Thursday 28 January 2016

Marriage as a new reality

So apparently the pope's teaching document on marriage, which is believed to tackle the issue of the readmission to communion of those who have 'remarried' after divorce, is likely to come out on 19 March.

Putting aside any theological detail, let's just imagine I'm a well meaning lay person who wants to live in accordance with what I understand of Catholic teaching on marriage and the natural law. I have no particular axe to grind: I just want to be faithful to my bishops and the pope, and to understand. I wait with an open mind patiently.

(That sounds snarky. It is. But it is also genuinely how I feel about this. I want to understand this issue. I do understand the desire for a new start, a merciful escape from the traps many fall into when they are young and foolish. I do not want to dissent from papal or episcopal teaching, whatever that turns out to be.)

Now, from my point of view, marriage is a new reality. When two people come together in a marriage, there is a new reality which cannot be undone except by death. That seems to me to be at the heart of both what the Church teaches and what I've come to understand from having been married for a long time and having seen other marriages. It's what I tell my children. (If I'm feeling particularly waspish, I might quote John 21:18: Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. In other words, you will find the marriage making you as much as you make the marriage.)

The present practice of the Church reflects that. The Church does not divorce (ie end a marriage) but declares the absence of one (ie what was thought to be a marriage was not one because of some defect). It does that by way of an investigation: a legal procedure to establish the reality or otherwise of that marriage. But (so I hear) it is rumoured that this will be replaced by a penitential path. Now this is what I don't understand. Penitence is primarily a question of exploring with one person that person's own mind: in crude terms, is that person truly sorry? But the existing legal procedure is about the investigation of a reality which inevitably requires the exploration of many minds and material evidence.

I'm familiar with several broken marriages. In many cases, ask each of the parties, and you'll get a different understanding of what went on. (And in many cases, neither of them will be the same as that of an outsider.) The present legal process, involving several people, acknowledges, however imperfectly, that we are engaged in an investigation of what is the case. A penitential procedure, of whatever form, only investigates one person's viewpoint.

If I were that good willed (but confused) layperson, I would want to know how a penitential path acknowledges about the only thing I'm pretty sure about in this area: that marriage is a reality which exceeds the understanding of each (and indeed both) participants. The reality of a marriage is a very different issue from that of whether or not I regret my behaviour or anything else about that marriage. To confuse the two issues is a category mistake.

So explain. I wait.

Wednesday 20 January 2016

Walter Scott on 'Enlightenment values' and David Hume

                                                       Henry Mackenize (by Raeburn)

Those who have been reading this blog for a while may have wondered where I was in my reading of Sir Walter Scott's complete works. The short answer is that I am roughly 80% through and now in the middle of his journals...

In my last post, I commented on Nick Cohen's problematic use of 'Enlightenment values'. Scott touches on the Scottish Enlightenment a number of times in his works (I'm particularly tempted to write something on the Burkean principles of his essays on improving woodland) but I recently came across this in his review of MacKenzie's biography of John Home (writer of the Douglas):

Neither is it only to Scotland that these annals are interesting. There were men of literature in Edinburgh before she was renowned for romances, reviews, and magazines--

    "Vixerunt fortes ante Agamemnona;" [Brave men have lived before Agamemnon]

and a single glance at the authors and men of science who dignified the last generation, will serve to show that, in those days, there were giants in the North. The names of Hume, Robertson, Fergusson, stand high in the list of British historians. Adam Smith was the father of the economical system in Britain, and his standard work will long continue the text-book of that science. Dr. Black, as a chemist, opened that path of discovery which has since been prosecuted with such splendid success. Of metaphysicians, Scotland boasted, perhaps, but too many: to Hume and Fergusson we must add Reid, and, though younger, yet of the same school, Mr. Dugald Stewart. In natural philosophy, Scotland could present Professor Robison, James Watt, whose inventions have led the way to the triumphs of human skill over the elements, and Clerk, of Eldin, who taught the British seaman the road to assured conquest. Others we could mention; but these form a phalanx, whose reputation was neither confined to their narrow, poor, and rugged native country, nor to England and the British dominions, but known and respected wherever learning, philosophy, and science were honoured.

[From Minor Prose Works]

It's worth noting a few points here. First, nowhere is the term 'Scottish Enlightenment' or even 'Enlightenment' mentioned. This is to be expected as Wikipedia notes:

The term "Enlightenment" emerged in English in the later part of the 19th century, with particular reference to French philosophy, as the equivalent of the French term 'Lumières' (used first by Dubos in 1733 and already well established by 1751). From Immanuel Kant's 1784 essay "Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung?" ("Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment?") the German term became 'Aufklärung' (aufklären = to illuminate; sich aufklären = to clear up). However, scholars have never agreed on a definition of the Enlightenment, or on its chronological or geographical extent. Terms like "les Lumières" (French), "illuminismo" (Italian), "ilustración" (Spanish) and "Aufklärung" (German) referred to partly overlapping movements. Not until the late nineteenth century did English scholars agree they were talking about "the Enlightenment."

