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Render unto Caesar

April 17, 2015

[Last June, after reading a great deal of John Henry Newman and Ludwig Wittgenstein, I made a series of posts about epistemology-talk, whose implicit theme found explicit expression in a later post about analogy. Recently I’ve been reading J.L. Austin and Geoffrey Hill, and my thoughts have centered on a different form of non-univocal language: equivocation, which, as I see it, relates to political ethics, our relation to each other, much as analogy does to philosophical reasoning, our relation with the truth. I have a number of posts on the topic planned, but I thought it would be helpful first to get clear (hah) what “equivocation” here means, in a way that makes clear its political and ethical stakes.]

Imagine a Christian living in the Roman Empire, during one of the sporadic persecutions of Christianity. His religious obligations are clear: he must not worship false idols. The laws of the Empire, unfortunately, are also clear: prostrate yourself in front of a pagan statue, or you will be killed. What are we to think, if he goes and burns incense in the temple? We would not accept, as an excuse for his action, that he had not intended to worship a false idol, but had just happened to walk into the temple and had just happened to decide to burn some incense once there. This is about as plausible as if St. Peter had, instead of going outside and weeping bitterly, claimed not to have actually denied Christ, but to have just happened to enunciate the words “I do not know the man!”

Yet Christ, when asked whether one should pay the Roman tributes, said “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matthew 22:21); and those tributes were used to pay for the construction of pagan temples. If the tribute-paying Christian can deny that he supports pagan temples, what prevents Peter, or the incense-burner, from denying that he denied Christ?

The tribute-payer, if he knew the technical language, might invoke the principle of double effect: he foresees this inevitable use of his tribute, but does not intend it.The incense-burner cannot do the same because idol-worship is built into the nature of incense-burning, in a way it is not in general built into tribute-paying. The difference is unrelated to the size of the effect: it’s not that you can ignore bad effects so long as the good effects outweight them. Paying tribute, after all, does more to maintain idol worship than does a single act of incense-burning, but it’s the latter, not the former, which is an act of betrayal. Rather, the difference stems from the manner of relation of effect to cause–intrinsic versus accidental. To burn incense just is to worship idols, while to pay tribute might happen to bring that worship about, but need not itself participate in it.


That above language is vaguely scholastic; in a more modern philosophical idiom, we might talk about the various descriptions under which the actions could be intended. It’s just a fact that, while tribute-paying can be described in relation to idol-worship, it’s quite naturally described in ways that do not even mention it. Any description of incense-burning that does not mention it, however, is simply inaccurate. To accept the principle of double effect is to accept that, when it comes to ethics, these descriptions matter as much or more than do the raw matter (if such a thing exists) of the action performed–more than anything that could be quantified, e.g. the amount of incense caused to be burned.

These descriptions, these determinations of what is intrinsic to an action, are not natural kinds. They emerge, like all meaning, within communities: in the examples given, incense-burning and tribute-paying meant what they did because of their conventional significance with them in the context of the pagan Roman Empire. Actions, in other words, have meanings, just as words do. Speaking poetically, words are actions charged with meaning in disproportion to the magnitude of their physical effects.


So the Christian can faithfully pay tribute because he does not thereby lie; he says only, “I acknowledge the empire’s lawful authority.” He cannot defend the burning of incense, however, any more than Peter can say that he “meant nothing” by his words “I do not know the man.” No one has complete control over the meaning their actions and words carry. In the words of J.L. Austin,

we are bound to non-play [such an attempt], not merely because the convention is not accepted, but because we vaguely feel the presence of some bar, the nature of which is not immediately clear, against it ever being accepted. (How To Do Things With Words, 31)

Yet we do retain some control, some ability to play with the meaning of our words and deeds; not a lot, but rope enough to hang ourselves with. As Geoffrey Hill puts it,

The crucial questions are how much ‘play’ remains in language after the logical excisions have been performed and whether this play is definable as ‘controlled interplay’ or as that ‘play’ which means that something designed for precise mechanical utility is showing signs of malfunction. (The Lords of Limit, ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’, 139)


Play enters into it insofar as the same deeds and words can be described and paraphrased in incompatible ways. Tribute-paying, for example, is quite naturally described without mention of supporting pagan temples. But obviously it can be so described, and someone can do it while intending that description. These actions would at first glance look identical, but would have quite different meanings.

This slack in the conventions cannot be ignored, lest the machinery of language break down. If the Christian simply does not know that what he does might be described as idolatry, there is little more to say, other than that he should have known what he was doing. But if he does know–if he foresees it, without intending it–then what he does is, like all actions justified through the principle of double effect, an exercise in equivocation. Equivocation, we can now say, is the performance of an action (giving someone a gold coin, making certain sounds with your mouth), foreseeing that within one’s current civil polity multiple possible meanings can be ascribed to it, but still intending for only one of those meanings to be understood.

