Tolkien for Seminarians

Last week, I spent two days giving talks at beautiful St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, to seminarians engaged in a monthly spiritual formation program.

st-patricks-seminaryWhen the director contacted me some months ago and asked me to come, I went through any number of topics I thought might be of interest — St. Thomas Aquinas’s spiritual theology, the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the life of virtue — and then I added, “I could also talk about Tolkien.” “TOLKIEN!” He said with eager certainty.

I was a little surprised, but not entirely. I had been recommended to Fr. Vito by Dr. Anthony Lilles, Dean of St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo, and founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation , who likewise lit up when I said I could offer modules on Tolkien’s works for their pre-seminary program. And an official at a Great Hearts School in Phoenix similarly jumped when I included Tolkien among Plato, American documents, and other possible topics.

Why such a strong response from these educational leaders? I think it is a testament to the contemporary neglect, undermining, and corruption of the imagination. They must realize that the philosophy and theology which forms the crown of the Catholic intellectual tradition (or Western intellectual tradition for charter schools) is fleshless without a well-formed sacramental imagination. Thomistic accounts of prudence, perseverance, truthfulness, fidelity cannot convey the wisdom they contain without bag_end___shadow_of_the_past_by_donatoarts-d66aszlpowerful examples of those virtues embodied in characters like, Gandalf, Aragorn, and Faramir, Frodo and Sam.  Nor can priests effectively teach their congregations if they are not readily able to exemplify the doctrine they would pass on.

Tolkien’s characters can speak in a particular way to future priests, providing inspiring instances of male leadership in a world that shrinks from the very idea. Careful readings and re-readings of Lord of the Rings chapters like “The Shadow of the Past”, “The Window on the West”, and “The Passing of the Grey Company” faithfully show strong, committed leaders, under great duress, become the heroes their people need.






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What I Learn From Students During Exam Week

I teach in a college whose students are, on the whole, rather impressive. They are without a doubt well above average in their self-discipline, their desire to learn the truth, and their maturity. I count myself fortunate for this, because as a professor I always hope to find students who are teachable, students who will be able to become, in their turn, the standard-bearers of a culture and civilization which is in many ways in decline.

Hence I am always disappointed at the end of each semester when exam time comes. Why is it that students whom I know to be mature, serious, interested in learning, and intelligent often demonstrate by their showing on exams that they cannot remember what their classes were for?

screen-shot-2013-04-13-at-5-10-05-pmThis question becomes all the more mysterious when one considers that the classes these students take are no ordinary classes. We do not allow our students to listen passively to lectures. They must come to class having studied the material beforehand – most of it from the original texts of great authors, such as Aristotle, Dostoyevsky or Einstein – and they must discuss it intelligently in class, with the help of the tutor. We call ourselves tutors instead of professors so that it will be understood that we are not the primary teachers. For indeed we recognize one great cause of the almost universal dullness of spirit — acedia, as it was once called –- that afflicts our schools and universities. Just as children, as they grow, come to desire real food instead of baby food, so students do not thrive if they are fed the thoughts of a professor, who has predigested them after receiving them from another professor. Students do best, instead, when they can grapple with the seminal thoughts of the greatest thinkers – the thinkers by whom our culture was formed.

But in spite of efforts and precautions such as these, exam time demonstrates with disheartening frequency that somehow we fail. For it is at exam time that students often revert to the mode they learned in the public schools. They stop wanting to think, to consider the real world in all of its splendor and mystery. They forget that they have spent an entire semester doing just that. Instead they want to know “what will be on the exam.” They ask for reviews, but what they really want is a preview, and nothing too deep, thank you.

It is helps but little to remind tpreparing-for-ap-examshem that we do not want exams to take center stage in their education, that the exam is but a final and brief exercise to get some sense of our progress over the course of the whole semester. But what is most disheartening is the result of the exam. Try as they might, students frequently cannot bring themselves to believe, when push comes to shove, that we, their teachers, will look for anything on the exam but a regurgitation of something we told them. They don’t believe that we might actually look for signs of intellectual life and vigor in how they go about answering the questions posed.

This is a somewhat fanciful description of what happens. Allow me to describe it more closely. What we witness is, in a word, a failure of judgment. I want to spend a moment describing what I mean by judgment, and in what way it fails. This is a topic which parents who want to educate their children need to meditate well upon. I believe that it constitutes one of the principal points on which home schoolers regularly demonstrate superiority over the public schools. And it will frequently make the difference between a successful home education and an unsuccessful one.

