Archive for the ‘Aristotle’ Tag

Facebook Friendships and the Good Life

For Lent this year, I gave up Facebook. My reasoning was multifold. In part, I was starting to worry how much time I was spending “piddling” on the computer during the long Boston winter. I wanted to spend more meaningful time on the computer, and replace the time I was wasting on Facebook with reading books (which has been largely successful until I started reading War and Peace; now I am craving FB again). But I also watched “The Social Network” right before Lent started and found Mark Zuckerberg’s character pretty reprehensible. It was the final scene that struck me most, where Zuckerberg is in the lawyer’s office, and the pretty young lawyer has just left, and he sends a friend request to Erica, his ex-girlfriend, and keeps refreshing the page, waiting for a response.

Zuckerberg’s character went from reprehensible to sympathetic. I could not but help feel pity for a guy whose only possibility for “friendship” was through Facebook. A couple of years ago, the New York Observer interviewed some Facebook holdouts who were critical of such alleged “friendships” that Facebook offered:

Cary Goldstein, 33, the director of publicity at Twelve books, is another proud Facebook holdout. “I don’t see how having hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ is leading to any kind of substantive friendships,” he said. “The whole thing seems so weird to me. Now you really have to turn off your computer and just go out to live real life and make real connections with people that way. I don’t think it’s healthy.”

Yet the number of people not on Facebook is steadily declining. So as Lent comes to an end and I prepare to reenter Facebook, I’ve started thinking more about the nature of Facebook friendships from an EverydayThomist perspective. I’ve addressed this question before using Cicero, but I think the question demands further examination in light of the rising importance of Facebook in people’s lives.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that friendship is at the heart of Aristotle’s ethics: “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods,” he writes at the beginning of Book VIII of the Nichomachean Ethics. Following Aristotle, Aquinas also places friendship at a central place in the moral life by identifying charity, the mother of the virtues, as friendship with God.

What is friendship? For Aquinas, it is a particular type of love. Following Aristotle (Rhetoric ii, 4), Aquinas writes,

To love is to wish good to someone.’ Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good. Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good (I-II, Q. 26, art. 4).

Most generally, a relationship of friendship is one characterized by mutual well-wishing and benevolence. Friends are those who wish good for one another. But friendship goes beyond benevolence. For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship demands that one see the friend as another self, and demands a certain “affective union” between oneself and the friend (II-II, Q. 27, art. 2).

Because of the intimacy that is prerequisite to friendship, friendship demands contact with the person who is our friend. It seems that for Aristotle, one needs actual physical contact to sustain the friendship: “Those, however, who approve of each other but do not live together seem to be well-disposed rather than actual friends. For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together.” In Book XI, Aristotle provides further support for the idea that friendship demands a certain physical society:

Surely it is strange, too, to make the supremely happy man a solitary; for no one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others. Therefore even the happy man lives with others; for he has the things that are by nature good. And plainly it is better to spend his days with friends and good men than with strangers or any chance persons. Therefore the happy man needs friends.

Friends, for Aristotle, must share a life together. Friendship, he says at the end of Book IX, delights in the sight of the beloved. Friendship is an intimate partnership.

“And as a man is to himself, so is he to his friend; now in his own case the consciousness of his being is desirable, and so therefore is the consciousness of his friend’s being, and the activity of this consciousness is produced when they live together, so that it is natural that they aim at this. And whatever existence means for each class of men, whatever it is for whose sake they value life, in that they wish to occupy themselves with their friends; and so some drink together, others dice together, others join in athletic exercises and hunting, or in the study of philosophy, each class spending their days together in whatever they love most in life; for since they wish to live with their friends, they do and share in those things which give them the sense of living together.”

As Paul Wadell writes, “The test of any friendship is our willingness to let our life be shaped by it, not only to spend time with our friend and be present to her, but also to succumb to the friendship, to make ourself vulnerable to it because in some way our life is created from it” (Friends of God, 34).

The question, it seems, is whether Facebook satisfies the demands for a “shared life together.” For Aristotle, the society of friendship is clearly physical, but he, of course, did not know the possibility of a virtual society. Can we agree with Aristotle that friendship demands contact, but also conclude that the virtual “contact” provided by Facebook satisfies this demand? After all, it may be true that we do not stay friends with people that we lose contact with, but Facebook makes it possible to never lose contact and hence, to never lose the friendship.

It is hard to see, however, how the intimacy that friendship demands is satisfied by Facebook. One possible reason is that we are corporeal creatures, and hence, our friendships demand a great degree of corporeality. To be a human self is to be embodied. It is impossible to see the friend as another self without somehow sharing in bodily life together: eating together, touching each other, hearing each other’s voices, looking into each other’s eyes. Facebook friendships can only palely imitate this corporeal intimacy with pictures, wall conversations, and likes and dislikes, but at the end of the day, the Facebook friend can never be “another self” because the friend is always disembodied.

We are social creatures, and the intimacy that we human creatures demand is a very physical intimacy. And this is what makes the end of “The Social Network” so tragic: Zuckerberg’s isolation is a physical one, one which he tries to fill virtually but can never find satisfaction. You get the sense that what he wants at the end of the movie is not money, nor power, nor fame, but somebody to eat dinner with, to converse with, to touch his arm consolingly, to bear with him. The man with thousands of friends is actually friendless.

From an Aristotelian perspective, friendship is clearly the basis of a good life. Maybe the end of “The Social Network,” however, reveals more about the corporeal nature of the good life than it does about the friendship made possible by Facebook. If Facebook keeps us from a shared life with our friends, it can be antithetical to the good life, as we see with Zuckerberg. But Facebook need not replace true friendship. Like so many things in life, Facebook may only become bad when used excessively.

So, as Lent comes to a close, I am looking forward to getting back on Facebook. I think I’ll probably use it less, but I bet I’ll always use it some. I have, however, enjoyed this time of abstinence and the opportunity it provided to reflect more thoroughly on the nature of friendship and the good life.

The Problem With Democracy

Nicholas Kristoff has an op-ed out today in which he jokingly argues that America needs a monarch:

If we can just get over George III, our new constitutional monarchs could serve as National Hand-Holders, Morale-Boosters-in-Chief and Founts of American Indignation.

Our king and queen could spend days traipsing along tar-ball-infested beaches, while bathing oil-soaked pelicans and thrusting strong chins defiantly at BP rigs.

All that would give President Obama time to devise actual clean-up policies. He might then also be able to concentrate on eliminating absurd government policies that make these disasters more likely (such as the $75 million cap on economic damages when an oil rig is responsible for a spill). . .

. . . As Stephen Colbert observed about the oil spill: “We know if this was Reagan, he would have stripped to his skivvies, put a knife in his teeth, gone down there and punched that oil well shut!”

