Sunday, April 13, 2008


Pursue knowledge and truth at all costs, make them your constant mantra— only in this way will you discover that you can have neither.

The beasts of history— the Borgias, for example— exemplify not the rejection of morality, but rather the most basic form of it, appearing in an age where the common morality has grown exhausted.

"Turn the other cheek"— is this not the most seductive costume the will to power has yet worn, and also the most risible? The act of violence reinterpreted, in order to place the power on the side of the sufferer! Small wonder that the powerless flocked to this doctrine, even at the cost of their widow's mite of dignity...

It is no wonder that defection from the Christian faith is often preceded by a good hearty vice. The mind knows just how painful this operation will be— and it wisely prepares an anaesthetic.

Philosophy, once the refuge of the atheist, is now the refuge of the believer. When one's doubts pursue him too closely, there are no better hiding places than the thickets of Aristotle or Kant.

The modern saint has perfected her escape from doubt— doubt is now another hair shirt, nothing more!

UPDATE: After giving these a week, I'll admit that writing like this is a bit of an affectation for me, and that I'm quite displeased with the way the first aphorism turned out; I have too much of the naive will to truth to really affirm it. I still find some of them apt, however.


matt said...

I'm not sure the powerless ever actually flocked to the doctrine of turning the other cheek per se; I think it's always been good advice hidden under the culture of Christianity, and generally forgotten.

some guy on the street said...

OK, I've read just about enough post-modern despair here for my taste.

Beyond scandalous talk of a "most basic form of morality" exemplified by the Renaissance Borgia aristocratic family (or at least by their most scandalous acts), some explanation will certainly be required of the expression "age where the common morality has grown exhausted". But that's not my primary complaint either!

Quite apart from Divine Justice, if one can conceive of human dignity, one ought to deduce that in substance it is not something divisible nor expendable; only one may of his own will renounce his dignity, but even this does not alienate it---hence e.g. we do not revoke fair trial rights even of convicted murderers nor fraudsters, etc., even when we KNOW how they have acted. Thus, even if one can conceive of human dignity, it is a useless concept unless you recognize it as innate to human nature. Circumstances and actions may constitute an affront to any person's dignity; nonetheless his dignity itself remains. "Widow's mite of dignity" is therefore a deceptive phrase, a straw-man whose scriptural reference has dressed it up in foil armor. This fact, the inalienable character of human dignity, is enough to show that to turn the other cheek is the loudest rebuke possible to violence: every man's power is limited to the bodies of his fellows, and stops short of their dignity.

But if, as it seems you claim to believe, there is no truth, that Truth himself has not walked among us, and that one Joshua from Nazareth at most left us this aphorism, indeed it would be quite worthless: for once the smith and the stricken are both dead, who will remember that one struck the other? If there is any value in teaching the stricken to rebuke without words, it is for love of the smith, to call him back to love of Divine Justice lest his soul be lost for eternity.

Happily, as I believe, it is not aphorisms that draw one to Christian Faith, but Christ himself.

Patrick said...


Don't read Catholic theology into plain English. I mean the ordinary social sense of "dignity", that which one loses through humiliation.

And I'm glad you're scandalized by talking of the Borgias acting according to some morality— but "me and my kin contra mundum" really is a primordial moral tenet, prior to its spiritualization and universalization at the hands of reason and culture.

Finally, I am not post-modern, and I do not despair.

some guy on the street said...

I think half my point is that this social sense of "dignity" is not worth considering nor mentioning, especially if you're going to attach it to biblical metaphors. That and plain English leads to sloppy discourse.

The difficulty with understanding the scandalous Borgias (and other beasts) on their own terms, i.e. as "contra mundum" is that their scandals don't stop at being contra mundum, but extend to contra ecclesiam, which St. Thomas More and others aptly tell us is also contra Deum. As for any "primordiality" in such an ethos, it is perhaps facile à adopter, so that it appears early in history, but only because it is facile. BTW, what do you mean by "the hands of reason and culture"?