Here is one way to describe the person of good judgment: he or she knows when he knows, and when not; he can distinguish between what he knows, and what he has merely heard someone say. This may indeed sound rather odd; doesn’t everybody understand the difference between knowing and not knowing? Yet however odd it may seem, my experience as a college professor is that many, if not most, students are not good at distinguishing what they know from what they don’t know.  And the explanation for this, at least in outline, is fairly simple: our students have been taught not to distinguish.

They have been taught not to distinguish between what they know and what they are told. For many, the habit of identifying education, and even virtue itself, with the acceptance and retention of what one is told is so deeply ingrained from years of bad school education that there is little hope of overcoming it. Wittingly or unwittingly, we educate new generations in what amounts to slavery. Not long ago, I had a student who grew up in the former Soviet Bloc. She was among the most intelligent of our students. She had evidently distinguished herself in school during her teenage years. But it did notexams take long to discover how she had managed to distinguish herself during her grade school years. She had no desire but to please her teachers. She had no other thought, no other wish, than to find out what I wanted her to say. Consequently, she was morally incapable of forming her own judgments –- at least as long as she was in an academic environment. From the very beginning of our acquaintance, I tried to make it clear to her that I wanted her to have her own thoughts and exercise her own judgment. But to her this just amounted to an impossible paradox: how could a teacher desire anything in a student but to repeat the teacher’s thoughts? It was months before she began to believe that my desire was sincere, that this was even possible. (When she finally did understand it, she was filled with gratitude.) I have never witnessed a more striking example of how tyranny can ruin a person’s prospects for education; and yet, in truth, this was merely an extreme example of what I witness every day in American students. Our educational system in America has been, to an alarming degree, an education in this same sort of slavery: not the relatively innocuous slavery of the body, but a more degrading slavery of the soul. And the common failure to recognize this is merely a testimony to the success of this deformed sort of “education.”

The habits of tyranny just described are so universal that it will take no small effort, even on the part of many adults and teachers, to see clearly any alternative. I would like to take a few moments to describe an alternative. I have said that the failure is a failure of judgment. But this hides a rather complex matter. There are two poles, so to speak, of an excellent mind, and correspondingly two poles of a good education. Let us call them judgment and imagination. On the face of it, it appears that these are very different virtues, and indeed they are. Everyone recognizes, more or less, the person who has a good imagination. Imagination makes us good at storytelling, at indulging in flights of fancy. It makes us able to think about what is not immediately real, but could become real. People with good imaginations tend to not worry excessively about whether their thoughts correspond to something immediately real. People of good judgment, by contrast, know when what they consider is possible, or how it is or is not possible. Sometimes the person of good judgment tends to weigh thoughts quickly against what is real or possible, and dismiss what is impossible, whereas the imaginative person delights in flights of fancy and passion. The person of good judgment is not misled by appearances, by pretenses, nor by insupportable dogmas and ideologies. The person of good judgment maintains a steadfast grip on reality which is not easily disrupted. This is indeed a virtue, as precious as it is rare.

But what I want to emphasize here is this: judgment and imagination are not opposed: indeed our failure to educate students in judgment has gone hand in hand with our failure to let them cultivate their imagination. In a philosophy of physics class I recently taught, we discussed the nature of images produced by lenses. We discussed whether the images were something one actually sees, or whether they were simply a (distorted) view of the original object. Out of about thirty students, there was figure2026_06_13one student who stood far beyond his peers in his ability to make good judgments about the questions we discussed. And at one point in the conversation, he himself pointed out the reason why he was a better judge: he argued that one cannot be a good judge unless one possesses a lively enough imagination to represent the relevant experiences to one’s own mind. And indeed, he was one of the few who possessed such a lively imagination. Imagination – by which, here, I mean an ability to recall, with a certain vividness, vivacity, and even sometimes with passion, how things feel, look, smell, taste, sound, act, or work, provides the matter for good judgment, that upon which judgment is exercised. Without it there can be no judgment.