But let’s be realistic. Most presidents just won’t look that good in their skivvies. And some may accidentally swallow the knives. Thus, the need for a handsome king and queen to lead photo-ops.

But perhaps the need for a monarch is not so much due to America’s love for drama, or Obama’s love of the spotlight, or the the general tendency to think of the head of state as a Hollywood star. Rather, the problems Kristoff sees in our current democracy (the inability to deal with the oil spill, for example) might be rooted in a problem with democracy itself.

When Aristotle was writing his political treatise, he said that the function of a government was to help its members life a good life. He saw three main ways a government could be constructed: rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by many. All three forms of government have good manifestations and bad ones. A good rule by one is a monarchy; a bad rule by one is a tyranny. In like manner, a good rule a few is an aristocracy; a bad one is an oligarchy. The difference between good forms of governments and bad ones is that in the latter, the end (telos) of government is to help the citizens live a good life, whereas in a bad form of government, the telos is to help its governors live a good life.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle knows that any ideal form of government (like the idealist society delineated by Plato in the Republic in which all property is common and happiness results from common simple pursuits) was bound to fail since such an ideal was contrary to human nature. He also knows that every form of government has a tendency to become corrupt because people naturally want to assume more power for themselves at the expense of others. As such, Aristotle tends towards supporting democracy (what he calls a polity) as the best form of government since, by dividing up power to rule, it makes it difficult for any one group or individual to assume exclusive power and direct the activities of state away from the common good and towards their own individual good.

Democracy too has good and bad forms. Its good form is what Aristotle calls a polity whereby citizens take turns ruling and different activities are allocated to different rulers. Ideally, both the rich and the poor should be involved in ruling a state with a proper balance of powers so that one individual or group does not become too powerful (what Aristotle refers to as uniting the freedom of the poor with the wealth of the rich). Its bad form is when the masses act out of their own self-interest, the government stagnates, and nothing gets done. This is why Aristotle prefers democracy—its bad form is simply stagnation.

But Aristotle does not do a great job defending his democracy against the critique of Plato. Plato argued that the act of governing required certain expertise, and in democracy, only those who are experts at appealing to the sentiments of the masses and winning elections will be selected by the people to rule. As a result, the people that are elected to rule will only be able to affect change by using mass appeal and manipulation, not practical wisdom.

Aristotle thinks that a division of labor will solve this. That is, the people best suited to certain tasks will be selected to oversee those tasks. But if such people are democratically selected, in other words, if they are selected by the people, we must assume that the majority of people know what type of person would be best suited for what task. However, most people (which Aristotle recognizes) do not have such knowledge. Hence, democracy turns into a game of rhetoric in which the most appealing, not the most competent individual is selected to rule.

The problem will not be solved, as Kristoff seems to think, by allotting a figurehead to play the role of looking pretty and providing entertainment for the American people while the real leader does all the work. As long as the people are selecting the “real leader,” he or she will always be a figurehead, and in the meantime, the masses will be acting out their own self-interest and nothing will get done.

Integrating Mind and Matter in Healthcare

A great article in the NYTimes illustrates a major problem in contemporary psychiatric practice–its mind/body dualism. The author Daniel Carlat, who has a book coming out on the subject next month, describes how psychiatric practice has moved over the last fifty years from an exclusive focus on the mind to an exclusive focus on the brain:

Leon Eisenberg, an early pioneer in psychopharmacology at Harvard, once made the notable historical observation that “in the first half of the 20th century, American psychiatry was virtually ‘brainless.’ . . . In the second half of the 20th century, psychiatry became virtually ‘mindless.’ ” The brainless period was a reference to psychiatry’s early infatuation with psychoanalysis; the mindless period, to our current love affair with pills.

More specifically, writes Carlan, “psychiatry has been transformed from a profession in which we talk to people and help them understand their problems into one in which we diagnose disorders and medicate them.”

This is due to a number of factors including the fact that insurance companies “pay nearly the same amount for a 20-minute medication visit as for 50 minutes of therapy” as well as the fact that patients in today’s busy culture are unlikely to want to commit valuable time to weekly therapy. But a big reason for the move to meds over therapy is that the drugs seem to work. But appearances can be deceiving. Carlat writes,

But over the past few years, research studies have shown that therapy is just as effective as medications for many conditions, and that medications themselves often work through the power of placebo. In one study, for example, researchers did a meta-analysis of studies submitted by drug companies to the F.D.A. on seven new antidepressants, involving more than 19,000 patients. It turned out that antidepressants are, indeed, effective, because on average patients taking the pills showed a 40 percent drop in depression scores. But placebo was also a powerful antidepressant, causing a 30 percent drop in depression scores. This meant that about three-quarters of the apparent response to antidepressants pills is actually due to the placebo effect.

Nobody knows exactly how the mysterious placebo effect works, but it is clear that it has impacts on the brain that can be seen as clearly as medication effects. In one study conducted by pain researchers at the University of Michigan, subjects were given an ache-inducing injection of saline into their jaws and were placed in a PET scanner. They were then told that they would be given an intravenous pain treatment, but the “treatment” was merely more saline solution, acting as a placebo. The PET scan showed that the endogenous endorphin system in the brains of the subjects was activated. The patients believed so strongly that they were receiving effective treatment that their brains followed suit. Presumably, a corresponding brain change occurs when depressed patients are given placebo pills.

Therapy, you may be surprised to discover, also leads to empirical changes in the brain.

n an experiment conducted at U.C.L.A. several years ago, with subjects suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, researchers assigned some patients to treatment with Prozac and others to cognitive behavior therapy. They found that patients improved about equally well with the two treatments. Each patient’s brain was PET-scanned before and after treatment, and patients showed identical changes in their brain circuits regardless of the treatment.

What this article points out is that the dualistic distinction between mind and matter does not correspond to reality. The “mind” is not some metaphysical entity distinct from and trapped inside the material trappings of the brain. Rather, the mind is matter, or perhaps more specifically, the mind is consubstantial with matter. As scientists like Steven Pinker and Antonio Damasio have illustrated, the legacy of Descartes that there is some sort of “ghost in the machine” is false. The metaphysical “mind,” complete with values, personality, and character, exists substantially in the material components of synapses, axons, and cortex.

We might consider this a development from a more Platonic to a more Aristotelian psychology and biology. Ethically, it challenges us to see how care for the soul cannot be separated from care for the body. We are not spiritual beings who can somehow transcend the trappings of the body with all of its inconveniences, but nor are we purely material beings, as transparent and obedient to the laws of nature as a stone. What is metaphysical in our nature influences and is influenced by what is material.

