Journal: A return to Aristotle

plato and aristotleRecently I had a long phone conversation with a friend who is working on a doctorate in philosophy. I expected a few questions about book recommendations and how to worship with the present pandemic, but the conversation was mostly spent on the object of his study, namely, the actions of the simple substances (angels) upon man. Without going into the points around which our conversation turned, the chief effect was that I wanted to fill in those gaps in my reading concerning the angels, what they are and what we can know about them, both from reasoning and from faith.

The first book I picked up to this end contained the Enneads of Plotinus, a philosopher who certainly speculated on the multitude of incorporeal beings. But realizing how “out of shape” I was philosophically, I retreated to more familiar ground. I found my copy of Aristotle’s Metaphysics, and started reviewing sections I did not remember well, namely, Book IX on actuality and potency and Book X on unity. Unlike a novel, where one can read continuously and reasonably hope that what is obscure will become clear later on, when something is obscure in Aristotle, I have to slow down. The questions I ask myself the most often when reading Aristotle are “Is this true?” and “How do I know that?” This is especially true when he talks about motion, about which he makes many universal statements. Aristotle did not grow up hearing about the big bang, the expanding universe, inertia and universal gravitation, atomic models, waves and particles, the death of stars, and so on; therefore, a contemporary person is reasonably skeptical when such a person makes a universal statement about motion itself. And yet, I have the same “macro” experience that Aristotle did. I should at least be able to understand why he thinks certain truths are self-evident or demonstrable. Continue reading

Angels in NGE and St. Thomas Aquinas

arcangels[I previously said I wanted to write on the Human Instrumentality Project from theological point of view, but as I continued thinking, I was taken in more by another aspect of the series.]

First of all, if you have not seen Neon Genesis Evangelion and you do not want any revelations about the final episodes, do not keep reading. From this point on, I will make no effort to conceal plot details.
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Stanislaw Lem: The Cyberiad

cyberiadWhen visiting another land, there is no better souvenir than a book representing the literature of that place. So finding myself with free time in Krakow, I visited the largest bookstore I could find and started to flip through various Polish authors for a book to bring home. Milosz and Sienkiewicz both looked promising, but it was Stanislaw Lem that won the day. I might have ignored him as typical sci-fi, with the robots and astronauts on the covers, but the fact that his works were in a Modern Penguin Classics edition made me suspect there was something more going on.

For all the robots and the fantastic use of scientific terms, the book reads more like Gulliver’s Travels or The Phantom Tollbooth than anything by Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov. The stories follow the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two “constructors”, and their machines which often get them into trouble. An early story involves a machine which can make anything that starts with the letter n. Everything starts well with it making neutrons and nuclei, and noses and nymphs. But then someone requests that it produce Nothing, and it starts to dismantle the entire cosmos…

The translation of the work itself is no small wonder, with all the many rhymes and word-games which appear in English, that could easily have been discarded along the way. For example, there is a poem-writing machine which takes in any criteria and then produces a perfect poem. “Have it compose a poem – a poem about a haircut! But lofty, noble, tragic, timeless, full of love, treachery, retribution, quiet heroism in the face of certain doom! Six lines, cleverly rhymed, and every word beginning with the letter s!” And before any objections can be made, we hear:

Seduced, shaggy Samson snored.
She scissored short. Sorely shorn,
Soon shackled slave, Samson sighed,
Silently scheming,
Sightlessly seeking
Some savage, spectacular suicide.

Even in the midst of these silly poetic exercises, Lem reflects on the meaning of poetry for mankind as he depicts robots worrying about who the greatest poet is.

bizzarie1

That Lem is well-studied in both sciences and arts appears in each story. The title Cyberiad is an homage to other epic titles and I was pleased to learn that he wrote a work called Summa Technologiae—the title suggesting at least a familiarity with the works of Thomas Aquinas. Although he is an atheist and materialist, he does not discard human questions, but looks at them in light of his theories, even if this means arriving at something absurd or unsatisfying. There is an integrity in his approach that is refreshing, and he pokes fun at so many things that one never feels on the receiving end of a political tirade. There is also something beautiful about a world full of sentient robots using Latin to dignify their speech.

A fun-fact: Apparently the popular video game SimCity was inspired by a story in this book where the constructors make a miniature kingdom for a tyrant in order to satisfy his desire to tyrannize while saving his actual kingdom. A discussion ensues about how oppressing a tiny civilization is any better than oppressing larger one.

[This is #27 on my classics reading challenge.]

The worst heresy and the Dominican response

thomas aquinas nouveau“It is argued according to the insanity of certain people, that corporeal things were caused by an evil god, […] and that is the worst heresy” (In IV Sent., D.26, q.1, a.3.).

Looking back at the original text, I probably would have translated the last words as “a most awful heresy”, taking the superlative adjective as a rhetorical excess. And so I was struck by how the translator/commentator in this passage does not qualify the phrase but, in connection with the main topic, affirms that “[Saint Thomas] reserves his strongest condemnation for those who denigrate the material aspects of marital intimacy” (Mortensen 42). Continue reading