Wednesday, December 30, 2009


On Christmas eve my thirteen-year-old grandson was breathing down my neck, waiting for me to finish and have the computer to access the web for his games. So I couldn't really give to It's a wonderful life all its due.

I said already that I love old Hollywood movies, because, as the Harvard philosopher Stanley Cavell strongly said, America found in them one of her best self expressions, more originally her own than, say, in philosophy or theology, or in political theory, where it stayed pretty much in line with Europe.

Through movies America gave a mythical expression of herself, reaching with success beyond her borders. Nothing of the kind in Europe, where, besides great movies by great directors like Fellini or Bergman, the average production didn't have the same popular mythical appeal. For this was always preferred Hollywood.

Instead of mythical, I could have said archetypical. I won't explain what this means. I will illustrate it.

Little had people to do with the kings, princes and princesses of old fairytales and romances, or for that matter my grandson with the knights and warriors of his games, but it is to these that the imagination resorts. Little had the people of the East Coast to do with the heroes of the prairies that from Nineteenth Century pulp fiction passed into movies, and though John Wayne is there as a sort of American monument. The noble characters and exotic locations serve to remind that there are differences that in everyday life get blurred, which make good guys good and bad guys bad, women beautiful princesses or ugly witches, men brave or vile and cruel, and so on.

Here you have representations of the primary figures – call them archetypes – that make the plot of all possible stories into a myth.

And yet, "I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic," remarked some time ago Ralph Waldo Emerson, apparently speaking for himself, but actually making that "I" of his a spokesman for America, "I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low." If anything, this would mean a preference for ordinary, everyday stories, because – let me say – in themselves mythical. Again Hollywood provided for that.

It was enough, to be quizzical about life, and suggest that one way or another "it is a wonderful life", to tell the plain story of a young man who dreamt of traveling and doing great things… and indeed he did them, but with no need to go very far.

The villain of the movie is the callous capitalist who thinks any enterprise that doesn't give an immediate return in money superfluous. It easily reminds us of today. But the answer given by the movie to such a callousness it isn't to make government surrogate the private lack of concern.

The answer is to recast our lives in the archetype of gift: the sense of gratuitousness immanent to all human intercourse, that makes of any encounter an adventure, in which we put ourselves at stake with no need of going very far from home.

Of course we can measure the give and take, in some of its very conspicuous manifestations, with money, but this cannot replace the mutual concern represented by gift, and the trust – or fides – that comes from it: at the price of facing the hellish wondrousness of how life would have been if we hadn't put our heart in it.

I speak of the archetype represented by the Christmas gift exchange, evoked in the final scene of the movie, when all the good gratuitously done brings its return of equally gratuitous thanks.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Puer Natus Est Nobis!

Best wishes at Christmastide to all our readers from the LD and the HP!

Please pray for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, who was attacked last night while processing at Midnight Mass.

Merry Christmas!


Thursday, December 24, 2009

It is a wonderful life

I forgot, when I mentioned my liking the old Hollywood movies, to name the one most pertinent these days:

It's a wonderful life.

If someone of you has never seen it, should go and buy or rent the DVD to watch it. It is a rare statement on the beauty of life.

Just in case, I summarize the plot.

It starts with a dialogue, high in the sky, between two stars: it is S. Peter telling S. Joseph to send someone to save a man in danger. Here starts the story.

A young man, anywhere in Middle America before WWII, dreams of travelling the world, but, for one reason or another, he never succeeds in doing it. It always happens something keeping him from it. Most of all, his father dies, and he has to stay to run his Savings and Loan firm, which otherwise would have been closed. And so on and so forth. At a certain point, though, something happens that puts the Savings and Loans to which he dedicated his life in sure danger, and he feels desperate. He wants to drown himself in the river, but is saved by a funny little man, who feigns drowning to get his help. But the good deed doesn't help him out of his black mood.

"Better were not to have been born!"

These are (more or less) the words of despair, echoing Job.

Well, tells him the funny little man (actually an angel sent by S. Joseph), if that is what you want, it will be granted to you.

So he is given the chance to see the world as it would have been had he not been born. All the good he had done, would not have been there. I won't stay to tell which.

Rarely I have seen an equally powerful statement on the meaning of life: the more worthy, the more one has given.

It's all about gift-giving. And Christmas.

The whole drama of despair and salvation takes place at Christmas. When it is time of giving thanks. So the movie ends with everybody chipping in to help out of troubles one who so much had helped others.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Nostalgia and hope

I have a nice CD with old recordings of Christmas songs by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, that my wife and I are willingly listening to these days.

What do I want to say with this.

There is a funny mixture of feelings those old recordings arouse in me that make me want to say it. A love for Christmas, when it's time "to glory the new born king" (as the verse of a song says); and a love for America, where I became a man; and, who knows, perhaps a love for old times. When Hollywood made the movies I grew up loving, like the talkies in black and white of the Thirties and Forties.

A teacher of mine, Will Herberg, wrote a book entitled Protestant Catholic and Jew, describing the making of America as a land of immigration. By way of this, America has been able to turn herself mythical: allowing a storytelling drawing its ethos from the biblical story of Exodus, capable of a universal message I learned to appreciate even before my stay in the USA.

That's why those old recordings fill me with a vague sense of nostalgia and hope: that America may keep that mythical sense of herself alive, against the temptation to imitate Europe, where it has been lost.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

O Sapientia!

Holy Church enters the final week of preparation for the feast of Christmas, the Solemnity of the Nativity of Our Lord.

She groans in agonized anticipation, She shouts with uncontainable joy, She sighs in exquisite longing.

All the time, She sings.

Today She sings: O Sapientia! quæ ex ore Altissimi prodiisti, attingens a fine usque ad finem, fortiter suaviterque disponens omnia: veni ad docendum nos viam prudentiæ.

Today's antiphon expresses a profound and mysterious truth of faith: Wisdom took on human flesh and dwelt among us. His words were the Word, perfect intelligibility made ours. The lesson teaches more, thoughç every breath He drew, every raised finger, every shift in place, every arched eyebrow, taught as perfectly as the most sublime word. His final breath would break the power of Hell and restore us all to friendship with Heaven.