This new understanding of the nature of the human person, what we might call a philosophical anthropology, needs to influence the way we think of medicine. As Carlat writes,

Clearly, mental illness is a brain disease, though we are still far from working out the details. But just as clearly, these problems in neurobiology can respond to what have traditionally been considered “nonbiological” treatments, like psychotherapy. The split between mind and body may be a fallacy, but the split between those who practice psychopharmacology and those specializing in therapy remains all too real.

For him practically, this has meant a shift to what he calls “supportive therapy” which involves not only prescribing drugs, but also listening to patients, helping them solve basic problems, and offering emotional support. The implications, however, extend beyond just psychiatry to all of medicine. Carlat concludes that good doctoring “involves perfecting all the skills relevant to healing and deploying them when needed.”

This will be a challenge in upcoming years as our health care system becomes more systematized, more reliant on complex care networks dependent largely on electronic patient records rather than a simpler primary care provider/patient relationship. In an of itself, this is not a bad thing and a more efficient system will allow more patients to receive and benefit from healthcare. But doctors need not forget the value of that standard question “how are you feeling?” and most importantly, cultivating a disposition to listen to the response. They may find themselves prescribing fewer meds and getting healthier and happier patients as a result.

Philosopher Children Make for Better Politics

This article in the New York Times brings up an under-discussed topic: teaching children philosophy:

“The world is a puzzling place and when you’re young it doesn’t make sense,” Professor Wartenberg says. “What you’re giving them is the sort of skills to learn how to think about these things.”

Professor Wartenberg has written a book, “Big Ideas for Little Kids: Teaching Philosophy Through Children’s Literature” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), to spread his experiment to more elementary schools. His focus is on teaching undergraduate philosophy students how to work with children, and his decade-old course at Mount Holyoke, “Teaching Children Philosophy,” has led many of his students to pursue careers in early-childhood education.

“A lot of them don’t know what to do after college,” he says. “If they want to do something with philosophy, this opens up an avenue.”

Professor Wartenberg also says that philosophy lessons can improve reading comprehension and other skills that children need to meet state-imposed curriculum standards and excel on standardized tests. With a grant from the Squire Family Foundation, which promotes the teaching of ethics and philosophy, he is assessing whether his program helps in the development of argument and other skills.

The view that children can do philosophy and engage in conversations on metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics and epistemology challenges the view of child psychologist Jean Piaget who claimed that children under the age of 12 were not capable of the sort of abstract thinking required for philosophical analysis. Matthew Lipman, however, founder of Philosophy for Children, disagrees, claiming that the insatiable curiosity of children makes them ripe for engaging in philosophical dialogues. According to Lipman’s approach, the teacher acts as a sort of “midwife to the thoughts of the students” (to use an expression from Plato). The idea is not to teach students what Plato or Descartes thought, but rather to teach them how to think.

Literature turns out to be a wonderful place to begin, as the following exchange over The Giving Tree illustrates:

Ms. Runquist’s students managed to fit philosophy in between writing and science. This was their sixth lesson of the year, and by now they knew the drill: deciding whether or not they agreed with each question; thinking about why or why not; explaining why or why not; and respecting what their classmates said.

Most of the young philosophers had no problem with the boy using the tree’s shade. But they were divided on the apples, which the boy sold, the branches, which he used to build a house, and the trunk, which he carved into a boat.

“It’s only a tree,” Justin said with a shrug.

“The tree has feelings!” Keyshawn replied.

Some reasoned that even if the tree wanted the boy to have its apples and branches, there might be unforeseen consequences.

“If they take the tree’s trunk, um, the tree’s not going to live,” said Nyasia.

Isaiah was among only a few pupils who said they would treat an inanimate object differently from a human friend.

“Say me and a rock was a friend,” he said. “It would be different, because a rock can’t move. And it can’t look around.”

This gave his classmates pause.

In book VII of The Politics, Aristotle addresses the question of how people should be educated in an ideal city according to both the end and means of education. The end of education is eudaimonia, a life of flourishing or as we say, happiness. Whereas practical reason makes important contributions to eudaimonia in terms of making decisions conducive to health and financial success, ultimately, it is the speculative intellect which contributes most directly to the ultimate end of education and the achievement of eudaimonia. While Aristotle definitely thinks that children are not born in command of their reason, but must rather be trained, he clearly thinks that by the age of seven, children should be engaged in the most basic and foundational forms of philosophical inquiry, and should be learning the intellectual habits (counsel, understanding, wisdom) which are integral to the philosophical life. Active, creative, and democratic conversation among children creates adults who can engage in active, creative, and democratic conversation. Young philosophers, according to both Aristotle and Lipman, turn into good citizens.

Opponents claim that children need to be taught “useful” subjects like math, science, and reading, all of which are conveniently-suited to standardized tests, and that philosophy is a luxury which our already-undereducated children cannot afford. Lipman, however, started working on developing philosophical tools for children during the Vietnam era, during which he claimed “many Americans were too accepting of authoritative answers and slow to reason for themselves — by college, he feared, it would be too late.”

It seems to me that with all the unproductive back and forths between liberals and tea-party conservatives, the gross misunderstandings on both sides in the debates on health care reform, the vitriol we see in coverage of the Roman Catholic Church in recent weeks, and countless other examples point to the fact that even the best brains among us do not know how to have a conversation, to reason about ideas, and to listen and compromise with those who hold divergent views. Perhaps teaching kids philosophy isn’t such a worthless idea after all.

Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology

Metaphysics is that science which studies all that is beyond the natural world, yet still relates to the natural world. Metaphysics studies the nature of being (ontology) and causation and transcendentals (the Beautiful, the Good, the True). Metaphysics (meta ta phusika) itself simply means “beyond the physics” and was the word assigned to the sequel of Aristotle’s book the Physics which examined the natural world. Everything that our senses can perceive is subject to contingency and change and it is these things that are the object of the study of physics. Metaphysics studies those things which are beyond apprehension of our senses. We can perceive a rock or a tree or a piece of cake with our senses, and so these can be the subject of physical inquiry. But we cannot perceive God or the immortal soul or spiritual beings like angels with our senses; these, then, are the subject of metaphysical inquiry.

Aristotle himself did not use this word but called the subject of his book the “First Science,” “Wisdom,” or “Theology.” The subject of his inquiry was specifically the first cause of things or non-material things which do not change. This is sometimes described as “being qua being,” or “being as it is in itself.” Because this was the most fundamental subject, Aquinas thought the study of metaphysics as “wisdom” (sophia), the highest type of knowledge.

