Monday, January 31, 2005

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Monday

Well, the job is officially over. You know what that means: plenty of sleep tonight! Yes, long-term thinking was never my strong suit....

Anyways, there's a blog at Disputations about free will...oh, wait, that's a blog about the smallest pistol in the world. Sorry, but I had to link to it anyway - who can pass up this gem, which Steven Riddle rightly characterizes as a work of genius?

"APART FROM ALL SERIOUS APPLICATION A BERLOQUE PISTOL ALSO ALWAYS PROVIDES FOR A GOOD SHOT FUN....

THE SMALL AND LIGHTWEIGHTY BERLOQUE PISTOL FINDS EVERYWHERE WORKSTATION. POWER IT TO PERFECT 'SAFETY CONFIGURATION' WITH ALL OUTDOOR ACTIVITIES. IN EMERGENCIES TRACK-TRANSMIT BRIGHT, COLORED OF LIGHTING UP ASTERISKS, ARE UPWARD FROM (IN THE SET ABSTENTION) A SPECIAL ESSAY SHOT PERPENDICULAR, IN THE PERIPHERY OF UP TO 6 KILOMETERS OF VISIBLE.

KEEPS BAD BOYS AWAY.

A DARK LANE, A DARK BACKYARD, BAD LIT UP PARKING LOTS OR ENDLESS UNDERGROUND PARKINGS - THERE, OVER THERE AN UNCANNY NOISE, A SHADOW, THAT IS SHOOING OVER THE WALL. WELL, NOW THE BERLOQUE PISTOL AT HAND TO CREDIT. IT ASTONISHES EACH ROGUE WITH SECURITY. BECAUSE THE CARTRIDGES OF THE BERLOQUE PISTOL PRODUCING READING, WIDELY AUDIBLE BANG, THE IDEAL SUITABLY IS, ATTENTION TO EXCITING AND PUTS DARK SHAPES TO THE FLIGHT IMMEDIATELY.

THE BIG BANG.

WIDELY AUDIBLE ACOUSTIC SIGNAL PUTS DARK ONE SHAPES TO THE FLIGHT."

"Well, now the Berloque pistol at hand to credit. It astonishes each rogue with security...."

Apparently this babelfish masterpiece is derived from such a close language as German - astonishing, isn't it? But then, it's perhaps the almost-rightness of some of its expressions that gives it that je ne sais quois. Kinda like my blog.

So here's the actual post on free will that I was talking about. Free will is certainly an issue that sparks a lot of debates. It's also something very hard to talk about without getting it wrong, so I'm sure I'll get it wrong.

Firstly, it seems to me that we can only freely chose something that we are inclined to do. The inclination may be very weak, but if it is utterly absent, I don't see that I am free to chose it. For instance, if I'm walking down the sidewalk, I (almost always) have absolutely no inclination to start belting out
"My Way." I may, on the other hand, be inclined to hum a bit from the finale of Beethoven's opus 131 quartet (and who wouldn't?). So, while I may freely choose whether or not to hum, I don't see that I have a choice about singing "My Way". It simply doesn't present itself as an option. Maybe that explains, in part, why we need God's grace to perform any salutary act - it is hardly some sort of necessary given, intrinsic to our nature, that a virtuous act will always be an option for us. You might say that, due to the inclinations inculcated by habit, the possibility of (for instance) saving somebody from drowning will inevitably occur to a great many people when the possibility presents itself. But this goes into another part of Catholic doctrine: that a salutary act must be an act of Charity, so that one's actions, if devoid of Charity, may be in some sense good, but will not be meritorious in God's eyes. And it is clear that acting in Charity is not an option for all men, at all times, by some sort of intrinsic necessity - for those still on this earth, I would think that God's grace makes it a possibility for all, but that is grace and not necessity. (By the way, Tom said he wasn't sure as to whether grace was necessary for a salutary act before the Fall, though he suspected yes - and indeed the answer is yes. Or at least, it seems to me that Michel Baius was sternly corrected by more than one pope for teaching, among other things, that the answer was no - perhaps I'm misreading the article, but in any case the answer must be yes. Why, after all, would an act of Charity be intrinsically possible to Man before the Fall?)

So, the will chooses freely between things that we are, in some sense, inclined to do. To understand what this means, we must ask ourselves: what is the cause of a human act? It is a choice of the will? What causes the choice? This is a complicated question to answer. Our inclinations to some extent cause it. But in reading Augustine on the fall of Satan and his angels, I came across a sentence that startled me: "If one seeks for the efficient cause of their evil will, none is to be found." (City of God, book XII, chapter 6)

He elaborates on this point, using the example of two men, identical in every way, one of whom succumbs to temptation, the other of whom does not. (That he considers such a situation even possible, flies in the face of those who say that St. Augustine did not teach the Catholic doctrine on free will - for note that he does not even distinguish between the two men in the degree or kind of grace offered from God that would allow them to resist the temptation, but makes them identical in every way, except their response to this temptation). Most helpful is his analogy to silence and darkness - since evil, of course, is a privation, and is thus similar.

After all, what causes silence in a given place? Obviously the fact that there is no cause for sound in that given place. But in the case of a will that chooses evil, we cannot simply say that it is caused solely by the lack of a cause for good, though in looking for a cause this is indeed the only "place" that we could look, given that evil is a privation. Since a will identical to the will that chooses evil, might nevertheless choose good, we cannot say that the will which chose evil did so solely because it lacked a cause for choosing good; that other identical will obviously had the same causes at work on it, yet chose good.

Thus, when a will is evil, that will is itself the origin of this evil. When a will is good, of course the will is not itself the ultimate origin of this good, but God is. We can only be called the origin of a good will inasmuch as we chose not to pervert our will to evil.

Since evil is a privation, God (who wills being, not the absence of being) does not will evil. If a nature is to some extent evil, it is because God refrained from willing certain things without which that nature is perverted. If we ask, then, "what made that nature evil," the answer is not "God", nor is it "a being"; there is no answer, except perhaps some previous privation - and if there is no such privation, then there is no answer at all. Thus, when we make an evil choice, we are responsible for it because there is no origin for our evil choice beyond our will itself, except insofar as we were inclined to do evil by the imperfection of our fallen nature - but that in itself did not compel us to evil. This seems to me to sufficiently answer the question of why we are held morally responsible for our actions.

One more thing:

"
Free will doesn't mean I may, or even can, choose something I find less desirable over something I find more desirable. That would be a silly faculty for humans to have. What free will means is that I am able, first, to decide which possible act, which is somehow desirable, I find the most desirable of all possible and somehow desirable acts; and second, to choose that most desirable act."

This is true in the sense that what we find most desirable is determined by the same act in which we choose, but it can be interpreted to mean that we choose whatever we are most inclined to choose, which is incorrect; we may have a strong inclination to, for instance, eat a donut, and a weak inclination to follow the counsel of our reason in not eating the donut (if our reason indeed counsels this) - and yet, it is not inevitable that we will eat the donut. Likely, perhaps....

Saturday, January 29, 2005

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Saturday

In surveying the Catholic blogosphere, I notice that a lot of bloggers have much nicer things to say about protestantism than the things I've said here recently. More generally, without denying that their rejection of Rome is mistaken, many of their doctrines erroneous, their "worship services" emasculated, etc., they seem to lack the sheer dismissiveness and contempt that I feel for it, whether they are cradle Catholics, converts from protestantism or converts from somewhere else.

Maybe I'm just mean. But it seems to me that there's a more pertinent reason.

I think pretty much every adult in any culture knows that some people are, as it were, born for success, and that other people are born to be screw-ups. We all know how to differentiate the two.

And one quality that I see everywhere in almost every ideology, religion, philosophy or whatever, is an eagerness to disown the latter sort of people. Sometimes, when I hear people talking about somef more-or-less messed-up human being they call a loser, or creep, I somehow find myself thinking, "what kind of advice would these people give these losers?" It's hard to say just why that particular question comes to mind, but in any case, the answer is pretty self-evident and chilling:

There isn't any. They don't really want some kind of improvement in the unpleasant people they despise so much - their fundamental wish is that these people disappear. They don't want to reform them; they want them gone, now.

