Monday, November 20, 2017

Aquinas on Human Nature (Notes:79)


Aquinas theory of knowledge and God relied on a larger framework concerning human nature. First, we will examine the relationship of the soul to the body; then we will examine a power of the soul, the intellect (that distinctive or defining capacity of human beings); finally, we will see how Aquinas runs into problems in trying to make the Aristotelian view on human nature fit into the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.

Aquinas takes inspiration for his theory about the human body from Aristotle’s “On the Soul”; there, Aristotle claims that the soul is whatever differentiates the living from the non-living, the soul is that animating force present in human and animals alike. Aristotle examines what is distinctive about the human soul and the murky way it survives after death. “The Physics” and “The Metaphysics” are the final two texts by Aristotle which inspire Aquinas.

To this, Aquinas roots himself in the tradition which came after Paramedian thought and the Aristotelian response to matter, form, and substance[1]. A soul is the first principal of life in those things in our world which live. A soul then explains why a living thing is a living thing and not merely a glob of living stuff. A soul, however, to Aquinas is not a physical object; otherwise, one would need to ask what makes the soul alive and from this line of thought follows an infinite regress. The soul is likened to heat. Just as heat is an accidental byproduct of fire so is the soul a byproduct, so to speak, of being alive; the soul is a non-physical actuality of a physical object (human beings in this case).

Human souls, however, are different from animal souls. Human souls exist in their own right, human souls can act on their own. What does the soul act on? It understands. To contextualize: in order for a human body to perceive sensation, it must have sense organs (eyes, nose, etc.), but to make sense of that sensation requires no sense organ. Why is because it is the soul which understands, it is the soul which acts as an organ—a non-physical organ—in its own right. The soul is able to make sense of things which are not in its own nature: an eye is only able to make sense of shapes but the soul is able to make sense of everything. The soul does this on its own, it is always working, so it is a substance. Hence, it can act on its own.

So, it follows that the soul does not cease to exist simply because the body ceases to exist. Why is because the soul is a substance whose very nature is to be alive, to be a form, something which cannot be separated from its form. Here, then, is the difference between animal and human souls: animal souls are generated through their body but the intellectual soul of a human being is produced directly by God. The animal soul doesn’t have a reality outside of the body but the human soul is a substance and continues to exist even when its body ceases to exist.

In Aristotelian philosophy, there are two kinds of powers—active and passive.

Active powers enact change while passive powers undergo change. Since the intellect is a power of the soul, we must ask what kind of power it is, active or passive? The answer is that it is both.

Why: the soul is passive in the sense that it moves from potentiality to actuality. We have minds which are blank slates that gradually fill with thought; however, the soul is also active in that it is what writes thoughts on the mental blank slate. It is this active intellect which supersedes Plato in creating the active form of something and makes it universal. Such a view was attractive since it eliminated those tricky Platonic forms while remaining stable in universalizing concepts.

Aquinas, though, runs into problems. As a Christian, he wants the soul to be separable from the body after death. But, as an Aristotelian, he wants the soul to be intricately intertwined with the body. How can he have it both ways? By understanding the resurrection of the soul as a preamble to faith: the soul does not cease to exist simply because the body ceases to exist. It follows, then, that the soul will eventually be re-united with its body; such is a “mystery of faith” in that it cannot be proved by rational reason.

[1] Normally, I would explain this out in detail as professor Williams has a not insubstantial section of the lecture devoted to explaining this tradition and the response to it. However, today, I am feeling fatigued; so, I will only mention it in brief and focus instead of Aquinas’s response to the Aristotelian response.

Friday, November 17, 2017

A Brief Aside on How I Take Notes

Hi all,

I just wanted to make this short update to clarify on how I take notes.

Why I am posting this update is because even though no one has enquired, most of my notes cover academic topics which I bought from educational companies (mostly, the Teaching company and their "Great Course" series). As such, I feel I need to remain academically honest and remind people on the basic structure of the notes.