Metaphysics has always had a reputation of being about matters which are notoriously difficult. Andronicus of Rhodes probably assigned the title ‘metaphysics’ to Aristotle’s text indicating that the subject matter of the Physics must be fully grasped before one could understand the subject of the sequel. Metaphysicians use phrases like “essence precedes existence” or “substances, while not universals, are subjects of predication that cannot themselves be predicated of things.” Such language is especially prohibitive according to our modern sensibilities which seek to explain all phenomena in positivistic or empirical language. Kant rejected metaphysics because he claimed that the immaterial world was beyond intellectual inquiry. Hume claimed that all we could know was what we could experience, thus precluding metaphysics as a viable mode of inquiry since it was specifically about things which could not be experienced. Modern materialists reject metaphysics because they claim there is no immaterial world–all that exists is what we can apprehend with our senses.

In Christian theology, metaphysical language has been used to talk about and explain various things about God. In the creed, for example, when you say, “begotten not made, one in being with the Father,” you are expressing a metaphysical conclusion which was once a hot debate in the early church. Metaphysics has been especially employed throughout history to discuss the nature of the Incarnation (word becoming flesh) and the Trinity (one being or ousia of three persons or hypostases). Aquinas relied heavily on metaphysical language to explain these mysteries. Aquinas used metaphysical language to talk about God’s simplicity (that he lacks composition), his perfection, his eternity, his immutability, and his power. But he also employs heavily metaphysical language to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. That is, given that God is one and simple, how can we also say that God is three persons?

Much of Protestant theology has assumed an irreconcilable division between Scripture and metaphysics. For many Protestants, the best way to talk about God is not in the metaphysical language of being, but rather in the language that God gives us in Scripture. That is, if we want to understand God, we turn to Scripture which tells us who YHWH is, who Jesus Christ is, and who the Holy Spirit is.

There is good reason for this turn to Scripture, rather than philosophy, in order to understand God. Luther, for example, quite famously said that metaphysics was prohibitive for understanding God, and was a way of getting around the fact that the living God has revealed himself historically in Scripture. Moreover, it is hard to deny that it is much easier to be inspired and captivated by the scriptural tales of the various acts of the God of Israel, and the stories of Jesus, and the Pauline arguments about Jesus’ significance than it is to be inspired and captivated by a discussion like the following from Aquinas’ treatment of the Trinity:

the divine simplicity requires that in God essence is the same as “suppositum,” which in intellectual substances is nothing else than person. But a difficulty seems to arise from the fact that while the divine persons are multiplied, the essence nevertheless retains its unity. And because, as Boethius says (De Trin. i), “relation multiplies the Trinity of persons,” some have thought that in God essence and person differ, forasmuch as they held the relations to be “adjacent”; considering only in the relations the idea of “reference to another,” and not the relations as realities. But as it was shown above (Question 28, Article 2) in creatures relations are accidental, whereas in God they are the divine essence itself. Thence it follows that in God essence is not really distinct from person; and yet that the persons are really distinguished from each other. (Ia, Q. 39, art. 1).

However, the assumed antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is in many ways a straw man. First of all, Scripture uses metaphysical language to talk about God. When God tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Prologue of John is heavily metaphysical:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.

Second of all, many of those who use metaphysics, like Aquinas, do not do so in order to replace Scripture, but rather to shed light on the mysteries narrated by Scripture.

Overcoming the antagonism between Scripture and metaphysics is the subject of Matthew Levering’s excellent new book, Scripture and Metaphysics: Aquinas and the Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, which I will be discussing in subsequent blog posts. Levering argues that metaphysical speculation about God, rather than rendering God distant and meaningless, is necessary to ensure that our worship is oriented towards Israel’s God, rather than culturally relevant idols. Aquinas, he argues, is an invaluable guide for learning how metaphysics enhances our understanding of Scripture and deepens our knowledge and union with God. He writes in the introduction,

We learn from Aquinas how the language of ‘being’ [metaphysical language] preserves Israel’s radical insistence upon the intimate presence in the world of her transcendent god, a presence that is ultimately Messianic, given the evil of the world. Aquinas exposes how the doctrine of divine Personhood attains real knowledge of, without over-narrating, the inner life of God as revealed in Scripture. He finds in the proper names of the Trinity—father, Son, Word, Image, Holy Spirit, Love, Gift—the biblical distinctions of the divine communion-in-unity into which our lives have been salvifically drawn. Against supersessionism, including the unconscious supersessionism that is Trinitarian ontology, he teaches Christians that we must always speak of our triune God under two aspects (4).

Metaphysics, for Aquinas and for Levering who wants to defend Aquinas, belongs to the personal encounter in which human beings use human words and human concepts to truly express divine revelation. Aquinas uses metaphysics to illumine the meaning of Scriptural revelation, to talk in a meaningful way about the God who has made himself known, and ultimately, to help Christians contemplate and enter into greater union with this living God. A Jean Pierre Torrell writes:

When Thomas says that theology is principally speculative, he means that it is in the first instance contemplative; the two words are practically synonymous in Thomas. This is why—we shall not be slow to see this operative in Thomas’ life—research, study, reflection on God can find their source and their completion only in prayer. The Eastern Christians like to say of theology that it is doxology; Thomas would add some further clarifications to that, but he would not reject the intention: the joy of the Friend who is contemplated is completed in song (Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1: The Person and His Work, 157).

On a final note, I hope this post and the subsequent posts I write on this book and the topic of scripture and metaphysics will foster ecumenical dialogue. As a Roman Catholic married to a member of the Church of Christ, and as a regular mass attendant and active worshipper in a local church of Christ, I am very interested in finding points of similarity and unity between a tradition that is heavily speculative and metaphysical, and a tradition that is historically rationalistic, positivistic, and solely reliant on Scripture to know God and how to worship him. I think that Aquinas is an invaluable resource for this dialogue, and for future ecumenical dialogue between Roman Catholics and other Christian traditions, and I hope that these posts can help to foster an ongoing conversation between different Christians who seek to climb the steep mountain of the knowledge of God.

The Pope’s Very Political Encyclical

Pope Benedict promulgated his third encyclical last week entitled “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). It’s a lengthy encyclical but if you choose, you can read the full text here. Or you can just peruse this or this very useful summary.

The encyclical fits into the genre of “Catholic Social Teaching,” and in it, Benedict reemphasizes some prominent themes from that tradition: the protection of life, the protection of workers, the importance of the economy serving human beings and not the other way around, and the principle of subsidiarity for the organization of society.

There are lots of blog posts examining the encyclical, which I am not going to do here. My interest concerns rather a point made by Ross Douthat in the NYTimes op-ed column entitled “The Audacity of the Pope.” He writes:

Inevitably, liberal Catholics spent the past week touting its relevance to the Democratic Party’s policy positions. (A representative blast e-mail: “Pope’s Encyclical on Global Economy Supports the Principles of the Employee Free Choice Act.”) Just as inevitably, conservative Catholics hastened to explain that the encyclical “is not a political document” — to quote a statement co-authored by the House minority leader, John Boehner — and shouldn’t be read as “an endorsement of any political or economic agenda.”