That's what lies behind the doctrine of indefectability of the elect. Once saved, always saved - once damned, always damned - nor, they say, does God hesistate to show who is who by the way that He treats them on this earth. In other words, the screw-ups, the "wastes of oxygen", etc., are all going to hell; the psychologically-balanced, cheerful, ever-successful people are going to heaven.

In other words, just as with all the philosophies and all the false religions, the teaching is only for the Right Sort, and if you're not the Right Sort, you're sol.

But I'm not just talking here about a general attitude towards these people. When we get down to the nuts-and-bolts, the question is: how do these people actually fare as protestants - or as anything?

It's a trick question, because generally they don't fare at all. That's why these religions and philosophies can so often put a good face to the world - because the losers just fall away of their own accord, or never join, and so you're left with only the successful ones. A lot of the Catholic converts from protestantism who appear on the internet were luminaries of their churches, bustling, active, faith-filled people who just realized that there was something missing, something else that they needed. They were the successful ones; me, I was one of the losers.

So, the question is - is there a religion for jerks, for losers, for lunatics, misfits, fools, knaves, creeps, sluggards, dimwits, and all those people?

"Now while he was at table in the house it happened that a number of tax collectors and sinners came to sit at the table with Jesus and his disciples. When the pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, 'why does your master eat with tax collectors and sinners?'"

And,

"Here is a monumental remark by Mr. H.L. Menken: 'They (he means certain liberal or ex-liberal thinkers) have come to realize that the morons whom they sweated to save do not want to be saved, and are not worth saving.'[...] There will be Diocletian persecutions, there will be Dominican crusades, there will be rending of all religious peace and compromise, or even the end of civilization and the world, before the Catholic Church will admit that one single moron, or one single man, 'is not worth saving.'" (The Thing: Why I am a Catholic by G.K. Chesterton)

Yes, it seems that there is. That's why I don't count it a shameful thing that so many nasty historical personages were Catholics - because in a culture dominated by any other religion, they probably wouldn't be, say, Shintoist tyrants so much as merely thugs of no religion whatsoever. So I don't think it's an unfair double standard when people hold the record of this or that Catholic tyrant against us, while considering the record of a puritan tyrant, an atheist tyrant, a buddhist tyrant, etc., utterly beside the point as regards these respective doctrines. Because everyone else has emphatically said, "these people belonged to us in name only," and we may as well take them at their word. Whereas the Catholics have to own up to these people - not to say that they were good Catholics, or even that they listened to anything the Church told them - but we can't simply disown these people, as if they have nothing to do with us.

So, I can be a jerk sometimes, I can be pretty loony other times, and while I don't know what the 7 habits of highly successful people are, I'm pretty sure I don't have them. I was not one of those bright, shiny, faith-filled protestants who converted to the Faith, and so I do not have fond or grateful memories of the religion of my upbringing - not, I think, because of some purely personal "bad experience" - for there was no bad "experience" per se - but because I was a sort of person to whom protestantism and all the other ideologies of this world offered nothing. Here, on the other hand, I have a chance to become the person that God wants me to be.

Friday, January 28, 2005

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Friday

No link, sorry. Blogimus is worn out from his week of fighting the barbarian hordes on the frontiers of...a university admissions office. Barbarians aren't what they used to be, alas.

Anyway, my temp job is about over. I ought to be disappointed what with the fact that job=money, but trying to show up at 8am (and usually failing) when you have an hour-long commute was not too great. I think I was made for the 9-5 shift...just enough time to squeeze in a bit of shut-eye and show up with that all-important non-undead look.

Plotting on the novel is coming slowly. I know what it's about, but I don't have a story per se, yet, and you kinda need one of those. It used to be easy to cook up a plot. I guess now I'm paying attention to quality or something. That's what I tell myself....

Thursday, January 27, 2005

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"Thursday"

Well, Friday approaches - is, in fact, here - and I have rarely been gladder of it. I had managed to reform my sleep schedule to something that put me in a more or less human state upon getting up at 6am, but I've sadly regressed; I imagine if I had been filmed in the successive mornings of the week, it would show a sort of devolution, ending in something scarcely even human...the relief of sleeping til 11am on Saturday will be indescribable.

In any case, one topic that seems to come up a lot on St. Blog's is the culpability of the ignorant - those who sin without knowing that they do so. I think that anyone who would make pronouncements on the matter, should inform himself regarding the thought that has already been done along these lines by moral theologians. I, for instance, know next to nothing about moral theology and will therefore make no pronouncements on who is culpable for what. I will note, however, that there is a concept called "advertence" which is crucial to the understanding of this matter - something to which we "advert" is something that, in language we are more familiar with, we know "explicitly," or "in so many words" as it were. There is, however, such a thing as knowledge to which we do not advert, such that we can, in a sense, know that a certain act is wrong, though in popular phraseology we would be called "ignorant" of this act's immorality. While inadvertance mitigates culpability, it does not eliminate it - something that many commentators utterly ignore, speaking instead as if we must practically be saying to ourselves "what I'm doing is wrong" in so many words, before we can really be sinning. Or at least, that if asked whether this was wrong, our only sincere answer would be "yes". The human conscience is not, in fact, that simple. To be sure, hardly anyone would say that it was, stated that baldly - but that is the assumption that people are thinking under, when they speak glibly - to use a frequent instance - of "invincible ignorance" in matters of the Faith. This term does, in fact, have a specific meaning, and it wasn't until I started reading an old manual of theology that I found out what it was. Then I more or less forgot; tommorow I'll try and come up with the link. Tonight, I need sleep.

Maybe when I'm a bit more awake, I'll research the matter further - but really, we all have google here, so do it yourself! It might come in handy.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

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The "Scientific" Method

In investigations in the physical sciences, trial-and-error - or hypothesis and experiment, if you like - is an important tool, and sometimes people like to get up on a soapbox and talk as if it were the only tool, or "the Scientific Method", as they call it. Now in fact, the whole idea of theoretical physics seems to throw a spanner in that notion; if trial-and-error were really the only tool, experimental physicists would be the only physicists.

In any case, this is all very well for the physical sciences, but as always, the "soft" scientists have tried to follow the suit of their more, uh, successful brethren in the "hard" sciences, and I really don't think there's much justification for it.

Why? Because there are certain situations were guessing and testing your guesses is a good way to discover the truth, and others where it's not. First of all, the range of plausible guesses should be limited; trying to guess the proof of a mathematical theorem is not going to work if every symbol you use is entirely speculative - on the other hand, if there are a limited set of ways to go about constructing the proof, you might very well guess as to which one would be the best. Secondly, it should be possible to get a clear answer as to whether the guess was right. "Falsifiability" is a criterion that some have proposed, but this is artificial and unsustainable; there are any number of possible theories that make correct predictions, and could thus pass a test of "falsification", which are nonetheless false. The theory that the sun spins around the earth will correctly predict sunset and sunrise, but it is still wrong. One could say that the theory was invented to "predict" phenomenon that were already observed, and that a theory should therefore predict phenomena that have not been observed yet - but this leads to the absurd conclusion that a surfeit of knowledge could prevent the formulation of a scientific theory. And in any case, it is imaginable that someone could invent a theory analogous to that of the sun circling the earth, which analogously makes a correct prediction - yet this someone might be ignorant of that prediction's validity when he made the theory.

Furthermore, the predictions made by most theories can be duplicated by other theories, so what criteria do you use for picking your choice? Occam's razor is certainly a feeble tool in this regard; hardly anyone actually takes this seriously as a scientific tool in any case; it is more of a bludgeon to hit your opponents with, or else a back-door way of bringing in common sense - or what a person considers to be common sense. There is no agreed-upon method for determining what explanation is "the simplest", and even if there were, it is not necessary that that explanation be correct.