When I take a note covering a Great Course lecture, most of the notes are direct paraphrases of the lecturer as they speak. Sometimes I use direct quotations but mostly it is simply changing of around of words to better fit my own habits and voice. Due to this, readers can rely on the contents of each note being pretty faithful to the contents of the lecture. If you were to go through the lecture yourself, you would find more clarification and a better explanation, but the same essential details would remain.

I do not always mention the lecturing professor in every note; why is simply because I get so lost in the note that it usually doesn't occur to me. However, I do mention the course which the lecture is from. If one clicks on the label associated with that lecture-- it is usually the label with substance to it instead of merely a one-off descriptor-- and selects the very first lecture in that particular series, then inside that first post you will see the name of the lecturer during the introductory preface to the note. (Additionally, names and full details of the course is disseminated during the review at the end of the lecture series.) In any case, if anyone is ever confused on who the lecturer is simply comment and I will respond with the lecturer's name and a link to the product so you know the full details of the course I am notating.

Okay, that is all everyone!

Thank you for reading and if you ever feel the need to comment, simply post below and I will be glad to engage anyone in thoughtful discussion.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Aquinas on How to Talk About God (Notes:78)


So, there is a problem: Aristotle’s language threatens how we talk about God.
The Meaning of our language depends on our concepts, but since our idea of concepts derives from meaningful things, and those things fall short of God, so it would seem that our language cannot talk about God at all. Aquinas will claim that we can speak meaningfully about God but because our language is imprecise, there will always be some slippage when speaking about God. In short, there will always be a gap in how our Names (or “words”) about God describe the almighty.
Aquinas take a dual approach in talking about God. He insists that both the “Negative” and “Positive” Ways must be considered; we cannot merely talk about what God is not (the Negative) or about what is (the Positive Way). How is this, though? How can we name God truly if he is so far beyond our understanding?
Answering: Aquinas proposes a general theory of names and then how this theory works; as far as the general theory is concerned, he takes inspiration for it from Aristotle: words are signs of ideas; Ideas are resemblances, or similitudes, of things; so, words do signify things but only indirectly by way of the intellects idea of the thing. If we were to apply this theory to God, then we see through sensible things—perfection in creatures—aspects of God (God cannot give perfection to creatures if he himself lacked this perfection) beholden in our mind. Provided, God’s perfection is far above that of the creature’s own perfection; the creature’s perfection merely resembles God’s in a vague manner. It is this fact that allows us to understand God since the general theory of names implies that we can talk about things insofar as we understand them.
There is three ways this perfection can work. On one, some perfections do not imply limitation; wisdom, for example, if finite within a person but not finite as a concept. It is neither good or bad, simply is: God, then, is the source of this concept (in this example wisdom). Additionally, we can take a concept which implies ‘without limitation’ and add what Aquinas calls the Mode of Super-Immanence. So, instead of wise we would say “infinitely wise”. Doing this results in a name which can only be applied to God. Further, we can add this further to imply limitation, such as “being a rock”, an odd kind of perfection but perfection nonetheless (why is because it is an actualization of a potentiality: the rock is actually a rock and it is perfect in its rockiness. Ergo, it is perfected, even if it is not an impressive perfectness). Such is capable of being applied to God because God is in several places, referred to as a rock in the metaphorical sense. In metaphorical predication, the thing we have in our mind does not apply directly to the subject, it is merely a mode of deliverance. Only in literal predication is the thing we have in our mind a direct application to what we have in our mind. Aquinas, meanwhile, is interested in most in names (words) which can be applied to both God and creatures.
A glaring defect of our language is that it enacts a multiplicity and suggests that God is multiple. Here is where Boethius’s Doctrine of Divine Simplicity causes problems. To illustrate: when we think of a creature’s goodness, we think of that goodness as a quality or characteristic which that creature has. So, when we do the same for God, we think of God and then slap on the quality of goodness to create a Good God. But, this is not right. God is not a composite made up of different properties—he is simple. Yet, our language suggests that God is a plurality since we draw our knowledge from sensible things and from those things we learn different things about God. So, how do we reconcile this complexity? By understanding God’s perfection encompassing all these perfections through his essence.
All of this follows a third limitation of our language: that is, when we say that “God is Wise” and “Socrates” is wise, “Wise” does not have the same meaning in those two uses.
How this is relies on the three different kinds of literal predication: hermetical, equivocal, and analogical.
Hermetical: one applies a thing to two or more things with exactly the same meaning. If I say Ben and Bobby are golfers, then the word “golfer” has the same meaning. Equivocal predication, meanwhile, is a case where two words sound the same but have different meaning; such as a “bank” as in a “river bank” and bank as in a place to store valuables and money. Aquinas will argue that when we use words to describe God which do not describe limitation, our words are not predicated either hermitically or equivocally: we can’t have hermitically predication since God’s effects fall short of the divine essence; we can have equivocal since it is not a mere accident that we call both God and creatures “good” as it is an effect of God’s goodness, so our words are not a mistake; if this was the case, then we would have no idea about what it would mean to call God good since our idea of that would be unknown and undefinable. Rather, Aquinas will argue that analogical is the best kind of predication to use when talking about God.
This kind of predication is used when something has related but not identical meanings to something else. This is a form of literal, non-metaphorical predication. An example of this would someone who says “this is my niece” while pointing at a little girl and someone saying the same thing while pointing at a photograph. In both examples, though they are related, they are not the same; the words have a relation in some manner to the word “niece”. The difference is that the girl was brought into the world via biological reproduction whereas the photograph technological. In either case, though, the pointing out of the girl refers to the girl herself. The mode of expression, then, is likewise similar in meaning.
Aquinas then asks which form of the expression has priority or is more fundamental. This depends: does one mean which is more fundamental in order of reality or does one mean which is more fundamental in the order of knowledge? These changes depending on the person: an uncle will know his niece purely by the niece’s existence but a stranger’s knowledge is wholly dependent on the picture; hence, the uncle will have the order of knowledge prioritized whereas the strange will do the same with the order of reality. If one was to apply this to the God-Creature issue, the same result would happen: God is prior in the order of reality whereas creatures are prior in the order of knowledge.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Let's Read: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Ch.22)