Then, after acknowledging that the pope is neither a Republican or a Democrat, Douthat writes that “Benedict’s encyclical is nothing if not political. Caritas in Veritate promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos.”

What bothers me about the rest of the column is that Douthat tries to make the encyclical somehow “fit into” American conceptions of politics, recognizing that putting the pope’s recommendations into practice is challenging for Democrats and Republicans alike. “For liberals and conservatives alike, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests.”

Douthat is right that people want to take the encyclical as political when they agree with it, but when they don’t, the pope is just weighing in with his opinion. For the vast majority of people looking at the political implications of the encyclical, politics is a matter of debate, division, and voting. Politics is like a debate competition with winners and losers. Basically, politics is about what you do; morality is about what you believe. The pope can believe whatever he wants, but this has nothing to do with politics. Morality is a private issue; politics is public.

I think this understanding of politics stems from the idea that somehow morality is something separate from politics. I’m reminded of Al Gore’s speech at the Academy Awards where he said that climate change was “not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.” Gore’s comment makes it seem like politics is about power, or about making people do something. Morality on the other hand is about right and wrong.

Aristotle and Aquinas give us a very different understanding of politics. Politics is not about coercion and power, or even primarily about making laws and enforcing them. Politics for Aristotle and Aquinas is simply a branch of ethics. For Aristotle, “politics” is simply part two of his ethics. And Aquinas never even wrote a treatise on politics, though he did write about politics in his ethics found in the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica. In honor of Benedict’s very political encyclical, now is a good time to review what Aristotle and Aquinas take “political” to mean.

For Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings are political creatures, naturally inclined to live in society. Political society (civitas) emerges from the needs human nature and is in itself a purely natural and desirable. This is a stark contrast with a thinker like Thomas Hobbes who thought that political society was an artificial imposition established to curb the violence of human nature. For Hobbes, if human beings were virtuous, they would not need a political society; for Aquinas, political society is necessary for the full perfection of human existence. The political society is the social setting in which human beings find their fulfillment and flourishing.

The primary task of the political society, therefore, is to create good and virtuous citizens. Drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas says that a political society comes into being as a necessary component of human life, but it exists for the sake of living well (Commentary on the Politics, Book 1, Lesson 1).

So we see that ethics and politics has a similar end or purpose–the formation of good people. And in both ethics and politics, this process is a gradual process of development and progress over time. While political society might be completely natural, a good political society is not. In the same way that human beings must acquire moral virtue through education and habituation, even though they are naturally inclined to moral virtue in Aquinas’ system, so too must a political society be developed and fostered.

One of the ways this happens is through the natural law. The natural law, most basically, is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. The eternal law is the Divine Governance that is behind creation. For most of creation, the eternal law is pretty determinative. It is by God’s eternal law that the seasons change, the planets move, fire rises upward, and stones fall downward. It is by the eternal law that plants grow, and lions chase gazelles, and whales swim instead of fly. But rational creatures (i.e. humans), as Aquinas writes, are “subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself, and for others” (ST I-II, Q. 91, art. 2).

Human beings are not determined to specific actions like other parts of creation. Humans do have natural inclinations that come from the eternal law, but human beings have freedom and choice regarding how those inclinations will be directed. Thus, the natural law is about directing natural human inclinations towards the ultimate human good, which is flourishing. These natural inclinations include those inclinations that we share with all created things, namely, to keep ourselves in existence. They also include the inclinations that we share with other animals, namely to reproduce and educate offspring. And those natural inclinations include those distinctively human inclinations to form societies and seek out knowledge of God.

So the formation and regulation of society is a subject of study both for ethics and for politics. Laws are the natural outgrowth of the rational creature discerning how to live in order to flourish. Laws are not primarily about coercion (although they can and do have coercive effects). Laws are the product and outgrowth of the natural law. They are the embodiment of a community’s morality.

Politics, therefore, like ethics, is about discerning right from wrong in order to best live a good and flourishing life. So the pope’s encyclical, in so far as it is about morals, is political. But that does not mean that is primarily concerned with legislation. Determining how such moral values offered in the encyclical are to be enacted in legislation will vary from community to community. Aquinas explains how the process of creating laws is like craftsman who uses the “general form of a house” to build a particular house. Laws, in the same ways, are built on moral values (derived from natural law) but their specific form will vary depending on the needs of a given community.

Thus, different societies will have different ways of enforcing the precepts of natural law like prohibitions against murder or theft or laws regulating the best way to raise a family, protect the environment, or educate citizens. And different societies are going to have different ways of enacting the moral values espoused in Caritas et Veritate. The pope’s encyclical talks about the foundations for this process–the sort of moral values that all people of good will should espouse and all societies should take seriously in working to promote the common good. This is very much a political endeavor, or as the pope writes in his encyclical, it is the fruit of the “political path of charity.” (7)

No matter what you might think of the pope’s ideas, you cannot write off the encyclical as moral, but not political. But it isn’t political because the pope is taking sides or affirming the platform of any given party, or playing a political game. It is not political because the pope is coercing individuals or nations to act in any given way. It is political because the pope is talking about ethics, about the moral values that we act on that either contribute to or detract from the good life. It is political because the pope is inquiring after what human beings need in our changing world to flourish. As we debate the merits of the encyclical, let us not debate about whether it is political or not, and let us definitely not assume that simply because the pope wrote something political, he is out of line. Rather, let us allow the political process the pope started to continue as we examine the encyclical and reflect on what our society needs for its people to live good lives.

Marriage as Friendship

In Christian theology, marriage is typically thought to have three ends or purposes: begetting children, bestowing grace and providing a remedy for sin, and creating mutuality in interpersonal communion. The first purpose is easy to achieve (though a little more difficult to do well); the second purpose is entirely up to God’s gratuitous action. In this blog post, then, we are going to focus on the last purpose, which does not receive nearly enough philosophical and theological attention. We are going to examine how Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas’ theological and philosophical system allows us to think of marriage as friendship.

Aristotle identified three types of friendship. The first is called a friendship of utility. These are relationships based on benefit and what Aristotle calls eros or erotic love. These are relationships that exist because each party gets something out of it. The friendship that exists between soldiers or co-workers or classmates is an example of such a friendship. Aristotle says that these relationships are impermanent, and they form and dissolve frequently based on changing circumstances. A friendship based on utility does not have to be between people who necessarily like each other, but simply has to serve some benefit.

