Right causes of happiness and sadness

Fr. George Rutler, of the Church of Saint Michael in New York, writes in his weekly column:

A remarkable quality usually taken for granted, is that humans can laugh and cry unlike other creatures. “Risibility,” the ability to laugh or smile, is a defining trait of humanity. The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.

All sane, moral behavior has the pursuit of happiness as the goal of life. Sadness is the recognition of what impedes that goal. As long as we are in a broken world, happiness will be elusive to a degree, and at best will be “felicitas,” which means real but impermanent happiness.

Ancient Greeks … spent time studying human dispositions. They were good psychologists. Their gods and goddesses were essentially symbols of human characteristics. There were many deities who represented varying attempts at happiness, although some of their philosophers, like the Cynics and Stoics, did not think there was much of a chance at felicity. There were, for instance: Bacchus – drinking; Hypnos – drugs; Hermes – sports; Dionysius – partying; Aphrodite – sex; Tyche – good luck; Hygieia – health; Thalia – comedy; Momus – silliness and gossip; and Nemesis – revenge on enemies.

Saint Paul was familiar with that ghostly pantheon and politely confronted their clients in Athens. He did not mock or insult them. But he did declare to them that he knew the one true God who is the source of all true joy and for which those idols were lame substitutes:

Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead. (Acts 17:29-31)

Most of the philosophers were unmoved because they liked hearing themselves and none other. But one of them, Dionysius, and a woman named Damaris, and “a number of others” accepted Christ. Their stories are unrecorded, but as Christ never lied, we know that they inherited a happiness higher than felicitas, and that is beatitudo—the endless joy of God’s presence.

“The moral challenge is to identify the right causes of happiness and sadness.”

Hospitals as places for charity

April Munday writes on Medieval hospitals:

Hospitals might not be something that you associate with the fourteenth century, but most towns had one, if not two. Many were founded in the twelfth century and were the result of both the First Crusade and what might be considered a spiritual revival at that time.

Hospitals were religious institutions. Monasteries and convents had always had infirmaries where sick and elderly members of the community were cared for. From the twelfth century that care was extended formally to the community beyond the walls of the abbeys. Hospitals were usually staffed by monks and nuns, but sometimes a physician was employed as well.

Medieval hospitals took many forms. They could be hostels for pilgrims, hospices for the dying, almshouses for the aged poor, or a hospital for the sick poor. They were founded as acts of charity. …

Hospitals were mainly for providing hospitality, which is where the name comes from. They were often called a Maison Dieu or Domus Dei. In English they were called God’s House. The hospital was a house because it was always part of a religious community, a household with God at the head. There are the remains of one near where I live dating back to the twelfth century. A God’s House was essentially a large hall where people could lie along the walls in beds. It had a chapel for prayers and mass.

In a hospital there would probably be a fire. Patients might have to share a bed, so the chances were good that you would catch something worse than the reason you were there in the first place. On the plus side, the floor and the sheets would be washed often, and mutton was prescribed, regardless of the illness. The inmates would probably be bathed as well as having their hair washed and their beards trimmed regularly.

I read someplace recently that it was only something like 70 years ago that it became more likely that a patient entering a hospital would leave the hospital restored to health—and that a major reason why so many are still so wary of receiving medical care likely has to do with a lingering cultural memory of hospitals as places not of life, but of death.

Whatever the case, the role of hospitals as places for charity is something lost in the present debates over the costs of healthcare delivery and one’s ability or right to medical treatments.

Knight ‘Public Spaces Fellows’

Knight Foundation has established “Public Spaces Fellows:”

Launched in February, the program recognizes leaders, experts, and practitioners who are dedicated to developing public spaces that create or strengthen civic engagement. Selected from more than two thousand candidates, the seven fellows will receive $150,000 each in flexible funding as well as opportunities to learn from one another, share lessons, and raise their work up to a broader audience.

