The Nothing is Happening

(In which I show my origins in continental philosophy.)

Nothing as a metaphysical entity–what is nothing? Is it as simple as saying it’s not a thing? But that which says it is not a thing is a thing, so the nothing can only be referred to by a thing, by an entity. Nothing only ‘exists’ in the horizon of being. Why even say nothing?

The animals don’t have a category for “nothing”.

Nothing is experienced as a lack, as a privation of that which should be there. This is only possible for rational willing beings. Something that I desire is not there. Nothing is there!

There’s an old joke about Jean-Paul Sartre going to the café and being told that there’s no cream. Would he like his coffee with no sugar instead?

Think of nothing as a lack, an absence, a void, something missing. In that sense, the nothing nothings. Forgive me for lapsing into Heidegerrian speech! The nothing nothings, in that it breaks into your life and causes despair. What’s wrong? Nothing!

Nothing is happening quite a bit these days.

Immateriality of the Intellect, the Real Reason

In the Commentary on the Metaphysics Aquinas drops another thought grenade, saying

“For the intelligible object and the intellect must be proportionate to each other and must belong to one and the same genus since the intellect and the intelligible object are one in actuality.”

The intelligible object, that is, the universal, is not a material thing. Think of your knowledge of the Pythagorean Theorem: is it a physical thing? Does it have atoms? Molecules? What is it made of? Certainly not anything material. And yet the mind, which, it is argued, is merely the brain, can know it.

What does “know” mean in this context? It means, according to Brother Thomas, that the mind and its object become unified. “One in actuality,” as he says it. The mind has to make real contact with the object, or there is no real knowledge.

The medievals and Aristotle thought that the mind was immaterial because it had to be for the possibility of knowledge.

Materialist objections: there isn’t anything that exists beyond the material world. Ok, fine, but this forecloses the possibility of knowledge in the sense that we used to understand it.

  • If there is knowledge, then the mind is not immaterial.
  • If the mind is material (aka just the brain), then there isn’t such a thing as knowledge.

I’m with Aristotle on this one. Yes, the soul is the form of the body, and it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to think of it apart from the body. “We are our bodies” as Gabriel Marcel says. And yet, there is some power of the soul which is not bodily, and this is required because we can actually know things. How can this be? I don’t know. See On the Soul and tell me what you think.

Metaphysics is a Statesman

I was reading Aquinas’ Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and came across an interesting line in the prologue. He is attempting to determine what the highest science is, and drops this line:

We can discover which science this is and the sorts of things with which it is concerned by carefully examining the qualities of a good ruler; for just as men of superior intelligence are naturally the rulers and masters of others, whereas those of great physical strength and little intelligence are naturally slaves, as the Philosopher says in the aforementioned book, in a similar way that science which is intellectual in the highest degree should be naturally the ruler of others.

The order of the sciences is argued to be parallel to the proper order of a society, with the more intellectual ruling the less intellectual. While I don’t think he is wrong, I was struck by the casual way in which he said it. For Aquinas, it seems that the qualities of a good ruler were obvious.

It seems to me that we generally esteem someone who represents our interests much more than we esteem someone who is wise. In other words, a modern “good ruler” is one who defends my in-group and gives me what I want. Whatever my desires, that ruler needs to make sure I can satisfy them. Opposed to this is the notion of the statesman, as found in Plato and Aristotle, whose goal is the good of the people. The real good of the people, not the apparent good. It is such a ruler that is the proper model for first philosophy, not the demagogue or tyrant.

Happiness is an activity

I remember as a grad student being floored by the straightforward comment of St. Thomas Aquinas that happiness is an activity. I know I should have figured this out from reading Nichomachean Ethics, but I was not very bright and it took me awhile to figure it out. Take a moment and think about what this means. Happiness, as the ancients believed and the best of the medievals followed, isn’t a feeling or a state of being. It’s not contentedness or satisfaction. It’s an activity, a doing, an energia in entelechia.

It is hard for English speakers to grok this since the word “happiness” means for us something of chance. It is related to the word “happen” and also to “mayhap”. If I happen to come across a $10 bill on the street, I am happy, because of the thing that happened to me. I am happeny. But this sort of thing is not really up to me. Chance is fickle. Fortune’s wheel may grind me to dust or lift me high. Either way it’s not my doing.

But if happiness is an activity, it’s something that I can do. I can make it “happen.” For Aristotle and Aquinas, it’s more than mindless activity or business. It’s an activity of the highest part of you devoted to the highest objects. Maybe to the Highest Object. Reason is the highest thing in the human soul, they assert, and if this is the case, we should use our reason on the highest things we are capable of. For Aristotle this is the contemplation of the first principle, and for Aquinas it’s the contemplation of the Christian God.