To put it this way inverts the usual line that equivocation is a special form of the principle of double effect, but this is, I think, not a substantial difference, but a mere shift in emphasis. I shift the emphasis thus because, while equivocation is enormously controversial (exploring its licit uses is what gave Jesuits a reputation for dishonesty), the principle of double effect seems to me unavoidable, if we are to do avoid reducing ethics to balancing the scales, while still taking into account the bad effects every action inevitably has.


To say this is not, of course, to forestall any of the myriad objections to the more subtle forms of equivocation give rise. Still, it’s worth recognizing that not only does Jesus’ “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” advocate a course of action justifiable through the principle of double effect, but it is, itself, equivocal. On the surface, it simply advocates following whatever laws the legitimate civil authority passes, but its logic is in fact far more subtle: the tribute is one of “the things that are Caesar’s,” not because he can legitimately demand it, but because it must be paid in coins stamped with his visage. Does this mean that all coins, because minted by Caesar, all already belong to him? That coinage is therefore idolatrous, and so it’s sinful to hold onto any of it? That despite the face on the coins, nothing belongs to Caesar, and everything to God?

I’m not sure how to interpret this passage. I suspect that this difficulty is intentional, and that any explanation for it would resemble the answer Jesus gives to the disciples’ question, “Why speakest thou to them in parables?”:

Because to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven: but to them it is not given. ‘ For he that hath, to him shall be given, and he shall abound: but he that hath not, from him shall be taken away that also which he hath. ‘ Therefore do I speak to them in parables: because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. (Matthew 13:11-13)

O my daughter

April 9, 2015

A personal note: on April 5, Easter Sunday, at 4:21 a.m., my wife gave birth to our first child, named Sibyl Marie*.

There seem to me to be, speaking broadly, fewer works of literature about the love found in parenthood than about that found in marriage. This applies to Shakespeare’s plays as well, but the Bard still does a better job with it than most writers. My wife and I have spent this year reading through various Shakespeare plays, and a few weeks ago finished Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Do I have a better understanding of that play’s final recognition scene, now that I have a daughter? I don’t know that I do. As T.S. Eliot wrote, there is “At best, only a limited value / In the knowledge derived from experience.” Still, the scene does seem now like a bigger draw on my attention, as does one of Eliot’s minor poems, a retelling of that scene, which I present here without comment:

T.S. Eliot — Marina

What seas what shores what grey rocks and what islands
What water lapping the bow
And scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog
What images return
O my daughter.

Those who sharpen the tooth of the dog, meaning
Those who glitter with the glory of the hummingbird, meaning
Those who sit in the sty of contentment, meaning
Those who suffer the ecstasy of the animals, meaning

Are become insubstantial, reduced by a wind,
A breath of pine, and the woodsong fog
By this grace dissolved in place

What is this face, less clear and clearer
The pulse in the arm, less strong and stronger—
Given or lent? more distant than stars and nearer than the eye
Whispers and small laughter between leaves and hurrying feet
Under sleep, where all the waters meet.

Bowsprit cracked with ice and paint cracked with heat.
I made this, I have forgotten
And remember.
The rigging weak and the canvas rotten
Between one June and another September.
Made this unknowing, half conscious, unknown, my own.
The garboard strake leaks, the seams need caulking.
This form, this face, this life
Living to live in a world of time beyond me; let me
Resign my life for this life, my speech for that unspoken,
The awakened, lips parted, the hope, the new ships.

What seas what shores what granite islands towards my timbers
And woodthrush calling through the fog
My daughter.


*: A brief comment on the name. First, we spelled it Sibyl, not Sybil. This is the less common spelling, but it makes more etymological sense; the Greek word is σίβυλλαι, the Latin Sibylla. Sybil came about, I suspect, via analogy with other classical-sounding names like Cynthia, Lydia, Sylvia. Second, though it comes from pagan Greece, the name has picked up myriad Christian resonances. The sibyls, though pagans, were thought to have predicted the coming of Christ–hence the line in the Dies Irae, “Teste David cum Sibylla,” and the Sibyls on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel–and it became a common name for women in the Middle Ages, e.g. Blessed Sibyllina Biscossi, 1287-1367. It went out of fashion with the Reformation, then came back in the 19th and early 20th century. Finally, though I did not learn this until after selecting the name, St. Jerome (fallaciously) derives the word sibyl from “counsel of God,” and the Sibyls are associated iconographically with the “Seat of Wisdom.”