I think that the more reasonable conclusion is that if you really have to ask if a theory is testable, it probably isn't. After all, if you've got a theory that your socks don't match, you don't blather about whether it's a falsifiable hypothesis; you look at your socks, and you get your answer.

In any case, a great many psychological and sociological theories fail both tests. On the one hand, they tackle very open-ended problems, such that the trustworthiness of a guess is minimal - for instance, a classification of personality types. On the other hand, there is no clear way to determine if they are right. Certainly they may make predictions that are proven true, but since everyone has some idea of how the mind works, or how societies work, or whatever, it is hardly surprising that any given psychological or sociological theory will make some accurate "prediction", just as any man-made cosmological theory will predict sunrises.

And of course, it hardly even needs to be argued that a great deal of such theorizing is indeed built on merely guesswork - or "intuition informed by experience", as the guessers would no doubt call it.

Unfortunately, many people who have a sensible instinct on this particular matter are intellectually incapable of any more cogent objection than the stale positivist cant about "falsifiability", which is why, whenever I see a "hard" science type arguing with the "soft" scientists, the latter usually have the better of the exchange, despite having the worse case.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

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Tuesday

Another day, another insufficient quantity of sleep. On the good side, I've done a few hours of research for the novel. I figure if I'm going to write a science fiction novel, which I am, I ought to know something or other about science. I used to be good at that stuff, so why couldn't I pick up where I left off?

Today's feature presentation was quantum mechanics. I wasn't quite able to get the gist of it in one evening...actually it's still a complete mystery to me, of course, but I found a few interesting things - particularly the multi-dimensional business of "string theory". I had never understood this business before about how the other, hypothesized dimensions (11 including the old familiar ones, or else 26) were "too small to notice", but it makes sense: we all know about Mr. A. Square of Flatland and whatnot, but suppose that Flatland had had just a little bit of thickness - it would still be pretty much Flatland, right? So, the idea is that our space has a little bit of extra-dimensional thickness. Nobody knows if there's anything in it - certainly the evidence is pretty much absent - but that's the great thing about sf: you don't need evidence, you just need plausibility!

I had thought the science geek in me was dead and buried, but it seems that this stuff just doesn't go away - it hibernates, waiting for the opportune moment. That's good, because I dunno if I could write anything besides science fiction - as much as I admire Dickens, Dostoevsky et alia, I get the feeling that after trying to imitate them I would get this overwhelming urge to throw in a time machine, add a few malevolent beings from the far future into the mix, and there goes my romance or psychological novel or whatever. This stuff is in my blood; I was reading Heinlein novels when most kids my age were reading...apparently nothing, given the state of public education nowadays. You can't expect to do that and escape unwarped.

Monday, January 24, 2005

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Monday

I've sometimes thought that I should write a novel. And now Lynn had to go and start writing one, so the old idea comes back to haunt me. Dare I? I don't know. It certainly wouldn't be one of those profound, harrowing, written-in-blood sort of novels; I don't seem to be big on profound insights and so forth. I mean, I think I am, but when I look at external testimony on the matter, people describe me with terms like "smartass", "jackass", "goofball" etc., and when I recently insisted to someone that I was "mature for my age", she immediately began laughing in a manner that I found somewhat unflattering. True, it was a somewhat inopportune moment for my observation, inasmuch as I had just been trying to use a fast-food straw wrapper as an auxilliary mustache.... Anyway, when we combine this with my fondness for Wodehouse novels, it really looks unlikely that when I sit down at a keyboard, I'm going to reach into the tumultuous depths of my soul and emerge with a searing witness to the passions and agonies of, well, me. I don't think I'm a complete and utter stranger to passions & agonies, but searing witnesses just aren't really my strong suit.

Then there's the time issue. With late nights eaten up by this carniverous blog, and work & chess occupying things til 7pm (hey, my goal is to play at the expert level by my 21st birthday in July, and I have to set aside a good time block for that, don't I? For the next couple weeks I should be sticking with Edmar Mednis's "Mastering the Closed Game" - exactly my speed, it instructs in the style of an annotated game with somewhat fatter-than-usual notes. Too much general talk about space advantages and so forth and I start to get a "where's the beef" attitude, while a big mass of variations just makes my eyes glaze over after a while - this book hits a good mix, and most importantly has some strategic advice for various openings, which I badly need. There's no point in mastering tactics if you don't know what to use them for, so to speak - you're not always going to get a cut-and-thrust position with clear tactical possibilities for both sides; even in the old romantic era, they ended up with almost as many "boring" positions as modern GM's - it's just that we don't generally see those games), it looks like the only possibility is the coveted 7-9pm slot, which is usually set aside for listening to music and generally doing nothing - unless you count gradually improving your ear for polyphonic textures as "doing something".

Well, hey, I can give it a whirl. Farewell, open 7-9pm slot, we hardly knew ye!

Friday, January 21, 2005

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The Bible

Becoming a Catholic gave me a vastly different view of the Bible. It is doubly regrettable that many Catholics look on the study of Scripture as a "Protestant thing", insofar as they are not only depriving themselves of the benefits of this study, but they can benefit from it in a manner that non-Catholics cannot. Triply regrettable, perhaps, insofar as we are not only ignoring the Bible as the purview of somebody else, but that other's claim to expertise on Holy Writ is scarcely ironclad - and so the Bible is ignored for a reason that is not only mad, but founded on a falsehood. Though in fact, of course, much disinterest in the Bible is perhaps the disinterest of a worldly mind in regard to all things spiritual, using Protestantism as a mere excuse.

In any case, most Protestants could not give you chapter and verse of anything but a bit of Genesis, and bit of John, and the 23rd psalm, if that. And even the types who could really quote you a random passage in 2 Chronicles, KJV, on command, are scarcely to be envied simply for that. For in what sense does one study the Bible, and learn from it, merely by reading it? Certainly there are things in the Bible whose import is plain - but how are you to learn, for instance, from the various accounts of war between the Israelites and their enemies, without someone to guide you? Certainly one can take some broadly-applicable, pious lesson and tack it on to every such passage - such as that the Israelites were punished for ignoring God's decrees, or not putting their faith in His saving justice. Both of these are true, but why, then, all the different accounts of wars in the Old Testament, if they all have the same import? Clearly the Holy Spirit does not waste words, and so each individual conflict must have some special meaning - or meanings. But given the great mass of historical narrative in the Bible, we are clearly dealing with something enourmously complex - something that neither a lone Protestant, nor a Protestant Bible-study group - will be able to make sense of. "How can I understand it, if I have no one to interpret it for me?" - and the eunuch, wise man that he was, said this only of a very brief passage in Isaiah.

Yet beyond the complexity of symbolism throughout the Bible, there is also the supernatural gift of Faith that is needed to see the meaning in the Scriptures. I was most clearly confronted with this when I began reading the homilies of St. John Chrysostom on the Gospel of Matthew. It was there, for the first time, that I saw a man truly speaking and thinking as if the Scriptures did indeed have God, and not only St. Matthew, as their author. Were the origin of the Scriptures anything but divine inspiration, who would think that a simple geneology of Our Lord would be freighted with significance? Yet he went further - went so far as to treat every word as having some significance from which we can profit.

I remember a Protestant preacher who preached quite extensively on a verse that goes something like, "Jacob left [somewhere-or-another] and went to [somewhere else]." But, as such things tend to be, it was merely a "springboard" for more or less giving a speech. St. John Chrysostom, on the contrary, though a great orator, and given though he was to haranguing the crowd on moral matters, nevertheless took as central and paramount the actual meanings of the Scripture; rather than using the passages merely as a "spring" to something else, he delved deep into the passage at hand. Sometimes, anyway...I can't say he was above a digression or ten....

To genuinely treat the divine authorship of Scripture as a fact, in the most common-sensical manner - not as a pious fancy, but as a fact to be pondered, and meditated upon - requires true Faith, which God has mercifully given to His Church. To treat the Scriptures as something inspired by the origin of all Being, a message from the infinite, from One Who does not merely possess, as we do, a mind, but Who is the origin of all mind - while at the same time the work of human minds and hands, demands Faith. And like Newman (see Anglican Difficulties - www.newmanreader.org isn't working at the moment, so I can't be more specific) I am not so blithely certain as some of us are that Protestants do indeed possess, en masse (as opposed to there being perhaps certain exceptions to a general rule) this supernatural gift.