The second type of friendship is a friendship of pleasure. Friendships based on pleasure, unlike those of utility, are between people who like each other and desire the other person’s company, precisely because it is pleasurable (and not necessarily useful). The partner in such a friendship is desired for their own sake because it brings so much pleasure. These are the friendships most of us have–our conversation partners, the people who share our hobbies, the people who delight us when we are in their presence. Among this type of friendship, Aristotle includes lovers who find sexual intercourse mutually pleasurable.

The last type of friendship is a friendship of virtue. If friendships of utility are based on material advantage, and those of pleasure are based on pleasures of the body, the last type of friendship is based on the good and the mutual pursuit of virtue. The tie that binds these relationships is not the good received, but the good that is willed to the other. These are friends who want primarily what is good for their friend, even when the pursuit of this good is not always easy or pleasurable. However, this last type of friendship according to Aristotle is indeed the most useful and the most pleasurable in the long run.

For Aquinas, this last type of friendship is the ideal relationship that rational creatures and designed to cultivate. We have the best chance of flourishing intellectually, morally, and spiritually when we have a social life based on this last type of friendship. In fact, without friends, the virtuous person’s life would be impaired. Without friends, a person would lose enthusiasm for virtuous living, and lose the motivation to act in the right way.

Friendships based on virtue allow a person to expand their capacity for virtuous deeds. Say I struggle with temperance but excel in courage. A virtuous friend who excels in temperance can provide me with the much needed motivation to act temperately in a given challenging situation. In turn, I may help this friend to become more courageous by providing her motivation to have fortitude in a challenging situation. Aquinas agrees with Aristotle that in friendships based on virtue, our friends are united to ourselves in such a way that their actions are in some way also our own. The friend is more than an Other. The friend is rather another Self.

My instinct tells me that most people think of marriage as either the first or the second type of friendship. A marriage of utility is one that might be formed because of financial benefit, or because a woman thinks that her child needs a father, or to help someone get immigration status. These marriages used to be very common, but I suspect they still happen an awful lot, especially between single moms and the “nice guy” who is just so good with her kids.

A marriage of pleasure is probably much, much more common. These are marriages formed between people who like each other, who have mutual interests like wine tasting, a love of Irish literature, or jogging. These are marriages that form because after years of dating, the two people still like each other a lot, the sex is good, and marriage is just the logical next step.

For both Aristotle and Aquinas, a friendship based on pleasure is not a bad thing in itself. The problem with these friendships is that they tend to dissolve when the pleasure dissolves. Say the sex stops being good, or every conversation on Irish literature has been exhausted, or knee surgery and pains of aging make jogging an impossibility. When the pleasure subsides or loses intensity, the friendship dissolves. And this is what happens to an awful lot of marriages.

Even marriages that last may still be these ephemeral pleasure-based friendships. This is why people push the contractual nature of marriage–you make a vow with another person to stay with them until “death do you part.” It is these vows which keeps marriages of pleasures together. When the vows are not taken seriously, the marriage simply dissolves. And this is why we have the divorce rates that we have today–a bunch of people who married because of a friendship of pleasure, and when the pleasure died, so did the marriage.

A better way to think of marriage, one that is more theologically and philosophically sound, is as this last type of friendship. According to Aquinas, there are three “acts” or fruits of this last type of friendship: benevolence, concord, and beneficence.

Benevolence signifies the willing what is good for the other, rather than just willing what is good for oneself. Beneficence signifies the doing good for the other, rather than just doing what is good for oneself. Both of these are important, but the truly distinctive mark of this last type of friendship is what is called concord.

Concord is the union of will which sustains common projects. A relationship has concord when the couple enjoys each other’s company, converses with one another, and agrees with one another’s opinions. But just agreeing with one another is not enough for a relationship to have concord, because even strangers may agree. Concord, according to Aquinas, is principally about choice, when two people agree on what is advantageous, believe in the same things, and make decisions based on these common values. Friends need not agree on everything–one may believe that vegetarianism is a better way of life, while the other may love a more carnivorous lifestyle–but they do need to have similar values. For example, they must agree at least that healthy eating is an important value to them both and they must also make decisions with an eye towards living out that value in their practical decisions.

In other words, the highest form of friendship is characterized by a union of wills. One’s choices should align with one’s friends, and not just occasionally, but habitually. And if the friendship is a true one, these choices should be virtuous ones. Say one person in the couple always wants to drink and party to excess, whereas the other one wants to drink and party in moderation. This is a relationship lacking in concord, and thus, not the sort of friendship we are looking for. This is why Aristotle and Aquinas say that friendships based on virtue need to be between people who are of similar levels of virtue.

So how does this play out in marriage? A virtuous marital relationship is one that forms because two people share similar values, and they act on those values. Pleasure, of course, is part of the equation, but it is not the most important factor. That is, a virtuous marital relationship is not based on the fact that two people enjoy the same things (although they probably do in a lot of cases) but because they believe in the same things.

The important thing to realize is that a relationship with concord is not a static one, not formulaic, and always changing as circumstances change. Aquinas says that the realm of the particular–that is, the realm of concrete action–is infinite in possibility, even though the virtues and values behind such actions remain constant. There are innumerable ways, for example, to be courageous in any given situation.

To go back to our original example of sharing values about healthy eating. The vegetarian and the carnivore may have different ways of living out their values, but they agree on the values behind those lifestyle choices. As they both grow and learn more, the way they continue to make decisions to live out their values will change. They may come to find that processed foods are most detrimental to their health, and they may resolve together to cut back on or avoid all together the processed snacks they love so much. They may find that the temperate enjoyment of fine wine fits in nicely with their resolve to eat healthy, and they may take a wine tasting class or a trip to visit vineyards in order to learn more about their new hobby. They may have conversations and debates about the health value of genetically modified foods, or share health articles like this one from the NYTimes. But what is important to the friendship (and to the marriage) is that they embark on these things together, sharing together their effort to live a healthy life. They learn from one another, they strengthen one another, and they grow closer to one another in the process.

A marriage based on this type of friendship is not fleeting. It’s foundation is much more than just utility, and more also than fleeting pleasures. This is a relationship that grows, develops, and strengthens because the people in it grow, develop, and strengthen one another. This is a relationship that changes without ending because the people in it change, and yet their beliefs and values remain constant. This is a relationship in which there will always be something to talk about and something to do because the people in it are constantly seeking for ways to live out a virtuous life. This is a relationship where two people walk together toward a common goal, helping each other along the way.

On a final note, a marriage will face certain challenges that other friendships of virtue will not face. For example, a married couple may face financial difficulties, reproductive difficulties, or mental illness or depression. And unlike other friendships, married people have to live under the same roof, face the same challenges, and bear all the same burdens. Partially for this reason, Aquinas calls marriage a sacrament, meaning that in the institution of marriage, God offers the grace necessary to endure the difficulties the couple will face on their path to their ultimate goal–union with God.