A power greater, more
beautifully ancient and infinitely more perfect even than the cosmos, He came into His kingdom mute and helpless. Even then, He was teaching us the way of prudence: place yourselves entirely in Mary's care.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mary and the Church

I remember reading many years ago an essay by H. U. von Balthasar (to the judgment of many, including your HP, the main Catholic theologian of the Twentieth Century), entitled "Who is the Church". I was at the beginning of my philosophical and theological studies, and I expected some dissertation on the people in the Church, and what makes them faithful members of it. I tell you my surprise when I found the essay asserting the identification of the "who the church is" in Peter and Mary, in order to discuss the relation between the two.

It is far from our mentality to think of individual persons as representative of a collectivity, but that is the way Christians have been thinking for centuries. In this key, Peter and Mary (as well as the other important persons surrounding Christ in the New testament, like John and Paul), are primary figures of the different components of the Church that sprung from him.

Well, Peter represents the express leading office, liturgical and doctrinal, in the Church; but it is such only in as far as he is at the service of Mary, who represents the spiritual fecundity of the Church. Peter, in his fallibility, is preserved unerring by adhering to Mary.

Without these premises I could not comment on the Magnificat, and how it refers traditional Old Testament warlike images of God assisting his people – as he who "shewed might in his arm", "scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart", "put down the mighty from their seat" and "exalted the humble" – to what happens in a woman's womb.

Not just that woman's womb, whom all generations shall call blessed, but the Church's womb.

It is the divine fecundity of any man and woman in the Church. But carnally it is women who carry any baby by whom the kingdom is to grow.

Here I need another erudite quote to explain what this meant in Christian civilization – what it meant, I say, because now days it is heavily under attack.

The great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye wrote a book entitled The secular scripture, in which he analyzed the late antiquity novels as expression of popular culture. Their typical plot was the adventures of two lovers, a hero and a heroin both of high birth, severed before they could marry, running in search of each other, falling in the hands of pirates or such like things, until they could finally reunite and be joined in marriage.

I mention it, because of an important observation by Frye. Both lovers were very attentive in preserving their virginity: he from the seduction of some femme fatal, she from the threat of rape by pirates or other nasty men. As always, though, the main emphasis fell on the woman's virginity: it is with her that the loss of it could have the gravest consequences! Frye remarked that by preserving her virginity the heroin differentiated herself from promiscuous little servants, shepherdesses, peasants women. A king's daughter, she had to bear a king's son.

It comes to my mind, on this regard, Elisabeth of Pride and Prejudice, when, in her dialogue with Darcy's aunt, lady Catherine, who wants to keep her from marrying him, retorts: "He is a gentleman, I am a gentleman's daughter."

In Christian marriage, however, with its monogamous requirement, every man and woman is a king (or a gentleman) and a king's (or a gentleman's) daughter. Because they all represent the Church's womb, from which they again give birth to a king.

John Adams understood this: that there are two ways of conceiving democracy, that there are no kings or that everybody is called to be king. He stood for the second, but there is a widespread tendency toward the first. As always, mostly represented in sexual mores.

Since the late Sixties, promiscuousness seems to have won the day. It has been portrayed as the result of a movement of emancipation, making everybody free in his pursuit, if not precisely of happiness, at least of pleasure. But Frye's remark makes me strongly suspicious that it was rather the opposite, turning all men and women into servants.

That's when we are no longer able to say, with Mary, "he that is mighty, hath done great things to me".


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Advent and Mary (to be cont’d)

The LD has reminded the meaning of Advent: hopeful expectation of the heavenly King to come, born of an earthly woman to liberate mankind from the power of the diabolon, the divisive one, who holds all men and women in fetters, prisoners of that concern about themselves that makes them incapable of communicating in peace and justice.

In our democratic society we are not used to take this Christian talk of kingship (in spite of the last Sunday before Advent) seriously. The only one to my knowledge who did it was the second President of the USA, John Adams; and he run into trouble because of it, being judged unworthy of a scrap of monument in Washington, he, the son of a yeoman from Massachusetts, over against the great one deserved by the true democrat slaveholder from Virginia.

At best we take this king talk as a kind of metaphor drawn from worldly political reality to express something religious. Even metaphors, however, don't work if we don't grant any reality to the image that is vehicle for us of further meanings. But it is not a metaphor that a young woman gave birth to a child to be named Jesus, later proclaimed the Christ (the anointed one, as ancient Israel's kings were) by people who perceived him as the bearer of reconciliation among men, made participant of the caritas that Deus est.

In short, they perceived in him the beginning of a new kingdom of peace and justice.

The beginning: that is the problem. Therefore the LD rightly reminded that Advent is a time of spiritual warfare: of a resolve toward an always new birth of the king by which the kingdom can grow.

The place where the war is decided is a woman's womb.

Let's read Mary's great hymn of praise in the gospel of s. Luke known a Magnificat (Douay-Rheims translation).

My soul doth magnify the Lord.

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Because he hath regarded the humility of his handmaid;

for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.

Because he that is mighty,

hath done great things to me;

and holy is his name.

And his mercy is from generation unto generations,

to them that fear him.

He hath shewed might in his arm:

he hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat,

and hath exalted the humble.

He hath filled the hungry with good things;

and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He hath received Israel his servant,

being mindful of his mercy:

As he spoke to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his seed for ever.



Friday, December 11, 2009

It is Advent again, in case you had not noticed (and you would not have, if all you do is read this blog).

As we approach Gaudete! Sunday, I would like, however belatedly, to get into the spirit of the season.

To that end, i have transcribed the Advent announcement from Vatican Radio, which aired on the evening of Pope Benedict's celebration of the First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent:

Advent is the first of the liturgical seasons: its coming marks the turning of the liturgical year. Advent is a privileged season - a time the Church ahs set aside for prayerful reflection on the truth we know by faith: that Christ, the Glorious King, is coming soon to judge the world.

The Church in Advent waits in joyful hope for the coming of her Savior, and in preparation for that coming, she does penance and makes acts of reparation for past sins.In her official public worship, the Church proclaims Christ the Lord of creation, and implores the protection of His merciful divinity from the insults of the enemy, Satan, the Prince of Darkness, who, sensing that the time of his reign is nearing its end, increases his efforts to ensnare and enslave the children of God.

Advent is a season of war - of spiritual strife between the victorious forces of God, and the defeated though active, not yet fully vanquished forces of the fallen angels.