Secondly, Scott conceptualizes 'the Enlightenment' in personal ('the authors and men of science who dignified the last generation') and local terms ('their narrow, poor, and rugged native country'). In other words, it is a circle of very talented and different individuals who were in regular and friendly intercourse with each other despite (or even because of) their great differences. (That impression in only reinforced by the extended anecdotes especially about David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Fergusson taken from Home's biography which are quoted in the rest of the review.)

Thirdly, the 'Enlightenment' is centred on effectiveness and practicality (' who taught the British seaman the road to assured conquest') rather than abstract ideas ("Of metaphysicians, Scotland boasted, perhaps, but too many").

I doubt whether any of this is a surprise to anyone who has read anything about 'the Scottish Enlightenment'. But there are far too many who are willing to convert 'the Enlightenment' into a banner under which (eg) unrestrained free speech of the coarsest variety can be justified. Whatever the merits of such a view, it is not the same as the culture of a circle of talented men 'known and respected wherever learning, philosophy, and science were honoured'. Although I'm thinking here particularly of secularist blowhards such as Nick Cohen, you will also find a tendency to essentialize (and reject) Enlightenment values in conservative Catholic circles (ie mine). I'm certainly not suggesting that the views of lightly sceptical Scottish Protestants will ever fit neatly into a Catholic world view, but, equally, I certain that it is intellectual suicide to hand over uncontested to the secularists an important part of the intellectual history of modernity.

Free and cordial communication of sentiments, the natural play of fancy and good-humour, which prevailed among the circle of men whom I have described. It was very different from that display of learning -that prize fighting of wit, which distinguished a literary circle of our sister country...

[Mackenzie quoted in Scott's review]

So let's celebrate some of the values of the Scottish Enlightenment: to honour substantive learning, philosophy and science rather than the ill tempered shallowpate; to be sceptical of dogmatic political fashions and prize the conservatism born of a deep reading in history; to celebrate conviviality, friendship, religion and national pride, rather than deracinated rage of pure subjectivity. Oh, and reticence and tact as well:

The celebrated David Hume, the philosopher and historian, was certainly the most distinguished person in the cycle [sic]. That he was most unhappy in permitting the acuteness of his talents, and the pride arising from the consciousness of possessing them, to involve him in a maze of sceptical illusions, is most undeniable; as well as that he was highly culpable in giving to the world the miserable results of his leisure. Mr Mackenzie states, in mitigation, not in exculpation, that the great Pyrrhonist--

"had, in the language which the Grecian historian applies to an illustrious Roman, two minds, one which indulged in the metaphysical scepticism which his genius could invent, but which it could not always disentangle; another, simple, natural, and playful, which made his conversation delightful to his friends, and even frequently conciliated men who principles of belief, his philosophical doubts if they had not power to shake, had grieved and offended. Duirng the latter period of his lfe, I was frequently in his company amidst persons of genuine piety, and I never heard him venture a remark at which such men, or ladies -still more susceptible than men -could take offence. His good-nature and benevolence prevented such an injury to his hearers: it was unfortunate that he often forgot what injury some of his writings might do to his readers."

[Update: (20/1/16)

The excellent @IrishPhilosophy added the following information:


The WR Scott book was published in 1900 -which put the first use of the 'Scottish Enlightenment' even later than I suggested above. ]

Thursday 14 January 2016

Nick Cohen and the atheist enlightenment

Nick Cohen, I think it would be fair to say, has a 'thing' about religion and more specifically Catholicism. Well, fair enough: we all should have a hobby. But his latest jeremiad anent the papacy is worth looking at in more detail as it typifies the sloganizing of much New Atheism as well as a more general problem in modern public debate.

Cohen attacks the pope (or more recently the Osservatore Romano) for daring to criticize Charlie Hebdo.

They were bawling at the Parisian dead before their graves were dug and the loudest bawls came from Pope Francis. Far too few people can see that he is now at the centre of two malign forms of western self-deception. Liberals reveal their absence of principle by treating him as His Progressive Holiness. Equally smug conservatives use him to justify the unearned notion of western religious superiority over other faiths.
 the true Judaeo-Christian tradition was the 1,600-year tradition of Christians murdering Jews. What civilisation Judaism and Christianity possess came from the outside. They did not reform themselves, which is why calls for a Muslim reformation so spectacularly miss the point. Civilisation came from the battering that religion took from the Enlightenment, from sceptics, scientists, mockers and philosophers, who destroyed their myths and exposed the immorality of their taboos.