At long last, Protag-Man reaches the holy place. Obviously, everyone is super sad that their holy well has run dry, and so have made despair their only friend. Well, that and Protag-Man: once he arrives the holy man abbot begs him to take over from Merlin who has been doing less than pleasing work.

“But I did not want Merlin to retire from the job until I was able to take hold of it effectively myself; and I could not do that until I got my things from Camelot, and that would take two or three days” (162).

                This is amusing because this whole part of the chapter is essentially a commentary on labor exploitation. Con men repairing the well and saying it was miracles wrought to them by god, Victorian Spiritualists, sleight of hand magicians, and protag-man. Everything here is concerned about how labor is expended toward spurious ends. One can argue that that is what the whole book is about; and I think that is correct. But, here specifically, is where that thread appears concentrated.

“I was at the well next day betimes. Merlin was there, enchanting away like a beaver, but not raising the moisture” (163).

                LOL!

                This is the funniest quip I have read all book, I think. Why is because it’s so petty. It is the venomous jabbing of a rival taking a piss on their peer. It is so juvenile that you can’t help but laugh.

“Matters were as I expected to find them. The ‘fountain’ was an ordinary well, it had been dug the ordinary way, and stoned up in the ordinary way. There was no miracle about it”.

                Essentially, Protag-Man’s plan is to have Merlin throw a stick of dynamite into the well to blast a new hole which will allow water to flow again. Apparently, a hole got wrecked and the water drained… or something. I am not learned on the dynamics of well-water relationships. Point is, Protag-Man is playing politics and wants Merlin to do the miracle so as to reinforce him as a magician and have… I dunno, a junior partner, or something.

