Archives for posts with tag: Augustine

Earthbound Giants vs Friends of the Forms

Responding to Contemporary Atheism
by Father James Brent, O.P., conference at The Thomistic Institute, July 2019


The question of what response to make to contemporary atheism is embedded in a large scale philosophical matrix outlined by philosopher Lloyd Gerson, mainly in his books “From Plato to Platonism” and “Aristotle and Other Platonists”.

Platonism is a large movement, a “big tent”, called by Gerson Ur-Platonism”, that can be defined in five negative positions:
1. Anti-materialism: it is false that everything that exists is only bodies and their properties.
2. Anti-mechanicism: it is false that the explanations available to a materialist are adequate for explaining reality. Material and efficient causes are insufficient to explain reality; we need final and formal causality as well.
3. Anti-nominalism: it is false that the only things that exist are individuals, each uniquely situated in space and time. Things have natures, forms, or participate in a form.
4. Anti-relativism, of which there are two different kinds: a) Epistemological relativism: it is false that the true is what appears as such to me or my group, or a group. b) Ethical or moral relativism: it is false that the good is what appears as such to me or my group, or a group.
5. Anti-skepticism: it is false that knowledge is impossible. There are different kinds and degrees of skepticism, up to a general skepticism of truth altogether. A degree of skepticism is not so much a danger in science and math, but outside of those it really is a danger, especially in morality.

These five positions were known in the ancient world. There is an inside and outside of the big tent that Plato called the “friends of the forms” and the “earthbound giants”. Earthbound giants think matter explains everything, while the friends of the forms realize that this doesn’t work and that it is possible to know the Forms, which brings us a profound satisfaction, so that we are drawn to become a good person, and can be shaped into someone beautiful, precisely by the contemplation of the forms, the natures of things. That is the original inspiration of philosophy, which is compelling and captivating. But when one studies philosophy in a contemporary context, one is rather introduced to the thinking of earthbound giants. Read the rest of this entry »

Three Tales of Two Cities

In the last page of A Tale of Two Cities (quoted below), Sydney Carton, a London lawyer, lays down his life to be executed in Paris during the Terror in place of his friend Charles Darnay (d’Aulnais), a French émigré who looks exactly like him. For most of his life, Sydney was not a very good man, but his love for Darnay’s wife, Lucie, daughter of the good Doctor Manette, has changed him and he serenely walks to the scaffold. To protect his family, Darnay will then on pretend he is Carton, and his children will bear the name of the hero who saved him.

At the end of the movie The Dark Knight Rises, Commissioner Gordon reads a few sentences from Dickens’ text as a funeral eulogy for Bruce Wayne. Christopher Nolan said that A Tale of Two Cities was an inspiration for his script. An idea to be noted in both works is that the oppressed  – real or self-imagined – become the oppressors in the hands of evil manipulators.

The title Dickens chose, and indeed the whole novel, is a metaphor about two material cities, London and Paris, and the political positions they represented at the time, compared with the City of God and City of Man from Saint Augustine. London and Paris both actually figure the City of the fallen, corrupted Man, of any political persuasion, whether self-righteous or conscious of his evil ways. The good and just who selflessly help others and save lives, and foster hope and love in other souls, sacrificing their own life if they must, figure the City of God.

Civitas, Polis

It is no coincidence that the word “Cities”, in the title of Dickens’ novel, in French translations nowadays reads more often “villes” (towns), which has no particular philosophical meaning, than “cités” (cities), the more direct equivalent of Latin. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Christendom”, the word “city” itself is too narrow, except in a very metaphorical sense, to adequately translate civitas”. It seems, however, that we have no other choice than this term, and that the French translators and editors of A Tale of Two Cities showed a serious lack of classical literary and philosophical knowledge. Another such example would be the American editors who chose to transform the Philosopher’s Stone into a meaningless Sorcerer’s Stone in the title of the first Harry Potter book.

The Greek poliscivitas in Latin – is the very object of political philosophy: a community larger than a household and a village, and the workings of this community. A city can be as small as a little town or as large as a city-state, country or empire. The main purpose of the community is to give the citizens the means to live a good life in areas where isolated men or small groups cannot achieve it, hence the principle of subsidiarity: the larger community must not usurp the responsibilities of the smaller ones, notably the family.

Like personal moral life, public moral life needs the transmission of a moral code. In the public, political life, this is done through the enactment of laws. Law enforcement is known as the policing of the City, to prevent it being destroyed by anarchy and crime. Aristotle’s Politics is then a treaty of ethics, in fact the second part of his moral philosophy that began with Nicomachean Ethics.

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