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Dante and transhumanism

July 27, 2015

Heads up: an essay of mine titled “What Dante, Tolkien, and Harry Potter Fan Fiction Can Teach Us about the Contemporary Quest for Immortality” was published today (or yesterday? the dating is confusing) on Public Discourse. The subtitle: “From Dante to Tolkien to Harry Potter fan fiction, mankind has been tempted by the desire to transcend human limitations. This impulse is dangerous, but its dangers are not inexplicable.”

The piece talks about Dante, Tennyson, Melville, Tolkien, Rowling, and Eliezer Yudkowsky—altogether too much for a 2000-word essay, as I realized soon after writing the thing. Especially since I make no claim to original thinking on the first two or three listed writers. But the stuff in the second half might be worthwhile if you care about understanding the rhetoric of both transhumanism and anti-transhumanism.

Incidentally, I wrote this essay in part because I’ve grown interested recently in the author’s relationship with his audience, an interest which has made me more self-conscious about the fact that the writing I do here most often takes the form of thinking out loud. Which is fine, but it means that I make no claim to authority than any audience should take seriously, and (so?) attract almost no audience (~30 hits per day, for those keeping score). Should I care about attracting an audience? Probably more than I do. I thus decided to write a “public” essay, to see whether I knew how; and what topic would be more appropriate for an essay intended to attract an audience than the images various authors offer for the relationship between didactic poetry and its audience?My efforts are occasionally somewhat self-stultifying.

What happened to (Anglo-American) marriage

July 20, 2015

[Third and last in a series. Previous posts can be found here and here.]

Like I said, I have no plans to actually pursue any investigation of marriage’s historical development. But I do have some suggestions for thinking about the topic from a literary perspective.

In my post about Pope Francis’ recent encyclical I quoted Alan Jacobs, an English professor at Baylor University, as follows:

If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”

In a similar spirit of serious frivolity, I propose the following syllabus, for a class titled “What Happened To (Anglo-American) Marriage?” It exists in a fantasy world where students will read either one book or two plays per week, though it could, of course, easily be reduced to something reasonable (one play or movie a week instead of two, two weeks for a novel instead of one, relegate the critical works to an optional appendix).

  1. Introduction
  2. Geoffrey Chaucer: “The Franklin’s Tale”; “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”
  3. William Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well; As You Like It
  4. William Shakespeare: Much Ado About Nothing; Twelfth Night
  5. Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
  6. Jane Austen: Emma
  7. Jane Austen: Sense and Sensibility
  8. Denis de Rougemont: Love in the Western World
  9. Oscar Wilde: Lady Windemere’s Fan; An Ideal Husband
  10. Old Hollywood: Bringing Up Baby; The Awful Truth
  11. Old Hollywood: The Lady Eve; The Philadephia Story
  12. Stanley Cavell: Pursuits of Happiness: The Hollywood Comedy of Remarriage
  13. New Hollywood: Groundhog Day; Four Weddings and a Funeral
  14. New Hollywood: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Silver Linings Playbook
  15. Obergefell v. Hodges, both majority opinion and dissents

The premise of the syllabus is, of course, that we can trace the evolution of marriage through the literature that has been written about it. It also assumes that comedies, rather than self-serious books like those of George Eliot and Henry James, are the best way in which to do so; and that we can look at comedies like these, not merely as isolated works, but as representatives of genres: Shakespearean comedy, Austenian comedy, what Stanley Cavell (whose book inspired most of the above) calls “comedies of remarriage,” etc. Finally, it focuses on English-speaking literature, on the assumption that, influenced as it was by Anglicanism rather than Roman Catholicism or a more individualistic strain of Protestant Christianity, marriage evolved differently in the Anglosphere than elsewhere in Europe. (Rougemont’s book, which focuses mostly on Continental literature, and on tragedy rather than comedy, is included to offer an alternative to these suppositions.)

