Aquinas on the Virtues: Understanding

Understanding

Image credit: The Clinton Street Theater

Today I begin a series of posts on Thomas Aquinas’s view of the virtues. Most of my focus in this series will be on what are often called the “cardinal” virtues—wisdom (or “prudence”), justice, courage, and temperance—and the “theological” virtues—faith, hope, and love (or “charity”). However, in order for that discussion to make sense, I need to begin with the virtue of understanding.

Understanding is what Aquinas calls an “intellectual” virtue, i.e., an excellent quality of the thinking part of our minds that allows us to think or reason well in a particular sense. As Aquinas puts it, understanding allows us to grasp “self-evident principles both in speculative and in practical matters” (Summa Theologica I-II, Question 58, Article 4). This dense statement needs some unpacking. Continue reading

Death and Glory on the Mountaintop

If I’m perfectly honest, I want glory. I want my gifts to be reflected far and wide. I want my accomplishments to be honored by many people. I want to be known and praised for doing great things.

These desires have a natural and appropriate root. Human beings are social creatures. Part of what that means is that we want to be acknowledged by others, and being honored for good things we’ve done is an important part of that acknowledgement. If I wash the dishes, it is good and right for my family to thank and perhaps even praise me. If my friend accomplishes something extraordinary, it is good and right to celebrate the accomplishment and shine a light on it for others to see.

The trouble is, despite this honest root, my desire for glory tends to bloom in distorted ways. Continue reading

Harry Potter Article Mentioned on American Library Association Blog

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Back in 2010 (when I should have been working on my dissertation), I wrote a three-part article on the controversy over Harry Potter in Christian circles for my children’s books blog (which is now effectively defunct, though I’ve left it online here).

Recently, there has been a revival of interest in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels in the media (see, for example, this article in Forbes) owing in part to the fact that September 1, 2017, apparently marks the date of the Epilogue (titled “Nineteen Years Later”) of the seventh book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and roughly 20 years since the publication of the first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

As part this revival of interest, the article I wrote back in 2010 has recently received some favorable attention. In particular, the Intellectual Freedom Blog associated with The Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association mentioned the article in a post revisiting the religious controversy over the Potter books. This is hardly fame and fortune, but I thought it was worth celebrating with a blog post. Nice to get some unexpected favorable attention in the blogosphere. My original article series on Harry Potter starts here, if you are interested.

In Defense of Useless Knowledge

Moon landing

My latest piece, “In Defense of Useless Knowledge,” is posted on Medium.com. Choice quote: “If we insist on measuring the value of knowledge by its practical implications alone, we risk discarding not only knowledge with less obvious practical value, but also the rich tradition of useless knowledge…” Check it out and let me know what you think.

“Have to” or “Want to”?

Learning grammar...do I have to?

Photo credit: Benny Lewis, Fluent in 3 Months

At the beginning of last school year my daughter made a friend who has had an especially hard childhood. As the year wore on, she learned and told us more of his story. My wife, both of my daughters, and I all began to feel equal measures of compassion for him in his suffering and anger at the injustice he has experienced. Toward the end of the school year and through the summer we began to connect with him regularly as a family and to help him in various ways. As the new school year starts, this process of connecting and helping is only increasing, to the joy of us all.

Recently, he was at our house to help celebrate my daughter’s birthday. He arrived around noon, after the group had eaten breakfast. He had not eaten anything all day. We asked him what he would like to eat, and began getting out some of the copious leftovers to heat up. His response was that we didn’t “have to” do this for him. This is often his response when we try to help him with something. He says this (at least in part) because he doesn’t want to be a burden to us, which is understandable: none of us wants to be a burden. Continue reading

I, Claudius by Robert Graves

As part of the research for my fiction project telling the backstory of Philemon in the New Testament, I recently read I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Originally published in 1934, it is a gripping novel portraying the Roman ruling class from roughly the beginning of the common era to the assassination of Caligula and accession of the emperor Claudius in 41 CE. Although it is a novel, it hews closely to the actual history of the period, as far as I could tell. It has been claimed to be one of the best novels of the 20th Century.

