Saturday, 26 December 2015

Aquinas’ rational analysis of mercy

1665 words, 8 min read

During this Year of Mercy, I would like to get a deeper and richer understanding of what mercy means and how it has been understood differently by a verity of thinkers. Looking back at the Synod on the Family, an obvious place to start is with St. Thomas Aquinas, who has been referred to there on several occasions as a benchmark and on whom Pope Francis too has relied when speaking about this subject. Among St. Thomas's works too there is a clear front-runner for getting a sense of how he understood mercy, which is his monumental Summa Theologiæ.

In the Introduction to the first part of the Summa, which runs to a total of 2.8 million words (!), St. Thomas presents his aims as follows:

“We purpose in this book to treat of whatever belongs to the Christian Religion, in such a way as may tend to the instruction of beginners. [... W]e shall try, by God's help, to set forth whatever is included in this Sacred Science as briefly and clearly as the matter itself may allow.”
While sophisticated arguments for the Summa's brevity could be constructed, it is clearly not a work you'd find in the “for dummies” section, and clarity too could be contested with the contemporary reader in mind. What still makes the Summa highly attractive, to my mind, is its deeply rational approach, whose frame of reference may be dated but whose principles and method are decidedly current.

Just by way of a sample, before we proceed to mercy, here is what St. Thomas has to say about discussing faith with those who don't have it:
“If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections—if he has any—against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations, but are difficulties that can be answered.” [I, Q. 1, Art. 8, co.]
Taking the text at first sight, there are definitely things to get hung up about today - referring to one’s partner in dialogue as an opponent, making claims about infallibility - but, with even just a sprinkling of the Principle of Charity, there is also a lot here that is accessible: understanding the limits of how far a person of faith can take one who is without it by reason alone, positioning reason as an unlimited ally of faith and posing a challenge to those who have faith, including the author of the above paragraph himself, to be prepared to present their faith on the level playing field of reason and to do so with confidence. It is not hard to see how the above is an invitation to humble, yet confident, dialogue and how such an attitude is echoed also in one of Benedict XVI’s most impactful exhortations made only three years ago almost to this day: “[T]he Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.”

Turning to mercy now, and looking at the vast expanse of the Summa, we find that St. Thomas speaks about it 471 times there. First, he starts of by thinking about whether it is even possible for God to be merciful and he comes to the initial conclusion that the answer here, strictly speaking, has to be a resounding “no” [when air first read this, I liked his confidence in going wherever the inescapable train of logic leads him :)]:
“[A] person is said to be merciful [misericors], as being, so to speak, sorrowful at heart [miserum cor]; being affected with sorrow at the misery of another as though it were his own. Hence it follows that he endeavors to dispel the misery of this other, as if it were his; and this is the effect of mercy. To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God.” [I, Q. 21, Art. 3, co.]
To understand why St. Thomas dismisses the possibility of sorrow impelling God to act, let's go back to an earlier part of the Summa, where he presents his argument for God's immutability:
“God is altogether immutable [... because] there is some first being, whom we call God; and that this first being must be pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality, for the reason that, absolutely, potentiality is posterior to act. Now everything which is in any way changed, is in some way in potentiality. Hence it is evident that it is impossible for God to be in any way changeable.” [I, Q. 9, Art. 1, co.]
Whoa! What's with the potentiality versus act business? Let's backtrack a bit further to get to the bottom of this, key point:
“For although in any single thing that passes from potentiality to actuality, the potentiality is prior in time to the actuality; nevertheless, absolutely speaking, actuality is prior to potentiality; for whatever is in potentiality can be reduced into actuality only by some being in actuality. Now it has been already proved that God is the First Being. It is therefore impossible that in God there should be any potentiality.” [I, Q. 3, Art. 1, co.]
To get to the starting point then, we need to see how St. Thomas arrives at God being the First Being:
“But nothing can be reduced from potentiality to actuality, except by something in a state of actuality. Thus that which is actually hot, as fire, makes wood, which is potentially hot, to be actually hot, and thereby moves and changes it. Now it is not possible that the same thing should be at once in actuality and potentiality in the same respect, but only in different respects. For what is actually hot cannot simultaneously be potentially hot; but it is simultaneously potentially cold. It is therefore impossible that in the same respect and in the same way a thing should be both mover and moved, i.e. that it should move itself. Therefore, whatever is in motion must be put in motion by another. If that by which it is put in motion be itself put in motion, then this also must needs be put in motion by another, and that by another again. But this cannot go on to infinity, because then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover; seeing that subsequent movers move only inasmuch as they are put in motion by the first mover; as the staff moves only because it is put in motion by the hand. Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.” [I, Q. 2, Art. 3, co.]
Let's bring this all together and attempt an ultra-synthetic reconstruction of St. Thomas' argument from first principles: Because potentiality and actuality are mutually exclusive concepts, there is a need for a causal chain, which in turn necessitates a starting point. This starting point is God - a God who by being the first act cannot contain potentiality but only actuality. This also precludes him from sorrow and the desire to alleviate it, and therefore from mercy.