In this preternatural struggle for the souls of those for whom Christ won His supernatural victory, the People of God in the New Israel that is the Church cry out for deliverance with increasing intensity, and they do so in the voice, and with the prayers of ancient Israel.

The final seven days of Advent hear proclaimed the ancient O! antiphons - the cry of the heart of the People of God: O Wisdom! O Lord and Leader! O Shoot of Jesse! O Key of David! O RIsing Sun! O King! O Emmanuel! (The great spiritual adventure that is Advent begins again this Saturday at Vespers)
If I am not mistaken, the HP is reasonably well-acquainted with the reporter who wrote the text.

Those who heard the piece when it aired noticed the use of the Conditor alme siderum at the beginning, and the Veni, veni Emmanuel at the end.

Two of this Lazy Disciple's favorite hymns.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The surprises of translation

It is always for me a great source of wonderment: how come, being the same books, and with them the same evidence and arguments I rely on in my thinking, available to everybody, others don't seem to take them into account, and, even if they do, they are drawn to very different conclusions?

This means that there is more involved in thinking than sheer inference from evidence, or simply conforming to a "method" qualified as "scientific".

After the Swiss referendum that turned down the building of minarets, I read an interview to a Jesuit father, expressing his disapproval. "Who is afraid of people praying?", he provocatively asked.

"Well, nobody", is the simple answer, "as long as what they do is simply praying."

What else can it be? I could be asked in return.

My readings about Islam give a clear answer: a way of marking a territory as one's own. They say that setting up a mosque, possibly with a minaret and a muezzin calling to prayer from it, is for self-conscious Muslims a way to reclaim that place as dar al Islam, territory of Islam.

Hence the wonderment a spoke about. Didn't that Jesuit read the same things I did? Yes, and probably more. So, why does he brand as fear of diversity the wariness before Muslim immigration and the consequent proliferation of mosques? Couldn't it be the expression by a people of a right concern for their future freedom?

And though, that Jesuit father doesn't think so. Why? I ask myself.

Because, he says, praying is a religious matter, and claiming a territory a political and diplomatic one. And, he claims, they are separate matters, not to be mingled, as it would be the case if we were to ask Islamic countries for reciprocity: to have them allow us to build our churches while we allow them to build their mosques, with or without minarets.

I can't enter into the motivations of his wanting to think so. But I can question his distinction of politics and religion, deep down in its ground.

I do it by asking him for an effort at reciprocity: in translation.

Before people to whom we want grant the right to pray because it is a religious matter, the first thing to do is to look in their language, whether there is in it a word that translates our religion: not the Latin word, but the word as it is currently used, meaning something that stands by itself.

If not, we should beware.

We should beware them, but not just them, also the saying that what they do is just praying.

The lack of translation word by word should work reciprocally, with a feedback on our conceptual distinctions, making us realize that what we call "religion" and "politics", or for that matter "culture" (with all that falls into it), variously overlap in one or more words of the languages in which we would have liked to translate them.

This means that they are abstract words, that don't name anything existing separately, but only aspects of the same thing: what we do when in action and/or speech we define our world.

In any case, we advance a claim to know (let's call it "science"), and that our knowledge is the right reading of how things human and divine are (let's call it "religion"), and that in this reading we should find the bond that ties us together (let's call it "politics"). In any case, I repeat, whatever the way (let's call it "culture") in which we do it.

To keep acritically these distinctions, is a way to hide the issues involved in the process of communication, at all levels, among people, moved, it might be, by the most sincere will to dialogue, with no other result, though, than exempting oneself from taking note of the dangers present in that process.

All said, my wonderment doesn't really go away. It stays, before what appears a self-inflicted blindness, due to a will to dialogue that doesn't want to notice how it runs against its desires. Addressing people on the basis of distinctions that they don't make – like when one qualifies as their "religion" what for them is just the way things are – means not to take them seriously. And to anger them more.


Friday, December 04, 2009

On War, and Words, and Wars of Words, cont'd

The conversation into which I interjected myself has continued fruitfully in the combox below the post by which I accomplished my interjection.

Indeed, my absence this weekend has allowed the HP to elaborate the main thrust of the argument clearly and succinctly.

I would like to elaborate on the points he has raised, taking as my starting point his invocation of St. Thomas Aquinas.

I am fairly certain the HP, in invoking the Angelic Doctor, had in mind the following text from the opening paragraphs of the Summa contra gentes:

To proceed against individual errors, however, is a difficult business, and this for two reasons. In the first place, it is difficult because the sacrilegious remarks of individual men who have erred are not so well known to us so that we may use what they say as the basis of proceeding to a refutation of their errors. This is, indeed, the method that the ancient Doctors of the Church used in the refutation of the errors of the Gentiles. For they could know the positions taken by the Gentiles since they themselves had been Gentiles, or at least had lived among the Gentiles and had been instructed in their teaching. In the second place, it is difficult because some of them, such as the Mohammedans and the pagans, do not agree with us in accepting the authority of any Scripture, by which they may be convinced of their error. Thus, against the Jews we are able to argue by means of the Old Testament, while against heretics we are able to argue by means of the New Testament. But the Muslims and the pagans accept neither the one nor the other. We must, therefore, have recourse to the natural reason, to which all men are forced to give their assent. However, it is true, in divine matters the natural reason has its failings. SCG I.2.iii (quoting from the Pegis translation of Book I, available in its entirety here)
The reason for which the Old and New Testaments are useless for the purposes of proving the erroneous nature of pagan theology, should be clear: the OT and NT are not their sacred texts - which is to say they are not recognized as authoritative. An appeal to their contents canot, therefore, serve as proof of a disputed question.

The Old and New Testaments are similarly useless for the purposes of theological disputation with Muslims. The reason for this is the supersessionist presupposition of Islam: the Qur'an is God's final reveleation, and it replaces His earlier revelations. Importantly, the principle is applied to interpretation of the Qur'an itself, as well - later verses (surrahs) control earlier ones, so the question of a surrah's composition (the question as to when a verse was "handed down" to use the Muslims' own technical terminology) becomes essential (and we will see why this matters later on, when we consider a specific case).

If, therefore, we are to convince a Muslim interlocutor of the truth of Christianity, we have no choice but to begin by proving that the Qur'an is not plausible as the definitive statement of God's revelation to humanity, and so on the grounds that it directly and irreconcilably contradicts at least one of the ultimate truths, which human beings may know by the working of reason without an appeal to the authority of the data of faith.