Michelangelo Buonarroti - Delphic Sibyl

Michelangelo Buonarroti – Delphic Sibyl


Professorial personae

April 1, 2015

Stanley Cavell. b. 1926. Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value (Emeritus), Harvard University.


Geoffrey Hill. b. 1932. Professor of Poetry, Oxford University.

After finishing my slog through Geoffrey Hill’s Collected Critical Writings, I find myself wondering whether I ought next to work my way back through Stanley Cavell’s various literature-related writings (and perhaps pick up a few of those I haven’t yet read).

It turns out, then, that there’s a decent chance at least part of my dissertation will attempt to pit these two against each other.

It make sense given my project. Both struggle endlessly with the very possibility of an authentic relationship to something as impersonal as a public language.

And reflecting on their professional personae makes it difficult to resist. One could write an interpretive essay comparing their authorial portraits. Both with closely cropped facial hair, but Cavell’s neat and round, Hill’s pointed and a bit wild. (These pictures are from several years ago, and he now has a full wizard beard; Cavell is clean-shaven.) Both heads crowned with an massive bald dome, but again, Cavell’s more curved, Hill’s more angular. Cavell, eyes down, authentically absorbed in his own thoughts; Hill, staring angrily forward, alienating whoever returns his gaze.

Christianity and cryogenics

March 24, 2015

Along the line of organ drafts, I’ve been thinking recently about cryogenics. The practice in which you have your brain frozen when you die so that you can, at some point in The Future, be revived.

Not thinking about signing up for them, of course; they’re absurd. That seems to be the common sense response, and I ultimately agree with it. But the common sense arguments supporting this response, not so much. “They’re expensive”, “They probably don’t work”–on F.H. Bradley’s definition, these two surely count as metaphysics: “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.” They’re expensive: how much should you be willing to pay for eternal life? Isn’t that the pearl of great price, for which you should go and sell all that you have (Matthew 13:46)? They probably don’t work: but so long as the chance is non-negligible, doesn’t the greatness of the prize make the venture worthwhile?


The common sense responses attempt to appeal to certain kinds of facts, namely, scientific facts, facts about what is and isn’t possible. But infinities render all such discussions murky. We might be better off making an ethical argument, in the Aristotelian sense: “If cryogenics did work for you, you might end up wishing they hadn’t.”

I don’t mean the possibility that you might be brought back as an exhibit in a zoo. To make such an objection is to allow the cryogenics advocate’s calculations to proceed apace; all he needs to do is include a term for the fact of this possibility in his equation. But I do mean what this objection meant to get at: we value not life, per se, but flourishing, which, for human beings, entails life within a community; and signing up for cryogenics seems somehow to embody a rejection of that community, a declaration that what really matters to you is not the life you’re living now, within that community, but your life “after the freeze”. It would be duplicitous to pretend that this were not so, to act as if the decision left your relations with your friends and family unchanged:

But he said to another: Follow me. And he said: Lord, suffer me first to go, and to bury my father. And Jesus said to him: Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou, and preach the kingdom of God. And another said: I will follow thee, Lord; but let me first take my leave of them that are at my house. Jesus said to him: No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:59-62)

To sign up for cryogenics is to live in anticipation of being frozen. But how can you sustain such anticipation with no continuity between your pre-freeze and post-freeze lives besides the bare fact of it being you who bridges the gap? And, of equal importance, how, after the freeze, can you make your life a fulfillment of that anticipation? If you and only you (with none of your “furniture”) do survive the freeze; and if this leads you to forget your pre-freeze life; then your new life will be indistinguishable from that lived by someone who lived forever without undergoing the freeze. This indistinguishability will render your decision to be frozen unjustifiable.


But, of course, signing up for cryogenics makes one a member of a new community. This changes our moral intuitions; it’s the difference between Rip Van Winkle, who loses his own time through sleep, and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who sleep because the time is not yet theirs:

Decius (249-251) once came to Ephesus to enforce his laws against Christians … here he found seven noble young men, named Maximillian, Jamblichos, Martin, John, Dionysios, Exakostodianos, and Antoninos … who were Christians. The emperor told his soldiers to find them, and when found asleep in the cave he ordered it to be closed up with huge stones and sealed; thus they were buried alive. But a Christian came and wrote on the outside the names of the martyrs and their story. Years passed, the empire became Christian, and Theodosius reigned. In his time some heretics denied the resurrection of the body. While this controversy went on, a rich landowner named Adolios had the Sleepers’ cave opened, to use it as a cattle-stall. Then they awake, thinking they have slept only one night, and send one of their number (Diomedes) to the city to buy food, that they may eat before they give themselves up. Diomedes comes into Ephesus and the usual story of cross-purposes follows. He is amazed to see crosses over churches, and the people cannot understand whence he got his money coined by Decius. Of course at last it comes out that the last thing he knew was Decius’s reign; eventually the bishop and the prefect go up to the cave with him, where they find the six others and the inscription. Theodosius is sent for, and the saints tell him their story. Every one rejoices at this proof of the resurrection of the body. The sleepers, having improved the occasion by a long discourse, then die praising God.

