Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 2012

November 2012

What We Can't Not Know: A Guide

By J. Budziszewski

Publisher: Ignatius Press

Pages: 300

Price: $17.95

Review Author: Christopher Beiting

“Can’t we all just get along?” So runs the plaintive cry of our increasingly disunited and polarized age. The problem is, the answer to the question ultimately proves to be no because of the nature of what divides us. Any society at any time, as long as it’s composed of humans, will have divisions. But usually those divisions occur against a background of a shared consensus. “Is it right to support the Pope or the Emperor in Italy?” was a polarizing question in the Middle Ages, but one asked against the common culture of medieval Catholicism. Similarly, “Is it right to exclude certain people from voting?” was a tremendously divisive question, but one asked in a predominantly Protestant 19th-century Amer­ica. Our contemporary problem is that our questions are increasingly not about issues but about fundamentals: not “Is x right or wrong?” but “Is there such a thing as right or wrong at all?”

On such matters there can be no compromise, which accounts for the increasing viciousness of contemporary civil life and political discourse. However, there have to be some agreed-upon fundamentals for there to be any kind of civic order at all. Our own society has lost both the enlightenment rationalism and the stringent Protestantism that once gave it order, and the “do whatever you feel like” morality that has come to take their place has produced chaos, not order.

A number of philosophers and moralists have tried to ameliorate this situation by stressing the philosophical tradition of the natural law, which has the benefit of a certain ubiquitousness: Protestants think it’s something Catholic, Catholics think it’s something medieval, me­dievals thought it was something pagan, pagans thought it was something Stoic, and so on. As such, it has the benefit of belonging to everyone and to no one, having over the years been debated by pagans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, and enlightenment freethinkers alike. The problem, then as now, is that natural-law theorizing has not proven to be as universal as its adherents have claimed, with the unfortunate result that natural-law thinking has been largely mar­ginalized by mainstream thinkers. J. Bud­ziszewski is not among them, and he has written the very useful and approachable book, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, to address this situation.

The reader should be aware that What We Can’t Not Know is written with a few presuppositions on the part of its author. While a learned work, it is not directed at a scholarly audience but at readers who are capable of understanding its arguments and willing to give them a hearing. Budziszewski is a man who through his intellectual efforts managed to argue himself into the Catholic Church, so his work is animated by the venerable tradition that the natural law and Christian morality are one and the same. A large portion of the work, for example, is a detailed examination of the principles of the Decalogue and how they constitute a system not just of Christian or Jewish morality but principles of all human morality. What We Can’t Not Know is written in the tradition of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man, particularly its famous last section dealing with the universal moral law, which Lewis characterized as the Tao (Budziszewski specifically credits Lewis’s inspiration).

But the strength of What We Can’t Not Know is in the degree to which Budziszewski not only demonstrates the reasonableness of traditional morality but faces up to a few unpleasant facts in the process of doing so. One of the reefs on which natural-law thinking has always foundered is the problem of evil: If certain actions are “naturally right,” why do so few people seem to do them? Bud­ziszewski is particularly astute in his consideration of the quality of human conscience. For him it is more than just a feature of human life that proves the existence of the natural law; it is also an often-harsh taskmaster that humans go through elaborate and perverse efforts to deny, and Budziszewski ably examines the ways in which we do this. If there is such a thing as a universal moral knowledge, so too is there a universal human desire to avoid it!

Alas, not all readers will be convinced by all the arguments he offers. For example, Budziszewski uses traditional natural-law terms like nature and design, both cosmic and personal, as proof of his points, but it is a reflection of the intellectual impoverishment of our times that terms which were simple and clear to Greek pagans are opaque to the likes of the Peter Singers of the world. By contrast, Budziszewski is on the mark when he analyzes what happens to a society which denies that there are any kind of principles of morality: the rise of sophistry, increasing juvenility, a perverse focus on “feelings,” and so on — problems that are so obvious that only the highly educated can ignore them. Nor is Budziszewski sanguine about the direction in which society is going, reasonably foreseeing a future of infanticide, euthanasia, sexual perversion, chimerization, and plummeting birth rates (not for nothing did John Paul II refer to ours as a “culture of death”).