“What had happened when the well gave out the other time? Without doubt some practical person had come along and mended the leak, and then had come up and told the abbot he had discovered by divination that if the sinful bath were destroyed the well would flow again” (165).

                I’m enjoying that Twain keeps on the association with religion with impracticality. Other than that, I am also enjoying this idea of revealing the materialism behind the holy; in this medieval England, it was thought that the bath was sinful due to metaphysical, theological reasons. But here, it is suggested that the baths were diverting water from the well and that was why the first time the well ran dry. So, remove the “sin” and the well once again flows. Fun.

“I was gradually coming to have a mysterious and shuddery reverence for this girl (Sandy); nowadays whenever she pulled out from the station and got her train fairly started on one of those horizonless transcontinental sentences of hers, it was borne in me that I was standing in the awful presence of the Mother of the German Language” (168).

                Another great lulz moment. You are led to believe that Protag-Man is enjoying her presence but this is undercut immediately by the linguistic snobbery against German. The association of anti-German is transposed to her and the reader is made to sympathize since Sandy’s long-winded speeches are a sight to endure. Of course, where she is literally the mother or not I doubt since by this time in history, Old German should be established as a language. Still, it is neat.

After this moment, nothing much really happens. Protag-Man comes across a religious hermit not unlike those early cultists in early medieval Syria who stood atop large pillars and performed various feats. The only difference here is that Protag-Man harnesses this man to power a sewing machine and make a bunch of cotton shirts which sell like hot cakes (they supposedly protect the wearer from sin). Capitalism for the win! Labor exploitation, yay!

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Me Raving: The Post Grad. Chronicles


Contemporary medievalists are known for making things lively. Sometimes this means trying one's best to relate aspects of the middle ages to something today, comparing the theme of a text to a motif of a popular film. After a while, though, this can get tiring and you just want some good old history. This is where the "Post Graduate Chronicles" comes in and saves the day.

Filled with history, analysis, and bibliographic links for further reading, Chronicles is a great place to kill a half-hour or so and learn a bit about one's past. One of my favorite features of the site is that if focuses primarily on the early middle ages and has a decent amount of content concerning Welsh and Danish history. Studying the early middle ages, one often sees focus on Anglo-Saxon England instead of its lesser known neighbors; combine that with its straight edge on history and you have a winning combination.

Link: https://thepostgradchroniclessite.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Let's Read: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (Ch.21)


Protag-Man finally is finally able to rest. Cool for him, though this does not mean sleep comes easy.

“The ripping and tearing and squealing of the nobility up and down the halls and corridors was pandemonium come again, and it kept me broad awake” (146).

                This is funny. Not only because it is taking a dig at the upper elites, but also because we know it is not literal nobility, but the absurd nobility of pigs, so there is an additional sign layer making this moment like it was something torn from a modern comedy. In a real sense, Twain’s sardonic tongue preempts such ironic writing.

“I had to put myself in Sandy’s place to realize that she was not a lunatic”.

                This is an important remark since it removes Ableism as the root cause of the absurdities. It is not that Sandy is mentally ill and so she believes the castle and its subjects have been enchanted; it is the reverse: it is ideology. She believes in much since those are the superstitions of the day, those are the superstitions of the day because of the lack of science and modern theory and philosophy. This is Sandy’s reality; as Protag-Man recounts later, it is simply part of the time and what fills in for understanding when ignorance and the level of development is at a low.

                Moving on, though. Sandy reveals that the home they have encamped in is not her own home. It is some stranger’s home who Sandy expects to give thanks (assuming he is under the same belief about the hog-nobility connection) for the hogs being housed. Sandy says that people will come for the hogs. But it will take time. Though Protag-Man tries to ditch Sandy, believing her to remain with the hogs, but she rebukes him and remarks that she must go with him since he is her knight.