But let us consider your own lovely aphorism: "Pursue knowledge and truth at all costs, make them your constant mantra— only in this way will you discover that you can have neither." This, of course, is the post-modern despair I refer to. Never mind that "at all costs" is a wrong approach to ANY good, it seems to counsel willful surrender to unbelief. And I'm not worried about the paradox in this claim; I am however quite certain that the claim is false. Even in this weird quantum world we seem to inhabit, once you look at Schrodinger's cat it IS alive XOR dead, and every subsequent observation will agree with yours by the time it gets back to you. If by pursuit of truth and knowledge you meant matching all natural phenomena to algebraic equations, then of course the empirical answer has to be "Mu": a program cannot fully model the hardware it runs on in real time. However, you have much more than laboratory empirics upon which to found your reasoning! The laboratory experiment cannot prove that its apparatus exists, for instance, but you do well enough convincing yourself of similar facts.

Finally, the claim focuses on the accessibility of truth via pure reason, to the point of giving up on whether there IS a truth to access; simply that there is such a thing as truth should be a self-evident starting point for much fruitful consideration!

Nemo said...

I'm with my Odysseanly nameless fellow on much of this one; he's poking you right in the eye, but you're too blind to see it. I'll not voice my judgments on 'despair', but postmodern, sir, you certainly are. To claim otherwise is pure contrarity; not a worthwhile goal. A better aim, judging from the fire you've draw here, might be contrition.

Regarding the beasts of mankind: The argument could be made that morality is defined by absolutes, not by relatives. This argument can be extended to say that, as the moral is a component of the ethical, so too is the practical. Thus, "me and mine" is well and good, perhaps to the point of "me and mine, even contra mundus", but no good can come of throwing adversity in before its proper time. See my above thoughts on contrarity.

I also reject your first quip on the nature of Truth. You perhaps recall my favored philosophy on the accumulation of knowledge and truth: "This, too, is meaningless, a chasing after the wind." Whether or not truth exists is pretty irrelevant, and there is no moral or practical reason to pursue it for it's own sake. Occaisionally, the pursuit of truth becomes a practical imperitive: id est, criminal trials, wherein it would be impractical to imprison an innocent man, but prudent to restrain a guilty one, and thus, Truth becomes a means, though not an end in itself.

Well, I'm running out of puns and classical references, so I guess I'll have stop until I receive a rebuttal.

Joel L. said...

Truth above everything. That is written, strangely enough, on the side of the wall of the BU medical school. But the identification of truth for most people is their journey through life. It's not as if there is a big X-Files folder marked "Truth" out there. People pursue truth in art, in family, in music, in politics, rendering the possibility that truth is only in one form less.

Defection from any religion usually causes vice. And you confuse faith with morality. That many people who have rejected the faith still continue using its morality means either there is a underlying universal constancy to it, or they're not pursuing reevaluation of their morality hard enough, whichever side of the Nietzschean argument you are on.

Philosophy is refuge of the mind, with or without religion. Kant said the idea of God does not have the slightest evidence to assume its absoluteness, while Aristotle made God out to be an eternal unchangeableness that will and intellect are opposed to. If you pursue philosophy with a religious/anti-religious slant, you're always going to find it.

Thus, your aphorisms barely describe the banquet of the mind. A crust of observation. More gravy than grave.

On a side note, I'll be in the Bay Area from July 1st-7th. I promise less bad puns.

Patrick said...


I turned my reply about truth in general into the next post.

As for the remark about morality being altered "at the hands of reason and culture", I tend to think that the impulse to universal altruism is a late flower of civilization. It was born of the reasoning of a few that there is no relevant moral difference between their kin and neighbor, or the barbarian, or the slave (and that thus if there is an objective morality, it should treat us to be as generous to these others as we feel impelled to be to our kin); and from these saints and revolutionaries it won slow victory over Western culture, so that we are now raised with such universal altruism in us prior to any moral reasoning (at the least, we are raised to want to appear altruistic and compassionate to certain types of strangers).


The argument has often been made that we can extrapolate from our various moral instincts to some absolute moral reality. But I find that argument deeply flawed in all of its incarnations I've seen. I'll write more on this later.


What you write about philosophy is close to what I mean. Nowadays, when psychology and science at least perturb the traditional believer, his best recourse is to escape from these studies into a complicated philosophy, giving himself the appearance of pursuing inquiry while insulating himself from the forms of it that trouble his conviction.

Anonymous said...

"It is no wonder that defection from the Christian faith is often preceded by a good hearty vice. The mind knows just how painful this operation will be— and it wisely prepares an anaesthetic."

And what would be the nature of this "healthy vice?"