Beyond this, the course needn’t set out to make any particular argument. The point would be that we can learn something about ourselves through close attention to these works. It’s not too difficult, though, to say something about the basic trajectory: marriage begins as something taken-for-granted which the idea of romantic love begins to disturb (Chaucer); it becomes a way to define oneself through a relation with another (Shakespeare); then a balancing act between economic stability and personal happiness (Austen); then something subject to destabilizing attacks from outside (Wilde); then something inherently fragile, needing constant repair (Old Hollywood); then something requiring innumerable attempts to achieve, if achieving it is even possible (New Hollywood).

The development of Christian marriage

July 13, 2015

[Second in a series. The first post can be found here. Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative and should not be taken too seriously. Before accepting any of its theological suggestions consult your nearest catechism.]

In my previous post I told a story about the emergence of modern marriage, and how modern marriage has little to do with marriage a millenium ago; and I suggested some reasons to think the change has been, for the most part, good.

The problem with any such theory, for (most) Christians anyway, is that the Church is the bride of Christ, and each human marriage is an image of this union. Doesn’t this mean that marriage at the time of the Gospels must have something in common with marriage today? Otherwise, either we have simply stopped engaging in a practice that the Church suggests provides the best image for what the Church is, or we have only recently begun to engage in that practice, despite the fact that we have been New Testament was written almost two thousand years ago.

Well, this may be moving too fast. The Bible also says Christ is (literally) a king; few think this obliges us to revert to monarchy. (In fact, some say that because Christ is king we have no need for any other.) And it says Christ is (metaphorically) a shepherd; few think this obliges us to leave our cities and return to a pastoral life. (Though we can certainly look at what it meant to be a shepherd in ancient Palestine and ask what about that life we should continue to value.) If the Christ-as-husband image is merely a metaphor, we can treat it as we do Christ-as-shepherd; if it’s meant literally, we can treat it like Christ-as-king. Neither necessitates caring about whether marriage now is “the same thing” as marriage in Christ’s time.

If it’s an analogy, however, neither of these options are available. Analogy means that there exists a real proportion between human marriage and this divine marriage; the divine marriage acts as a guide for what human marriage should look like. Which doesn’t make any sense if human marriage is merely a social practice which we can allow to lapse (as with shepherding) or to be transcended (as with kingship). If it’s an analogy, then it seems we need to know whether marriage now has anything substantially in common with marriage then.


The analysis I gave in my previous post about the emergence of modern marriage took inspiration primarily from social theorists, especially Giambattista Vico and from Max Weber. From Vico, the idea of the family beginning as a space of slavery, and gradually transforming into a space of freedom; from Weber, the idea of transcendental claims (marriage as sacrament) having unintended social effects. But if the above line of reasoning is correct, then from a theological perspective, what we need is not a history of how the social practice we call “marriage” has changed (and our society with it), but an account of how the idea of marriage has developed. Not social theory, but intellectual history.

The terms “development” is borrowed from John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, a book which is about not just Christian doctrine, but also the evolution of ideas in general. He suggests that we look at the history of an idea (whether it be entirely abstract, e.g. “Platonism,” or whether it affect social practice, e.g. “marriage”) and try to see whether it is really the history of a single idea, or whether it is the history of many different ideas, called by the same name, succeeding one another. He proposes seven “notes” of genuine development: 1. preservation of type; 2. continuity of principles; 3. power of assimilation; 4. logical sequence; 5. anticipation of its future; 6. conservative action upon its past; 7. chronic vigor. (If you don’t want to read the whole book, Chapter 5 (available here) explains the seven notes in brief.)

I have yet to see a Newmanian anaysis of the development of marriage. Such an analysis would, I think, be quite useful. More specifically, we need both a philosophical account of the history of marriage, demonstrating that it has developed but not undergone corruption; and, equally importantly, a short story about marriage’s history that would make prima facie plausible that scholarly account.


To do the former would take a book, which I will not attempt to write. The latter might look something like the following.

A key tenet of Christian proponents of “traditional” marriage, at least those who attempt to base their arguments in natural reason, is that there is something called “natural marriage” which has shown up throughout human history, with minor variations, until in the last few decades it has come under attack. I doubt that a Newmanian account of marriage would accept this claim. One line in particular from the Development is often quoted: “to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” Anyone who has read the book knows that this does not mean all change is good; it does mean, however, that if an idea has been changed, and if the change was good, then there is no going back.