An Ethical Response to the Fragility of Human Life

Human life is a fragile thing. The goodness of human life is dependent on (or threatened by) external circumstances such as wealth, health, beauty, talent, and simple luck. Since antiquity, people have pondered how to factor in the seeming necessity of external contingents into an ethical account of the “good life.” The Stoics were notorious for their conclusion that external contingents like health, wealth, friends, and family were not relevant factors in the formula for a good life. For the Stoics, all that mattered was virtue. If you were a virtuous person–that is, a courageous, temperate, just, and prudent person–you could lose your home, your friends and family, all your possessions, and even your health and still, if you kept your virtue, you would still be happy.

Although most of us probably feel that the Stoic response is somehow not really human, we can be sympathetic to what this school of philosophy was trying to achieve. Bad things happen to good people. Even in antiquity, this was a truism. In light of this, the task of ethics is to keep good people from turning into bad ones when disaster hits. The Stoics concluded that detachment from the need for external goods was the only way to stay good in a world full of badness. “Love only virtue,” was the Stoics’ rallying cry. If you loved only virtue, you could lose a child and remain unfazed. If you loved only virtue, you could get a cancer diagnosis and not be troubled. In the face of any adversity, you stayed stoic, and most importantly, virtuous.

The alternative to the Stoic conception of happiness and morality in light of the fragility of external goods is Aristotle’s way. Aristotle said that we need more than just a virtuous character to be happy. As humans, we need food and shelter, we need a certain degree of wealth and life success, we need good health, and we need relationships. No amount of virtue will create a happy life if we are missing any of these things.

The Stoic tendency shows up a lot in history, Christianity included. Christian morality is often caricatured as teaching the saints live an austere life, indifference to grief, joy, pleasure, or pain. I want to argue, however, that the Christian conception of happiness is much closer to the Aristotelian notion than the Stoic, namely, that we need certain external goods to be happy.

Enter Job. Job is a righteous man, and blessed by God. He has a big family, robust health, a huge estate with lots of animals, and quite a bit of wealth. Not only is he a happy guy, he’s virtuous as well.

But then he gets tested. He loses his animals, his children die, his home is destroyed, and eventually, even his health goes. Poor Job is sitting on the ash heap covered with boils and sores, and he is miserable. Not only is he miserable, but he wants answers from this alleged “good” God that has allowed him to suffer so.

And God gives an answer:

Then the LORD addressed Job out of the storm and said: Who is this that obscures divine plans with words of ignorance? Gird up your loins now, like a man; I will question you, and you tell me the answers! Where were you when I founded the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its size; do you know? Who stretched out the measuring line for it? Into what were its pedestals sunk, and who laid the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1-7)

I heard my husband preach on this text this weekend, and he brought Job into dialogue with Paul in 2 Corinthians 6 who is not, unlike Job, complaining about his suffering, but actually boasting and rejoicing in it. My husband pointed out that there is a major difference between Job and Paul when they confront the contingency of external goods, and the terror that comes with losing them. The difference is that Job has something to lose, but Paul, as well as the other apostles, have already given everything up. They have left their homes and their families, and given up any hope of being rich. With nothing to lose, suffering does not present the same sort of problem for the disciples of Christ as it does for Job.

The moral lesson of the story, according to this sermon, was to be preemptive when it comes to losing the external goods that cause so much suffering by giving up these goods voluntarily. If you don’t want to be afraid of losing your money, give most of it away. If you don’t want to suffer badly when you lose your job, don’t get to attached to it.

That sounds nice in theory, but Paul’s boasting in his suffering and the disciples’ total renunciation of worldly goods is not the way most Christians live. And it sounds a little too Stoic for my taste. Plus, it is fine to talk about the renunciation of external goods like property and wealth, but what about external goods like relationships and health? Surely Christians are meant to have at least some attachment to these external goods. So how are Christians to make sense of external goods that the world offers, and which sometimes are cruelly taken away?

Thomas Aquinas is Aristotelian in his approach to the question of external goods. This means that he is not going to recommend detachment from externals, like the Stoics or some Christian interpretations of the command to “hate the world.” Instead of detachment, Aquinas recommends “ordered love.” External goods can be loved, but they have to be loved in the right way. This means that goods like a nice home, a reliable car, a big family, and a sound bill of health are all goods that we can and even should desire. We just may not desire these goods as ends in themselves. Ordered love prefers always the greatest good, which is God, to all other lesser goods.

We pervert the proper order of love when we either love lesser things inordinately, like loving someone loving their car so much that they go bankrupt in taking care of it, or we pervert the proper order of love when we don’t love greater goods enough. The greatest good being God, all other goods should be subordinated to Him. This means that it is disordered to love your friends so much that you skip worship to spend time with them. It is disordered to love our health so much you spend all of your money on gym memberships and supplements and health food, to the neglect of other financial pursuits like charity and tithing.

But what is important to note about this idea of ordered love is that according to Aquinas, Christians can still love the goods of this world, and be attached to them, and mourn them when they are lost. It is good and proper to mourn for a lost loved one, and it is appropriate to worry about losing your home and possessions during tight economic times. Aquinas recognizes that we need these things to be happy, that is, to lead full and flourishing human lives. Aquinas’ way is not a way of detachment, but rather of proper attachment. Aquinas recognizes that becoming a Christian disciple does not necessarily prevent you from becoming Job yourself, sitting on top of an ash heap and mourning the fact that you’ve lost everything against your will.

Life on this earth is full of contingents. Sometimes things work well for us. Sometimes, we get to marry the person of our dreams, land a dream apartment in a cool city, get a job that is not only a career but a vocation, and surround ourselves with friends and family that love and care for us. At other times, we may have to deal with the mess of losing our job, or having a spouse lose their job. We may have to face a debilitating illness or watch a loved one succumb to a terminal disease. We may lose our home to the force of nature, become victims of violence, or find that the love we once thought was strong has grown dim or even disappeared. A good ethical response to the fragility of life on this earth is not detachment from external goods, but rather, fostering the sort of attachment that allows you to desire and love and mourn properly, without losing your desire and love for the greatest good—the God who is the source of all good things.

New Year’s Resolutions: It Takes More Than One Swallow to Make a Spring

Happy New Year.  Chances are, you have made some New Year’s Resolutions, probably from among these most popular picks.   You either resolved to lose weight or manage your money better or quit smoking or you chose some other noble intention for 2009.  Chances are, your noble intentions will come to naught.  This article claims only 10% of people will be successful.   With odds like that, you have to ask yourself why you bother to make a resolution in the first place.