In any case, the Bible is an inexhaustible subject, of which you have not seen the last of on this blog - not if I have anything to say about it. A good post on the benefits of learning NT Greek would be in order...just give me a minute to finish learning it....

Thursday, January 20, 2005

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Thursday

Being a convert helps to give you a certain perspective on the Church; more particularly, it shows you the difference between the inside and the outside. When I look back on the way I thought and lived even just before I became a Catholic - and never mind when I was an agnostic little snot and something very literally close to a lunatic - it seems as if I've stepped through the looking glass or something; everything has changed. And that's in the space of a bit under a year. And no, I haven't even become particularly saintly in that year. The process is different for everyone; some of my RCIA-mates were overpowered by their First Communion; I admit that I was not very emotionally worked-up, and didn't have any dramatic "experience", but on the other hand I started to realize pretty quickly the changes that were happening to me, apart from the changes I was trying to make myself. That's something that I wasn't really told about, except obliquely, before I converted: to my old way of thinking, the only times that a person changed were when he changed himself, or when circumstances changed him. The idea of spiritual growth - of God at work within a person, changing him apart from the person's own actions, or the outward circumstances of his life - was something for which I had been entirely unprepared, and it took me a while to realize what was happening; why things that seemed transparent had once been opaque, things that had seemed impossible were now clearly feasible, and so forth.

The thing is, that it's very hard to remember how things were different in "the old days", because the greatest difference was in exactly the sort of thing that doesn't stick in the memory: the "feel" of life, or the "texture" (or textures) of it. It's something you hardly notice in the first place until it changes - and then it's all too easy to forget that things were ever any different. But occasionally I read something, or something triggers a memory, and I have a sudden recollection of the enormous gulf that I have crossed - the gulf, I am convinced, between death and life.

So, with all this "what's great about us converts" business, are there any problems? Oh, certainly. Scads of 'em. Being born and raised in the darkness certainly gives you difficulties when you come into the light. But again, it gives you a certain perspective. Many people, I'm told, were shaken in their faith when the news of the abuse scandal broke, but for me this was not a stumbling block at all - not for the conventional reason that "oh, I already knew all about scandals in the Church's history; I'm not naive, you know." Actually, I didn't know all about scandals in the Church's history, beyond a vague notion that there were probably a few of them. It's just that I can't make a connection between "Catholics can be rotten people - even priests and bishops" and "let's become Lutherans" or "let's just stop going to church". It's like saying "it hurts to breathe, so I think I'll take up golf instead." The Church exists to save souls. That's Her purpose. There's nothing else in the world that exists entirely for that end.

Now imagine that you're on a life raft in the middle of the ocean, and it's just sprung a leak. That life raft is the only thing available that exists for the purpose of keeping you afloat. So it could have a hundred leaks, but it's all you've got. You can't "choose something else" except in the sense of choosing self-delusion and death.

As a matter of fact, "the Scandal" as it's called for now, is hardly the worst thing that's ever happened to the Church; it's not even close.

Still, I suppose that being a convert can give you a perspective "problem" on the other hand, insofar as it's easy to be flabbergasted, on discovering the Church, by what an astounding thing it is, and to thereby lose sight - if not completely, at least in the sense of a slight obscuration - of that central purpose of the Church: the salvation of souls.

For instance, I think Chesterton occasionally went overboard in his compliments to those beneficiaries of Catholic culture who come to reject the Church - as if to say, "even our infidels are more impressive that everyone else's." I don't mean that there is nothing in what he says, only that it somewhat distorts the proportion of things, to pass over the central fact that an apostate is an apostate, and that any admirable qualities he may retain are secondary to that one, disastrous fact.

Again, I remember one blogger remarking that she felt a sympathy with Graham Greene's novels, because even though he didn't live a particularly holy life, he saw the Church, and acknowledged that it was "there", and wrote about it.

I've never read a Graham Greene novel; I looked in the foreword to one of them, and James Wood described the plot pretty thoroughly. It basically seemed to be a whiny, precious apologia for adultery set in the decaying remnants of the ancien regime. Then I looked at the back cover of another of his books, and heard a vague reference to a plot description of a third. They were all more or less about adultery - did the man ever write about anything else??

That, and his prose is in a style I can't say I enjoy (to be more specific: the style of english prose that replaced the Victorian manner and has yet to give up the ghost - I have nothing against purple prose or long-winded prose or poetic prose or yadda yadda, but prose along the lines of: "Greg sat at the window, watching the young latino children playing basketball in their ragged tennis shoes. His hands, rough workman's hands, rested on the brown-painted sill" can be a bit much sometimes. Probably because I've written it myself...and read some millions of words of it), so I'm not about to be perusing his works any time soon. But anyway, this sort of sighing, elegiac "ah, yes, he was one of us, that one - he understood - in spite of everything" routine is absurd. When the Church Fathers ran into an inquiring pagan, they would write him long, very nice letters in which they set forth our case. In dealing with people who knew the faith full well and rejected it, phrases like "I recognize you - the firstborn of Satan" tend to abound - not that they didn't desire the repentance of these people; just that their pastoral approach was frequently something along the lines of a swift kick to the fundament. So with which group of people did they feel the greatest sympathy, and for which the greatest abomination? And it's not as if things ever changed in that respect, aside from a few people who seem to find something impressive in a person's having been, at some time, a Catholic.

Although I notice, no conservative Catholics seemed to take that view about John Kerry. If you're going to be equivocal about Montaigne or Greene or whoever, why didn't anyone give Kerry the old, "the Church was there, and he saw it" routine? Maybe the thought that a man could be running your country tends to put a damper on sighing, bittersweet eulogies.

Sorry, I'm getting crabby. Anyway, the next thing I'd like to talk about in my "what converts notice" lectures is the Bible. Tune in tomorrow, ladies and gents!

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

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Wednesday, and more insomnia

I was busy 'til about 9:30 today, and no sooner do I sit down, ease back in my chair and twiddle around the blogosphere a bit, than it's 10:30. Okay, I'm slow and I waste lots of time; what can I say. In any case, I need to get to bed around oh, say, an hour ago if I don't want to be a zombie tomorrow.

It's a bit of a shock to have to start economizing your free time, after growing so accustomed to more or less hanging around the house all day. But at least I managed to squeeze in a bit of chess reading. I'm starting to find that I can actuall read an annotated game and more or less follow the action, provided there's a handy illustration every 5-10 moves or so. I'm sure this bodes well for my progress. In any case, I've already spent 5 minutes that should have been spent sleeping, so I'll have to sign off again without saying too much. I'll try to make up for it tomorrow, really!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

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Tuesday

Today I've been going a bit through the Summa. It's a text that would be much, much easier to understand if I knew Latin; as it is, the little bit that I do know is critical in understanding the translation. For instance, when he talks about the "principle" and the "term", as the translation has it, in his discussion of the Incarnation, I would be utterly lost without the idea of "principes" and "primus" and "terminus" bouncing around in my head. As it is, anyone who thinks highly of his own intelligence would do well to peruse the Summa....

I can't blog long (blog long - what a felicitous phrase), but there's one thing I'd like to say: when we talk about the essential incomprehensibility, for us, of the Trinity and the Incarnation, it's easy to make the mistake (I certainly have made it) of supposing that because we can't comprehend the divine mysteries, there is no point in thinking about them - how can we think about that which we cannot understand?

And yet, the fact that we cannot understand these mysteries does not mean that we cannot know certain truths about them. Nor should I suppose that that sort of thing is for theologians, or monks, or somebody "more religious" than I am. Just scratching the surface on St. Thomas's discussion of the Incarnation convicted me of that. In his discussion of the union and the Person, I realized the truth of what Chesterton had said, regarding the doctrine of the dual nature of Christ: that it is an interesting doctrine, in the sense that it really does provoke thought.

