an example of first movers like one would use to explain the First Way or STA’s explanation of the act of the will.   Continue reading Prime Movers

Aquinas on Fornication

When St. Thomas works his way through the various sins of lust in ST II-II Q154, he gives a natural ethics reason to think that each is evil.  His reason for the evil of simple fornication has always struck me as odd.  Interesting and thought-provoking odd, not odd as a euphemism for wrong.

He’s obviously working from a theological tradition where the teaching about the evil of simple fornication could not be clearer: Jesus has some fairly terrifying things to say about sexual ethics and St. Paul puts fornication in every one of his lists of sins that bar entry to the kingdom of heaven.

Never one to leave a question at “Deus dixit”–the next word out of his mouth always being “Cur?” or maybe “Quomodo?”–Aquinas gives his natural ethics reason for the evil of simple fornication: Continue reading Aquinas on Fornication

Teaching Badly: 11th Grade Reading List

Post a reading list, get a spike in views and comments.  Message received!  Also I need an easy post or two to pad my schedule as the baby is nearly arrived.

For the juniors I teach ethics, which is the “flagship class” I was hired to teach.  I made my best teaching decision ever in the first year; after a few months of floundering eclecticism I broke out Josef Pieper’s Four Cardinal Virtues and had them read a bit from it.  In the process I had to explain some Aquinas to them and so began a love affair that burns brightly to this day.

The majority of my juniors loved Aquinas.  When the next academic year rolled around, I tossed out most of what I had done and plopped the Summa down in front of the new batch of juniors.  For the spring, they read the entirety of Pieper’s 4CV.  Over the next few years I tweaked some things, with the consistent feedback being “MOAR AQUINAS.” Continue reading Teaching Badly: 11th Grade Reading List