So the question must be: is the community of those “awaiting the freeze” one we should want to join–or, rather, one we can justify joining, given that joining it entails rejecting the community in which we now live?

Until now, the argument for cryogenics has closely paralleled that for Christianity. Now the two must diverge, for any justification here must depend on the ethical qualities of the group to be joined, and the ethos of cryogenics and the ethos of Christianity could not be more different. In place of the Christian virtue of faith, transhumanism puts curiosity; in place of hope, expectation; and in place of charity, cupidity. (It’s still cupidity even if the “more” sought, the “utility” to be “maximized,” is located in “us” rather than “me”.) Well, rehearsing these arguments would be too big a tangent, but you can tell from my rhetoric where I stand on the matter.


This is an ethical stance, one I adopt in ignorance of the facts; yet the facts do matter, in cryogenics as in Christianity. It makes a difference whether the life-saving and life-extending technologies on which the promise of cryogenics depends are impossible or merely difficult. If the latter, then my stance does not forbid attempting to bring them about; it only forbids preserving one’s own life through cryogenics when such preservation is possible only through an unjust isolationism. But if the former, then trying to bring them about is not only an exercise in futility, but an attempt at self-distraction and self-deception. It’s the difference, I suppose, between honest science and curiosity in the negative sense.

The self demanding to be loved

March 16, 2015

I don’t know what to make of Geoffrey Hill. I hold his early work in high regard, but have never known quite what to do with what came after. Meanwhile, Hill himself doesn’t know quite what to do with what came before.

I’ve mentioned this already, with respect to the early poetry. I’ve recently begun making my way through his Collected Critical Writings, and something similar has taken place. I quite like the first essay, “Poetry as ‘Menace’ and ‘Atonement'”; Hill, however, has apparently all but disowned it. Ah well. It still seems to me full of insight. Perhaps reading further in the collection will help me understand in what sense Hill disagrees.

But for now, here’s Hill on the peace that surpasseth understanding:

In certain contexts the expansive, outward gesture towards the condition of music is a helpless gesture of surrender, oddly analogous to that stylish aesthetic of despair, that desire for the ultimate integrity of silence, to which so much eloquence has been so frequently and indefagitably devoted.

On the poet as priest of the religion of art:

The major caveat which I would enter against a theological view of literature is that, too often, it is not theology at all, but merely a restatement of the neo-Symbolist mystique celebrating verbal mastery; an expansive gesture conveying the broad sense that Joyce’s Ulysses or Rilke’s Duino Elegies ‘must, in the spendor of its art, evoke astonishment at the sheer magnificence of its lordship over language.’ If an argument for the theological interpretation of literature is to be sustained, it needs other sustenance than this.

And, finally, in a kind of rewriting of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, on the self of the poet:

However much and however rightly we protest against the vanity of supposing it to be merely the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’, poetic utterance is nonetheless an utterance of the self, the self demanding to be loved, demanding love in the form of recognition and ‘absolution’. The poet is perhaps the first to be dismayed by such a discovery and to seek the conversion of his ‘daemon’ to a belief in altruistic responsibility. But this dismay is as nothing compared to the shocking encounter with ’empirical guilt’, not as a manageable hypothesis, but as irredeemable error in the very substance and texture of one’s craft and pride. It is here that selfhood may be made at-one with itself. He may learn to live in his affliction, not with the cynical indifference of the reprobate but with the renewed sense of a vocation: that of necessarily bearing his peculiar unnecessary shame in a world growing ever more shameless.

Ex opere operato

March 9, 2015

[In which I fiddle with High Modernist and neo-Thomist aesthetics.]

This entertaining article compares different approaches to literary criticism to different varieties of Christian theology. Alas, its reigning metaphor is somewhat inexact. The article assumes that the literary work should be put in parallel with the Bible, but this obviously nonsense; not only do theologians never write the Bible, no one writes the Bible nowadays. No one has for almost two thousand years. Rather, literary works should be compared to the sacraments; only certain people, namely poets/priests, can write/perform them, and only certain other people, namely critics/theologians, have a proper understanding of what is going on what they do so.