Is such a future inevitable? No, nothing is, and Budziszewski concludes his work with some suggestions on how to make natural-law arguments effective in a tarnished age. Oddly, religious evangelization does not figure too highly on his list; if the problem is bad philosophy, good religion is not likely to cure it. Rather, a better method is to find out what is good in each person — what they are or what they understand correctly — and draw it out of them; aid those who are honestly morally confused but call the bluff of those who truly know better and are simply justifying their own wrong actions. In short, Budziszewski wants us to do good philosophy. As in poker, assessing a situation and calling a bluff if necessary is an art form, so the process of fixing things is likely to be a long and delicate one. Budziszewski relates an anecdote that’s highly appropriate here, as it was in its original context: A pro-abortion zealot once castigated his pro-life opponents, saying, “Don’t you people get it? You’ve lost. It’s over. The fat lady has sung.” To which one of them replied, “It is not over when the fat lady sings. It is over when the angel blows his trumpet.”

The Last Hunger Season: A Year in an African Farm Community on the Brink of Change

By Roger Thurow

Publisher: Public Affairs Books (c/o PDS, 1094 Flex Dr., Jackson, TN 38301; 800-343-4499)

Pages: 273

Price: $26.99

Review Author: Elizabeth Hanink

Wanjala is a common name in parts of Kenya. It means that the person named was born during the “hunger season” — the time of every year when there is not enough food to eat. The season can last for months, and regardless of the cause in any particular year, everyone suffers: the children, the elderly, the hard working, the well, the sick, and the smart. This year it might be due to too much rain; last year it might have been poorly timed rain or weevils; the year before that, hail. And always there is an exacerbating factor: the vagaries of market forces.

In most of Kenya, small farmers — those with an acre or less — make up the bulk of the population and most of the food-growers. Since these subsistence farmers can barely feed themselves, there is not much left over for the cities or parts of the country that may be yielding poor crops. Even if a good crop should emerge from the long hours of working poor soil, farmers cannot hold onto their cash crops to sell at the optimal time. They often need to sell quickly in order to pay school fees, medical bills, or just to get rid of the harvest before it spoils (poor farmers generally have no storage facilities, except the bedroom or perhaps a leaky shack). A parent faced with the not-so-occasional problem of a child needing immediate treatment will understandably cut back on food since the hospital will not provide care without money up front.

The farmers — most of them women — almost always buy high and sell low. It is a recipe for disaster, and it has led to a decades-long tradition of hungry farmers. All this now plays out in a country where aggressive marketing ensures that even the poorest of the poor have access to Coca-Cola and mobile phones. Paradoxically, this is the same continent where China, India, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia, among others, buy up huge tracts of land to grow food, not for Africans but for their own populations.

The Last Hunger Season chron­icles the success of four ordinary farmers who, thanks to a development project called One Acre, beat the odds for one year. Each took a leap of faith that new planting methods taught by One Acre staff would pay off. Each farmer was also willing to use small amounts of credit to finance her new approach — credit that would have to be paid off before the next planting season in order to continue. Through One Acre, each received education in soil preparation, optimal timing, the importance of weeding, and, not least, access to good hybrid seed and fertilizer at discount rates. (Forget romantic notions of compost and heirloom seeds. There are not enough animals to produce natural fertilizer, and plant clippings must be used to feed the few there are. In this context, saved seed is weakened seed.) Much of this information was foreign to the Kenyan farmers, stuck as most of them are in agricultural methods that have been outdated for many, many years. Rural Africa missed out on the Green Revolution of the 1960s.

With tripled and quadrupled crop yields, Francis, Leonida, Rasoa, and Zipporah were finally able to break the cycle of buying high and selling low. Yes, at the time of publication their success had lasted for just one year — but what a year it was! They, and their neighbors who watched their progress with envy and wonder, could finally see a way out of recurrent hunger seasons, the ever-threatening wanjala.