An alternative both to the static idea of Christianity building on a permanent foundation of natural marriage, and to the idea sketched last post of Christianity as freeing us from the slavery of natural marriage, would involve Christianity genuinely developing natural marriage into something greater. The idea of marriage, even when it was merely natural, always contained implicitly a transcendental dimension. It has always had the potential to develop from a mere economic arrangement into indissoluble bond of personal, sacrificial love. Christianity merely made this potential obvious and inescapable.

Once this development takes place, there is no undoing it. The natural idea of marriage can either develop into the Christian version, or it can undergo total corruption; it cannot merely remain as it was two thousand years ago. Thus, today, in a society which does not call itself Christian but which has been thoroughly colored by its Christian history, there is no room for natural marriage. There can be only the life of Christian marriages and the undeath of marriages manqué.


Which is not, of course, to say anything about which marriages are which. Newman, though he became Catholic after writing the Development, did not write it in order to become Catholic; he wrote it in order to discover whether Catholics, Anglicans, or Protestants were in the right. The same objectivity would be required of any inquiry into the development of marriage.

The emergence of modern marriage

July 6, 2015

[First in a projected series. Disclaimer: this post is highly speculative and should not be taken too seriously.]

Last month’s Supreme Court decision indisputably changed marriage, or recognized a change that had already taken place. Traditionalists often tell a story in which the change began with the “sexual revolution,” particularly the legalization of contraception, abortion, and no-fault divorce, and the de-legalization of marital rape. But there are other, more plausible stories we can tell—stories in which marriage has been changing for a long time.

A particularly interesting such story, from the Christian point of view (and of course most marriage traditionalists are Christian, though they claim that their arguments are based in natural reason), involves the emergence of modern marriage in Western Europe over the last millenium. According to this story, modern marriage is a product of Christianity, not a revolt against it, and its emergence is a gradual process of liberation from the slavery of traditional social structures.

(Note: I’m not a historian. This story is an amalgamation of a number of such stories I’ve seen made by people I consider pretty bright, including philosophers, historians, and literary theorists. Still it probably counts as Bad History (TM).)


We begin in the Middle Ages; say, 1000 AD. Marriages between nobility are public and formal, but other marriages are not necessary so. There may be a ceremony, but there are no official records kept, and in some ways the marriages looks more like what we call cohabitation; there are few formal mechanisms to prevent a couple from splitting up and each member getting together with someone new, though public opinion, and the economic difficulty of uprooting one’s life in this way, does discourage this. The law takes some interest in marriage, but the way it takes an interest in debt: it enforces the terms of the arrangement, but doesn’t take any notice of the arrangement unless a complaint is made. But marriage now differs from cohabitation in this way: the couple live together, not because they “love each other,” but because it makes sense, especially since at this time children are a net economic gain. The household is economic in nature: this is in a sense a tautology, since economic < oikonomia < oikos + nemein, household + management. Economic marriage is not a particularly nice institution; an academic might call it a perpetuator of Patriarchy. The real problem, however, is that it’s distinctly impersonal. One has a wife the way one has a business partner, and one wants to avoid leaving her the way one wants to avoid bankrupcy.

By 1300 AD, things have begun to change. For the last few hundred years, the Catholic Church has engaged in a sustained campaign to codify the sacramental nature of marriage. In other words, it has sought to give a transcendent significance to what had been merely a useful social practice. Of particular importance was the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215 AD, which mandated the formal proclamation of marriage banns, on pain of bastardy: “If any persons presume to enter into clandestine marriages of this kind, or forbidden marriages within a prohibited degree, even if done in ignorance, the offspring of the union shall be deemed illegitimate.” Clandestine marriages—in fact, any marriage not publicly overseen by the church—was still possible, but it ceased to be normal. Marriage is now a formal public act, and is the same for nobility and for commoners. But noble marriage had been a public concern for a practical reason: the private lives of nobility had political repercussions. If marriage among commoners is also a public concern, the reason must be different; not practical, but transcendent. What might it be?