"Mystery" signifies that our minds are not able to understand something - but not that our minds are useless. To be sure, not everyone can profit from reading the Summa, and even those who can, may find it hard slogging here and there. And amassing a great deal of learning should scarcely be our first priority as Christians. But to neglect the intellectual side of our Faith is a mistake.

Monday, January 17, 2005

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War

What with all the discussion that's been going on in St. Blog's in the last few years about "Just War doctrine" or "theory" or whatever, the Catholic Encyclopedia article on war might be of interest. This part in particular strikes me as particularly pertinent, not in the sense that it gives us an easy answer along the lines of "oh, invading Iraq was an excellent idea" or the converse, but it outlines the legitimate reasons for going to war:

"The primary title of a state to go to war is:
first, the fact that the state's right (either directly or indirectly through those of its citizens) are menaced by foreign aggression not otherwise to be prevented than by war;
secondly, the fact of actual violation of right not otherwise reparable;
thirdly, the need of punishing the threatening or infringing power for the security of the future.
From the nature of the proved right these three facts are necessarily just titles, and the state, whose rights are in jeopardy, is itself the judge thereof. Secondary titles may come to a state,
first, from the request of another state in peril (or of a people who happen themselves to be in possession of the right);
secondly, from the fact of the oppression of the innocent, whose unjust suffering is proportionate to the gravity of war and whom it is impossible to rescue in any other way; in this latter case the innocent have the right to resist, charity calls for assistance, and the intervening state may justly assume the communication of the right of the innocent to exercise extreme coercion in their behalf.
Whether a state may find title to interfere for punishment after the destruction of the innocent who were in no wise its own subjects, is not so clear, unless such punishment be a reasonable necessity for the future security of its own citizens and their rights. It has been argued that the extension of a state's punitive right outside of the field of its own subjects would seem to be a necessity of natural conditions; for the right must be somewhere, if we are to have law and order on the earth, and there is no place to put it except in the hands of the state that is willing to undertake the punishment. Still, the matter is not as clear as the right to interfere in defence of the innocent."

Now, there have been floating around three arguments for why it was a good idea to invade Iraq. I think it is becoming clear that from a logistical standpoint, we overextended ourselves in doing so, but leaving aside our actual capacity for invading and occupying Iraq, these are the arguments for doing it at all:

1. Hussein possessed chemical and/or biological weapons, which he might employ against us directly, or sell to terrorists. Or, barring that, he was developing nuclear weapons.

Number one, as a question of fact, seems very dubious at this point. As a just cause for going to war, one could describe it as "thirdly, the need of punishing the threatening or infringing power for the security of the future", but it is a very doubtful case. Supposing that any tyrannical regime posesses some dangerous military resource. Are we, ipso facto, justified in invading that country? How much of a threat do they have to be, exactly, before it is right to invade them? Given the scantiness of the evidence beforehand, and the fact that under no hypothesized scenario could Iraq actually invade us (and protection against invasion is surely the main thing that the author had in mind by "security of the future"), it is at best unclear.

2. We needed to remove a poisonous influence from Middle Eastern politics and establish a democracy in the Arab world, a bulwark a freedom that would have a domino effect on the rest of the region.

Common sense, along with the article cited, gives short shrift to such nonsense. I am dubious about the right to revolt in order to obtain democracy; the right to invade in order to give people a democracy that they didn't ask for, is manifest nonsense. And setting up a domino effect is not a sufficient cause for going to war.

3. Saddam was a horribly cruel dictator. Never mind establishing a democracy; how about establishing anything that isn't run by a mad tyrant.

This justification had a very brief vogue at around the time of the actual conquest of Iraq; horrible discoveries were added to atrocities that had already been known, and a few people remarked that it was worth going to war to put a stop to this.

Almost no one has paid much attention to that one; Bush et alia, having found no weapons of mass destruction, have switched over to reason #2 as their justification. Mark Shea lambasted the idea by quoting a bit from "A Man For All Seasons", to the effect that being a bad man was not a crime. Peter Hitchens, an englishman of some sort, wrote to the effect that this was not really cricket at all; removing tyrants is not what conservatism is about. With the right either ignoring this justification or sneering at it, and the left saying who-knows-what in response to it - probably not any one coherent response - #3 seems to be more or less a footnote.

Which is interesting, insofar as it is, I think, the only reason that appears particularly compelling.

As far as "A Man For All Seasons", it may not be a crime to be bad, but it is certainly a crime to murder the subjects whom you have taken it upon yourself to rule. Saddam Hussein undisputedly did this very frequently. The question is, did any state have a right to punish the crime?

"Lastly, in the case of a state's wholesale persecution of the innocent with death or unjust enslavement, a foreign power taking up their cause may fairly be said reasonably to assume the call of these and to make use of their right of resistance."

Protestant conservatives, or unbelieving ones, may be expected to sneer at "liberal 'humanitarian interventions'", and give a lot of bluster about enlightened self-interest and realpolitik and "we can't be the world's policeman". It would appear that Catholics are not allowed this option. Wimpy liberal humanitarian interventions are, apparently, a justification for war. You are not simply allowed to kill whomever you like, so long as you do it within your own borders and don't "affect" the "interests" of any other state.

That Saddam would not stop tormenting his subjects unless removed from power, was obvious. The only question whether their suffering was "proportionate to the gravity of war".

Whether it was, or not, is not something I can say anything intelligent about. I can only note that some of us - myself included - seemed to have an unclear perception of what "the gravity of war" really is. The shocking ease with which we conquered Baghdad, dulled that perception even further. The decision to go to war is as grave as ever, and I do not think that we deliberated with anything like the appropriate gravity.

Now, the arguments against the war, are mostly simply objections to the reasons offered. There is one in particular, however, that deserves attention: that is the claim that, because of certain laws of the United Nations to which our country has agreed, the war against Iraq was illegal.

Secret Agent Man has advocated this position, but I am not certain that it is a valid argument. There are very few contractual obligations that are binding in all circumstances; when Herod swore an oath to Herodias that he would give her whatever she wanted, he assuredly sinned in making the rash vow, but sinned doubly - and far more gravely - in keeping it, when she asked for the head of John the Baptist. A marriage vow, on the other hand, is binding under all circumstances. I seriously doubt that the UN charter should be considered as the state's equivalent of a marriage vow; if we had a clear moral obligation to do something prohibited by the charter, it is absurd that we should say "our hands our tied; we'd love to intervene, but our word is our bond" no matter how terrible the evil at issue, and no matter how easily we could stop it. The question comes back to whether we had a clear moral obligation to invade Iraq. That, it seems to me, is the only pertinent question; if yes, then the international law is irrelevant. The UN charter is positive and not natural law, and if its logical interpretation obliges something contrary to justice, that particular obligation is not binding - and so again, the only question is, what was the just thing to do?

By now, it hardly seems relevant, but it is not as if this sort of situation will never arise again.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

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Ready for prime-time!!!

Okay, so I'm registering my little soapbox here with St. Blog's parish - I figure that if this week is any indication, I can at least provide material for my audience on a regular basis.

To say good material would be a bit of a stretch, but hey, we have to start somewhere. In preparation for this, I thought I'd spruce things up with a few links and maybe a description of my blog - something that would give the curious inquirer an idea of what, exactly, characterizes this thing. Something that would give exactly the right impression of spiritual elevation coupled with earthy realism - most of all, of the unleavened solemnity that so characterizes this blog. Obviously it is impossible to improve on the simple truth, and so there you see it: "Late antiquity's finest blogger." I'm sure people will find that very helpful.

Friday, January 14, 2005

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Friday

Somehow I made it to Friday once again. Ah, sweet harbinger of the weekend! Not that they had weekends back in the day of BLOGIMVS MAXIMVS - you just worked until your master got too drunk to keep whipping you - or you could follow Blogimus's policy of not working at all, and just playing the fiddle while a city burned in the background. You went through a lot of cities that way, but that's antiquity for you.