“The servants said that they would follow the fashion, a fashion grown sacred through immemorial observation; they would scatter fresh rushes in all the rooms and halls, and then the evidence of the aristocratic visitation would no longer be visible. It was a kind of satire on nature” (150).

                I am not sure what “rushes” mean in this context: are the servants spreading vast amounts of water in each room or are they making each room dirtier to cover up the initial dirt? I don’t know. I don’t have access to the antiquated meaning of the term. But, it has something to do with tradition making cleaning away wrong-doing harder, so it is at least mildly amusing, even if I don’t know the exact details of why it could be more amusing.

                After this, though, they depart.

“This company of pilgrims resembled Chaucer’s in this: that it had in it a sample of about all the upper occupations and professions the country could show, and a corresponding variety of costume”.

Twain wins some brownie points with me for referencing Chaucer. “There was not a side saddle in the party” simple makes it all the better. This is always the best part of a novel like this—clever, winking, references to archaic subjects only a few people care about. Thanks, Twain!

                This pilgrim group is traveling to the Fountain of Holiness. By the end of the chapter, Protag-Man will be heading there as well, so this is a bit of foreshadowing. Turns out that this is a place tempted by Satan but then the monks repented for drinking his evil water, and now is holy but the well has dried up again, suggesting someone has sinned. It is a weird story and one I am not sure is repeated anywhere in actual history.
                But, Protag-Man meets another group of pilgrims. Slaves, actually. Though their description is beautiful in Twain’s writing it doesn’t say much other than espousing Twain’s anti-Slavery views. Something which would be more relevant during the American Victorian period than anything else.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Blog Update (11/4/17)

The last time I gave an update, I, in my typical manner, shook things up heavily and maybe dashed some hopes. Projects were ended and new projects announced. I had said that I wanted to make a new blog with a new host, one that could do more. And then, I sort of just left it at that and allowed the posts I have scheduled here to be published as I wandered off to my new home and thought what I should do with this blog.

Fast forward to the present and I have come to a sort of conclusion.

I say "sort" because I do not yet know if I want to keep this blog or delete it. What I do know, however, is that at the very minimum, I want to keep this blog around long enough to use it as a testing ground for new content.

In the earlier months of this blog, I had some posts which dealt with siege warfare. At the time, I was reading Christopher Gravett's Medieval Siege Warfare and had wanted to extrapolate some of those ideas. However, being tired of simply writing up the same old boring semi-educational posts that I had been writing, I decided to use what I called a "Gonzo" format (after the off-brand kind of "vulgar" journalism which Gonzoism is known for). These posts were salty, mildly story-driven, and contained a fair amount of lewdness and harsh language. I thought they were pretty great but certainly not anything that I wanted to use full time on my blog; they were just a fun diversion, an aberration in my normal content.

Now, however, I think I want to return to Gonzo-styled content. This is why, starting early next year (in 2018), I will start publishing an exploratory series of historical notes; these notes will be like the notes I have been posting up-- my transcripts of listening to audio lectures-- but they will not be so dry. In this new series of Gonzo notes, I will aim for conveying the details and factoids of each lecture while maintaining a tone of detached passion, one which talks of the past with reference to the present without becoming bogged down in niched academicism.

Currently, I only have plans for a short series of Gonzo historical notes ("short" because I may find that "Gonzofying" things might not actually be a worthwhile endeavor). But, I am also keeping my mind open for different kinds of content; notations and content extrapolations aside, I plan on trying out some other things if I can brainstorm something interesting.

All of that being said, because my new blog has been keeping me pretty busy with its attendant projects, including at long last the publication of my Medieval Harry Potter series, at the start of the next year, I will only be publishing content here irregularly. If I had to give an estimate, likely no more than a couple of posts a week. As I said, if you really want to keep up with my medievalism, then you need to get subscribed to my new blog, The (Pop) Culture Medievalist.

Okay, well I hopped that that cleared up a little bit of the confusion that I am sure some of you felt in reading some of the content over the past few weeks. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for this blog and hope that you will join me in whatever may come our way.