It takes a while, but by, say, 1600 AD, an answer has emerged. Marriage fundamentally changes who you are, and who your children are, in a way that needs to be public knowledge. It forms a bond between you and your spouse fundamentally different from any other social connection. Marriage is not just building a household, it tells you something about who you are: namely, that you are someone married to this other someone. This deep personal relationship ends up being characterized much like had been the romantic love of the medieval troubadours, except that, for the troubadours, romance was always between unmarried lovers. This makes all the difference. Unconsummated love-at-a-distance idealizes the beloved, and might last five minutes or fifty years. Intimate marital love has no room for idealization, because it is intrinsically temporal: it requires changing oneself in response to the changes one sees in one’s beloved. It is, one might say, an ongoing conversation. Children arise from this conversation, and their lives are colored by it, but they do not themselves participate in what is fundamentally a relationship between husband and wife.

By 1900 AD, this idea has had unexpected consequences. Before Christianity made it a sacrament, people almost never thought of marriage as indissoluble: its dissolution was merely extremely difficult, and would only take place in extraordinary circumstances—only if life in the household the marriage created was intolerable. In the Catholic world, marriage remains in theory indissoluble, but this leads to rank hypocrisy (e.g. the normalization of extramarital affairs). In most Protestant countries, something more interesting has happened. The law has made room for the dissolution of marriages in extraordinary circumstances, and, in so doing, admitted that no marriage is indissoluble. But the circumstances under which marital dissolution make sense have changed. It now seems reasonable to dissolve a marriage, not only if the household it has built has collapsed, but also if your conversation with your spouse has turned into silence; and, while houses are difficult to pull down, conversations are difficult to keep up. Even a good marriage can no longer be taken for granted: it must be sustained through continual effort. This shift—the outer sign of which is the liberalization of divorce laws—has the consequence of making the begetting of children appear less central to marriage than it  once was; marriage comes to seem essentially an erotic friendship.

Which, by 2015 AD, makes gay marriage the logical next step.


In brief: marriage used to be a social phenomenon; it is now a public act. It used to be the construction of a household; it is now a form of conversation. It used to be indissoluble under normal circumstances; now the dissolution is always a possibility. So, yes, marriage now is different from traditional marriage—but we shouldn’t want to go back. A millenium ago, to enter into a marriage was to enslave oneself to economic necessity. Marriage has now become a space within which to build free personal relationships. These changes were brought about by Christianity: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The moloch of the future

June 29, 2015

I haven’t read the new encyclical Laudato si‘; I’ll probably post about it here once I have. I’ve read a lot of the coverage it’s been getting, which has been…. mixed, to put it mildly. To start with, a quick link roundup of the articles I’ve thought most worth reading:

Rusty Reno, editor of First Things, is skeptical:

Perhaps, therefore, the most accurate thing to say is that Francis offers a postmodern reading of Gaudium et Spes and Vatican II’s desire to be open to the modern world. He seems to propose to link the Catholic Church with a pessimistic post-humanist Western sentiment rather than the older, confident humanism. […] I prefer that approach of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. […] when it comes to pressing ethical problems, revolution is a dangerous game to play.

But First Things deputy editor Matthew Schmitz praises the encyclical at the Washington Post:

Francis’ encyclical synthesizes the great cultural critiques of his two most recent predecessors—Benedict XVI’s “dictatorship of relativism” and John Paul II’s “culture of death”—in terms of opposition to the locomotive of technological rationality. […] He is opposing modernism—that old antagonist of the Church—not just as a philosophical proposition but also as a material reality.

Of course, neither a one-world authority nor a thriftier use of electricity nor a ban on trains can solve the spiritual crisis Francis foresees. In one of the best moments of the fascinating, sprawling encyclical, he rejects solutionism—that false belief that life is a series of problems that we must solve rather than live—as yet another aspect of technological rationality.