But Blogimus has adapted well with the changing times, and has come to welcome the traditional, blissful release from a week's labor.

You know, back in the old days when I was a liberal, the part of conservative ideology that irked me the most wasn't a literalistic approach to the second amendment or whatever, it was the idea that government was somehow inherently less trustworthy than business. And now that I am, by the lights of most people nowadays, a loony right-winger - I still don't buy it. In fact, I've come to buy it less and less as time's gone by.

To be sure, a government is a lot more dangerous than a business. But there's a difference between the propensity for inflicting evil and the capacity for doing so.

The whole point of conservatism, as I see it, is that it does (or should) conserve the things that were there for a reason - that is, the ideas that have lasted because they're good ideas, and so forth. The idea of conserving an intellectual fashion that has outlived its day, is manifestly stupid. And surely this enmity for "big government" or government in general is among those fads. It fits the mold of a common sort of fad: some part of human existence is recognized - as if for the first time - to allow certain abuses. These abuses are taken as grounds for eliminating the thing entirely (or in this case, eliminating it wherever it seems practical). Stories are recited of people who have suffered terribly because of this or that abuse.

The thing in question can range from a personal habit to an organ of society, but the arguments are always the same: it is pointed out how the thing can have bad consequences, the thing is called unnecessary and deletable (or in this case, susceptible of a minimalization), and that is all. If there is a clue to the unwary listener that something is not quite right with these lines of arguments, it is the "that is all". It indicates the superficiality of this whole method of trying to solve humanity's problem. The fact that just about everything in the world, from religion to liquor to desire, has been labeled the culprit for our woes, should be a clue to the thoughtful observer; after all, if just about any common human activity can have a convincing case made out against it, doesn't that indicate that the problem is with the human being, and not any specific act?

I remember with regard to the evangelicals, I had one of those moments that stuns you with the realization that "these people are not like you" - not that you had really thought so, but this just brings it home, so to speak. In their case, it was a remark from 1967 by the editor of Christianity Today:

'That for the first time in more than 2,000 years Jerusalem is now completely in the hands of the Jews gives the student of the Bible a thrill and a renewed faith in the accuracy and validity of the Bible.’

After reading this I sat for a moment in a sort of stunned silence, whose mood would have been best expressed by the question "and what Bible is THAT??? My version seems to have left out the part about Jews recapturing Jerusalem!!"

With regard to "conservative ideology" on government vs. the markets (and the two are always placed in opposition, implicitly or explicitly - the poor performance of the government is always poor relative to the zippy efficiency of the Market, and vice versa) it was a remark in National Review Online's "The Corner"; I forget what it was, but the gist of it was that we should kick the government out of this or that enterprise and "unleash market forces."

Maybe I'm more of a skeptic than I thought I was. I believe in God, in the Resurrection, and in a lot of other things - but I just can't bring myself to believe in "market forces." I tried, but then I started giggling. I really can't even say "market forces" with a straight face. I can't help picturing a scene along the lines of: "Very well," said the mustachioed villian, "you leave me with no choice. UNLEASH THE MARKET FORCES! BWAHAHAHAHA!"

Likewise, I can't believe in the flip side of the ideological coin - the idea that government deserves, a priori, a unique kind or degree of suspicion (as opposed to the suspicion due to anything run by Man, who as Chesterton observes, "cannot be trusted.")

So there I am, a traitor to the conservatism of our times. What a shame.

In a more serious vein, I do not mean that I buy wholeheartedly into any liberal plan for the role of government. My point here isn't that we should support this or that government program, but that Catholics who do not wish to be deceived by fashionable ideas should beware of modern "conservatism". Certain of us like to say that "conservatives are better on this, liberals are better on that; Catholicism transcends both and makes a mockery of these political dichotomies." Now, this is an inaccurate way of putting it. Firstly, it claims a parity between liberalism and conservatism that isn't there; secondly, this facile stuff about "transcending categories" is yet another fashionable frippery that we should beware of. Obviously political categories are inadequate for describing the Faith, but only a fool would think them to be adequate in the first place; to speak as if it were noteworthy that the Church is something more than just a point on the political spectrum, is hardly to flatter Her.

Catholic moral teaching is, quite obviously, conservative. Now it is true that not every "conservative" moral precept is necessarily Catholic. But our morality is nevertheless conservative by the current definition of the term. Espouse the moral tenets that our Faith demands, and you will be called a conservative. But as for the role of government in society, the Church does not take a position that squares particularly well with our idea of "conservatism".

This does not exactly set up a situation of parity between conservatism and liberalism vis-a-vis the Church. Conservatism is clearly, at worst, less of an enemy to the Faith than liberalism - but for that very reason, Catholics should beware the temptation to "trust" modern conservatism. Conservatism, as we know it today, is not only influenced largely by some rather dubious notions of the Enlightenment, but by Protestant ideas that are inimical to the Church.

The most striking example of Catholics allowing themselves to be unduly influenced by American conservatism is with regard to the vile practice of Protestants sending "missionaries" to South America to convert the heathen, i.e. us Catholics. Many conservative Catholics in the blogosphere seem to find nothing wrong with this! Their attitude is that the Church down there is full of liberal nonsense, Liberation Theology and whatnot, and it serves them right to have the Pentacostals or Methodists giving them a run for their money. Still worse was when, after Mark Shea pointed out on several occasions that a great many Arabs are in fact Christians, many of blog-commenters set about disparaging the Arab Christians, saying that they were all anti-Semites, that they weren't even really Christians at all, et cetera.

That we are being tricked into carrying water for, on the one hand, conservative Protestant groups, and on the other hand conservative foreign policy in the Middle East, doesn't seem to attract notice.

Well, I think that's more than enough for tonight. Whew.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

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Thursday

Well, it's getting late (9:00 - yes, the day has arrived when I call 9pm "late". See how low I have sunk? Nobody should be awake at 6am anyway. It's unnatural) so I shouldn't blog much today, seeing as I want to be in bed within a half hour. But there is at least one thing I have to get off my chest:

Okay, we're all familiar with that handy little tool called the stapler - or...are we?

For my part, I never really knew how a stapler worked, except that you squeeze it, and boom there's a staple. I always figured that the "click" of a stapler came from some kind of arcane spring action. Then I opened up a stapler today and figured out how it worked; it's actually very simple and ingenious. When you squeeze the stapler, the lead staple (that is, the one that's supposed to go through the paper) is pushed down on by a thin piece of metal. Now, the staple is very securely supported on all four sides - on three, it is snug against the body of the stapler, and on the fourth it runs up against the staples behind it. This means that when you apply pressure, it cannot do what a thin bit of wire will usually do when you press on it - that is, move out of the way, or buckle. The only way for it to relieve the pressure is to head down. And so the ends of the staple are forced through the paper, and then they run against the metal wells on the bottom half of the stapler. These things direct the downward-moving ends of the staple so that they fold inward and eventually back upward, towards each other and against the stapled piece of paper. Or at least...that's what usually happens.

What prompted me to unlock the mysteries of the stapler was that I noticed the piece of metal that contains the "stapling wells" is actually rotable. On the bottom side of the stapler, on the stapling in, there's usually some kind of button or something that you can push, and this will lift the piece of metal, which you can then spin around. And why would you want to do that?

I discovered the answer when I rotated it halfway around, and tried stapling. As you may have seen before, there are not two wells on this little piece of metal, but four - two of them are close together, and that's what you normally use to staple. But two of them are farther-separated. And if you staple with those, then the staple ends go outward instead of inward. The result is very strange.

To think I could have gone my entire life without learning how a stapler worked - or about the mysterious second option of stapling. But it's not about to remain mysterious for long, thank's to google:

http://www.calcampus.com/stapler/

"This is called the Pinning/Stapling switch. It is located on the anvil[what Blogimus calls the "well"]. The pinning function is a carryover from the time before staple removers. It makes the staple form a relatively straight form"

So, all is explained. But it just goes to show how many strange things you see in life without even noticing it until you're having a really, really slow day at the office....