The comparison to Protestantism would still hold: a literary Protestant would be one who says that everyone can read and write; everyone is a priest and theologian of literature, not just the published authors and the tenured professors. But we would also gain access to a number of analogies with various heresies, most interestingly, in my view, with the Donatists.

Donatists (=followers of Donatus) were, in brief, 4th-century North African Christians who refused to recognize the legitimacy of certain Catholic bishops because those bishops had been ordained by “traditores”–i.e. Christians who had, during the persecutions under Diocletian, sacrificed to pagan idols rather than undergo martyrdom. Refusing to recognize bishops, by itself, would just make the Donatists schismatics, but they elevated their reason for not doing so into a theological principle–sacraments, they claimed, were only valid if performed by persons of sufficiently “worthiness”–a position soon deemed heretical. It’s easy to see why the Catholics wouldn’t accept this; as they pointed out, “the validity of the sacraments and of other such acts cannot be made to depend on the worthiness of the one administering them, for in that case all Christians would be in constant doubt regarding the validity of their own baptism or of the communion of which they had partaken.” A church with such a theology could never be confident in its own status as a Christian community. The resulting controversy (in which St. Augustine, as it happens, played a central role) led to the formulation of the principle ex opere operato: the work (the sacrament) has its efficacy through the causal power, not of the one performing it, but of the work itself, which is performed in persona Christi. (For more than you want to know about this topic, see St. Thomas, Summa theologica III.64.)


The analogy to literature is obvious. Does the artwork gain its (aesthetic) efficacy through the power of the one writing it, or through the power of the work itself? What I call literary Donatists say the former: they believe that a work of art can only be good (aesthetically) if its creator is good (morally, one presumes). This position leads to such things as paying more attention to the artist’s life than to his work. The opposing position is held by literary Catholics, and, not coincidentally, by many actual Catholics; it can be found in the aesthetic philosophy of Jacques Maritain, and, through him, after crossbreeding in interesting ways with the High Modernist doctrine of poetic impersonality, it finds its way into the writing of such diverse writers as David Jones and Flannery O’Connor. This position leads to an insistence that the artwork should be seen as if created by an anonymous craftsman.


The obvious question, of course, is why works of art should be compared to sacraments at all. Two objections come to mind.

First, isn’t it just another way of secretly asserting the hidden priesthood of all poets? Some sacraments can be performed by anyone, but the ones everyone has in mind in these discussions–communion and ordination–are reserved for a select few. But artistic creation is not reserved for a select few; anyone can do it, or, more precisely, no one can do it, but it still sometimes gets done.

Second, isn’t the point of ex opere operato that what the ministers are thinking doesn’t matter so long as they’re saying the words properly, such that they’re interchangeable with Christ, who does have the right intention? Which means all valid sacramental actions look identical? That’s a far cry from the world of artistic creation, in which even the most traditional creators never make things exactly the way their predecessors did.

Perhaps the better theological analogy for artistic creation is not consecration, but thaumaturgy. Works of art are like miracles: any given one (artwork, miracle) need not much resemble another; there are no known techniques for bringing one about; yet certain people (poets, saints) seem to have it happen to them often, and we think this to have something to do with their holiness, in the case of saints, and in the case of poets, their–well–their something. Hence our tendency to write Lives of the Saints and of the Poets, and to obsess over whether they were “authentic” in their faith, in their artistry. This even though–as the saints know well, the poets less well–what really matters isn’t the thaumaturge, but the wonders he performs, and what those wonders signify.Hey look, its impersonality again. And, of course, sacraments are a special kind of miracle.

Three lives of stone

March 2, 2015

1. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” (1888):

[…] Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; ‘ world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, ‘ since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, ‘ patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
Is immortal diamond.

2. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophiccal Investigations (~1946), §283:

What gives us so much as the idea that beings, things, can feel?

Is it that my education has led me to it by drawing my attention to feelings in myself, and now I transfer the idea to objects outside myself? That I recognize that there is something there (in me) which I can call ‘pain’ without getting into conflict with the way other people use the word? — I do not transfer my idea to stones, plants, etc.

Couldn’t I imagine having frightful pain and turning to stone while they lasted? Well, how do I know, if I shut my eyes, whether I have not turned into a stone? And if that has happened, in what sense will the stone have the pains? In what sense will they be ascribable to the stone? And why need the pain have a bearer at all here?!

And can one say of the stone that it has a soul and that is what has the pain? What has a soul, or pain, to do with a stone?

Only of what behaves like a human being can one say that it has pains.

For one has to say it of a body, or, if you like of a soul which some body has. And how can a body have a soul?

3. W.H. Auden, “In Praise of Limestone” (1948):

[…] Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.


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