The imaginative power to which I am referring cannot itself be well cultivated unless at least three conditions are fulfilled. The first is a certain freedom, both to experience things at our own pace and in an innocent way suited to our nature. This freedom is important because the liveliness of recollected experience is to a great extent a function of enjoyment. We remember the things which delight us and which arouse our wonder. We also remember the solutions to natural, spontaneously arising questions, much more effectively than to questions which are imposed artificially. Freedom and enjoyment, then, are two indispensable conditions for a lively imagination. A third is art. By art, I mean doing things, rather than just being told about them. Human beings are naturally imitative creatures, and there could be little if any education if learning were not built on our ability to imitate, to reenact, to try out the things which excite our wonder.

These conditions are the things which make learning natural, and make it a fulfillment of our natural inclinations. It is a perverse though common mentality which wishes to pursue education as if it were a matter of technique and discipline as opposed to something natural. The failure to think well about these matters is also due, in part, to a faulty understanding of what imagination is. There are those (but mostly only in the unenlightened halls of academia) who identify imagination – especially natural imagination – with frivolousness or even with falsehood. But falsehood is not what defines imagination. Properly speaking, imagination is an ability to relive one’s experiences on a sensible level. It is this ability which makes the play of children, which is almost always imitative and imaginative, essentially contemplative and educative. Adults who over-identify education with school frequently presume that education and play are essentially distinct. They suppose that the seriousness of the enterprise of education precludes such enjoyment as play typically entails. They associate education with the distancing from real experience that school frequently entails, and they fail to see that the imagination involved in play generally puts children into closer contact with reality than the activities of a typical day in public school.

In one of his treatises on ethics, Aristotle lays out his well-known description of virtue as a habit of choosing moderately; but he goes on to note that the moderation which constitutes virtue cannot always be achieved by a direct aim. Sometimes the excesses of old bad habits can only be overcome by a willingness to experience something of the opposite. Someone, for instance, who is excessively habituated to seeing evil in others must deliberately cultivate the experience of looking for and finding good in others. In Aristotle’s metaphorical formulation, we must “bend the stick the other way.” Thus if we would overcome the tyranny of conventional schooling, a tyranny which paralyzes students’ minds by preventing them from cultivating experience, imagination, and judgment, we must let students cultivate their own experience and imagination to a degree which might seem excessive in happier circumstances. This is the only way to effectively set out on the long road of reconnecting education with real experience and real life. We must rediscover the naturalness of pled_discussion_group-_students_forum1_optayful contemplation. And we must start to remember that education is not school, regardless of how much education we may think we can get or give in school. We must give back to our children the confidence to recognize that their minds are naturally in touch with reality. If circumstances force us to use methods habitually associated with corrupted education, such as an overemphasis on exams and grades, we must be extremely wary of demeaning the souls and minds of our students and children in the process; as we do when we pretend, or let others pretend, that minds can be sized up by a set of short exam questions for which the answers are memorized temporarily and without conviction, and by a subsequent set of grades which have a corresponding degree of significance.

Doing these things may offend some who cannot turn away from what they have been accustomed to; but we must do them nonetheless. We do not have to become radical libertarians and skeptics. We do not have to advocate the empty “your opinion is as valid as mine” mentality, or the equally empty view that everyone is responsible for “creating” his own moral universe. Indeed, in claiming that the cultivation of judgment is what education should aim at, we imply just the contrary. But there will be no cultivation of judgment in those whose minds are fettered to shallowness of experience because of the artificialities of declining public education.



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Oliver Sacks — Imitation is source of originality

Impressive people report how much insight they have found in the works of neurologist Oliver Sacks, as in this article on

Sontag’s experience, Sacks argues, reflects the common pattern in the natural cycle of creative evolution — we learn our own minds by finding out what we love; these models integrate into a sensibility; out of that sensibility arises the initial impulse for imitation, which, aided by the gradual acquisition of technical mastery, eventually ripens into original creation.



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Basing Thought on Common Sense

A good, clear explanation of the meaning of common sense, one which stands up to scientific reductions and provides the foundation for bringing science into the service of wisdom.

But perhaps someone playing devil’s advocate would preempt us and say: You just want to find out the meanings of words; the arguments have to be expressed in words, but that is unavoidable. Science is really telling us about a new meaning behind these “ordinary” or “manifest” words.


via Common Sense, Science, and the Pursuit of Wisdom

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In Education, The End Depends On The Beginning.

Well said, Lion and Ox: ‘But rather than fit man from the very beginning to be useful to himself and to others- (which at first glance appears like a very laudable goal!) genuine Catholic education seeks to dispose each person to be a fitting vessel for Divine Grace. Following the maxim that “grace builds on nature,” genuine Catholic education proposes that by acquiring the intellectual habits of truth, the mind of the student is more apt for Divine Truth.’