What my Thomist eyes see when I survey the popular choices for New Year’s resolutions is that people don’t really resolve to do something specific.  They aren’t resolving not get drunk at the New Year’s party, or to send thank you cards for all the wedding gifts they received a year ago, or to send in their taxes on time.  They are resolving to make lifestyle changes.  They want to be healthier, or at least thinner.  They want to be more organized, especially with money.  They want to stop smoking or to drink less.

Lifestyle changes are all about changing our habits.  Aquinas adopts the Aristotelian insight that a habit (habitus) is “a disposition whereby that which is disposed is disposed well or ill, and this, either in regard to itself or in regard to another” (I-II, Q. 49, art. 1)  Habits are not in the body, but rather in the soul which moves the body to do certain things.  If you are prone to overeating, for example, it is not your tummy which has the bad habit, but rather your “soul” which causes you to reach for a  cookie when you are hungry  rather than a carrot stick or causes you to down an entire pizza when you are stressed.  Thomas says that habits must be in the soul because  the soul, unlike the body, is not biologically conditioned to any one activity.  It has a number of different actions to choose from, and so it needs a habit which forms it to choose well.

Habits are caused by actions, and specifically by “like acts [by which] like habits are formed” (I-II, Q. 50, art. 1).  But one act is not enough.  “The Philosopher says: “As neither does one swallow nor one day make spring: so neither does one day nor a short time make a man blessed and happy.”  This is one of my favorite passages to quote.  What it means is that we need to act over and over and over again in a way consistent with the way we always want to act.  If we want to lose weight, we need to reach for the carrot over the cookie again and again.  If we occasionally reach for the cookie, we need not despair.  One cookie does not sabotage our effort to make a lifestyle change.  The more we act in a way consistent with the way we want to act, however, the less likely one deviation is to ruin us.

The reason New Year’s resolutions fail is that people resolve to stick to a certain diet or go to the gym a certain number of times a week or stop smoking entirely, and when they slip up, they despair and stop trying.  The reason they fail is that they think that bad habits can be broken easily.  They can’t.  It takes more than good intentions and it takes more than the occasional good act.  New Year’s resolutions are going to take the entire year, and chances are, the next years as well to achieve.

The good news is that good habits are hard to break too.  The more you force yourself to eat a low-calorie snack rather than junk food, the easier it will become.  The more you force yourself to go to the gym, the less forcing you’ll have to do.  And the less you keep yourself from taking a smoke break (even when you occasionally slip up) the less tempting that smoke break will be.

So make your New Year’s resolutions, whatever they may be.  But don’t count yourself a failure if on January 2nd, you finish off the leftover Christmas cookies.  You are going for a change in habit, and no habit was ever changed by one bad–or one good–act.

What is Metaphysics and What Use is it for Christians?

The word “metaphysics” has its origins in Aristotle’s corpus, meaning literally “after the physics.” In his treatise On Physics, Aristotle studied the natural world; his concern in On Metaphysics is the world beyond the natural, that is, the immaterial world. Aristotle considered metaphysics the first philosophy (prôtê philosophia) because it had as its object the first causes of things, and he considered it a theological science (theologikê) because it culminated in considerations of God’s existence and nature.

Metaphysics, however, is distinct from theology as a discipline, and the main difference is in their starting points. Theology starts with the authority of God revealed in Scripture and made manifest in the articles of faith. It is a revealed science, meaning that we cannot empirically prove theology’s starting principles such as the incarnation, the resurrection, or the ascension. We take these matters on faith.

Metaphysics takes as its starting point the sensible world, which is the same starting point as physics. The metaphysician studies things which can be empirically validated in the natural world and finds in this intelligible traces of that which is not natural and which cannot be empirically validated—God. It is on the study of God that theology and metaphysics converge while still remaining distinct as disciplines.

One may ask why metaphysics would be necessary at all for those who have faith. The idea behind this objection to the use of metaphysics is that we have the truth concerning God revealed to us in Scripture, and thus we need only study that to know God. This is not a new objection. Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albert dealt with “some who in their complete ignorance want to oppose the use of philosophy. This is especially true among the Dominicans, where no one stands up to contradict them. Like brute animals they blaspheme against things they do not understand.”

Instead, Albert and Thomas shared a robust confidence in the use of reason to illuminate and deepen knowledge and understanding regarding matters of faith. They thought this possible because they saw faith and reason as two different approaches to the truth. So long as both kept the eternal and immutable truth as their subject, faith and reason could never be contradictory. Moreover, Thomas adamantly advanced the position that metaphysics could greatly supplement theology, and that those who “by bringing [philosophical arguments] into the service of faith, do not mix water with wine, but rather change water into wine.”

In a Quodlibet written near the end of his life, Aquinas distinguishes between two types of theological disputes. The first uses only revealed authority to make its arguments, a type of disputation that can only take place among those who accept the given source of authority. For example, Catholics and Protestants can debate about issues like the Incarnation and the Resurrection because both accept Scripture as an authority. However, Christians cannot debate on the same terms with atheists, because atheists do not accept Scripture as an authority. Instead, Christians must resort to the second type of disputation which uses rational philosophical arguments to lead the hearer to truth. As Aquinas says in the opening question of the Summa Theologica, “God is constantly at work in the mind, endowing it with its natural light and giving it direction.”

Although the mind is capable of coming to knowledge of the truth without faith, this knowledge is limited and partial. Metaphysics can tell us something about God—for example, that God is one, that God is eternal, or that God sets creation in motion—but it is the supernatural illumination of faith which strengthens and elevates the intellect so that it is capable to contemplate God face to face. As Aquinas says in the Summa Theologica I, Question 3, art. 1, human intellect may fail and be deceived, “but the light of faith, which is, as it were, a faint stamp of the First Truth in our mind, cannot fail, any more than God can be deceived or lie.”

For Christians in dialogue with Christians, metaphysical language provides a means of deepening our understanding of the tenants of our faith such as the relationship between the three Persons of the one God or the relationship between the two natures in the one Jesus Christ. The very first Christian Counsels relied on metaphysics to develop the creed that Roman Catholics and some branches of Protestants recite in church every week. Metaphysical reasoning can also illumine Scripture. When YHWH tells Moses “I AM who AM,” he is using metaphysical language. The Gospel of John is replete with metaphysics, and without metaphysics, the creation narrative in Genesis is just a myth.

But metaphysics is also indispensable if Christians have any desire at all to converse with their non-believing neighbors. The ability to talk of God as the Unmoved Mover, the first efficient cause, or the only necessary being among contingents (I will explain what these mean in a future blog) will ultimately yield more fruit in bringing the atheist or agnostic to at least acknowledging God as logical conclusion than will citing Scripture. Most importantly, the use of metaphysics will show non-believers and believers alike that theology is not an irrational science.

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