On this reading, the science of philosophy provides the only space for dialogue among Christians and Muslims.

That Christians can practice philosophy without compromising their faith commitments is a long-established fact in the Catholic tradition.

Muslims, however, are necessarily embarrassed by philosophical dialogue, and so for two reasons, one "doctrinal" and the other historical, though closely and perceptably linked to the doctrinal reason.

Basically, one becomes a Muslim by making an act of islam - of submission - to the will of the One God. The will of the One God is manifest in al-Qur'an, literally the prounouncement, or promulgation (or declamation or recitation) of God's prophet, a merchant named Muhammad.

According to this al-Qur'an, this pronouncement, God is perfectly One, absolutely transcendent, and utterly ineffable. Even His one-ness is known only and entirely through submission to His manifest will. To make any attempt to penetrate, by means of human reason, the inner life of the Divine, were to risk impiety.

The end of philosophy is precisely the knoweldge of God.

So, the Muslim finds himself under a sort of crisis whenever he attempts to think God's thoughts, as it were.

This, on its own, were not enough to exclude the Muslims from philosophy a priori. Indeed, there were, during the first few centuries of Islamic ascendancy, thriving schools of speculative theology, and the thought of the principal exponents of those schools greatly influenced Western intellectual history.

The problem is, the schools were suppressed, and most of the teachers executed, banished, forced to recant or otherwise silenced - and this was not an accident.

The Arabic word for speculative conversation is kalaam, which ideally renders the Greek dia-logos, from which we have the English, "dialogue". The question in the first few Islamic centuries was which would be the chief science: would it be kalaam, or rather the positive legal science known as Shari'a, roughly, "the way" or "the path"? The Muslim world, through its leaders, opted for that, which is admittedly the more internally coherent alternative: the primacy of positive legal science.

Now the problem comes fully into view: speculative reason cannot submit to positive law, and remain properly speculative. To insist on the primacy of positive legal science entails not merely the demotion of speculative reason, but the dismissal of speculation as basically irrelevant to the human community.

Said shortly, the current state of Islamic self-understanding is such that dialogue among speculative thinkers is not so much impossible, as it is irrelevant.

What must be found is a way to enter conversation with Muslim legal scholars, who alone speak authoritatively within their communities.

More on this next time...


Thursday, December 03, 2009

On War, and Words, and Wars of Words

The discussion being conducted by my friend and mentor, the HP, with our dear reader, Maria, has ssen so many important issues raised, and so many good points made on all sides of them, that I am almost embarrassed when I attempt to enter the discussion.

There are two points that bear further consideration, to be sure:

The first is the question whether there can be a permanent relationship between Islam and Christianity that is not essentially that of war.

I answer this question with the learning of my Medieval masters, who tell me that the proper answer to complex questions is usually: sic et non, "yes and no".

Maria's close ties to a Muslim family are more than a powerful argument: their existence constitutes that absolute and tyrannical bane of all argument, however powerful, however eloquently couched; those ties are a fact, against which no mere argument may resist.

The fact, however, proves only that people who profess and practice Islam and people who profess and practice Christianity are capable of friendship.

What is at stake in the question, however, is something different: the question is, in essence, whether there exist the intellectual prequisites for dia-logos among Christians and Muslims.

In an earlier post, I dealt with a similar question, from the side of peace: I asked whether Islam is a religion of peace, and answered that the question is unanswerable, insofar as the question is so poorly formulated, with such naivete, as to be useless for the purposes of critical discourse.

Without re-hashing that issue, I can say that peace and war are technical terms in the juridical lexicon, they refer to states of affairs obtaining among human societies, or within a given human society.

When there is the tendency toward violence, and the general absence of faith (again, in the Roman juridical sense of fides - though Christianity has introduced a measure of faith among civilized peoples, which not even war may suspend or abrogate), then there is war. Among different peoples, the Greeks called this condition polemos. When the condition obtained within a given political society, they called it stasis.

Now, on these bases, we may proceed to consider whether any other condition than polemos is possible among Muslims and Christians.

I purpose to offer considerations in this regard at my earliest convenience.

Now, to air.


Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The war post-war

I have been asked an intriguing question: whether we are headed toward something that could be called a "post-war" era.

Well, in a way yes, in the same way in which we speak of a "post-modern" era: it's matter after all of the same "post-".

I beware of this "post-" jargon, that with theological overtones takes something as point of reference for a before and after; but it is true that our idea of "war" is modern, and as such no longer apt for thinking the wars of today.

In 1625 Hugo Grotius wrote his De jure belli ac pacis, usually described as the first treatise of "international law". What it deals with is the constitution of States and the relation among them. The treatment is general, but actually it concerns Europe, after that the unitary sense of a res publica Christiana had dissolved into a mosaic of self enclosed territorial realities, singularly defining a certain status rei publicae (hence, in short, status, "state"). War was then defined as the open conflict among the States of which Europe was made, and had to be regulated by international law, that a 20th century author could therefore call the "European public law".

One thing was in fact the war on the European territory, and another that on the open see beyond a certain meridian on the Atlantic ocean, and on the oversee lands. Let's think of all the sagas of corsairs and pirates.

With the expanding European hegemonic power, all the different political realities throughout the world came to be seen as "States", to which international law extended. But in this way international law, and with it the law of war, came to lose the cogency it had until it had been mainly an European affair. It held, more or less, through the two world wars, slowly losing afterwards any meaning. A decisive turning point, however, was the Iranian blitz at the American embassy in Teheran, and the inadequate reaction of President Carter.

According to international law, it was a deliberate act of war, and the lack of reaction from Carter was like a sanction of the end of that law.

And still, we keep on thinking of war in terms of an almost defunct international law, not wanting to realize in public debate that it doesn't fit today's world reality.

That's why we are uncertain in our judgments about war: much of what we actually see happening resembles rather to what happened beyond the famous meridian I spoke about.

This means that the definition of war was inadequate since the very beginning. It didn't take into account what happened beyond the borders of Europe, or inside the borders of the European States.

Originally the main European States were dynastic realities. Slowly grew out of them the idea that triumphed in the 19th Century of the "nation-state": i.e. the idea that States should coincide with a people, defined by a common sense of belonging, living on a certain territory.

