Sunday, September 07, 2008

Sunday Thought: The importance of being earnest about 'being'

Man is not a mind that thinks, but a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and who enjoys them as beautiful. For all that which is, down to the humblest form of existence, exhibits the inseparable privileges of being, which is truth, goodness and beauty.

Etienne Gilson, in The Unity of Philosophical Experience.

And should we discard this image of wholeness, disease is sure to follow, saith Gerhart Niemeyer:

Ideology is the name for that kind of disorder which consists in substituting for philosophical questions about what is given a set of assertions about what is not given. What is not given includes the historical future, particularly when one 'inquires' about it in order to control the 'destiny of mankind.' What is given but not accessible to the type of knowing suitable for things in this world is the divine reality, above and beyond that of the cosmos and of human history. When the speculation of the mind begins to criticize being as such, when it aims not at understanding the 'constitution of being' but at its control by the human will, the result is not philosophy but ideology.

Which leads others, like T.S. Eliot, to point to its manifestation in this world, and a possible treatment for the malady:

The world is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized Non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail; but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; meanwhile redeeming the time: so that the Faith may be preserved alive through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide.

St. Thomas says that "The purpose of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands."

Many today think it not wise to begin a journey for which no destination is in sight; but to think, rather, that "how the truth of things stands" is, in certain areas, simply unknowable. This is an assault, really, on the accessibility of any truth, though the lack of access presents no bar to dogmatic prescription, and though they mean to assault only a certain kind of truth. Some hold it a dogma, for example, that a woman has a right to an abortion. This is held because there is one truth we can know, and another we cannot, the former being that we have before us a woman of whose human status we have no doubt, and the latter being that we have also before us (and within her) an entity of whose status we claim ignorance. The dogmatic prescription is that in the grip of such ignorance we may be rid of the questionable entity. We must favor what we know, not impose upon others concerning that which we do not. The kind of truth being assaulted is Niemeyer's "what is given," his "divine reality", the source of all being, which may not be admitted on compulsion of extending our condescension to the child as well.

Many see the difficulty. If it is removed from the child, it is removed from the woman as well. On what, therefore, is the woman's dignity as a human being founded? On this and this alone: because we say so. It is the same principle we apply to other more trivial matters: you may vote at 18 "because we say so." You may drink at 21 because we say so. You may murder upon becoming pregnant because we say so. It is not considered murder by its proponents and practitioners because only people can be murdered. Having pre-empted the divine reality, the question of who falls into the category of "people" becomes a matter of debate. The object is to win the debate. The divine reality is "not accessible to the type of knowing suitable for things in this world." Thus mere assertion, "control by the human will," becomes the one immortal principle in a world where immortality remains a woeful uncertainty.

St. Thomas, Niemeyer and Gilson believe that things have being, and that we can come to apprehend the necessary truth of them even in the absence of complete comprehension. If Gilson is right - that each of us is "a being who knows other beings as true, who loves them as good, and enjoys them as beautiful" - the thing I'd like people to understand about Obama and his like is that, in their claim to ignorance regarding an unborn child's dignity, you are witnessing no humble deference to higher authority, no fastidious reluctance to impose on others an unjust and fanatical religiosity, but rather a mere assertion of his own brand of fanaticism, of "control by the human will" over the lives of those about whose 'right to life' he is uncertain, while knowing certainly that they may be put to death. More than anything, from a self-professed Christian, you are witnessing an inability, or a refusal, to love.


alaiyo said...

Excellent, Bill. Is sin, as a general rule, a refusal to love? I've not thought about it particularly that way before, and -- being a thought off the top of my head -- I may be off, but just a quick review of my own latest errors certainly puts them in that light. And if I can refuse to love those closest to me, to see the good, the true, and the beautiful in *them*, ones who have demonstrated it to me day after day -- how much easier to refuse to love those I cannot see.

The Eliot quote makes me think of Lord of the Rings and those who kept the Truth and worked for it quietly for so many years before rising to face down Evil . . . Doesn't Gandalf say something very like this at some point?

William Luse said...

"Is sin, as a general rule, a refusal to love?"

I've always thought so.

"Doesn't Gandalf say something very like this at some point?"

You're asking a guy who never read the books and had trouble staying awake during the movies.

Lydia McGrew said...

Bill is anti-LOTR, Beth. We all have to accept some sad things about our friends. :-)

Excellent post, Bill.

In general, I've been hard-pressed to appreciate the Thomistic maxim that existence is a good. Think of some disgusting biological substance, an instrument of torture, or even the rabies virus. Does one really want to say that all of these are good simply on the grounds that they exist? I find that a hard sell and to that extent am a modernist rather than any sort of pre-modern Thomist. (I have other modernist credentials, too. :-))

But the point you are making here is an excellent one. All this pro-choice rhetoric about how "we don't know" if the unborn child is a person, therefore we should be pro-choice has two major characteristics. First, it contains a lie, because they do know but just refuse to admit it. Second, even if one were uncertain, since when does making killing of what is even putatively and arguably a person amount to the most prudent and humble course of action? Or making such killing legal? I ran into this in spades in one of the Audi books I've been reading for this article I've been writing. He discusses the presumption of innocence in criminal matters, and he literally, explicitly gives a second meaning to "presumption of innocence." He says we are charitably obligated to presume that any action that some person undertakes (and apparently thinks he's permitted morally to undertake) is an innocent action. That is, "presumption of innocence" doesn't just mean you assume a _person_ is innocent until proven guilty but that you assume that all _acts_ are innocent until proven guilty! This is ridiculous. How about torturing five-year-olds? Well, gee, hmmm, what's the _argument_ that that is wrong? We have to assume it's innocent until proven guilty, y'see. Naturally, he's all excited to apply this to abortion. Tearing unborn infants limb from limb is, in his view, presumptively an innocent act because lots of people want to have it done and because Robert Audi doesn't accept any of the arguments against it.

William Luse said...

I have a feeling his 'presumption of innocence' is just consequentialism wearing different words.

I'll get back to the first part of your comment tonight, after work is done.