Rather than picking holes into the above (of which I see plenty, including a misunderstanding of infinity [see 19th century mathematicians such as Georg Kantor] and of causality [see David Hume]), I'd like to underline the rational rigor of St. Thomas’ method where he proceeds from the best available understanding of basic concepts and follows their consequences through with aplomb.

But why does he come back to mercy 471 times if he dismisses its applicability to God in the first pages of the Summa? Actually, he does not dismiss it at all and only points out that, when defined in human terms, mercy does not fit God 1:1. God's mercy - and therefore the mercy that we are ultimately called to live - is something other:
“To sorrow, therefore, over the misery of others belongs not to God; but it does most properly belong to Him to dispel that misery, whatever be the defect we call by that name. Now defects are not removed, except by the perfection of some kind of goodness; and the primary source of goodness is God, as shown above (Q. 6, A. 4). It must, however, be considered that to bestow perfections appertains not only to the divine goodness, but also to His justice, liberality, and mercy; yet under different aspects. The communicating of perfections, absolutely considered, appertains to goodness, as shown above (Q. 6, AA. 1, 4); in so far as perfections are given to things in proportion, the bestowal of them belongs to justice, as has been already said (A. 1); in so far as God does not bestow them for His own use, but only on account of His goodness, it belongs to liberality; in so far as perfections given to things by God expel defects, it belongs to mercy.” [I, Q. 21, Art. 3, co.]
Human mercy hinges on identifying the other’s suffering with my own and alleviating it as my own. It is applied only to those others in whom I see myself. In some sense human mercy therefore passes through selfishness - I help you, but I do it by alleviating the root cause of my own suffering, which is your suffering. God’s mercy instead is devoid of selfish motives and is the result of goodness and justice given freely. I don't believe St. Thomas is speaking against human mercy here, but that he is pointing to what perfect justice looks like, as arrived at from rational first principles, and that this mercy is effectively a purified form of our own, where the good is done for its own sake and where all are therefore destinataries of mercy.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Comte-Sponville: non-dogmatic, faithful, atheist mysticism


1189 words, 6 min read

Avvenire, the Italian daily affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, has published a very interesting piece yesterday by the French atheist philosopher André Comte-Sponville, entitled “The atheist believes … But does not know whether God exists.” As I started reading it, I was immediately reminded of an enriching exchange with some atheist friends of mine - especially SC - after I wrote a very negative review of Dawkins’ The God Delusion some three years’ ago. SC, at the time, presented a new type of atheism to me, which acknowledges its belief in there being no God, as opposed to the New Atheists’ argument for that position following directly from rationality. Reading Comte-Sponville’s words made me immediately recognize that same position, and I would like to share an English translation of it with you here:
““Religion” and “spirituality” are not synonyms, nor should they be put on the same level. These two concepts function instead like species and genus: religions are a certain species, or several species, of the genus spirituality, but from among the many possible, some of which do very well without any personal God, indeed without any form of transcendence. [... S]pirituality is [simply] the life of the spirit.

Etymology speaks clearly: the two words, “spirit” and “spirituality”, derive from the Latin spiritus, which refers first of all to vital breath and, in second place, to inspiration, genius, wit, esprit. Now, atheists, as far as I know them, have no less spirit than others. Why should they have less spirituality? Why should they care less about spiritual life? As for me, I have always been interested in it. That’s how it was at the time of my youth, when I was a practicing Christian; but since I stopped believing in God, spirituality interests me even more, which might seem paradoxical and leads us to the heart of our subject. Those who have a religion, also have the spirituality that characterizes it. But how about those who do not belong to a religion? They seems devoid of spiritual resources, especially in the West. Even more reason to think about it. I summarize my position in one sentence: I am a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist. Why atheist? This is the simplest question: I do not believe in any God. Let’s not dwell on the reasons for my not believing; doing so would take me far away from the theme of my argument here, which is not metaphysics, but spirituality. Why a non-dogmatic atheist?