Here the real trouble started: due to the difficulty to circumscribe the territory of a people, and, most of all, of identifying a people. A hard enterprise even in Europe, it is resulted impossible for the new States formed after the dissolution of empires that followed the two world wars.

In America as well as in Europe today we tend to think that what makes the people of a State is simply the fact of being born or naturalized in its territory. So we have abandoned the old idea that what makes a people is that combination of shared language, tradition, religion that we call "culture".

We have declared ourselves "multicultural". Which can only mean two things: either that we simply declare ourselves nonexistent as people; or rather that the tolerant relativizing of all traditions and religions is the only culture.

When this is the case, we have a hard time to understand that for other peoples this might not be so, and that in the name of their tradition and religion they are ready to wage war. So, when they are not people territorially circumscribed by a State, we don't know what to think anymore. So much more, when we are dealing with individuals who came legally into our country, or were even born in it, who burst into shooting, put bombs, or throw airplanes against towers.

In the face of terrorism, therefore, some of us tend to negate that they are dealing with acts of war. Especially when those acts appear due to "religious" reasons. That's because the monoculture of multiculturalism has declared that "religions" are all equally good. If this is the case with the present administration, not even the previous one escaped from some ambiguity when Bush spoke of "war on terror", with an hesitation to make clear who the enemy was that perhaps contributed to the final disaffection of the American people.

Some, by negating "religious wars", tend to embrace a pacifism that wants to negate any war. Being for them an axiom that no one can wage war for "religious" reasons, then war should be only due to the economic imperialism of the USA. And even murderous tyrants as Saddam Hussein end by appearing to them as victims of an unlawful (according to a doubtful international law) invasion; so that Al Qaedists appear to them as resistants.

Bull shit.

Intellectual confusion.

To make some clarity in our public debates, we need then to redefine what war is. And, to avoid war of words, we need to rethink what religion is.


Sunday, November 29, 2009


We fight our "political wars" through words.

I could be objected that we fight them through the media, technological vehicle of words and images. Which is correct. And yet, no, it is of words I want to speak here.

Words are vehicles of concepts: that elusive something by which we can say, of what we hear or read, "I understand". Well, that's not necessarily the case, because we can be mistaken, and we didn't actually understand anything.

To find the way to decide which is the case, was the concern of philosophy since the beginning. And, from the beginning, they distinguished two levels of speech: that of "concept" strictly speaking, the single words we use, and that of "judgment", the sentences we make with them.

So, let's say, we can be mistaken in our judgments, and take for example a foe for a friend; or we can be confused in our concepts, and not know who is actually a foe as distinguished from a friend.

To be concrete – because it is here that the real philosophical concern lies – we can find ourselves in need to distinguish between different kind of foes: internal or external. That's because internal foes are subject to our ordinary criminal justice, external foes are subjects to the laws of war.

To be still more concrete: what is a terrorist, an internal or external foe? A criminal violating our laws, or an enemy waging war against our country?

Here you have it: war.

Our judgment on terrorism turns around this word. In discussing it we can get all heated up, and make war the occasion of a war of words. I mean, partisanship takes over, and, in taking sides, parties confront each other as external foes.

So, the whole matter depends on what we mean by the words we use: in this case on how we define "war". Of course, if we are able or interested in defining it. In fact, we could be rather more interested in keeping the ambiguity in the use of the word, better to play on the emotions it arouses. And, if we have the administrative power to do it, pass a judgment on terrorism based on the negation of the war it carries on, and hence of the label of warriors to terrorists, that would make them subject to trial by a military court for the vile way in which they waged their war.

In the confusion of our world the neat definition of war as armed conflict among states doesn't hold anymore. But I don't know whether it is insipience or bad faith, not wanting to acknowledge the persistent distinction of internal and external foes, by which I have tentatively defined war.

Think, now, of how the war of words would redouble itself if, on the top of what I said, we came to speak "religious wars".


Friday, November 27, 2009

Up in arms

I am afraid my last post was a bit dry. Since I wrote it I wanted to add something to illustrate what that discussion of concepts like "culture", "knowledge", and at the end "religion" is all about.

It's about "political wars".

I often read about the simplemindedness of Americans seemingly identifying democracy with elections.

Of course, the argument goes, elections are good for us, and we would never given them up. But how can you impose them on people who neither have our history, nor our way to account for it by the story we tell.

In short: how can America impose elections in Afghanistan, a country divided among different ethnic groups not very friendly one toward the other.

True, all true.

But then I ask: is that so much different from what we experience with politics in our world?

We vote, and choose a king or a tyrant: somebody, who is king for some, and a tyrant for others.

This means that we are no more united than the Afghani are.

That's what I was talking about. America was founded as a land of tolerance, in which everybody could worship God the way he liked. But we are speaking, originally, just of different denominations of Christians. Now things have changed. Not only because of immigrants coming from all kind of different traditions. But because politics itself divides, among people of different "religious" persuasion: right and left, Republicans and Democrats, conservative and progressive.

They are at war, no less up in arms the ones against the other than the Pashtun of south Afghanistan and the people of North Afghanistan.

The only difference is that we have learned to be "civil" and not to kill each other.

As long as patience lasts.


Thursday, November 26, 2009

In omnibus gratias Deo agite!

alleluia confitemini Domino quoniam bonus quoniam in saeculum misericordia eius

2 dicat nunc Israhel quoniam bonus quoniam in saeculum misericordia eius

3 dicat nunc domus Aaron quoniam in saeculum misericordia eius

4 dicant nunc qui timent Dominum quoniam in saeculum misericordia eius

5 de tribulatione invocavi Dominum et exaudivit me in latitudinem Dominus

6 Dominus mihi adiutor non timebo quid faciat mihi homo

7 Dominus mihi adiutor et ego despiciam inimicos meos

8 bonum est confidere in Domino quam confidere in homine

9 bonum est sperare in Domino quam sperare in principibus

10 omnes gentes circumierunt me et in nomine Domini *quia; ultus sum in eos

11 circumdantes circumdederunt me in nomine autem Domini * quia; ultus sum in eos

12 circumdederunt me sicut apes et exarserunt sicut ignis in spinis et in nomine Domini * quia; ultus sum in eos

13 inpulsus eversus sum ut caderem et Dominus suscepit me

14 fortitudo mea et laudatio mea Dominus et factus est mihi in salutem

15 vox exultationis et salutis in tabernaculis iustorum

16 dextera Domini fecit virtutem dextera Domini exaltavit me dextera Domini fecit virtutem