And yes, that took slightly over 20 minutes to write. Signing off for today,

Blogimus Maximus

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

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Wednesday and insomnia

Well, a certain blogger recently made a clever remark about Blogimus being in the market for a "Brahms icon" due to an expressed fondness for the music of said composer on the part of said Blogimus. Now this would be rather odd in the case of the godless Brahms, but I dare say that in the case of my new favorite composer (yes, I confess to fickleness on that score), it is hardly so preposterous. To be sure I have not heard of any miracles being obtained through his intercession, but he was a devout Catholic, and a very kind person by all accounts that I've heard - namely a certain Czech composer who was, like apparently about half of all Czechs, named Dvorak.

The purists are occasionally apt to complain about this or that in his music, but the more I listen to it, the greater my amazement. I had the misfortune (in my opinion) to first encounter him by his symphonies, and though he was no slouch with an orchestra, I think that his greatest powers lie in chamber music. My Dvorak collection has recently expanded vastly, and of my new acquisitions, I prize most highly the 2 CD's containing his 4 piano trios. The first two, op. 21 & 26, are both superb (it must be remembered that Dvorak was a bit slower than most composers in cracking out the opus numbers, and so his opus 20-something works are well removed from what you would call student efforts, at least in my opinion), but the final two, op. 65 and the op. 90 "Dumky" trio, are matchless. The liner notes to the 3rd trio say that it "perhaps shows the influence of Brahms"; this is, I think, a bit of an understatement. Dvorak had, I think, an unequalled ability to synthesize other musical styles with his own; most composers, when they remind me of some predecessor, seem to diminish themselves insofar as they do so, but Dvorak is often at his best, and even his most distinctive, when he displays the influence of another. In this trio it sometimes seems rather more than influence, as if he were "doing" Brahms, so to speak - but I think that he could do Brahms somewhat better than Brahms could.

Well, in any case, in other news, I've been getting up at 6 am for the last few weeks, and for a chronic insomniac that's a bit of a strain. In fact, not to put too fine a point on it, but it had seemed as if something would have to give, and that that something was likely to be me. But then, after taking a blissful but brief nap, it occurred to me: "why am I able to take naps, yet incapable of falling asleep until I've rolled around in bed for a few hours?" And I remembered something I had observed long before: that very often, my thoughts as I lay in bed would frequently drift away in the manner of one who is about to begin a nice patch of log-sawing - and then, somehow, I would be awake again, thinking incessantly.

The advice of certain persons on this matter is to stop thinking when one is trying to get to sleep. I'll leave them to it; for my part, there is no "off" switch on my brain (some might say that it would be redundant to have one), and I am going to be thinking about something one way or the other.

Then there's the whole idea of counting sheep and whatnot, but to me, counting things or doing any other repetitive task requires an effort, and a mental effort is exactly what I don't want to be making.

And then God decided, I suppose, that I had been one of the walking undead for long enough, because I was struck with a brilliant realization:

The key was not to stop thinking. It was to think about really boring things. Not so boring as to be downright unpleasant to contemplate, but simply subjects in which I had no interest whatsoever - and preferably no knowledge either. Whereas I could think about philosophy or chess or something for hours at a go without losing a semblance of coherence, horribly tired though I might be, I found that no sooner did I start thinking about the various types of hills, or the price of lumber in Moscow, than my thoughts began to take the old familiar turn towards dreamland.

For two nights in a row, I've hit the sack and been out like a light (i.e. less than 30 minutes tossing & turning - which is, for me, out like a light). We'll see if I can keep up this unprecedented sleeping streak. If I can, well, that's gotta be good for some kinda prize - and surely for a man with my attitude towards industriousness and honest toil, a prize for lying in bed asleep is exactly the right sort.

So, having trouble sleeping? Try Blogimus's patent-pending insomnia cure - and no, I'm not talking about my blog...you people are insufferable.

Until tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

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Addenda, ephemera, et cetera

On the matter of conceding this and that to Protestants in particular: please remember that we are not dealing with 16th century Protestants here. We are, for the most part, dealing with people who hear "Calvin" and think of an amusing comic strip that is, alas, no longer. The thing to remember is that protestantism, lacking the unifying sensus fidei of Catholicism, simply isn't a unified thing even within a particular ideological branch of a given denomination - which means that, whereas the "controversial" or "apologetical" arm of the Church holds to the same Faith as the rest of us, the corresponding arms of protestantism simply do not belong to the same body, so to speak, as the other Protestants. Very few Protestants would have anything but utter indifference to Rahner finding good in the phrase "simul justus et peccator", even if they knew what it meant. Those few, unfortunately, have a very disproportionately loud voice in theological circles; we should not let that blind us to the facts.

And furthermore: when I mentioned my frustration in RCIA on all the coddling of Protestant holy cows, it wasn't because I'm some stereotypical crusty conservative type who hated this wimpy liberal mushiness. It was simply that Father could have called the Reformers a pack of deranged hell-hounds without bothering a single one of us; he could have said that sola fide was the dumbest idea since Cicero went back home to get his luggage after Caesar put a price on his head, and we just would have thought he was getting rather oddly colorful in his phraseology. We just didn't care about protestantism except insofar as it resembled Catholicism, which was one of the many reasons we were sitting there in the first place. The person in RCIA who was hardest on the Protestants was one of my co-candidates - and likely the only one besides me who actually knew something about the Protestantism we supposedly espoused (except for me, but I was an unusual case).

There are, of course, Protestants with the "traditional" objections to the Church, but even these have diverged very far from their beginnings as far as emphasis and character, and have lost enourmously in vitality in just a century or so. Even the people who think we're all idolators really lack the sort of visceral animosity towards the Mary-worshipping Papists that they would have displayed just a few decades ago. But somehow, those of us who seem most intent on the Church changing with the times, have yet to acclimate themselves to this particular climate shift.

One more thing, just so that it doesn't seem like I'm just bashing liberal Catholics on their ideas on ecumenism: conservative Catholics often seem to have the odd idea that the conservative protestants are somehow their allies. But I wonder - who is further from the truth, someone who sees and knows a part of it, but rejects the whole, or somebody completely in the dark? The fact that they, too, adhere to certain moral traditions and believe certain things in common with us, does not mean that they are our friends. Another thing to consider: when we try to guess at what is going on in a person's mind, our habit is to suppose that he thinks much the same thing that we would think, if we were to act and speak the way he does. In other words, we say to ourselves, "what would I be saying to myself, if I were doing what he is doing?" But in fact, two people who are very similar, even identical in externals, may be very different in their souls. Something that we say with feeling, and a sense of its meaning, may be an empty formula to another. Or vice versa. That is important to keep in mind.

In the meantime, I tried picking up Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop", but it only confirmed my previous opinion of Waugh: his books are ideally suited for somebody else. I found myself comparing his approach with that of Wodehouse, who wrote about some of the same sorts of people, and I noted the differences.

In Wodehouse, the Bright Young Things and the New Women and the rascally young men and the rapacious American millionaires and so forth are like so many griffins and leprechauns; that is, they have more to do with the beasts of myth than any actual American millionaire or whatever. And that is why I like Wodehouse, while Waugh begins to pall rather quickly.

Because I have the horrible idea that the real Bright Young Things were actually a lot like the characters in a Waugh novel; that the Smart Set of the Roaring Twenties or thirties or whenever really was like that. His satire is too realistic to be read - too realistic because these people are the most boring creatures in human history. The only way to make them entertaining is to make them out of whole cloth, and put a Bright Young Thing hat on their heads as an afterthought - i.e. Wodehouse.

The only sort of person who could read about the actual sordid lifestyle of a dashing young gentleman in Edwardian England without dying of boredom would be a victim of terminal Anglophilia. This sort of person does indeed crop up rather often in literary circles, and I suppose it is by their childish fascination with all things English that they can actually read this stuff.

Anyway, there it is for today.

