Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Poem As I Approach Gaudete Sunday


Consider the angels.

Because maybe the broken men get too much attention.
Drunk with power and impotent with the kind of blind rage
That will carelessly hurl their countrymen down to the grave,
They try, in fiery futility, to salve some inner wound
By wasting the lives of others in blind fury and then,
(Perhaps in a final moment of penitent clarity,
or in obedience to the last demonic urge)
Waste themselves,
As mothers wail.

This monotone litany of nightmares,
It’s a constant, manicured, damnable drone.  The same words
We have heard again and again.  I am no wise man,
I can find no meaning in them.
Cameras frame parents hunched over, clutching each other
Like living icons of passion and grief, offered so that we might worship.
And I’m ashamed at how hard it is not to continue to stare
At this flickering, televised altar of perfect priests and the grief they sell.

What I need now doesn’t come from gazing at monsters.
But from giving thanks for the angels:

For brave souls in badges and brims,
Who run towards the fire, not away,
Who guide the children to safety,
Who help legs paralyzed with fear find their feet and find their home again;

For dumbstruck neighbors who stop everything,
And cry together so no one has to cry alone;

For men and women and children on the other side of the world,
Who do not know us but mourn with us anyway,
Knowing that we are family;

For people who see the darkness of despair descending,
And resolve to be light today, and keep that resolution tomorrow.

And for the teachers.  The teachers
Who will somehow find a way to make their feet walk back into their schools;
Who have seen the monsters, and know they are real, and yet,
Who refuse to worship their fear.
They know it is better
To kneel on the floor, and read, and play,
Remembering for all of us,
With good will and with daily acts of intercession,
That nothing must be allowed to stop
The sacred work
Of children.

Photo by David O'Hara


David L. O’Hara


Thursday, December 13, 2012

Charles Peirce on Criminal Justice

I have posted briefly about Peirce's interest in criminal justice before.  I haven't time to comment on it extensively now, so for now I will post this link to his piece entitled "Dmesis"* and these brief comments:

More than once commentators on Peirce's Pragmatism have argued that he does not pay attention to politics or to political, social, and ethical theory.  This piece is not alone in refuting that thesis.  It would be more accurate to say that for Peirce, it is impossible to treat social and ethical issues apart from the rest of his philosophy.  Peirce was a synechist, which means he held that ideas are not independent atoms of thought but interdependent and interconnected with one another.  Ideas affect one another.

One great implication of this is that just as one idea affects another in our private thinking, so our personal beliefs affect other persons.  Our ideas are not atoms, and neither are we.  The foundation of ethics, and of all philosophy, is agape, or love.  As Peirce wrote elsewhere,  

“He who would not sacrifice his own soul to save the whole world, is illogical in all his inferences, collectively.”

Peirce makes the especially trenchant observation that if we really cared about criminals, then our criminal justice system would make positive habituation a guiding principle in the housing and treatment of prisoners.  I'm willing to concede that Peirce may not be right in all he says here, but this point seems spot on: it is inconsistent to habituate people to prison life if our aim is to return them to society.

Peirce's conclusion in the third paragraph also seems right: the fact is, we imprison people "because we detest them."

*  ("Dmesis" is a Greek word that means "taming," or "breaking.")

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Prayer and Forgiveness

Years ago I was wronged by someone I worked with.  The details don't matter, because as Viktor Frankl says, pain is like a gas, expanding to fill the available space.  Even if it was a small offense, it swelled until it filled me.

I told a friend about it, who listened patiently to my story.  When I was done, he said, sympathetically, "You need to pray for him and ask God to bless him."

What I had hoped to hear was something more like "Wow, what a waste of skin that guy is.  Your anger is justified."

Now that I have the increasing clarity that comes when time separates us from painful events, I think my friend was right.  His idea of God is that God wants all of us to be better than we are.

Praying for my former co-worker has allowed me to remove him from the center of my consciousness, where his image lived as a threatening villain, and to think of him as someone in need of healing and transformation.  Blessing him has given me a way to articulate my desire to see him change and become a kinder person, for everyone's sake.

No doubt theology matters here.  In plainer terms, how we imagine the God we pray to matters, because that will shape the way we act towards others.  At the risk of declaring the obvious: what we think about God has consequences for the way we live with other people.  In her book, Lit, Mary Karr talks about a friend who tells her that God doesn't have a plan for her, God has a dream for her.  God wants good things for her.

That's an attractive idea of God, one who wants us to forgive others so we can be set free from their tyranny; and one who wants us to bless others so that we can begin to see ourselves as agents of positive change rather than as victims.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Course Of Nature and Laws of Nature

As part of the sabbatical leave I am currently enjoying I am spending a lot of time reading ancient and medieval texts, mostly on science and mathematics.  The plan is to incorporate them into my ancient and medieval philosophy class next fall.  I teach that class more as a history of texts than as a class on philosophical problems.  The historical development of astronomy is one of the main threads we follow, tying it to discoveries in geometry, optics, metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, and politics.

Today I was reading this text from Book I of Manilius' AstronomicaI'll translate the relevant part below.
Nam neque fortuitos ortus surgentibus astris
nec totiens possum nascentem credere mundum
solisve assiduous partus et fata diurna,
cum facies eadem signis per saecula constet,
idem Phoebus eat caeli de partibus isdem
lunaque per totidem luces mutetur et orbes
et natura vias servet, quas fecerat ipsa,
nec tirocinio peccet, circumque feratur
aeterna cum luce dies, qui tempora monstrat
nunc his nunc illis eadem regionibus orbis,
semper et ulterior vadentibus ortus ad ortum
occasumve obitus, caelum et cum sole perennet.
The boldface text could be (loosely) translated like this: "Nature follows paths that she herself has made, and she does not stray as the inexperienced do." 

On the one hand, this sounds like an early articulation of the idea of laws of nature.  If nature follows paths laid down by nature itself and from which it does not deviate, that would be compatible with our idea of a natural law.

Yet there's an important difference between law and path. As you walk along a path, your feet may fall more to one side of the path or the other; and over time, paths may shift, broadening with use or narrowing with desuetude. Charles Peirce, responding to advocates of Hume's argument against miracles, argues that nature is like this as well, and that what we now call laws were once called  the course of nature, and Peirce thinks of them as habits that nature has taken on.

The name makes a difference, if only a slight one. Peirce was not trying to argue for particular miracles, but he was urging students of science not to insist that nature behave according to their preconceptions of law.  Manilius' idea is not so far-fetched: the laws might not have been there at all, but nature took them on and then, once they became habits, nature has stuck to them. Thinking about science this way alerts us to two possibilities: first, that things might not always have been as they are, and second, that nature might still be taking on new habits.  We shouldn't expect nature to stray far from its habitual paths, but on the other hand, what would prevent it from doing so?