17 non moriar sed vivam et narrabo opera Domini

18 castigans castigavit me Dominus et morti non tradidit me

19 aperite mihi portas iustitiae ingressus in eas confitebor Domino

20 haec porta Domini iusti intrabunt in eam

21 confitebor tibi quoniam exaudisti me et factus es mihi in salutem

22 lapidem quem reprobaverunt aedificantes hic factus est in caput anguli

23 a Domino factum est istud hoc est mirabile in oculis nostris

24 haec est dies quam fecit Dominus exultemus et laetemur in ea

25 o Domine salvum fac o Domine prosperare

26 benedictus qui venturus est in nomine Domini benediximus vobis de domo Domini

27 Deus Dominus et inluxit nobis constituite diem sollemnem in condensis usque ad cornua altaris

28 Deus meus es tu et confitebor tibi Deus meus % es tu; et exaltabo te confitebor tibi quoniam exaudisti me et factus es mihi in salutem

29 confitemini Domino quoniam bonus quoniam in saeculum misericordia eius

Monday, November 23, 2009

Culture… and religion

I am a student of philosophy via cultural anthropology. This means that I study socio-cultural evidence from the past and from outside our civilization, as a way of understanding ourselves.

The first thing to be realized this way, is that as individuals of the human species we acquire a sense of personal identity by education in a particular society.

Two things to be noticed in what I just said.

First: the awareness of humanity, as a belonging that transcends the society in which we are born and raised.

Second: the fact that it is still in the education we receive in our society that we become aware of the larger humanity to which we belong.

How are we supposed to look at the humanity of those who do not belong to our particular society? This is the question that cultural anthropology raises.

There are two possible answers.

One, is that men are as such individuals of a species, identical as far as nature goes, but made different by culture.

Cultures, then, would be things on which the science of man, i.e. anthropology, cannot bring any judgment. Neither could do it the law, because it grants to everybody the right to his own opinions, and in this understanding cultures are nothing more than opinions.

The second answer, which I think the correct one, is that culture is nothing else than the knowledge proper of a society, with its way of accounting for what makes people belonging to it different and yet, we would say, sharing the same humanity.

In other words, the vocabulary of anthropology, with the distinction of "nature" and "culture", informs our way of thinking ourselves in relation to others: makes our culture.

If at this point you should have the impression that my talk becomes convoluted, like a snake biting its tail, you are right: it is the reflection to which I am forced if I take what other people think of themselves seriously.

If I make of their thinking a culture, meaning an opinion, then, either I push them outside of true mature humanity, or I have to recognize that also mine are just opinions. If I take it as knowledge, then I can engage with them in conversation, to see what might be true or false in it compared with what I know, and vice versa.

The question, for every society, is where the threshold of humanity lies: whether foreigners, living beyond our borders, or for that matter inside our borders, are susceptible of being equated with ourselves, and in what they might be so equated.

If we think, as in our particular society we do think, that they should be equated, we can't deny humanity to people of different culture, but precisely because of this we can judge and eventually refute their culture if it implies negation of a common humanity.

All that I said about culture, I could equally have said about religion.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Double edged words

It is worthy of notice that some key words have a double edged meaning.

If I remember correctly, someone said: change, we can.

Oh well, change.

To illustrate its double edge, I'd like to tell a story, so to speak, I often heard from my mother (forgive me, but I'll have to translate from Italian): that of a gravestone, on which was written

"I was all right, to get better, here I am."


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A just and loving God

"No faith justifies these murderous and craven acts; no just and loving God looks upon them with favor," were Obama's words in Texas at the funeral of the thirteen victims of a jihadist. "And for what he has done, we know that the killer will be met with justice – in this world and the next."

That's right! No just and loving God looks upon such acts with favor: it is what we have been taught in our Christian tradition.

PUTUS, and with him the majority of the MSM, seem to hold it true for all religious traditions, and in particular for that of Major Hasan.

I am not sure, however, that Major Hasan thought it the same way. According to his tradition he was earning paradise for himself, because God – they call it Allah – was looking favorably to him.

To put it rather bluntly: POTUS, and with him the MSM, can well refer all faiths to a "just and loving God", because God is always just and loving… for his faithful.

But only for them.

For them the world is divided in two: friends, belonging to the same human group to whom God's love goes, therefore to be loved, and enemies, those outside the group of the beloved ones, therefore to be hated.

There was one, though, who said: love your enemies as your friends.

Already before him, however, God's law was: thou shall not kill – without any limits set to it.

Thus Jews and Christians have been taught to recognize the humanity of every man, as being all God's children.

Wars, as we all too well know, didn't cease. However, at least in doctrine, it was out, save for the case of "just war", run in self defense.

No easy concept, I grant. But enough, I should think, to be careful in assessing when and where we are in the presence of a real threat.

Not to look indiscriminately at everybody outside the circle of the "true believers", as a threat against God's blessed ones: which means "us", which means "me".


Friday, November 13, 2009

Is Jocelyn Elders Consulting for Estremadura?

You can't make this stuff up:

A Spanish region has started a new sex-ed initiative designed to increase teenagers' "Pleasure is in Your Own Hands"

No individuals of a species

I am appalled by what passes as science, when it concerns "man".

So, while my friend LD discusses the battles of the day, I keep on the issues of the war.

It makes my heart cry when I see how American universities waste their money to finance research and teaching on nonsense.

First question: why does a man desire any woman? The answer is easy: evolution played on our apelike ancestors the trick of developing "lust" so that they could be brought to search for a partner and release the tension (I am not sure of what is included in the category "partner").

Second question: why do a man and a woman feel attachment to each other? Again the answer is easy: it is another trick of evolution that made our apelike ancestors develop the neural functions necessary to feel "romantic love", so as not to have to go roaming in looking for partners, and be able to dedicate themselves fully to mating with just the one to whom they are now attached.

Third question: what makes this attachment endure? By now you know the answer: it is still a trick of evolution working on our apelike ancestor's brain to make them wanting to raise the children born from their mating.

It seems that this is what teaches a certain biological anthropologists of Rutger's University, a woman who is known as one of the most prominent of her field (I leave her anonymous, "to name the sin but not the sinner").

