9.26.2010

Unnatural Relations IV

"Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains."

Is man naturally free? If freedom means absolute autonomy and independence then the answer is a resounding "No!" Man, upon birth, is immediately subject to the authority of nature and of his natural parents who nourish and raise him according to their customs. Hierarchies of authority are found at almost every level of human association from father and son or wife to king and subject. If this is the general history of humanity, then the modern concepts of freedom and individualism are nothing short of a revolution. There is a slight problem, though, with revolutions against nature: they must be maintained perpetually by forceful coercion lest nature take back her rightful place as that which properly orders man's actions.

These few observations are enough to explode the fantasy that libertarianism or classical liberalism are at war with the modern state. The libertarian needs the modern state as a man needs oxygen; without its ability to dilute or destroy the natural authority found within human relations, the ideology would simply die. In short, freedom as license requires what modern conservatives call "big government."

9.20.2010

Substance As Subject of Change

Aristotle says that substances are able to receive contraries. In fact, the potential to receive contraries is what is “most distinctive of substance” (Catg. 4a10). Consider a table with a white surface, for instance. The whiteness of the table’s surface is known through sensation. When I paint the white surface blue, what changed? It was not the color white, white cannot be anything other than what it is. We see the presence of one color and then we see the presence of another, but the colors themselves cannot be the things that underwent change. The subject of change cannot be color, which is an object of vision, therefore the subject of change was not something that is given to our sense experience. This account can be expanded to include man and all of his accidents. Man undergoes changes in his color yet the colors which he bears do not themselves change. He also can be many different ages, sizes and shapes, etc. The substance “this man,” though, must allow for all of these contraries to subsist in him somehow. As a substance, man is not something that can be explained through recourse to our sensible experience, and this is even true when we point to something and call it “this man.” This is true of all substance as such. On Aristotle’s account, substance is actually something that cannot be seen, smelt, touched, heard, or tasted, yet it accounts for the way we speak of subjects like man, horse, and table.

9.06.2010

Listen, O Wretched Man!

"Then, what seek ye by all this noisy outcry about fortune? To chase away poverty, I ween, by means of abundance. And yet ye find the result just contrary. Why, this varied array of precious furniture needs more accessories for its protection; it is a true saying that they want most who possess most, and, conversely, they want very little who measure their abundance by nature's requirements, not by the superfluity of vain display. Have ye no good of your own implanted within you, that ye seek your good in things external and separate? Is the nature of things so reversed that a creature divine by right of reason can in no other way be splendid in his own eyes save by the possession of lifeless chattels? Yet, while other things are content with their own, ye who in your intellect are God-like seek from the lowest of things adornment for a nature of supreme excellence, and perceive not how great a wrong ye do your Maker. His will was that mankind should excel all things on earth. Ye thrust down your worth beneath the lowest of things. For if that in which each things finds its good is plainly more precious than that whose good it is, by your own estimation, ye put yourselves below the vilest of things, when ye deem these vile things to be your good: nor does this fall out undeservedly. Indeed, man is so constituted that he then only excels other things when he knows himself; but he is brought lower than the beasts if he lose this self-knowledge. For that other creatures should be ignorant of themselves is natural; in man it shows as a defect. How extravagant, then, is this error of yours, in thinking that anything can be embellished by adornments not its own. It cannot be. For if such accessories add any lustre, it is the accessories that get the praise, while that which they veil and cover remains in its pristine ugliness. And again I say, that is no good, which injures its possessor. Is this untrue?  No, quite true, thou sayest. And yet riches have often hurt those that possess them, since the worst of men, who are all the more covetously reason of their wickedness, think none but themselves worthy to possess all the gold and gems the world contains. So thou, who now dreadest pike and sword, mightest have trolled a carol 'in the robber's face,' hadst thou entered the road of life with empty pockets. Oh, wondrous blessedness of perishable wealth, whose acquisitions robs thee of security!"

-Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book II: The Vanity of Fortune's Gifts