Roger Thurow, a senior fellow for Global Agriculture and Food Policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, tells the stories of these four determined One Acre clients with compassion and insight. Their struggles become ours as we wait with them for the rain and then the equally important dry weather. We share their frustration when bureaucracy delays the distribution of needed seed, when policy dictates that land rights can often be disputed for frivolous reasons or when school tuition comes due at the time (set by the government) when corn needs to be sold at its lowest price. We understand their dismay that international food aid is being distributed in other parts of the country, glutting the market, and the food grown by Kenyans themselves cannot reach the drought-affected because there is no good system of roads, no transport, and no policy to encourage self-help. We suffer along with them on the days when the pain and malaise and fever of malaria make weeding too difficult. We also marvel at the profound Christian faith that keeps them from despair.

Thurow’s criticism of the Ken­yan government is muted. He allows the characters to speak to that themselves; they seem to understand that they live with politicians who prefer to rule rather than to govern. He is less restrained in his criticism of the international community, which neglected agricultural development assistance for too long and even now is scaling back. In this country, Republicans in particular come under fire, and here Thurow lacks the evenhandedness that otherwise characterizes his book. He only briefly acknowledges the failure of past billions of U.S. dollars committed to producing meaningful change in Africa and how that might fuel the reluctance to commit more.

Where he shines, and what makes this book so valuable, is his engaging demonstration that development aid is best when it is relatively small-scale, specific to a region, personal, and not free.

Andrew Youn, the American founder of One Acre, hopes in the next several years to reach many more of Kenya’s farmers. Much is still needed: basic storage, roads, and something most American farmers take for granted — crop insurance. His program, with an annual budget of less than ten million dollars, can’t help but remind one of a book as popular today as it was many years ago: Small Is Beautiful.

Stages on the Road

By Sigrid Und­set. Foreword by Elizabeth Scalia

Publisher: Ave Maria Press

Pages: 208

Price: $16.95

Review Author: Mary McWay Seaman

It is said that all translations suffer, but this collection of six essays by Sigrid Undset (1882-1949), a Norwegian writer, Catholic convert, lay Dominican, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928, is a happy exception. The focus of Stages on the Road (translated from Norwegian) is squarely on the Church’s beneficent role in Western civilization. Undset contends that Europe is “a spiritual continent, created by the Catholic Church,” which preaches the “eternal value of every single soul” while incorporating “the inheritance adopted from Hellas and Rome, the ideas of the ancients as to the dignity and worth of the human personality.” With wit and grace she posits that many people dismiss the “Christian element in European civilization,” although the civil morality of Western civilization is undeniably rooted in Christian morality.

Undset tenders an interpretive review of the Middle Ages, when “Christendom was like an island between a sea of hostile peoples and the ocean to the west and north.” She also assesses the Protestant Refor­mation’s religious, spiritual, sociological, political, and economic ramifications. The 20th century’s wars and political movements taught her that “liberalism, feminism, nationalism, socialism, pacifism, would not work because they refused to consider human nature as it really is.” A sparkling discussion of assimilated pagan elements in Catholicism (festivals, statuary, grottoes) centers on the veneration of saints, which some Protestants fancy as “nothing but masked polytheism — the saints are the old local divinities of popular belief smeared over with a little Christianity, but they are the same ancient idols with just the necessary coat of paint.” Since it is difficult for converts who view devotions to the saints as remnants from the pre-Christian, pagan past, Undset’s remedy is to deliver the saints as role models with a “heroic love of God — of the Uncreated Creator and of the created world, in which the fight is for or against God.”