The 2019 class of fellows includes Anuj Gupta (Philadelphia), who as general manager of Reading Terminal Market has spearheaded engagement initiatives designed to bring people of different backgrounds together around food; Eric Klinenberg (New York), who recently served as research director of Rebuild by Design, a federal competition aimed at generating innovative designs in a region affected by Hurricane Sandy; Erin Salazar (San Jose), founder and executive director of Exhibition District, a women-led arts nonprofit that works to create economic opportunities for artists at the intersection of public art and community; Chelina Odbert (Los Angeles), co-founder and executive director of Kounkuey Design Initiative, a nonprofit design firm that advocates for community participation in public space development; Kathryn Ott Lovell (Philadelphia), commissioner of Philadelphia Parks and Recreation and an advocate for “citizen-centric” service; Walter Hood (Oakland, California), creative director and founder of Hood Design, which practices at the intersection of art, design, landscape, research, and urbanism; and High Line co-founder Robert Hammond (New York), who had the foresight twenty years ago to reimagine what an abandoned elevated railbed on the west side of Manhattan could become.

New York’s High Line is the obvious standout in terms of the project with the clearest public impact, but each of these fellows provides a model for how people might respond ambitiously and with a conserving spirit to build upon the best part of the existing built environment of their community and potentially transform it in the process.

Modes of inquiry have natural limits

Darren Warren writes on infinity:

The term “infinity” was an invention of the Devil. This, gentle reader will understand, is my humble opinion. Or if the Devil didn’t invent it, he “evolved” it, from the more innocent usages that conveyed “unlimited,” or “countless,” or “unknowably” large or small. What is finite has an ending, can be finished, finis. What is infinite cannot be; it is open-ended. There is, where we look for an end, nothing there.

Nothing is quite the opposite of something. Perhaps this is a fact no longer taught in our schools: that “nothing” can do nothing for you. Whereas, “something” might. For in its modern usage, “infinity” has become a thing. It has become “virtually” an agent, a kind of god, demanding to be worshipped. The very Christian idea of Alpha and Omega — from the first to the last letter of the (Greek) alphabet, from beginning to end — is subtly replaced in our minds with the progressive idea, “from one to infinity.”

Which is where the human mind checks out. “So what is infinity plus one?” one asks. There can be no answer. Today we are hanging on a cross of “infinity.” …

While I’m in a position to deny being a mathematician or a physicist, I distantly descry the tragedy of string theories, “many-worlds,” and even the assumptions behind the standard model of particle physics. My intuition is that they involve the breakdown of logic and reason; that they create maths that “work” on their own premisses, but do not apply to anything. At some point, the “reality” of math takes leave of the reality of reality, and we find ourselves spending billions of dollars to equip the hunt for a “theory of everything” that can only be an artefact of a phantom.

And that is what our “infinity” has become: a thing, when it is not a thing. By those uncomfortable with the holy simplicity of God, a substitute has always been sought. In the days before Cantor it was sought in the belief, the “settled science,” that the material universe had no beginning and will have no end. Once that error collapsed in the empirical cosmology of the 20th century, the Cantor hypothesis kicked in. Except, it is not an hypothesis. It is the brilliant imposition of a “number theory” that reconceives math as an empirical science; that can intrude upon what is really only a tool or technique of science with the appearance of an absolute. …

“Infinity,” when it takes on divine qualities, becomes an idol. The same might be said for the term “evolution,” which has conquered the realm of biology, and subverted all the social sciences and humanities by reckless analogy. It is the “infinity” of biotech. Anything for which the cause can’t be known, is assumed to have been caused by “evolution”; whereas, evolution isn’t a cause, and never can be. It can only be a trend.

Instead of the naïve, nursery notion of a great bearded father in the sky, we get “the theory of evolution.” Instead of the loosh habit of attributing anything we can’t understand to God, we get the mentally ill habit of attributing it to bushy-faced Darwin. Instead of the something of God, we get nothing, to explain everything.

I thought of two things in reading this. First, Pope Benedict XVI’s observation that, “even when he rejects or denies God, the thirst for the Infinite that abides in man does not disappear. Instead, he begins a desperate and sterile search for ‘false infinities’ that can satisfy him at least for the moment.” And second, Bishop Robert Barron’s frustration Stephen Hawking for arguing that “the universe was spontaneously created out of nothing” and “the laws of nature” tell us that the universe could have “popped into existence without any assistance”:

Within philosophy, “nothing” designates absolute non-being, right? The absolute negation of being of any kind. But when the theoretical physicists use the word “nothing,” they’re using it in a highly equivocal way. They’re not intending by that word absolute metaphysical non-being. They’re talking about really a very rich and fecund field of energy out of which these subatomic particles emerge. …

Look, all of the sciences are predicated on the assumption that there is a fundamental intelligibility about being and “laws of nature” is just a way of saying that. That there is an intelligible structure to reality at the ordinary level of our experience and at the most fundamental level of theoretical physics. And Hawking is calling those, for sake of argument, “the laws of nature.” I want to know where those come from! I want to know how it’s just the case that reality is explicable in terms of densely complex mathematical intelligibilities. And all of the sciences assume it—they don’t prove it, they assume it, they rest upon it. Where did those come from? I want to know that.