Now I actually agree with him in criticizing, 'Cultural conservatives [who] do not want to be reminded that there is no Islamist crime so great the Judaeo-Christian tradition did not once authorise it.' Most of the criticisms of Islam as in some way obviously worse than all forms of Christianity or Judaism strike me as generally misplaced. Islam may not be the religion of peace, but then neither (in straightforward ways) are Christianity or Judaism. Equally, the bloody legacy of the Enlightenment in the French Revolution and Napoleon, let alone in more recent butchery such as Marxism shouldn't be overlooked. Humanity is the problem.

The pope, on any reasonable assessment, is simply reflecting on how people with different views can live together in peace. He's probably right in thinking that brutally caricaturing others' beliefs isn't going to be helpful. (And if he's not, then he might be forgiven for making a plausible mistake.) But Cohen seems to believe that the papacy is at the heart of the problem and rests his case on Kant's essay, 'What is Enlightenment?' (English translation here.)

Unfortunately, Cohen doesn't seem to have actually read the essay or perhaps read it very well. It is not, first of all, a simplistic plea for absolute freedom of speech, let alone absolute freedom of drawing crass caricatures.

We find restrictions on freedom everywhere. But which restriction is harmful to enlightenment? Which restriction is innocent, and which advances enlightenment? I reply: the public use of one's reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.
On the other hand, the private use of reason may frequently be narrowly restricted without especially hindering the progress of enlightenment. By "public use of one's reason" I mean that use which a man, as scholar, makes of it before the reading public. I call "private use" that use which a man makes of his reason in a civic post that has been entrusted to him.

To sum up: Kant is concerned not with attack cartoons, but with scholars using reason before a reading public. Moreover, the use of reason outwith this narrowly defined range 'may frequently be narrowly restricted'. In addition, the essay is a plea for an enlightened despot:

But only the man who is himself enlightened, who is not afraid of shadows, and who commands at the same time a well disciplined and numerous army as guarantor of public peace--only he can say what [the sovereign of] a free state cannot dare to say: "Argue as much as you like, and about what you like, but obey!" Thus we observe here as elsewhere in human affairs, in which almost everything is paradoxical, a surprising and unexpected course of events: a large degree of civic freedom appears to be of advantage to the intellectual freedom of the people, yet at the same time it establishes insurmountable barriers. A lesser degree of civic freedom, however, creates room to let that free spirit expand to the limits of its capacity.

Cohen of course notes none of this, not even questioning the oddity of taking but one document as summing up all of the rich variety of that complex cultural event, the Enlightenment. It's worth noting the marginality of the essay and its context. David Hume had completed publishing the Treatise of Human Nature some forty four years before and was eight years in the grave. As noted by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Only late in the development of the German Enlightenment, when the Enlightenment was near its end, does the movement become self-reflective; the question of “What is Enlightenment?” is debated in pamphlets and journals.

Nevertheless, the essay, despite its late date and its German provincialism is taken as a symbol of the Enlightenment. And thus a mere contribution to a debate is turned into an essence; an essay rich in nuance and problematic detail into a slogan.

It's also not all clear what the pope has done wrong, even if we take Kant at Cohen's word. He has not called so far as I can see for an legal restriction: he seems simply lamented a lack of prudence in the exercise of a right. If free debate is an 'Enlightenment Value', is the pope wrong to exercise that right to criticize? Moreover, Catholicism might well be argued to have made its peace with the central Enlightenment value of freedom of thought at Vatican II and especially in Dignitatis humanae . No one has to listen to the pope. No one (not even Catholics) is going to be burned at the stake for thinking him wrong headed. Nothing he says seems to regret the passing of the days when this was possible. (I assume that Cohen on the other hand is still all in favour of the guillotine and the crushing of the Vendee. No? Why not?)

It's an oddity that those who proclaim most loudly their adherence to reason in the modern world are sometimes some of the most irrational. Instead of engaging with the thought of great minds to ascertain how balance can be struck between competing values, they substitute slogans. Instead of treating this or that figure or view as admirable, but imperfect, they turn writers and their writings into emblems to be paraded around rather than critically read. Instead of dealing with what people actually say and think, they parrot prejudices. Or as Kant puts it:

That shows how pernicious it is to implant prejudices: they will eventually revenge themselves upon their authors or their authors' descendants. Therefore, a public can achieve enlightenment only slowly. A revolution may bring about the end of a personal despotism or of avaricious tyrannical oppression, but never a true reform of modes of thought. New prejudices will serve, in place of the old, as guide lines for the unthinking multitude.