This is not relaxation or satisfaction, but a constant work of one’s life. If you take this seriously you aren’t going to sit around, Netflix and chill, and figure that you are happy. The pigs in the pen do as much. Rather you are going to strain yourself a bit to the highest things.

Will it be fun? Sure! Aquinas says somewhere that joy is what happens when you possess a sought-after good. The active life is the most joyful. But you don’t get to have cheap joy.

A sonnet

Feast Day

The wintry gusts roll through this little town
like cattle eager for some fresh new grass
Should wind attack my skin like this? –A frown.
Thanks be to God, the glory of this Mass.

A hint of fur, a nose of rosy red
her eyes peak out beneath the woolen cap
God bless you, sir! a holy day! she said.
And bless you too, hands fumbling in his lap

The Lord of Lords himself offered again
as many times for many He does often
forgiveness, joy, thanksgiving for all men
and women, hardened hearts He makes to soften

But oh your perfume wafts across the pew!
and all my prayers are only about you.

Jane Austen and Country Music

I once watched a youtube series, Pride and Prejudice remade as a “vlog”, with an actress playing “Lizzie” and retelling the story via first person narration. It was well done and diverting, up until the ending. Darcy and Lizzie didn’t get married, they just started a “relationship”, whatever that is.

It fell flat. There were no sequels, although they were promised. What is Jane Austen without a marriage? This brings to mind country music, with its talk of dirt roads, double-wides, agriculture, alcohol, and heartbreak. Why is it popular? Very few country music fans have probably ever driven on a dirt road. Are they play-acting? Very few Austen fans have ever lived in a society where their prosperity and personal well-being depends solely on a good marriage.

Urbanites living in material prosperity and working email jobs long for something. Is it simpler times? I don’t think so. What they long for is more restricted times. “If we make it through December”, “Good Lord Lori”, Elizabeth Bennet’s need to get married to someone, anyone, give structure to life. It gives a direction that is lacking in our rootless life.

I myself am rereading Tolkien again. I don’t want to fight orcs or journey through the Emyn Muil, but at least then, one knew where one stood! Could the appeal of fantasy literature be similar? The limits, whether cultural or from scarcity, make a life have structure. It makes stories possible. There can’t be heroes’ journeys if there isn’t any particular reason to go on a journey.

1916 for the Media

Is it the Battle of Verdun for the Media?

In 1916 the French fought the Germans around the town of Verdun. The battle took from February to December. There were perhaps a million casualties (reports are hard to verify from those days). The lines at the end of the battle were much the same as at the beginning.

I’ve been seeing extremely convincing AI video in the last few days. It was already pretty good, but is getting very lifelike. At least as lifelike as TikTok “influencers” ever are. One will be able to make one’s own virtual girl very soon. If you are on the cutting edge, you can do it already! I am told that there are AI OnlyFans models currently working and making money. It seems like an inflection point.

You can’t believe anything you see!

Let me repeat:

You can’t believe anything you see! At least, not anything you see on a screen.

Consider what this does to the media. In 1916 the machine gun met the trench and led to stalemate. The technologies were matched. You could spend lots of lives and gain nothing. In modern media, you can spend lots of money and saturate the market with your images and videos, but nobody will believe them. It’s like the trench and the machine gun. If all videos can be faked by anyone with a laptop, then no videos can be believed. No one sensible will ever believe anything that comes from the news.

The only thing you will be able to believe will be those things that you see with your own eyes or feel with your own fingers. The horizon of information will shrink, just as the horizon of battle shrank to the trench in 1916.

At least, until they get you to put a chip in your head. At that point, you won’t even be able believe your own eyes anymore.

Plato’s Hidden Doctrine?

Esotericism seems to have been a common practice among ancient and even modern writers up until recently, when it has been disavowed. Plato, of course, is obviously esoteric. So also is Jesus. There is a public-facing story (the exoteric) and an inward-facing doctrine (the esoteric) for the initiates. Jesus himself declares that he is teaching in parables so that the many will not understand (a fact ignored by many modern church leaders).

But, back to Plato. He is certainly esoteric. He never appears in the dialogues, except in Phaedo, but only by his absence due to sickness. He never speaks in his own voice. “But Socrates speaks for Plato!” Does he? Socrates is himself esoteric, in that he doesn’t teach his own doctrine (see Thrasymachus’ complaint in Republic I) and Plato’s imitation of Socates’ speech in dialogues is therefore doubly esoteric. What doctrine are you to take from these works?