When we look to any one branch of knowledge to explain everything, we’re forgetting that different modes of inquiry have specific competencies and natural limits. When we look to any one branch of knowledge to answer questions beyond the competencies of that branch of knowledge, we’re playing ourselves.

Leonine concludes

Since October, I’ve been attending monthly sessions of the Leonine Forum at the Catholic Information Center on K Street, along with about 45 other Washington fellows:

During a year-long program of intellectual and spiritual seriousness, the Leonine Forum educates these men and women in the core tenets of the Social Teaching of the Church and its practical application, and invites them into a larger community of Leonine Alumni and leaders committed To integrating those teachings within their professional and civic lives.

Intellectual Formation

In monthly sessions led by Catholic thought leaders from around the country, Leonine Fellows grapple with some of the most important questions at the intersection of faith and public life.

Spiritual Development

Living a fully-integrated Catholic life is an activity not only of the mind, but also of the body and spirit. Accordingly, Leonine Fellows will have the chance to supplement these intellectual endeavors with opportunities for Mass, Eucharistic Adoration, confession, and spiritual direction.

Cultural Engagement

Leonine Fellows have opportunities to engage with the broader culture as informed and articulate advocates through civic engagement, service work, and employment and networking opportunities.

Community Service

Understanding that we are called to love our brothers and sisters, Leonine Fellows and Alumni have the opportunity to participate in service work as a group on a regular basis.

Last night I attended the tenth and final session for our cohort at The Yard in Eastern Market. Leonine has been a great experience, with speakers ranging from Arthur Brooks and George Weigel to Mary Hasson, Fr. Dominic Legge, Carter Snead, Ryan Anderson, Stephen P. White, Chad Pecknold, Fr. Paul Scalia, and others.

I think applications are open for most, if not all, of next year’s cohorts.

‘Vast, unbroken slabs of time’

Neal Stephenson on writing versus correspondence:

Writers who do not make themselves totally available to everyone, all the time, are frequently tagged with the “recluse” label. While I do not consider myself a recluse, I have found it necessary to place some limits on my direct interactions with individual readers. These limits most often come into play when people send me letters or e-mail, and also when I am invited to speak publicly. This document is a sort of form letter explaining why I am the way I am. …

Letters or e-mail from readers, and invitations to speak in public, might seem like very different things. In fact they are points on a common continuum; they have more in common than is obvious at first. The e-mail message from the reader, and the invitation to speak at a conference, are both requests (in most cases, polite and absolutely reasonable requests) for the author to interact directly with readers. …

Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless.

The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly. What replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time, and that will, with luck, be read by many people, there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons, and a few speeches given at various conferences.

That is not such a terrible outcome, but neither is it an especially good outcome.

This reminds me of Don Knuth at Stanford who, years ago, wrote the following:

I have been a happy man ever since January 1, 1990, when I no longer had an email address. I’d used email since about 1975, and it seems to me that 15 years of email is plenty for one lifetime.

Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things. What I do takes long hours of studying and uninterruptible concentration. I try to learn certain areas of computer science exhaustively; then I try to digest that knowledge into a form that is accessible to people who don’t have time for such study.

Avengers and restoration

Aaron Sibarium writes:

First and foremost, this is a film about restoration. After Thanos wipes out half of all life in the universe, the Avengers immediately search for a way to undo the snap—that is, to go back to the way things were. Rather than accept depopulation as an immutable fact beyond their control, earth’s mightiest heroes view it in much the same way some populist conservatives view globalization: as the product of contingent choices made by individual agents, reversible with enough wit and willpower. “I am inevitable,” Thanos declares at two points in the film—once before he is decapitated, then again before he is vaporized. It’s a not-so-subtle “eff you” to deterministic modes of thinking, made all the more pungent by the fact that the Avengers do succeed in bringing back their fallen comrades.