Some call it just anthropology, without qualifications. It might even be, given the fact that she claims to explain in this way the origin of our moral feelings. Too bad that no such a thing exists outside of the mores, the habits or customs by which a group lives and perpetuates itself by passing them from a generation to the next. Her explanations fall therefore into the classical vicious circle, of presupposing that which they have to explain.

Too bad, in short, that a biological anthropologist feels authorized to ignore completely that other field of research on man called "socio-cultural anthropology".

The trouble, with bio- and psychological anthropology, is to take men as "individuals" of a species, in the same sense that any kind of animals (bulls, horses, pigs, dogs) are individuals of their species: which juman beings are not, because no one has ever seen a "man", who were not an Italian, a French, an American, a Chinese, or whatever.

What worries me, is that I discovered the existence of that woman "anthropologist" by reading an essay by a cardinal (again "the sin but not the sinner"), previously teacher of theological anthropology, who didn't simply dismiss her as I have done for the lack of any sense of what science is, but thought her worthy of being taken seriously, enough to deserve a reply.


Thursday, November 12, 2009

2 Issues Regarding Health Care: a query and its clarification

The health care reform package that passed the House of Representatives seems to satisfy the minimum requirements of morality. At least, it explicitly excludes the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions.

It is at this point, that our critical engagement with the legislation must begin.

As citizens, we owe each other our best efforts at intelligent, informed, and charitable discussion of the legislation, the general situation of the country, the specific needs of regions, states and individuals - of what seems to have worked best, and where, and why - of what has failed, and why - of what seems destined to fail, and why.

What we need to exercise now is, in a word, prudence.

At the weekend, I will have some thoughts on what prudence is.

For now, let me ask a question about the cost of the package, one that a reader, Kevin from Texas, has helped me formulate:

Why 1.2 trillion dollars? As I understand the statistics, there are between 20 and 40 million Americans without health insurance at any given time.

This is between 7% and 12% of the population.

This means that somewhere between 93% and 88% of the population have some sort of health coverage at any given time.

The President of the United States told folks the package that passed the House would cover 96% of the population.

This, however, is only somewhere betwee 3% and 8% better than we are doing at present.

So, what I'd like to ask is: can we justify spending that kind of money for such marginal improvement?

As far as I understand matters, the folks who are at any given moment without health coverage are either, or some combination of, the following: just-graduated young people in search of employment; other people between jobs; people who, for whatever reason, are having a hard time finding a company that will sell them insurance.

Reforming the law to extend coverage past termination and to make policy portability possible would go a long way toward reducing the number of people in the second category.

Reforming the law to allow for the ready introduction of reasonable rules governing what is and is not a pre-existing condition, as well as what sorts of exclusions insurance providers can put on coverage, based on those conditions, would go a long way toward reducing the number of people in the 3rd category.

Very little, besides the recklessness of youth is keeping people in the first category from having coverage in the first place.


How much would legislative reform of the type I have articulated above really cost?

Indeed, both kinds of reform already enjoy broad bi-partisan support.

So, why not draft them, pass them, sign them, declare victory and go home?


There is another kind of reform that would drastically reduce the cost of actually providing health care (I mean running a doctor's office, a clinic, a hospital, etc.), which would presumably bring the price down, which would presumably reduce the cost of insurance coverage: malpractice tort reform.

Put a legislative cap on the size of malpractice awards, and doctors/medical institutions will not have to buy gargantuan malpractice insurance policies.

Granted: this last would mostly be an issue for state legislatures - but the Federal government could carrot-and-stick the states into action.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009


In a web article denouncing the administration's failure to recognize the meaning of what happened in Fort Hood, I read this sentence: "Conservatives are individualists", prefacing an invitation "to do something unusual: organize, organize, organize. Local and national. And even international".

A good project, but I don't agree with the premise from which it was drawn.

In the States "conservatives" like to style themselves as "individualists", to mean that they are against an invasive government styled as "socialist".

To do so, however, weakens their case. It allows their adversaries to make it sound like "we don't give a shit about our neighbors", or any such maligning.

Actually the real "individualists", who care just for themselves, are the smart people for whom everyone should be able to do anything he pleases, with the State to take care of everybody, assuring to each the freedom of doing so.

In other words: big government is only the other face of individualism.

It would seem, then, that we have "individualists" from the left and "individualists" from the right.

How confusing: the same word would apply to both the opposite sides. We need some way to distinguish between them.

Individualist is not the right word for people capable of caring: for their neighbors, for their community.

I don't know a word that could be idiomatic enough in English to take its place, so to make the distinction immediately understandable. It should be a word apt to convey the sense of a man of virtue, capable, on his own, of taking responsibility for the surrounding world of neighbors and community.

Any suggestion is welcomed.


Sunday, November 08, 2009

Metaphysical conversations and events of the day

LD and I were looking forward to a nice blogging conversation on a rather metaphysical topic like feasting and fasting, but have been kept from it by events of the day. First, I had to commemorate a man to whom am indebted for what his books taught me concerning men's acting and thinking in society; but that didn't really take me away from the topic, because feasts come as moments of human exchange in which people come together to celebrate. But now…

An Army major, and a psychiatrist at that, picked up guns and shot thirteen people dead and thirty wounded at Fort Hood. And this, given the identity of that major, would require some comment.

The House voted a text of health care reform, in whose favor there is at least to be said that it is acceptable for anti-abortionist. Whether it also suits the general public's demand for the best possible health care system, to be made accessible to the greatest number of people, it is another story, also worthy discussing.

Events of the day are pressing on the front, while metaphysical conversations go more to the heart of the war being fought.

I'll try, to my best, to keep them together.

I'll keep away from the second issue, on which I am no expert. (I can only say that here in Italy, where there is health care directly run by government, people are not particularly happy with it. People, when they want to have a speedy and fairly reliable treatment, tend to resort to the private sector. Not to speak of the waste and the corruption to which the government run health care system lends itself.)

I revert then to the shooting spree at Fort Hood.

Lévi-Strauss helped me to understand human exchanges, by recognition of the principle that rules them: reciprocity. However, as we have positive reciprocity, so we have negative reciprocity.

There is discussion on the press and in TV whether major Nidal Malik Hasan's deed ought to be considered as an act of jihad. This risks being an hair splitting question on the definition of what makes jihad.

I prefer to ask the question: why so many leading newspapers and TV channels seem so preoccupied to find justifications, so to speak, for major Hasan's deed, that minimize the import of his quite strong Islamic faith?