And in a similar vein, Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis writes a number of posts about the encyclical; they can’t quite be summarized, except perhaps by this quotation:

If I had my way, I’d spend the next couple of months preparing to teach a class in which this encyclical — a far richer work than I had expected it to be, and one that I hope will have lasting power — would be read alongside Guardini’s book, with both accompanied by repeated viewings of Mad Max: Fury Road. The class would be called “Who Killed the World?”

(By the way, I second the Mad Max recommendation.)

Ross Douthat in the NYT casts this debate as one between “dynamists” and “catastrophists”; Pope Francis, of course, is the latter:

Dynamists are people who see 21st-century modernity as a basically successful civilization advancing toward a future that’s better than the past. […] Catastrophists, on the other hand, see a global civilization that for all its achievements is becoming more atomized and balkanized, more morally bankrupt, more environmentally despoiled. What’s more, they believe that things cannot go on as they are: That the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis, disaster, dégringolade.

But Douthat also offers a third alternative:

Indeed, perhaps our immediate future fits neither the dynamist nor the catastrophist framework.

We might have entered a kind of stagnationist position, a sustainable decadence, in which the issues Pope Francis identifies percolate without reaching a world-altering boil.

Meanwhile Damon Linker at The Week defends “modernity” against the Pope’s attacks:

After more than a millennium bathed in an ethic of Christian humility, these writers [e.g. Bacon, Descartes, and Machiavelli] argued, European life was marked by oppression, poverty, and passive acceptance of a natural order that showed no sign of guidance by the hand of God. Such a situation leaves human beings subject to powers — fate and malign human will — that can and will destroy them. The proper response isn’t acceptance. It’s standing up for ourselves and taking matters into our own hands.

And, in perhaps the strangest response I’ve seen, Noah Millman at The American Conservative accuses the Pope of “hijacking” climate change for his own purposes:

It seems to me that what Pope Francis is doing is hijacking ecological catastrophism for a pre-determined spiritual agenda. And that agenda isn’t even the one that makes the most intuitive sense as a purely spiritual response to said catastrophism. If I asked myself what religious system is most in tune with the challenges of radically reshaping the world economy to better protect the natural environment, Roman Catholic Christianity would not be the first one to come to mind. Indeed, my first impulse would be to say Buddhism, which preaches moderation, counsels non-attachment to things as the route to inner peace, has a strong tradition of vegetarianism (which, if universally adopted, would probably do more to stretch the carrying capacity of the planet than any other lifestyle change), and is considerably less-invested in fecundity than most religious traditions, Christianity included. If I were looking for specifically spiritual answers, that would seem to be the first place to turn. But the encyclical does not read like the product of a search for answers, because the answers were known in advance. The search was for an explanation of how these already-established answers just happen to be a perfect fit for humanity’s novel situation on the planet.


Again, I haven’t read the encyclical. More thoughts here once I’ve done so.

For now, seven quick points.

1. No one seems to know what to do with the encyclical politically; for example, Reno calls it revolutionary, while Schmitz says it rejects all “solutions,” which would, one would think, include revolution. But why should we seek to do anything with it politically? If we think that “modernity” is the problem, then the problem isn’t the side labeled “modernity,” or even the opposition between “modernity” and “anti-modernity”; it’s the very act of thinking about things in these political terms. Jacobs, the literary critic, seems to understand this better than the others.

2. Can’t one respond to Douthat’s trichotomy of dynamism, catastrophism, and solutionism, by saying that one believes “the trajectory we’re on will end in crisis” but doubts that even “a true revolution can save us”? What if nothing can “save us”—at least, if by that phrase is meant anything other than the salvation Christianity promises?

3. Linker is right to say that the Pope is too quick to dismiss the “modern” understanding of human nature, which has in many ways “improved living standards” etc etc; and Millman is right to say that the Catholic anthropology isn’t the obvious choice for a “solution” to our environmental problems. But to think that these are arguments against the Pope is, I think, to miss the entire point of rejecting “solutionism” (which explains what Millman’s piece in particular reads rather strangely). Francis, from what I can tell, simply does not begin with the premise that living standards / our impact on nature must be maximized / minimized, and then ask what kind of relationship with nature would bring that about. Rather, he begins by asking what kind of relationship with nature would characterize a good life.