Because I obviously recognize that my atheism is not knowledge. How could it be? No one knows, in the true and strong sense of the verb “to know” whether God exists or not. It depends very much on the question that is addressed to me. If I am asked: “Do you believe in God?”, The answer is very simple: “No, I do not believe.” But if someone asks me, “Does God exist?”, the answer is necessarily more complicated, because, for intellectual honesty, I must begin by saying that I know nothing about it. Nobody knows. I say in my book, if anyone says, “I know for certain that God does not exist,” you are not dealing with an atheist, but a fool. The truth is that I do not know. Likewise, if you meet someone who tells you: “I know that God exists,” he is a fool who has faith, and who, foolishly, confuses faith with knowledge. But in the confusion between faith and knowledge I see a double error: a theological error, because in any respectable theology (at least in Christian theology) faith is a grace, while knowledge can not be; and a philosophical error, because it confuses two different concepts, that of belief and that of knowing. In short, I do not know if God exists or not; I believe that he does not.

A non-dogmatic atheism is an atheism that admits its own status as a belief, in this specific case a negative beliefs. Being non-dogmatic atheists is to believe (rather than to know) that God does not exist. But why a non-dogmatic and faithful atheist? A faithful atheist because, as an atheist, I remain bound with every fiber of my being to a number of values - moral, cultural, spiritual - many of which were born in the great religions and, in the case of Europe, the Judeo-Christian one (unless one wants to deny their history). […] Being an atheist doesn’t mean that I have to turn my back on 2000 years of Christian civilization or 3000 years of Judeo-Christian civilization.

Because I no longer believe in God doesn’t mean that I refuse to recognize the greatness, at least human, of the Gospel message. A spirituality without God is a spirituality of loyalty rather than of faith and of love in action rather than of hope. I could stop here, but I would be left with a feeling of not having touched the essentials. I said earlier that spirituality is the life of the spirit. Fine. But if the word is taken in such a broad sense, every human phenomenon ends up falling under the umbrella of spirituality: morality and ethics, of course, but also science and myths, the arts and politics, feelings or dreams. All this belongs to the spiritual life in a broad sense (in its cognitive, mental or emotional dimensions), to the life that, for clarity, you could define as psychological or mental (from the Greek psyche and the Latin mens, two words that can also be translated by the word “spirit”, but in semantic terms very different from those derived from the Latin spiritus). Now, it is not at all these areas that you think of when it comes to spiritual life.

It is better to take the word “spirituality” in a narrower sense (although, paradoxically, a more open one), making it a sort of subset of our mental or psychological life. The definition I propose is the following: spirituality is the life of the spirit, but especially in its relationship with the infinite, eternal, the absolute. This meaning seems to me to conform to its use and tradition. Our spiritual life is our finite relationship with the infinite, our temporal relationship with eternity, our relative relationship with the absolute. Thus defined, spirituality, at its must extreme, culminates in what is usually called mysticism.”
In an earlier interview, Comte-Sponville expands on what he means by “the absolute” as follows:
“This absolute, for them, isn’t a person, but the being or the becoming, the whole or nature, let’s say the immanent totality which contains them and surpasses them. They can ponder it, think about it, it’s what we call metaphysical, but also try it out, live it, and it’s this we call spirituality. We are open in the grand Open, as Rilke says. This opening, it’s the same spirit. Should I, because I am atheist, renounce all experience of eternity, the infinite, and the absolute? Certainly not. Many philosophers – for example Epicurus and Spinoza – have challenged the existence of a transcendental spirit, without renouncing the enjoyment of what Epicurus called ‘immortal rights’. It’s this I call a spirituality of immanence.”

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Adversus Scruton

Tracey emin

2191 words, 11 min read

Is the body subject to the mind, or the mind something that the body does? Is it my body that holds me - my true, immaterial self - back, or is it my parasitic mind that inhibits the freedom of my body, my true, physical self? Ought I to favor the purity of ideas over messy matter, or the concreteness of being over the ephemeral nature of the mind?

Such questions are the polar opposites of a concept of the human person as a single being that is at home both in the material world and in a world that - at least apparently - is beyond matter: a world of thought, memory, relationships and values.

In the context of Christianity, the above is an opposition between the dualist heresy that denigrates matter and the body and attributes goodness only to the soul, and the concept of differentiated unity pervading the New Testament and made explicit in St. Paul speaking of the “spiritual body” [soma pneumatikón] (1 Corinthians 15:44). In Karl Barth’s words, “man is an embodied soul, a besouled body” and the Catechism of the Catholic Church presents an ultimately Trinitarian anthropology: “[t]he unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the “form” of the body. [... S]pirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature.” (§365).

