Sunday, October 14, 2012

The Week in Review: Goldilocks and the 2,000 Pigs

(If you haven't noticed yet, the titles for these "Week in Review" posts are composed by my slapping together two words from unrelated sections. I'm amused by it, even if no one else is. But, even if you don't laugh, I don't want you to be confused.)

This last Tuesday featured Round Two of our seminar on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. We discussed Books III and IV, where Aristotle, among other things, described the nature of the various virtues. Instead of describing our discussion, which centered on Aristotle’s description of the “great-souled” man (usually translated into English by “magnanimous”) as the pinnacle of virtue, I think it would be more beneficial to set out Aristotle’s basic understanding of virtue. It’s summed up in the Latin phrase in medio virtus stat, “Virtue stands in the middle.” Every virtue has a vice on either side of it, one of excess and one of deficiency. For example, the virtue of courage is the quality of facing danger or fear bravely, or as Aristotle more precisely put it, “The man, then, who faces and who fears the right things and from the right motive, in the right way and from the right time, and who feels confidence under the corresponding conditions, is brave; for the brave man feels and acts according to the merits of the case and in whatever way the rule directs.” When one doesn’t react in this proper way in these situations, he is not brave. But the type of error one commits will depend on whether one has too much courage or too little. The excess of courage is rashness or foolhardiness, rushing into a dangerous situation with no concern for one’s life; a knight charging 500 spearmen by himself is not brave, but rash. He has lost the right motive and is not sensing the right time for his action. The deficiency of courage is cowardice. 500 knights running away from one spearman is not brave, because they ought not fear in that situation. It’s a matter of too much, too little, and just right. Think of it as the Goldilocks method of discerning right action. The key, though, is to correctly identify what that middle is. You could set up two false ends and wind up with an erroneous middle, like sticking one goalpost at the back of one endzone and another goalpost at the 30-yard line, and calling the 10-yard line “midfield.” Or like saying, “Well, 10 shots of tequila is too much, but really anything less than 6 shots of tequila is too little, so clearly the right amount of tequila is 8 shots!” That ain’t virtue.

Apart from that….

This week also featured another Dominican Rite Mass at the DSPT. It was well-attended and beautifully celebrated. The Dominican friars are hoping to round up some students to volunteer to do chant for the liturgy so we can have a real “missa cantata” (sung Mass); I told them that if the chant parts weren’t all written for eunuchs, I’d be happy to participate. They pointed out that the parts are easily transposed. I may still help out if they need. After Mass, several of us headed to Luval’s, a local pizza place, to watch what ended up being the final game of the Oakland A’s’ memorable season. The game’s result was disappointing, but a good time was had by all.

On Saturday the DSPT hosted a lecture by Fr. Robert Spitzer, SJ, a former president of Gonzaga University and current head of several centers and institutes, on the topic of “The Evidence of Creation and Supernatural Design in Contemporary Big Bang Cosmology.” That sounds like quite a mouthful, but his basic point, which he made in quite an intelligent, engaging, and animated way, was: many discoveries being made in physics today indicate that the universe must have had a beginning, that suddenly there was nothing, and then there was something—and what does that suggest? If the universe had a beginning, there must have been something what beginned it (to put it colloquially), something not part of the universe itself. And what could that be? The religious person knows. The physicist will hopefully catch up soon. The lecture was followed by two responses from two DSPT faculty members, Fr. Michael Dodds, OP, and Fr. Anselm Ramelow, OP. I did not get to hear their responses, as I was helping to set up for the reception which was to take place after the lecture, but do look up the video of the lecture on the DSPT website. (It’s not posted yet, but it should be soon.)

Today the friars at St. Albert’s Priory invited students from the DSPT to join them for prayer and Mass and brunch. Unfortunately, the flu was sweeping through the priory like the plague (or should we say that the plague used to sweep through Europe like the flu?), so many of the friars were not to be seen. Nevertheless, we enjoyed their hospitality, which included a book sale of the duplicates from their library, with DSPT students getting a “100% discount” (i.e. free books!), meaning many a student left the priory with their arms fully extended and books up to their chins. I should also mention that between Mass and brunch they exposed the Blessed Sacrament and we recited the rosary together, with benediction afterward. What better way to spend a Sunday than free books, free food, and the Real Presence?

Notes from class:

Introduction to New Testament: Our professor mentioned to us a little while back a possible interpretation of a biblical passage based on a little historical knowledge. You may remember the account from the Gospels where Jesus encounters a possessed man, and the demons, who call themselves Legion, recognize him as “Son of the Most High God” and ask him not to send them back to the abyss of hell, but into a herd of 2,000 pigs; he permits it, and the demons go into the pigs, who then run into the sea and drown themselves. That always struck me as a little bit random. But consider this: the particular Roman army stationed in Jerusalem at that time was the Tenth Legion. That legion was quite active in suppressing revolts in Judaea throughout the first century AD. Guess what the legion’s mascot was? A boar. A pig. So, one could perhaps see, symbolically, Jesus driving the Tenth Roman Legion back into the sea, where they came from. Is this an overt political statement? Is it one more subtle way of saying, “God is King, not Caesar”? Interesting, isn’t it?

Aristotelian Logic: “The Square of Opposition.” No, it’s not a nerdy name for a boxing ring, it’s a visual tool used in logic to help one understand the implications of propositions. For example: if all we know is that it is true that “All men are mortal,” then it must also be true that “Some men are mortal” (since “some” is part of “all”), and false that “Some men are not mortal” and “No men are mortal.” BUT let’s say all we know is that it’s false that “No man is mortal.” It must be the case that “Some men are mortal,” but we don’t know whether that also means that “All men are mortal,” or “Some men are not mortal.” Kinda tricky to follow, eh? That’s why the Square of Opposition is handy. It can help you to sort things out quickly.

History of Ancient Philosophy: We’ve been reading Plato’s dialogues on the subject of love, the Symposium and the Phaedrus. Our professor emphasized that these texts were key in understanding the work of those Christian theologians who followed in the Platonic philosophical tradition: “Understand this, and you’ll understand Augustine, and Dionysius, and Bonaventure.” Once again: if you want to understand theology, it helps to read philosophy.

Philosophy of Nature: I really should do this one first next time, because when I leave it for last, I run out of steam, and can’t work up the energy to describe hylomorphic theory as it applies to contemporary scientific models. Yeah, I’m not sure what I just said there, either. Next time.


  1. Your comment about the New Testament reminded me of a character from Mass Effect 2. Commander Shepard has activated an AI controlled robot called a Geth and is wondering how to refer to it. Shepard asks what the individual geth in front of him is called and finds out that it's not just a single program in the robot, but a combination of 1183 programs. Then the ship's computer pipes in and offers the quote "My name is Legion, for we are many." Legion then replies "Christian Bible, the Gospel of Mark, chapter five verse nine. We acknowledge this as an appropriate metaphor." Quite a fun dialogue interaction. The context you offer about the possibility of Legion referring to a Roman military force is most satisfying as well :)

  2. Very good once again. It's so helpful the way you explain the bits from your classes so that we who are mortal can understand. I have an old friend in mind that I sure wish could read/hear your explanation of the Big Bang talk. He has for some reason decided that all the Christian upbringing and education he received was a big lie and we are all gullible and need to wake up. Hate to see someone lose their faith that way.