Source: In Education, The End Depends On The Beginning.

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A neat analysis of what it means to analyze one’s response to a performance. I shared in both the particular experience, and in the general experience of loving to analyze.

A Grain of Salt

This weekend, I went to see a performance of the ancient Greek tragedy, Euripedes’ Iphigenia in Aulis. During the drive back, I talked the performance over with my friends. We came to conclusions about what was distracting, what worked well, and what was inspiring. These decisions were reached through a process called “analysis”.

I believe that if something is worth doing without complete understanding, it’s even more worth doing with understanding. Analysis is that rule of philosophy in action. It is the process by which we understand what is at first hidden.




Analysis comes from the Greek ana meaning “up” and luein meaning “loosen”. Together, the word means to take apart. To find the causes.

The first step is to observe. Watch something objectively. Note your reactions to the thing. Pay attention to the layers of causes in the thing and its many aspects. In the…

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The Loss of Moral Language

Tsze-lu said, “The ruler of Wei has been waiting for you, in order with you to administer the government. What will you consider the first thing to be done? “The Master replied, “What is necessary is to rectify names.” (Analects of Confucius)

At the beginning of his now classic work After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre asks us to imagine a future society in our civilization has collapsed. (Not too difficult to do). The remnants of our scientific knowledge would be perhaps remain in textbooks and other resources, and these would be carefully preserved and taught. At the same time, the whole scientific infrastructure that allowed that the content of the sciences to have truth and coherent meaning would be gone. The scientific nomenclature would become a body of opinion which might correspond with reality, but might not. It would be what later generations could make of it.

AfterVirtueMacIntyre’s thesis in After Virtue is that this imaginary post-apocalyptic view of the sciences serves as an accurate image of the present state of moral discourse: “The hypothesis which I wish to advance,” he writes, “is that in the actual world which we inhabit the language of morality is in the same state of grave disorder as the language of natural science in the imaginary world which I described.” The problem is not then that we know what is right but fail to do it, the timeless problem of men everywhere. Rather, we no longer know the words to express the moral dimension of our experience.

In the Catholic school where I teach, I never cease to be impressed at the impoverishment of my students’ moral vocabulary. Many for example do not know the word gluttony. For them, the only “eating disorders” they know are psychological, not moral e.g. bulimia, anorexia. Neither do they know fornication, having grown up less judgmental terms like pre-marital sex or cohabitation. Correspondingly, few will know words such as woo or court. The whole language of courtship is a blank to them. One year, when I asked students for a synonym for “winning a woman’s love honorably,” a boy guessed “seduce” – probably because it was the only educated sounding word for that kind of activity he knew.

Many students can simply forget these things, even after they have been taught. But this task is rendered vastly more difficult by the countervailing trends in the larger culture. Christian morality has long ceased to inform our shared moral discourse. My students must feel that they are learning a foreign dialect. But of course, the bigger problem is not that this language has been lost by some great cataclysm, as MacIntyre’s scenario suggests. Our moral language has been intentionally destroyed.

JungleThe words we use shape our perception of the things we experience. When I was a boy, only ecologists used words like wetlands and rainforest. Ordinary folks used words like swamp and jungle. The language was changed to change our views about those things. Saving a rainforest sounds lovely – but who wants to save a jungle? Likewise, saving wetlands sounds considerably nicer than saving a swamp. This revision of language is particular evident in everything connected with the Sexual Revolution. Sodomy became homosexual and then gay. Prostitutes are mere sex workers. Living in sin is cohabitation and so on. Perhaps most notoriously, a baby is now a fetus, who is terminated in an abortion. Before Roe v Wade, only physicians used words like fetus or zygote. (It is hard to imagine someone asking a pregnant woman “Are you feeling your fetus kicking?”)

These distortions are not so subtle, but others are. Sex has been replaced by the word gender. Many might feel that that gender in fact might be better to use, since it does not carry the possible innuendo that sex does. But “gender” was a word that formerly was only used in grammar to describe nouns, e.g. masculine, feminine or neither. Gender is cultural. The word for “sun,” for example, in some languages is masculine, while in others is feminine. These are cultural perceptions, not facts. Sexual differences on the other hand are natural. Male and female are biological realities that have a natural basis. By replacing sex with gender, we have turned human sexuality into a cultural construct. (As I write, Facebook lists 58 possible “genders” for its user’s profiles, including gender questioning, gender fluid and non binary[1]).