With that brief preamble in mind, let us turn to a program by the philosopher Roger Scruton where he speaks about beauty, a subject very close to my heart (in the Homerian sense). Instead of being enlightening or thought provoking, Scruton’s position lead me to disappointment and frustration and, eventually (after some hesitation, given the strength of my initial aversion) to the writing of this piece.

There is a lot to be “against” in this hour-long program, but I will focus on only three of its, liberally intermingled, aspects here: superficiality, internal inconsistency and dualism.

Before arguing in favor of his positions’ flaws, I would first like to underline the good that I have seen in Scruton’s thought. For a start, I wholeheartedly share his insistence on the importance of beauty:

“I want to persuade you that beauty matters; that it is not just a subjective thing, but a universal need of human beings. If we ignore this need we find ourselves in a spiritual desert. I want to show you the path out of that desert. It is a path that leads to home.”
Scruton also presents beauty in art as impelling its recipient towards the good - “The beautiful work of art brings consolation in sorrow and affirmation in joy.” - and as a gateway to profound truths: “The most ordinary event can be made into something beautiful by a painter who can see into the heart of things.” And Scruton also aligns himself with Immanuel Kant’s emphasis of selflessness in art:
“Kant argued that the experience of beauty comes when we put our interests to one side; when we look on things not to use them for our own purposes or to explain how they work or to satisfy some need or appetite, but simply to absorb them and to endorse what they are.”
Sadly that is all I can echo from Scruton’s 6300 word defense of beauty, since the rest strikes me as little more than an attempt to justify what is to his taste and belittle what isn’t, instead of being an attempted enquiry into beauty.

The first issue I find with Scruton’s thought is that there is a tremendous superficiality and lack of charity in his approach to post-nineteenth-century art. This is coupled with a blanket attribution of goodness to all that came before it, paired with a universal belittling of all that came since. Virtually at the start of the program, Scruton declares:
“[I]n the 20th century beauty stopped being important. Art increasingly aimed to disturb and to break moral taboos. It was not beauty but originality however achieved and at whatever moral cost that won the prizes. Not only has art made a cult of ugliness. Architecture too has become soul-less and sterile. […] One word is written large on all these ugly things and that word is “Me.” My profits, my desires, my pleasures. […] Our world has turned its back on beauty and because of that we find ourselves surrounded by ugliness and alienation.”
To my mind this is little more than an expression of Scruton’s esthetic response to contemporary art rather than the result of an analysis either of its motives (in which he assumes beauty not to feature) or of its beauty (which, incidentally, Scruton never defines or analyses beyond declaring its presence or absence). If Scruton had taken the trouble to listen to even just the responses of those who were interviewed in his own program (!), he could have seen that beauty is very much still a driving force in contemporary art. Admittedly not a beauty that he might recognize or appreciate, but beauty nonetheless and not the universally base consumerist pursuit of selfish pleasures that he attributes it.

The clearest example in the program is the following passage from Tracey Emin being interviewed by David Frost about her 1998 piece “My Bed”:
Frost: “[T]he Tate says that it is [beautiful]. But what do you want the viewer, the visitor to the gallery to say? Do you want…. You don’t want them to say, ‘I think that’s beautiful.’”
Emin: “No, no one’s actually said that, only me.”
Frost: “You think it’s beautiful?”
Emin: “Yeah…. I do, otherwise I wouldn’t have showed it.”
Far from beauty being absent from artistic expression, Emin here not only points to it as the motive of her work (“otherwise I wouldn’t have showed [sic] it”) but, to my mind, also expresses a sadness about its absence from the minds of those who view her work.

Another piece that Scruton presents as an example for the absence of beauty is Marcel Duchamp’s 1917 “Fountain” which, he argues “was [a] satirical [gesture], designed to mock the world of art and the snobberies that go with it.” In other words, Duchamp’s work is about mockery and is entirely disconnected from beauty. Interestingly, the Tate describes this work in different terms - as “testing the commitment of the new American Society to freedom of expression and its tolerance of new conceptions of art.” And, importantly, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, writing in a letter from 1917 describes his photograph of Duchamp’s work as “really quite a wonder – Everyone who has seen it thinks it beautiful – And it’s true – it is. It has an oriental look about it – a cross between a Buddha and a Veiled Woman.” Again, news of the death of beauty is greatly exaggerated ...