4. He does so because “improving living standards” and “reducing our impact on the environment” are, while perhaps things an ethical person would do, not intrinsically ethical. By this I mean that pursuing such goals does not itself count as an attempt to act virtuously, to do good;  both are attempts to bring something good about. When their pursuit is disconnected from a larger picture of what makes a life good, such goals cease to be good at all, and turn into what a previous Pope in a previous encyclical called “the moloch of the future”:

Seen in this way, charity is rejected and attacked as a means of preserving the status quo. What we have here, though, is really an inhuman philosophy. People of the present are sacrificed to the moloch of the future—a future whose effective realization is at best doubtful. One does not make the world more human by refusing to act humanely here and now. We contribute to a better world only by personally doing good now, with full commitment and wherever we have the opportunity, independently of partisan strategies and programmes.

–Benedict XVI, in Deus caritas est

5. In other words, we cannot look at the world as a problem to be solved—whether that turns out to be through the (“dynamist”) strategy of maximizing living standards, or through the (“catastrophist”) strategy of minimizing our impact on the environment—while imagining that our good lives will begin once we’ve fixed the world’s problems. We cannot be alienated in this way from the goodness of our lives. We need to live good lives now.

6. This line of thought  is not a distinctively Christian one. To put it in Aristotelian language: happiness is not a state of affairs or a quality, but “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue.”

7. This line of thought tells us very little about what sorts of things we should do in order to establish a happy relationship with nature. The important point is simply that that, not maximizing this or that, is our goal.

Mental reservations, tacit ventures

June 22, 2015

[A follow-up to Render unto Caesar. Happily coinciding with the feast of Sts. John Fisher and Thomas More.]

Let’s consider another example of religio-political equivocation. In Tudor England, Bishop John Fisher preached publicly against Henry VIII’s “marriage” to Anne Boleyn. Chancellor Thomas More did not; he merely resigned, and refused to take an oath affirming the reality of the “marriage.” Both were convicted of treason, and beheaded.

More’s refusal walked a fine line between the taxpayer and the incense-burner (cf. previous post). He did not intend to affirm the substance of the oath, which would have been an act of apostasy. He did, however, foresee, or thought he foresaw, that his silence would be seen as an acceptance of that substance, namely, that Anne Boleyn’s children would be heir to the throne. He thought he could foresee this because of a legal principle he cites, qui tacet consentire videtur, “he who is silent is seen to consent.”

This strategy ought to have worked; it did not, only because the Crown produced Richard Rich as a witness, claiming (somewhat improbably) to have heard More deny the proposition. But the reason the strategy should have worked is not that legal principles are somehow “fictional,” such that he was giving fictional, legal assent to the proposition, but not “actual” assent. Language is conventional, and legal principles are among those conventions, and if the legal principle had been qui tacet assentit, “he who is silent, assents,” More’s defense would have been nonsense. Instead, the legal principle itself makes room for, indeed codifies, an equivocation, allowing More reliably to mislead his auditors, without lying to them.


More’s equivocation is both an examplary instance, and a limit case, of mental reservation. Now, in mental reservation, a person makes a statement that can be interpreted two ways, and intend to speak truly, while intending also that the auditor misinterprets him. Mental reservation is often said to be justified through the principle of double effect, but it’s far from clear how that argument is supposed to run.[1]

His mental reservation is illustrative because his ambiguity is not in the words he speaks (he speaks no words), but in the conventions surrounding his silence: he does not intend to signal assent, but can still be seen as consenting. This brings out equivocation’s apparently absurd quality of linguistic tyranny: More is like a mute Humpty Dumpty, his silence meaning just what he means for it to mean, “neither more nor less.”