Closely allied with the word gender are the words role and norm. People once considered the respective duties or tasks of men and women, especially as husbands and wives, mothers and fathers. If gender is a cultural construct, all these duties no longer have a natural basis – they are created. Hence, our modern age borrows from the language of theatre to describe the roles of spouses and parents. No actor is naturally related to his role – he may play many characters, good or bad, young or old. Similarly, men and women are not then seen as living out natural differences, but interpreting, even inventing, a culturally derived script.

Norm is a term borrowed from the realm of sociology. Norms are standards derived primarily from common practice. They are not prescriptive, establishing what people ought to do, but descriptive, stating what in fact most people choose to do. Hence, normal is not synonym for natural; indeed, cultures may create all manner of practices contrary to nature. And certainly, normal is not a synonym for moral, unless one believes that morality is mere opinion, free from a natural basis. Together, gender, role and norm collectively undermine any natural basis for family life as various arrangements contrary to nature are considered equally choice-worthy.

Another important shift, again subtle in its effect, has been the replacement of specific words such as love and friendship with generic words like relationship. Relationship fuzzes over the distinct ways in which people relate for the sake of making these relationships a purely creative project. Unlike “love,” which makes demands, relationships become whatever those involved want them to be.[2] Similarly, the word partner is used where, once upon a time, wife or spouse or mistress or lover would have been more appropriate. Again, the goal is to have a generic word that puts a multitude of moral conditions all on the same level. As Allan Bloom succinctly remarks, “All relationships have been homogenized in their indeterminacy.”[3]

Without doubt, the most pernicious word in our contemporary moral discourse is value. Just as norm is taken from sociology and role from drama, value is a word borrowed from economics. Value expresses the comparative worth of a good or service in a system of free exchanges. Value may imply some objective basis for this worth, as in the “labor theory of value,” which insisted that the value of a commodity was related to the amount of exertion that someone would give to obtain it. Even so, this basis still demanded a market, that is, a group of people who were willing to exchange and so validate this “value.” Market values are not simple statements of fact, and they certainly do not tell us what things should be worth more than others. “Values” state rather what most people believe the worth of things to be, expressed in terms of free exchange.

One of the first, if not the first philosopher to import the language of values into moral discourse was Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche denied an objective moral law based on human nature. Rather, Nietzsche insisted that morality is created from different elements within society. In The Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche describes this process: “the noble, powerful, higher-ranking, and higher-thinking people who felt and set themselves and their actions up as good, that is to say, of the first rank, in opposition to everything low, low-minded, common, and vulgar. From this pathos of distance they first arrogated to themselves the right to create values, to stamp out the names for values.” (chap.2)[4] Simply put, the nobler elements of society see themselves as good, and hence their moral language is first and foremost self-affirming.

800px-Nietzsche187cOn the contrary, those who were ruled and dominated, the slaves of this aristocratic society create different “values.” On the bottom of the social ladder, they could only resent their place, and create a form of morality in which that lowliness has its own “goodness.” As Nietzsche explains, “The slave revolt in morality begins when the ressentiment itself becomes creative and gives birth to values: the ressentiment of those beings who are prevented from a genuine reaction, that is, something active, and who compensate for that with a merely imaginary vengeance.” (chap.10) For Nietzsche, the Biblical morality of the Jews is the very paradigm of “slave morality.” Dominated by the empires around them, the Jews turn their very victimhood into a virtue – the weak are “beloved of God,” the powerful are “evil.”

Most people who speak of “moral values” are completely unaware of this Nietzschean background. Yet it is important to note the implicit consequences that the word “values,” namely 1) morality is not based on a natural law which is universal for all men; 2) rather, morality is a free creation in response to natural drives and social circumstances; and finally 3) moral judgments therefore only provide psychological information about the people who hold them, but do not tell us how people should act.