The story is told in the first person by the protagonist, Claudius, who was an outcast of the ruling family as a child and young man because he was born lame and stuttered. In part as a result of his consequent isolation from most of his family, he befriended books and became a scholar and a historian. The novel is cleverly cast as a portion of his autobiography written for distant future generations (us!). As an admirer of the scholarly life, I found the descriptions of Claudius’s relationships with the Roman historians Livy (a mentor to Claudius) and Pollio to be especially clever and interesting.

The novel portrays the tumultuous and often deadly jockeying for power among Rome’s first family and those connected with them in ruling the empire. Continue reading

Is Amazon “Making History”?

Last week I visited the Broad Museum in downtown Los Angeles for the first time. One of my favorite pieces was Andreas Gursky’s, “Amazon” (pictured below).

Amazon by Andreas Gursky

As a museum guide explained it, the work is a (lightly) digitally-edited photo of an Amazon.com warehouse. The ocean of consumer goods portrayed is, in itself, pretty compelling. However, what I found especially interesting about the piece was the compound slogan printed on the pillars in the background of the image. It may be hard to make out in this small version, but the left pillar says, “Work hard,” the middle pillar, “Have fun,” and the right pillar, “Make history”.

Assuming that the slogan was an actual feature of the warehouse and not an element added by Gursky, it is obviously intended to motivate the people who work in the warehouse. Amazon management hopes that hard work will be spurred both by fun and by the idea that workers are part of something “history-making,” bigger than themselves, important.

Even if the slogan was edited into Gursky’s image after the fact (which I don’t think it was), I have often heard people say that companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, and Facebook are “making history” in some sense. For example, by day I work as an environmental engineering consultant. Lo many years ago I went to school in Silicon Valley, and I recently heard that one of my former professors laments how many of his graduate students do not end up applying their skills in service of the environment, but rather end up joining local internet companies. Higher pay is definitely part of the reason they do this, but another part is the sense that in joining such companies they will be involved in something of historical proportion.

But are companies like Amazon really “making history”? Continue reading

Obedience, Submission, and “Slave Morality”

According to Orlando Patterson, the Roman mime-writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “The height of misery is to live at another’s will” (Patterson, Slavery and Social Death, 77). In this statement, Publilius, a former slave from Syria, had in mind the lot of a Roman slave.

To the Roman mind, living “at another’s will,” in submission and obedience to another, was miserable not because the one obeyed was necessarily harsh or unkind, but because living in this way was itself dishonorable. In effect, the slave had no life of her own; her life was a mere expression of the master’s life. Her actions expressed the master’s desires, and her very existence was dependent on the master. As Patterson puts it, “The dishonor the slave was compelled to experience sprang…from that raw, human sense of debasement inherent in having no being except as an expression of another’s being” (78). In contrast, to be a Roman slaveholder, with others subjected to your will, contributed to one’s honor.

As Patterson notices (78), this Roman view of honor and dishonor is wrapped up in a picture of the good on which power is central. He quotes Friedrich Nietzsche: “What is good? Everything that heightens the feeling of power in man, the will to power, power itself. What is bad? Everything that is born of weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome” (Nietzsche, The Antichrist). Anachronism aside, I suspect many Romans—slave and free alike—would have endorsed Nietzsche’s idea.

Of course, the Christian picture of the good could not be more different. Continue reading

Aquinas on Christian Joy

I have often felt a tension in my theology when it comes to the concept of joy. On the one hand, in Galatians (5:22) Paul counts joy among the “fruit of the Spirit.” I take it that this means joy is to grow in the life of a Christian under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and that joy is to be something like a steady, stable, even permanent experience of the Christian as she matures. I have often heard pastors describe such Christian joy as something that persists despite negative or difficult circumstances.

On the other hand it seems the Christian is not to be inured to life’s pains and disappointments as a Stoic might be. Indeed, Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:28-37), and he fretted at his impending death in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:36-46). If Jesus is the Christian’s example (and he is), then it seems appropriate for the Christian to feel the pain and disappointment of life.

Are these two teachings at odds? They have often seemed so to me. Continue reading