Yet More’s is also a limit case, for mental reservation is usually intended to pass unnoticed by the auditor. If it’s noticed, after all, how can it be misinterpreted? More, however, not only fails to avoid discovery, but positively calls attention to his reservations. This difference means that, unlike other exemplary equivocations, like Athanasius’s “He is close to you,”[2] the moral argument in favor of More’s is quite straightforward and unobjectionable.


To wit:

The legal principle More cites is often expanded ubi loqui debuit ac potuit, meaning “when he ought to have spoken and was able to.” The purpose of this qualification is simple: someone keeping silent at the scene of a crime might be either an enthusiastic accomplice or a horrified onlooker. If he was able to object to the crime and did not, that is enough to indict him as an accomplice, even if there’s no record of him endorsing the crime—unless he could not speak without fearing for his safety, in which case it’s likely that he was an onlooker instead. If the Crown had taken this into account, it could have recognized that More had not, in fact, meant to give his assent; but it could not have made this recognition without also recognizing its own criminality.

The structure of More’s utterance, then, is less like an action undertaken despite having certain unfortunate accidental side effects, and more like a riddle which cannot be understood by men of ill will. I don’t mean that More outwitted his enemies, that the Crown was too thickheaded to understand what he really meant; More obviously expected them to know exactly what he was trying to do. Rather, given More’s silence, and given the principle qui tacet consentire videtur, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit, the Crown could not conclude that he withheld assent without also concluding that his inability to speak stemmed from the Crown’s violent threats. The Crown might know this, but it could never admit it. More utterance was meant to render this forbidden knowledge perspicuous.

This makes More’s silence less like a mental reservation, and more like a risky venture: if he wins, he brings his auditor to repent. If he loses, either his auditor lashes out, and he becomes a martyr; or his auditor overlooks the venture, and he becomes a liar, or, at least, an equivocator of the usual kind. Without going into whether the usual kind can be justified, it seems clear to me that the Morean kind certainly can.


** *


[1]:  The mental reservationist intends to speak the truth, and foresees… what exactly? What he foresees without intending cannot quite be the misinterpretation, for the misinterpretation is, it would seem, precisely what he intends. If this were true, then, to justify mental reservation through double effect, we would have to accept that misleading others was not evil per se, but only tended to have evil consequences, which were foreseen yet unintended. Yet there must be, or at least tend to be, evil consequences, otherwise there would be no reason not to use mental reservation all the time. What might these accidental evil consequences be? This question is often left unasked, which I suspect accounts for much of the disgust non-Catholics often feel in response to the doctrine of mental reservation. Without a reason not to equivocate unless absolutely necessary, one suspects that anyone who endorses equivocation can never be trusted, since they might equivocate whenever convenient. I don’t mean to suggest that an answer cannot be given—only that it’s not particularly easy to give one that’s satisfying.


[2]: From John Henry Newman’s Apologia pro vita sua:

He [Athanasius] was in a boat on the Nile, flying persecution; and he found himself pursued. On this he ordered his men to turn his boat round, and ran right to meet the satellites of Julian. They asked him, “Have you seen Athanasius?” and he told his followers to answer, “Yes, he is close to you.” They went on their course as if they were sure to come up to him, while he ran back into Alexandria, and there lay hid till the end of the persecution.

“Yes, he is close to you,” contains no riddle as far as I can tell. Newman’s Apologia offers a tentative defense of equivocation, which I ought to reread, when I get the chance. From what I recall, however, his argument works better as a defense of analogizing (which is to speak approximately) rather than equivocating (which is to speak misleadingly).

Kind of thing

June 17, 2015

In the game of Twenty Questions, (usually played on road trips to relieve boredom), one person thinks of something and everyone else asks that person questions until they figure out what he’s thinking about.[1] The questions must all be yes/no, except, in a traditional variation, for the first one, which is always:

  • 1. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?