By contrast, philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, and the Christian tradition that appropriated their moral insights along with biblical revelation, know nothing of “values.” They speak rather of virtues, habits of the soul that perfect man’s nature, raised further by the gifts of sanctifying grace. Virtues are grounded in human nature, while values arise from human creativity. Yet so pervasive is the language of values that even Church documents today will speak of “authentic values” or the “proper hierarchy of values.” As Allan Bloom observes, “Even those who deplore our current moral condition do so in the very language that exemplifies that condition.”[5]

The replacement of virtues by “values” is the root and foundation of the confusions that pervade our modern language. The various ways in which the Sexual Revolution has sent words like fornication and sodomy into oblivion, and made family arrangements a matter of social invention by terms like gender and role would be unthinkable if not for the previous uncoupling of morality from nature. Centuries ago, Confucius insisted on the rectification of names. “If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success.” Our language no longer reflects the moral realities of human life, but rather the revolutionary aspirations of the post-Christian world. If we are to recover the moral understanding we once had, we must recover the language that embodied that understanding. C. S. Lewis put it best when he observed “Men do not long continue to think what they have forgotten to say.”[6]


[2] The tendency toward abstraction in language in democratic societies was well explained by De Tocqueville: “Men living in democratic countries are, then, apt to entertain unsettled ideas, and they require loose expressions to convey them. As they never know whether the idea they express to-day will be appropriate to the new position they may occupy to-morrow, they naturally acquire a liking for abstract terms. An abstract term is like a box with a false bottom: you may put in it what ideas you please, and take them out again without being observed.” (Democracy in America, pt.II, chap.16, “The Effect of Democracy on Language”)

[3] The Closing of the American Mind, p.132

[4] The relation between “language” and “power” has never been better illustrated than by Lewis Carroll in Alice’s exchange with Humpty Dumpty:

‘I don’t know what you mean by “glory”,’ Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. ‘Of course you don’t — till I tell you. I meant “there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!”’

“But “glory” doesn’t mean “a nice knock-down argument”,’ Alice objected.

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

(Through the Looking Glass, chap.6 “Humpty Dumpty”)


[5] The Closing of the American Mind, p.141

[6] “The Death of Words” from On Stories, p. 107

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Moral Education with “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” still stands as one of the most persuasive pieces for the cause of desegregation. Its rhetoric still  has power today, with memorable phrases like “justice too long delayed is justice denied” and “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” But the heart of his argument — that man-made laws are just only if based on the moral law — conflicts with modern denial of a “moral law.” For man today, morality is seen as cultural or emotional or utilitarian; “moral law” is the leftover of outdated religion. But if this central pillar is removed, the force of King’s “Letter” collapses.

When Dr. King demonstrated in Birmingham, local clergy criticized his involvement as an “outsider” in activism they considered “unwise and untimely.” “Untimely,” because they were hopeful of a gradual integration for blacks in society; “unwise” because King’s followers were breaking the law by “parading without a permit,” a permit denied by the segregationist establishment. King points out that American blacks are tired of being told “Wait.” (Indeed, King’s later book about the Birmingham demonstrations was entitled Why We Can’t Wait). Blacks have suffered lynchings, bombings, police brutality, voter intimidation and constant social humiliation. His activism is not “untimely.”

More importantly, King argues that his disobedience should not distress his critics. We are bound to follow just laws, but not unjust ones. “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” Since one of King’s critics was a Catholic bishop (Joseph Durick of Mobile), King cites St. Thomas Aquinas, who taught “An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.” If racial segregation with its train of injustices offends the natural law, then it cannot compel men in conscience to obey.

Modern people would be quick to agree with the injustice of Jim Crow, but would feel distinctly uncomfortable with phrases like “moral law,” “law of God,” and “natural law,” phrases that King uses reflexively and confidently. Racism is wrong, but wrong because racial harmony is the mark of an “enlightened society,”  of equal rights and the democratic outlook.  In other words, racism is wrong because we as modern people all agree that it is wrong. There is no “natural law” or “law of God” declaring it so.

Such a view cannot be squared with the language of the letter. Everywhere, King speaks as if there moral knowledge that people should have as human beings, and that they are blameworthy when they act against this knowledge. The clergy who criticize him, King grants, are men of good will. Open racists like Eugene “Bull” Connor are men of “bad will.” How can the will be “good” or “bad” if goodness and badness is merely a matter of emotion or culture? The goodness of the will only makes sense with some objective rule of “goodness” apart from the man-made law.

This is also evident in the way that King explains conscience. While it is common to think of “conscience” as one’s individual feelings of right and wrong, King relates conscience explicitly to law: “an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.” Conscience is not a free creation of the individual, but rather the personal submission of the mind and will to a law not made by men.