Undset’s study of Bl. Ramón Lull of Palma in Majorca reveals his noble roots in Barcelona. Born around 1235, Lull, a philosopher, poet, mathematician, and theologian known as the Doctor Illuminatus, was worldly and left a wealth of writings. He was leery of religious mysticism, believing that emotion is “too liable to be seduced by our own secret wishes and idiosyncrasies.” After undergoing a religious conversion, he decided to found schools for missionaries to Eastern peoples. Undset declares that what is interesting for our time is “the clear-sightedness with which Ramón seeks to determine what element there is in Christianity that makes it peculiarly incomprehensible or repellent to Moors and Jews.” The mystery of the Trinity is offered as one difficulty. Lull took to the road as an itinerant preacher and received little support from Rome for his missionary-school endeavor. In 1291 he challenged Mohammedan theologians in Tunis and was promptly deported. He returned, was imprisoned and banished again. Nearly 80 years old, he returned yet again to North Africa and died after being stoned.

In another essay, Undset highlights the administrative talents of medieval and Renaissance women working in convents, orphanages, hospitals, and homes. She cautions that “it is the easiest thing in the world to compile enormous collections of misogynic utterances from the works of early and medieval theologians.” History, however, proves that royal women, peasant women, nuns, and housewives played indispensable roles in maintaining religious, charitable, social, and financial structures: “There is a proverb which says that the wife brings more to the farm or out of it in her apron than the man can cart in or out with a pair of horses.”

St. Angela Merici of Italy (1474-1540) is called “a champion of the woman’s movement,” and Und­set documents her exceptional work among the indigent. Angela entered the Third Order of St. Francis and founded a company of women at Brescia. Her community tended to the destitute with special attention to the shelter and instruction of orphan girls. Angela knew that “reformation was needed within the Church…she saw clearly enough that the priesthood was not all that it might be.” She drew up a Rule for her community under the banner of St. Ursula, and the Ursulines continue their work among both the churched and the unchurched throughout the world.

Undset’s essay on Robert South­­well, a priest, poet, and martyr, chronicles his undercover ministry in 1586 when priests were being hunted and killed in England. Southwell was eventually arrested, tortured, hanged, and drawn and quartered. She also offers a riveting review of Henry VIII’s England, his break with Rome, and his self-anointment as Supreme Head of the Church in England in 1534. Henry plundered Catholic properties and executed many religious, knowing that “a nation’s life and destiny are determined first and foremost by its religion.” Undset’s remarks on disease are captivating: Henry’s son, Edward VI, “was marked from birth — like all Henry VIII’s children — by the new and sinister disease which in reality is of such immense historical significance, precisely because it contributed to…the mentality of the Renaissance and the Reformation: the megalomaniacal, self-worshipping, unrestrained, egocentric tendency in the men of that time was often wholly or in part a consequence of their having syphilis. The malady devastated Europe to an extent which the historians of the last century have insisted on ignoring.”

Catholics and others, Undset writes, “ask whether the Church can offer an explanation of life, a way to salvation from their own most personal distress; they ask whether the Church knows of any way out of the common distress of the whole of humanity.” The saints answered those questions by living the way forward. While addressing the difficulties involved in reforming other people, Undset methodically shows that the saints first set themselves in motion for good, heroically blazing away through the darkness to spread the Savior’s message of light and love.

Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition

By John W. Carlson

Publisher: University of Notre Dame Press

Pages: 350

Price: $45

Review Author: Stephen J. Kovacs

In his landmark encyclical Fides et Ratio, Bl. John Paul II called for a renewal of Catholic philosophy and theology in order to better articulate and defend the faith in the modern world. He made clear that the Church does not exclusively endorse any one mode of thought, yet he highlighted the timeless and universal value of the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, who drew harmoniously from divine revelation and the finest fruits of human reason for a comprehensive, realist vision. Every modern pope since Leo XIII has consistently emphasized the lasting importance of St. Thomas as one of the greatest expositors of Catholic wisdom, a remedy for the errors of our times, and a sure guide for philosophers and theologians at the service of the Church, and indeed all lovers of truth.