This question contains within itself a picture of the world. Wikipedia associates it with the Linnaean taxonomy, though it seems more generic than that, being just a folk version of the Great Chain of Being. Or, at least, of the lower half of that chain: it’s technically correct but still a bit strange to answer “animal” when you have a human being in mind, and I’m not sure how you ought to answer if you’re thinking of an angel. So let’s try this instead:

  • 1. Divinity, spirit, human, animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Better. Though, we’re probably talking about specific human beings, e.g. Napoleon; whereas we’re probably not talking about a specific vegetable, but rather about a type of vegetable, e.g. kohlrabi. Also, many of the most famous human beings, such as Achilles, do not in fact exist. There are also fictional animals and vegetables and minerals, like the Spice from Dune. We might propose, then, to begin instead with three questions:

  • 1. Type or individual?
  • 2. Actual or fictional?
  • 3. Divinity, spirit, human, animal, vegetable, or mineral?

Still, this picture of the world contains only things that Aristotle would call substances. There exist many things that would not be called substances, but which it is quite strange to refuse to call “things.” For example, the great chain has no place for artifacts, e.g. tables, this table, light sabers, Luke’s light saber (to give examples that match all four possibilities raised by questions 1 & 2). If the table is made of wood, one could to answer “vegetable,” or “mineral” if it’s of stone; but these are awkward, and in any case, what if you’re thinking, not of any particular table, but of “table” as a category? It also has no place at all for linguistic constructs, e.g. books, The Book of the New Sun, Ascian proverbs, the story told by Loyal to the Group of Seventeen[2]; these are neither animal, vegetal, nor mineral, though they can be written down on parchment or paper, or cut into stone. Nor for social constructs, e.g. governments, the U.S.A., utopias, Utopia; a government cannot even be physically instantiated the way a poem can. So perhaps:

  • 1. Category or individual?
  • 2. Actual or fictional?
  • 3. Rational, natural, or constructed?
  • 4.a. Divinity, spirit, or human?
  • 4.b. Animal, vegetable, or mineral?
  • 4.c. Artifact, verbifact, or sociofact?[3]

But we’re still missing so much! What about places, e.g. forests, America, inhabitable alien worlds, Endor? What about events, like revolutions, the American Revolution, entmoots, the battle of Isengard? What about qualities, like largeness, the size of a breadbox, eldritch colors, fuligin? What about states of mind, like ideas, my anger at Comcast customer service, [Teeming], [this-one-who-does-not-individuate]’s [Teeming][4]? What about states of affairs, like political equilibria, the U.S. government’s “balance of powers,” magical resonances, the resonance between Harry Potter and Voldemort? All of these things it makes sense to call, well, things. None of them would fit well into the above categories.

In the round of 20Q I played recently, we were faced with:

  • The American Revolution
  • Andrew Wiley’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem
  • The prisoner’s dilemma
  • Quantum entanglement

Twenty questions is, I have found, much more entertaining when such things are permitted. But, of course, permitting them does leave us with no obvious choice for a first question. We have so many types of things: divinities, spirits, humans; animals, vegetables, minerals; artifacts, verbifacts, sociofacts; places, events, qualities, states of mind, states of affairs. Nor does this list make any claim to be exhaustive. Anything, any noun, is a thing; and nominalization happens all the time.

But then, perhaps there’s no need for a default first question; coming up with such a question is part of the fun.

[1]: Or until they get to twenty questions, except that’s kind of a silly rule; why not just keep playing till you’ve solved it? If you do abide by the twenty-questions rule, you’ll be able to distinguish, at most, between 2^20 = 1,048,576 things. Since your questions probably won’t bisect the answer space perfectly, it’ll probably be less. Wikipedia has almost five million pages, so even if you do play perfectly, you can’t win without having some sense of what the other person finds interesting: for example, you have to know that almost everyone is more likely to choose Napoleon than John J. Anderson.

[2]: While finding examples of individual fictional linguistic constructs was easy, it took some work to come up with a fictional type of linguistic construct. For obvious reasons, searching for “fictional genre” wasn’t much help. The examples I decided on come from Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun.

[3]: I did not invent the neologisms verbifact and sociofact, though both are uncommon, to say the least.

[4]: Examples of fictional mental states are even more difficult. Mine are from nostalgebraist’s Floornight.


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