King, arguing from the “personalism” of Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, declares that segregation is unjust because “[i]t gives the segregator a false sense of superiority and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.” But if it is not true that “all men are equated equal,” then how there be a “true” or “false” sense of superiority? There would be no standard by which one could say that men are better or worse, equal or unequal.

In sum, the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” rests on a basis that most modern people, especially the educated, reject. The barrier for them is not only the Letter’s predictable religious language, which one would expect from a religious leader writing to religious leaders. Rather, it is the more fundamental assumptions which the Christian tradition shares with the pagan philosophers who preceded it.  King’s “Letter” condemns racism in view of a moral code based on human nature and the God who made it. This code is not distinctively “Christian” or “Jewish” but human. If this code is denied, the rhetoric of King is ultimately empty. King’s views are objectively no better than the segregationists in Birmingham who opposed him. King, who sought like Socrates to liberate men from prejudice, was after all, only persuading society of his own.

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Two Ways of Staging the Marriage of Figaro

‘As I once wrote, “Mozart’s (and Da Ponte’s) Così fan tutte and Le Nozze di Figaro sparkle with comic brilliance on the surface, but under the surface is a deep sadness, and an unbearable pain.”’

Worth reading: Two Ways of Staging the Marriage of Figaro

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Is Morality Determined by Culture?

Many consider “cultural relativism” a new phenomenon. But people have long recognized that cultures differ in their moral beliefs and practices. It was not a modern anthropologist, but the Greek historian Herodotus who observed, “if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own; so convinced are they that their own usages far surpass those of all others.” (Histories, III.38) Pindar before him had declared, “Custom is king over all.”

For many people today, the mere fact of disagreement between cultures provides sufficient evidence against universal moral judgments. They believe themselves to be following laws that are arbitrary, that could be totally different if they were living in a different time or place. The initial acceptance of cultural relativism, that is, different standards for different cultures, easily turns into a cultural determinism that is, the belief that people are not free to have moral beliefs different from their own culture. People, on this view, could not question or reject the customs in which their culture has formed them.

Certainly as a general rule, many follow their own culture in an uncritical way. But every culture has its dissenters and innovators. Socrates provides a well-known and easily understood example. Although he has been raised in Homeric polytheism of ancient Greece, it has become questionable to him as an adult. When Euthyphro tells Socrates of the stories of warfare among the gods, of the stories of Zeus and Cronos who mutilated their fathers, Socrates asks “Is not this, Euthyphro, the reason why I am being prosecuted, because when people tell such stories about the gods I find it hard to accept them?” (Euthyphro 6A) Socrates’ dissent brought a charge of atheism against him, and he was eventually convicted and executed.

Widowburning2Despite the widespread acceptance of cultural relativism in anthropology, modern research provides numerous examples of cultural dissent. UCLA anthropologist Robert Edgerton treats several such cases in his provocatively titled work Sick Societies. In eastern India, for example, high class women are expected to burn themselves on the funeral pyres of their departed husbands (called “sati” or “suttee”) While some women follow this custom even today, a minority of women do so, and it has always people within Bengal who condemned it. Indeed, one of the goals of the so-called “Bengali Renaissance” under leaders such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy was the abolition of widow-burning. While some of the influence against widow-burning no doubt came from the British who ruled India in the 19th century, Roy argued against the practice using traditional Hindu texts.

Edgerton also relates the research of F J Porter-Poole among cannibal tribes in the highlands of New Guinea. The practice stopped after western intervention, and researchers were surprised to the degree to which the tribesman welcomed the change. According to Porter-Poole, many of those whom he interviewed and who admitted to cannibalism “acknowledged ambivalence, horror and disgust at their own actsSickSocieties.” Some simply could not or would not conform – they vomited or fainted.

Similarly, anthropologists working among tribes that had traditions of constant warfare were surprised to discover how relieved the warriors were to leave this behind. For example, Yanomamo tribesman in the jungles of Brazil “whose culture exalted ferocity and perpetual warfare, frankly admitted that they disliked having to live in fear of violent death.”

While Pindar and Herodotus are right to emphasize the importance of custom in human life, it is verifiably untrue that all people passively accept what their culture gives to them. Many will avoid carrying out their cultural dissent in a visible or revolutionary way. Indeed, they simply hide the disagreements they have with larger culture, confiding them to a few or none at all. But clearly there is some other source of moral knowledge besides that which culture gives. Human beings are not merely plastic to the exertions of customs. Apparently, something within human nature provides limits, even the strength to resist.

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