John W. Carlson, a professor of philosophy at Creighton University, observes that a renaissance of Tho­mism is currently underway, and that there are three principal tasks that need to be accomplished for a proper renewal in accord with the vision of Fides et Ratio: to more fully integrate the philosophical wisdom with the theological wisdom in the tradition; to address modern philosophical developments that are incompatible with the tradition; and to incorporate those modern developments that are good and true. Carlson has assumed the duty of contributing to the renewal of Thomism by compiling Words of Wisdom: A Philosophical Dictionary for the Perennial Tradition. This is the first Thomistic dictionary to be published in over half a century and, according to Carlson’s explanation in the introduction, it is structured in conformity with the vision of Fides et Ratio. As the subtitle of the dictionary suggests, Carlson sees the Thomistic tradition as practically synonymous with what he and certain other Thomists consider the Catholic perennial tradition. While there is debate as to whether there even is such a thing as a Catholic perennial tradition, it is indisputable that Thomism is at least a large part of the traditional, orthodox wisdom that has come down to us through the ages and has greatly shaped the way the Church presents her teachings.

Words of Wisdom contains 1,173 terms, most of which are Tho­mistic. While there is an impressive consis­tency in St. Thomas’s thought that few thinkers have ever exhibited, there were also developments in his thought as he advanced in years, and further developments as his work was studied in depth and applied to new circumstances over the centuries by his intellectual disciples. To account for developments that took place within St. Thomas’s own thought, Carlson looks to the Sum­ma Theologiae as his mature work. And to account for later developments in the tradition, Carlson looks to Jacques Maritain, Yves Si­mon, and other modern Thomists to maintain a consistent perspective that is faithful to St. Thomas’s original principles and incorporates positive advancements made in the Tho­mistic tradition through the years.

Although the dictionary is solidly Thomistic throughout, it also includes terms relating to other major figures and movements in Western philosophy, particularly those that impact Christianity. It contains terms that relate to positive modern developments in Western philosophy, as well as those developments that pose a challenge for Thomistic thought. Finally, major theological terms are included, due to the importance Tho­mism has in relation to theology and its insistence on the harmony between faith and reason.

Among the many merits of this dictionary are its comprehensiveness and accessibility. Because it includes terms from outside the tradition, this dictionary has a broader scope than most other dictionaries of a specific topic. Multiple uses for certain terms are examined, and the whole work is thoroughly cross-referenced, providing the user with easier access to the entire dictionary while simultaneously synthesizing key ideas. In many cases, particularly when a term from outside the tradition is being outlined, Carlson includes a further explanation in the form of a Tho­mistic critique, which is useful to maintain a Thomistic viewpoint. The introduction is well worth reading, for it sets the context for the dictionary and orients users to Carlson’s approach and what they should and should not expect from it. Toward the end of the volume, Carlson includes a valuable bibliography that lists all the works of St. Thomas that are available in English, important works by modern Thomists, and works by non-Tho­mists that are worthy of consideration. At the very end is an index listing all the terms, which makes the dictionary easier to navigate.

Words of Wisdom would be a valuable resource for students of philosophy and theology, especially in the higher levels of study. This includes students of Thomism, who need to be familiar with many of its important terms, as well as students of other philosophies who want to familiarize themselves with Thomism. But as Carlson himself rightly admits, this dictionary is at best a useful tool and should never replace the actual reading of St. Thomas’s own work or that of other scholars in the tradition. Professional philosophers and theologians would also find it a good resource, for sometimes even the most seasoned scholar needs to have recourse to reference materials for verification and refreshment. While Carlson hopes that this dictionary will be used by students, professionals, and even the casual learner, he expresses a particular wish that it will also be used in institutes of theological formation. Over the years, the hierarchy of the Church has stressed the need for a sound philosophical education as part of priestly formation programs, and this dictionary would surely be a benefit to seminarians in their studies for the priesthood.

A complete renewal of Thom­ism would be invaluable for our times, and resources such as Words of Wisdom are indispensable to its actualization. The Church is indebted to scholars like Carlson.

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