Well, most of them. Those who died before the snap stay dead, and Iron Man and Black Widow both end up sacrificing themselves before the credits roll. Nor do the five years between Infinity Warand Endgame simply go away; they remain an indelible part of history, and, if the new Spider-Man trailer is any indication, of memory too. But all this just underlines the conservatism of Endgame. It shows that restoration need not be utopian or quixotic, that the goal isn’t to rewind so much as to rebuild—and that progress will never mean paradise, at least not in what Augustine of Hippo called “the city of man.”

Thanos, however, disagrees. For him, the city of man can become the city of god right here and now—provided, of course, that one commits genocide. As he explains to Gamora in Infinity War: “Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.”

The problem, he goes on, is that “this universe is finite, its resources [are] finite…if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”

Sound familiar? Thanos’s rhetoric, inspired by Paul Erlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), parallels the anti-natalism of today’s environmental movement, which has begun questioning whether it is ethical to have kids when, according to the World Economic Forum, “our planet is on the brink”—of flood, of famine, and everything in between. It’s not just that people cause problems by depleting vital, life-giving resources; it’s that people as such are problems under conditions of extreme scarcity, because each individual will experience so much pain and hardship that they would be better off not being born at all. “There’s a scientific consensus that the lives of children are going to be very difficult,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted recently. “And it does lead, I think, young people to have a legitimate question: Is it okay to still have children?” For her, as for the Mad Titan, nonexistence can be a blessing.

Of course Thanos has no interest in sterilizing the universe, or in developing some trans-species form of birth control. The poor, the hungry, the diseased already exist, so the merciful thing to do is [checks notes] kill them. In this, Thanos is just one shade darker than Planned Parenthood—another magenta Moloch—whose acolytes justify abortion with strikingly similar logic: If a woman can’t give her child a comfortable life, the thinking goes—comfort as defined by elites—then maybe terminating it in utero is actually a kindness: to the child, which is saved a lifetime of suffering, and to society, which is saved a lifetime of palliative care. Abortion advocates vary in their Thanosianism, to be sure, and by my lights killing millions of fetuses is not quite as bad as killing millions of adults, if only because the latter have attachments and experiences the former lack. But even so, Endgame seems more pro-life than pro-choice, its ethical core more deontic than utilitarian. As Captain America reminds Vision in Infinity War, “We don’t trade lives.”

Restoring the fallen won’t be easy, however, for it turns out Thanos has destroyed the infinity stones; there is no longer any way to bring back Bucky or Black Panther or Spider-Man or Scarlet Witch—at least not at present.

But the stones do still exist in the past, scattered throughout various quadrants of space-time. Hence the Avengers embark on a trans-temporal heist, made possible by nascent leaps in quantum technology, and attempt to retrieve their last hope of a do-over.

It’s telling that the resources for restoration can only be found—literally—in bygone eras (1970–2014), having been expunged by a self-declared agent of progress. Sometimes, Endgame submits, our present order doesn’t have answers; sometimes, the only way through is back. …

Endgame ends on a simple, human note. After returning the stones to their original position, Captain America doesn’t come back, at least not right away. Instead, he travels all the way to the 1940s—before Loki, before Thanos, before the sexual revolution—and marries his long-lost sweetheart Peggy. We last glimpse the two lovers slow-dancing in an American bungalow, jazz playing in the background: a model of bourgeois respectability that has sadly come and gone, but which, Endgame hints, might be resurrected once more.

Aaron Sibarium’s analysis of Avengers: Endgame as fundamentally a conservative film strikes me as basically correct. And given that it’s presently the second highest-grossing film in history, it suggests that huge numbers of people are open to (even enthusiastic about) conservative projects of cultural restoration, in whatever sense.

Leave this world a better man

Summer is here, and the mild early heat of the season is blanketing Washington today. Here are two vignettes from Roger Scruton’s “Gentle Regrets”:

On 1 August 1985, I had dinner with Alfred Gilbey in the Oxford and Cambridge Club (the kitchens in the Travellers’ being closed for the summer holiday). …

He referred to a recent letter of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales to the Pope in Rome, lamenting the decline in their congregations, and calling for a teaching and a practice that would be more ‘relevant’ to the needs of today.