Take the Meno, which I have been studying. Can virtue be taught? Or does it come to be by nature? Socrates dismisses the view that it comes by nature, because then there would be people who could recognize virtuous natures. Thus, it must be taught! But where are the teachers? Which is it?

Many readers are confused and pissed off at this point. But perhaps you should understand that you aren’t supposed to get it. In the seventh letter, Plato argues that whatever philosophic activity is, it happens in the soul, individual by individual, and can’t really be taught. Philosophy is somewhat like virtue in the dialogue.

Return to the action: can virtue arise by nature? Perhaps, but we aren’t skilled in recognizing it when it does. Mabye we are like apprentice dog-breeders, who don’t yet know what it is to be of a virtuous nature. Can virtue be taught? Perhaps so, but the supposed teachers mentioned aren’t virtuous? But even if it could be taught, wouldn’t the teaching require students? If there aren’t students of the right nature, the teacing can’t proceed. It is possible that virtue arises both by nature and by teaching, right?

Or perhaps it is, as Meno says, “somewhat not like these other cases.” Perhaps virtue, being an act of humans who are rational and somehow akin to the forms, is a characteristic of freedom, not bound by nature or teaching, and therefore a quite different thing. The dog-breeder can have such success because dogs don’t have to choose to be dogs. Humans have to choose to be what they are! In such choosing, might we find virtue?

Which is the definitive meaning of Plato? I don’t know, but I think, as Socrates says, “we will be more manly and less lazy if we are confident that the truth can be found.” We’re supposed to dig into the texts and wrestle with them. Well, at least the philosophical initiates are supposed to.

(all quotes are from memory. Don’t check my work!)

Upon Returning to the Shire

New books bore me. It may be that I’ve ruined myself for casual light entertainment, or it might be that the books just aren’t that good. Either way, I’ve decided that I am going to re-read books that I know that I like. So I am back to The Lord of the Rings, this time with the Audible book read by Andy Serkis. It’s good so far.

But I can’t help thinking that this is the most ridiculous book I’ve ever read. It’s just garbage. “Concerning Hobbits.” No action, but a ponderous introduction about the habits of hobbits, whatever they are. Who are they and why should I care? The book leaves the second question unanswered. We learn about the hobbits’ gift-giving habits, the three divisions or races of hobbits, the meaning of the word mathom, the extents of the Shire, the discovery and smoking of “pipe weed”, the various classes of hobbits and the great families thereof. No elements of story yet!


Why does it work?

It works because the Shire and the hobbits in general are the protagonist of the story. It is for the Shire that Frodo takes the Ring to Mount Doom. It is so that they can continue their lovely little lives, talking of potatoes and cabbages at the Green Dragon. Incidentally, this is why “The Scouring of the Shire” is necessary at the end of the third book.

There’s also an element of tragedy in that Bilbo and Frodo are not really of the Shire. They are able to record its habits and write the history of its people, but they are not ordinary respectable hobbits. They can see the whole and judge that hobbit-folk are valuable and need to be protected from the slavery to Sauron, but because Bilbo and Frodo aren’t normal. Note that neither of them get married! How could they settle down and be ordinary? Especially after having seen the Elves.

“Concerning Hobbits” taken from the Red Book of Westmarch, written by Bilbo and augmented by Frodo, is a farewell to the home that they must eventually leave.

On evil

Everyone is talking about evil now. There are wars and rumors of wars. As is usual in wars, humans are being butchered. It’s a digital age, and video of some of the butchery makes its way to your feed. Can’t you see the evil that lies in the heart of these people?

No, actually, you can’t. What is evil? Classically it’s a privation of a good that ought to be there, but this is thin gruel in such a barbaric age as ours. Let me try a different approach. Evil is a sense that there is something wrong, that it shouldn’t have happened that way, whatever it is.

But this is magical thinking. If you, as all right-thinking people are today, are a secular and scientific person, evil is inaccessible to you. You might as well say that the lion that eats the antelope is evil, or that the mold grows on your bread is evil, or that an earthquake is evil. These are not evils, they are just the way things are. Similarly, hearing about beheaded babies isn’t evil, it’s just the way things are in a war. The human animal goes to war in the same way that the lion eats the antelope or forcibly mates with the lioness.

But, you say, there is evil! You just know it!

There is a way for evil to make sense as a concept. It’s if the world as it is really isn’t the way it should be. In other words, the world has fallen from a primordial good state. If this is the case, we can say that something is evil, in that it is far from the good state.

Evil is either a religious concept, or it is nothing at all.