Finally, let’s look at the words of a third of the enemies of beauty as presented by Scruton - the conceptual artist and painter Michael Craig-Martin. During his interview with Scruton, he responds to a question about what the point was of the changes that Duchamp wanted to usher in, by saying:
“I also think it is important to say that the notion of beauty has been extended to include things that would not have been thought of – that’s part of the artist’s function, to make one see something as beautiful that no one thought was beautiful until now.”
The difficulty here is not that Scruton does not like what Emin, Duchamp and Craig-Martin have done - he is free to experience reality as he pleases - but that he equates the lack of his perception of beauty in their work with their own disinterest in beauty and that he attributes motives to them that are base and among which beauty does not figure.

A second flawed strand in Scruton’s arguments is a total lack of self-consistency. E.g., he is quite content to launch into a tirade against today’s “people”:
“Maybe people have lost their faith in beauty because they have lost their belief in ideals. All there is, they are tempted to think, is the world of appetite. There are no values other than utilitarian ones. Something has a value if it has a use and what’s the use of beauty? […] Our consumer society puts usefulness first and beauty is no better than a side-effect.”
And, almost in the same breath put the following question to Craig-Martin, as a challenge to contemporary art: “What is the use of this art? What does it help people to do?” In other words: “Consumer society puts utility before beauty, and what’s the use of contemporary art anyway?!”

Scruton also simultaneously does two things: he bemoans a “cult of ugliness” at the beginning of the program and, half an hour later, states that art has always done that:
“Of course, this habit of dwelling on the distressing side of human life isn’t new. From the beginning of our civilisation it has been one of the tasks of art to take what is most painful in the human condition and to redeem it in a work of beauty. Art has the ability to redeem life, by finding beauty even in the worst aspect of things. Mantegna’s crucifixion displaying the cruellest and most ugly of deaths achieves a kind of majesty and serenity”
The third flaw I see though is the one that presents the greatest gulf between the beauty that Scruton speaks about and the one that I know: his putting in dualist opposition of the ideal and the particular, of desire and adoration:
“But if human beauty arouses desire how can it have anything to do with the divine? Desire is for the individual, living in this world. It is an urgent passion. Sexual desire presents us with a choice: adoration or appetite? Love or lust? Lust is about taking, but love is about giving.

Lust brings ugliness – the ugliness of human relations in which one person treats another as a disposable instrument. To reach the source of beauty we must overcome lust.

This longing without lust is what we mean today by Platonic love. When we find beauty in a youthful person it is because we glimpse the light of eternity shining in those features from a heavenly source beyond this world. The beautiful human form is an invitation to unite with it spiritually not physically. Our feeling for beauty therefore is a religious and not a sensual emotion.”
Beyond the questionable leaps from desire to sexual desire to lust, Scruton’s thought here too is self-inconsistent: lust leads to ugliness which makes one treat another as an instrument; beauty in youth points to “light of eternity”. To my mind Scruton’s proposal for how to engage with beauty is as objectifying as the sexually-lustful one he decries. In both the case of a source of beauty being turned into an object of one’s pleasure and the case of it being treated as a means for seeking an eternal ideal, that source of beauty is not engaged with for its own sake but is used as a device for satisfying its “consumer”’s ends. And while one can argue about the relative merits of those two ends, their seeking degrades beauty into a mere means.

Scruton’s thought here seems like a polar opposite of the caricature of contemporary art that he battles against, which, however, makes it a caricature too, pitting the beauty of the material and sensory against the beauty of the spiritual and ideal, instead of being open to the union and mutual enrichment of both.

Just to give an example of what an approach of differentiated unity - instead of dualism - looks like when applied to desire, let us consider the way Fr. James Martin, SJ speaks about it:
“[S]adly, desire has a disreputable reputation in many religious circles. When many hear the term, they think of two things: sexual desire or material wants, both of which are often condemned by some religious leaders. The first is one of the greatest gifts from God to humanity; without it the human race would cease to exist! The second is part of our natural desire for a healthy life -- desire for food, shelter and clothing. [...]

The deep longings of our hearts are our holy desires. Not only desires for physical healing, as Bartimaeus asked for (and as many ask for today) but also the desires for change, for growth, for a fuller life. And our deepest desires, those desires that lead us to become who we are, are God’s desires for us. They are ways that God speaks to you directly, one way that the Creator deals with the creation. They are also the way that God fulfills God’s own dreams for the world, by calling people to certain tasks.”
Such a recognition of good in desire leads to greater appreciation of the entirety of the universe we inhabit rather than to an a priori discarding of either the totality of the material/sensual or spiritual/ideal. In fact it leads to a vision of art like that of Pope Francis who said that “art must discard nothing and no one.”