“What an absurd demand — to be relevant! Was Christ relevant? To be relevant means to accept the standard of the world in which you are, and therefore to cease to aspire beyond it. Relevance is not merely an un-Christian but an anti-Christian ambition.”

It is hard to fault that argument; but also difficult to welcome its corollary, which is the vision of a Church enduring forever, but acknowledged only by a few old priests living in spiritual catacombs of their own devising, celebrating the rituals of a Church so truly universal that it has no living members. But that was another of his sayings, that all the best people are dead. Alfred went on to add that Christian charity is now entirely misunderstood, as a kind of collective effort to improve the world.

“We are not asked to undo the work of creation or to rectify the Fall. The duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.”

And the second:

And she brought home to me, then and subsequently, what is perhaps the most important truth conveyed by religion, and one that Monsignor Gilbey, incidentally, had built onto the foundations of his life — the truth that sex is either consecration or desecration, with no neutral territory between, and that nothing matters more than customs, ceremonies and rites with which we lift the body above its material need and reshape it as soul.

Bladensburg Cross

Chad Pecknold writes on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Bladensburg Cross ruling:

The question of why the Bladensburg Cross should stand is inseparable from the question of whether it violates the Establishment Clause which prohibits the Federal government from establishing an official religion, or from favoring one religion over others. …

Justice Alito remarked in the first section that a Christian symbol can accrue additional symbolic meanings which are not in themselves religious. Alito writes:

“The fact that the cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol should not blind one to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent: a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home, a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for this Nation, and a historical landmark. For many, destroying or defacing the Cross would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment.” …

Justice Gorsuch takes the judgment further, joined by Justice Thomas, in a concurring opinion. He writes that the “offended observer” theory, which the American Humanist Association based their case on in part — so deeply does the cross offend them as they drive by — “has no basis in law.” It’s not enough to be offended. There has to be injury that is “concrete and particularized,” and no one is injured by seeing a cross. …

“Although the plurality does not say it in as many words, the message of today’s decision for the lower courts must be this: whether a monument, symbol, or practice is old or new, apply Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U. S. 565, not Lemon, because what matters when it comes to assessing a monument, symbol, or practice is not its age but its compliance with ageless principles. Pp. 6–9.” [Emphasis not in original]

Now ageless principles can well be philosophical or theological, and they can be arrived at by reason unaided by the act of faith, or by divine revelation. But what Gorsuch does here strikes me as important because he recognizes a non-positivist standard. I don’t know exactly how Gorsuch would develop this standard, but he is right that law must not become relativistic. The Establishment Clause was made to protect religion — indeed, Christian religion — from excessive government interference. It recognized the substantive good of religion as something which is more than just “history and tradition” but as something which orients us to what is permanently true. In this sense, Gorsuch recognizes that the more modest test should not privilege “secular purpose” but respect transcendent principles.

An important case for religious liberty, and interesting to see both the “history and tradition” and “ageless principles” standards being articulated as a means for restraining the government from destroying public religious symbols.

In Leesburg

We’re in Leesburg, Virginia at Stone Tower Winery today. It’s beautiful:

I’m sharing an excerpt from Tyler Cowen’s book Stubborn Attachments:

Rights rarely conflict with consequences in the simple ways set out by philosophical thought experiments. We can therefore shift the way we think about radical uncertainty and consequences. Rather than let it paralyze us, we can think of radical uncertainty as giving us the freedom to act morally, without the fear that we are engaging in consequentialist destruction. We can also see this radical uncertainty as supporting a new enchantment with human life and choice.

We can accept that most or all of our actions will have consequences we cannot possibly predict. On average, these consequences will be positive, just as average economic growth is positive. But we will always wonder about the future consequences we have set in motion. We will wonder about our strange and almost magical powers in this regard. For all the confusion we might feel about the marginal product of an individual act, this is also an empowering notion, and it relates to the idea that all fruitful societies are based on some notion of faith.

In this case, we can hold on to our faith in doing the right thing, and indeed in doing the right thing for its own sake, without being brutally beaten back by the fear that we are bringing about some sort of consequentialist disaster.