Monday, January 10, 2005

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A new beginning

All right. I've been offline for a month or two, and I hadn't been posting here for a while before that, but now, with the new year, I inaugurate the following rule for Blogimus Maximus:

One post per weekday.

That's all. It might be stupid. In fact, I can make you a pretty good guarantee that it probably WILL be stupid, but one thing that its harshest critics would have to admit is that it's there. Or will be there.

So, what is Blogimus up to now? He is temporarily working in a university admissions office. He is not, unfortunately, getting quite enough sleep. Is he performing any useful task, beyond inching forward the applications of would-be med students? Alas no. He has fallen back off the chess bandwagon - but has given himself the stern rule of no chess after 7pm (having noted that this hobby has a way of extending itself into times better used for such activities as sleeping like the dead). But only the most generous could consider a board game to be particularly useful for anything.

The blog et al. is only part, naturally, of a broader schedule that I have decided to take up. Another part will consist of reading, something that I seem to have more or less stopped doing, outside of P.G. Wodehouse novels. Thus, as far as thoughts on the wider world - on theology, or on philosophy, or politics, or anything - I'm pretty much blank at the moment, but look for further developments to arrive.

There is one thing I read a smidgen of - "Theological Observations" by Karl Rahner, SJ. I don't know what to say about that one. Words like "appalling" do come to mind. The passage I found was one describing how the findings of science were in tension, or something, with Catholic teaching. The idea was more or less that they don't contradict, really, but it sure does seem that way.

Now, it's important to note that he doesn't get down to brass tacks and say what, exactly, doesn't seem to fit. That, of course, would make it susceptible to rational analysis. If you stop talking about "the findings of science do not seem consonant with Christian dogmas" and say something like, "the findings of neurology do not seem consonant with the doctrine of free will, for such and such reasons," then you can actually sit down and come up with an answer. But as long as you just wave your hand and say, "the whole trend of things - biology, physics, psychology, what have you - the findings of modern science, don't you know" - then you can have all the discordance that isn't really disagreement - but may seem that way to some - that you want.

The appalling thing is that he speaks of those unruffled by the findings of modern science as being, more or less, ostriches with their heads in the sand. They do not, he says, "feel the force" of these nebulous modern trends of thought, and therefore their opinion doesn't count. He throws in something about a Catholic ghetto.

In a sense, I agree with him about the Catholic ghetto - but not in the sense that we need to come out and meet "modernity" halfway, or three-quarters of the way, or heck, let's just go on over to modernity's place and have a few cocktails. I'm not even sure what "modernity" is, anyway, anymore than I'm sure about just what the findings of modern science really are. If there is an intellectual ghetto, it consists not of failing to "feel the force" of this or that popular trend, in the same manner that poor old St. Athanasius failed to feel the intellectual force of Arianism - it consists of unsuccessful attempts to reconcile traditional thinking with new discoveries in the sciences. I remember a year or so ago, an article was published in a Thomistic journal, arguing that, in accordance modern physics, only four kinds of form could be said to exist - I forget what they were, but they were all subatomic particles or some such.

Clearly that sort of thing would destroy the Aristotelean idea of form. If a watch is not really to be considered a form, or a computer isn't a form, or whatever, then the idea of form is gone.

Or there's the whole nominalistic argument about the indefiniteness of forms. You take something and say that it participates in the essence of chairness or something, which is just another way of saying that it's a chair. Then you cut off a leg. Is it still a chair? What about if you cut off two legs? A six-year-old could conjure up questions of this variety ad infinitum, with regard to any categorization you wish - and this is really the *sole* argument for nominalism, i.e. the idea that categories are entirely arbitrary and that there is no "real" truth - that is, that statements are not solidly and objectively true, but only provisionally so. It is truly amazing how often you see this argument paraded as a profound analysis; I could understand how some simple, humble-minded nominalist might worship his one, simple, humble-minded analytical tool as a cure-all for philosophy; the dumbfounding part is that they seem to see some sort of sophistication and cleverness in asking, over and over again, "but what if you add this, or take away that? Is it still a such-and-such?"

And we hardly ever seem to talk about this. We may engage people in arguments over some specific point, but we hardly ever mention to them that their intellectual system consists almost entirely of trying to find the ambiguous cases in whatever categories happen to present themselves. If we did, we could simply say that yes, there are ambiguous cases; yes, there are situations where it is not certain whether the chair is really a chair any more - and yes, we are not even certain as to where the ambiguity begins. But that does not change the fact that there are unambiguous cases.

The infallibility of the senses is a good instance. If I judge that I am seeing the color red, my judgment is not infallible as to whether I am really seeing a slightly orangish red, or a slightly purplish one. But if the spot of red is large enough, then I can be quite infallibly certain that I am seeing some sort of red, and not black. When we say that reason is an infallible judge of sense perceptions, it does not mean that this infallibility always applies - only that it sometimes (in fact, very often) applies, whereas in certain other judgments it is incapable of applying at all. For instance, I may be certain that I am seeing red - but I cannot be infallibly certain that I am seeing an apple. It could be a fake apple, or I could be hallucinating, or for some other reason there may not, in fact, be an apple present. But that I am really perceiving the color red, on the surface of what may or may not be an apple, simply isn't open to debate unless I'm colorblind.

But how often do you see these sorts of things discussed? Rarely. Usually, instead, we begin by presuming a whole lot of controverted things, and then make our argument for whatever we're arguing for, with the result that our adversaries are stopped by something in the first paragraph that compels them to whip out their catch-all analytical technique and "demolish" the premises on which our arguments stand. The first thing we need to do is make them aware that they are actually using a particular rule for analysis - never mind that it's a bad rule; I know from experience that to them, applying this particular rule in the manner of Procrustus's accomodation of lodgers is simply "thinking", and anyone who fails to apply it is, to the extent that he fails, simply not thinking.

That is the real danger of a Catholic ghetto - not of us being left alone and bereft of understanding while the wide world around us flourishes in an intellectual cornucopia, but of our simply moving in different intellectual worlds, "ships passing in the night" and so forth. To some extent this is inevitable, but there is no need to exacerbate it through carelessness or contempt.

But to suppose, after Rahner, that the sign of a cosmopolitan intellect is, more or less, uneasiness in the Faith, and that a failure to "feel the force" of "modern thought" is the mark of intellectual impotence, is absurd.

Beyond that, though, I can see in Rahner's writing the trend that so irks me is the shadow-boxing element, of a kind that I see in many fellow-Catholics: controverting with an opponent who isn't there - or of he is, there's about two of him on the planet. When I was in RCIA, I was exasperated by how much our priest wanted to concede to the Protestants, just as Rahner concedes as much as he reasonably and faithfully can to the Protestants and pretty much everyone else. It's said that this tactic of maximal concession is a traditional one for the Jesuits. Well, in some sense it's the traditional one of St. Paul; see Acts, and his speech to the Athenians.

But this is not a cure-all, and it's possible to have far too much of a good thing. The fact is, the Protestants don't want to be conceded to. The agnostics do not want your concessions. Ditto everybody else. They have exactly zero desire to be affirmed in their okayness, so to speak, by any Catholic from me to the Pope. Unfortunately, there seem to be a few dozen Protestants who do want concessions, and they all seem to be on Councils That Have To Do With Ecumenism.

To be sure, where the Protestants are right, they would probably like it if we admitted that they are, in fact, right - what I mean is that they do not desire for us to twist every statement that every Protestant ever made until we find a way to say that yes, in a certain sense, this is in fact true. Believe it or not, they are not a bunch of shrinking violets, nor do most of them have a fierce loyalty for their mistaken ideas; these tend to be more in the way of prejudices than fixed certainties. People can stand the occasional "no, I'm afraid you're wrong. No, not just in this or that sense. You're just plain wrong." They would generally like you to explain why they are wrong. This is called "apologetics".

What ought to warn my over-conceding brethren is that the people who do this are all cradle Catholics; the converts know what it's like to be a potential convert, and they know that there is more worth in telling people that they have been wrong, than that they have been right.

Hmph. Well, anyway, that's all for now.