In more general terms: why so many smart people tend to be so over respectful of Islam, when not in outright sympathy with it?

It is actually strange, considering that Islam goes against everything that they otherwise say to cherish: one thing for all, women's equality and emancipation.

A short and (relatively) simple answer could be: because of a lack of understanding the reciprocity required by communication among people – in order not to have positive reciprocity turn into negative reciprocity.

Another anthropologist, the American Marshal Sahlins, stressed the unilateral character of what he called "the mystique of western superiority". Remarkable is that he used this expression not to stigmatize nineteenth century colonialism, but while commenting on the widespread idea that contact with western civilization brought disruption into the life of natives all over the world, as if, before, people were living everywhere in some kind of earthly paradise without any history of peaceful or warlike communication.

The same sense of superiority turns from self affirmation into self negation: if Arabs, then, and in general Islamic people, show such anger against us, it must be because we have victimized them.

The most vociferous Arabs or Islamics do actually feel victimized, whether it is true or not. Thus they mirror their western sympathizers. With no greater understanding of reciprocity than these have, they show to know just negative reciprocity. Such appears to be the case for jihadists: they feel other people as negating them, so they negate those people in turn.

It would be metaphysically worthy pursuing further the point, to ask whether there is something intrinsic to Islam as such that goes in this direction. Also in the other event mentioned, however, we could easily find a metaphysical side worthy discussing, to make thus possible the prudential judgment LD advocates.


What's next?

Can we now have an intelligent, civilized, prudentially reasoned conversation about why the House's health care reform package is impossibly expensive, implausibly large, and Byzantine in its complexity?

Health Reform Passes House with Stupak

Erica Werner's write-up for the AP is below:

House votes strict ban on abortion subsidies

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan House coalition voted Saturday to prohibit coverage of abortions in a new government-run health care plan that Democrats would establish to compete with private insurers.

The 240-194 vote on an amendment by Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., was a blow to liberals, who would have allowed the Obama administration and its successors to decide whether abortions would be covered by the government plan. Sixty-four Democrats joined 176 Republicans in favor of the prohibition.

Stupak's measure also would bar anyone from getting federal subsidies to help cover their premiums for private insurance polices that would include abortion coverage.

"Let us stand together on principle — no public funding for abortions, no public funding for insurance policies that pay for abortions," Stupak urged fellow lawmakers before the vote.

The amendment would bar the new government insurance plan from covering abortions, except in cases of rape, incest, or where the life of the mother is in danger. The Democrats' original legislation would have allowed the government plan to cover abortions, if the Health and Human Services secretary decided it should.

The amendment also would prohibit people who receive new federal health subsidies from buying insurance plans that include abortion coverage.

The Democrats' original bill would have allowed people getting federal subsidies to pay for abortion coverage with their own money. Abortion opponents dismissed that as an accounting gimmick.

Abortion rights advocates called the measure the biggest setback to women's reproductive rights in decades.

"Like it or not, this is a legal medical procedure and we should respect those who need to make this very personal decision," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo.

Some Republicans considered voting "present" in hopes that might unravel support for the underlying health care bill among anti-abortion Democrats, but only one did, Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz.

"If I felt that the (health overhaul) bill could be killed by not advancing the Stupak amendment then it seems it would be prudent to vote in such a way that wouldn't advance the bill, but it doesn't appear that that's a possibility," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said before the vote.

The National Right to Life Committee and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lobbied lawmakers in both parties on the abortion measure. The bishops said they would oppose the bill if it lacked a strict prohibition on any federal funding for abortions.

Stupak's language applies to policies sold in a federally regulated insurance exchange that would be set up in 2013. The overhaul bill envisions both private companies and the government offering policies in the exchange.

Under the Stupak amendment, people who do not receive federal insurance subsidies could buy private insurance plans in the exchange that include abortion coverage. People who receive federal subsidies could buy separate policies covering only abortions if they use only their own money to do it.

Companies selling insurance policies covering abortions would be required to offer identical policies without the abortion coverage.

Abortion-rights supporters say private insurers will not likely offer policies with abortion coverage in the exchange because many potential buyers will be getting federal subsidies.

Around 21 million people are expected to get coverage through the exchange by 2019, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The majority of Americans who get their insurance coverage from their employers would not be affected.

Abortion-rights supporters say the restrictions in the amendment go further than current law.

A law called the Hyde amendment — which must be renewed annually — bars federal funding for abortion except in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life is in danger. The restrictions apply to Medicaid, forcing states that cover abortions for low-income women to pay for them with state revenues. Separate laws apply the restrictions to the federal employee health plan and the military.

Currently abortion coverage is widely available in the private market. A Guttmacher Institute study found that 87 percent of typical employer plans covered abortion in 2002. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey in 2003 found that 46 percent of workers in employer plans had abortion coverage. The studies asked different questions, which might help explain the disparity in the results.

Abortions in the first trimester typically cost between $350-$900, according to Planned Parenthood.

A health overhaul bill pending in the Senate also bars federal funding for abortion, but the language is less stringent. Discrepancies between the House and Senate measures would have to be reconciled before any final bill is passed.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Claude Lévi-Strauss: 1908-2009

Few nights ago, between Saturday and Sunday, died a great man.

Claude Lévi-Strauss was born in Brussels the 28th of November 1908: a few days more, and he would have been 101.

He is numbered as one of the most prominent anthropologists ever. Bull shit! To say so is just a nice way to encase him in a department, sparing people from other departments the trouble of having to deal with his work.

Sparing first of all the so called philosophers from taking into account the work of one of the few real philosophers of last century.

It is true that his work was entirely based on the investigation of all the available ethnographic evidence collected on archaic peoples, a little fragment from himself in Mato Grosso in the Thirties of last century, the great mass from all the anthropologists who had lovingly reported their field work among American Indians, and aborigines of other continents. But that was his way of doing philosophy: i.e. tackling the ultimate questions raised by our peculiar capability of including ourselves amidst all other things we know.

We are all aware of that nonsense called "multiculturalism" which from the Sixties of last century spread through America and Europe becoming almost (in Europe, alas, without almost) dominant. It draws from a certain image of anthropology, summarized in an expression like "the study of the other as other", the other being peoples from other countries, of other costumes, "values" and "beliefs", tastes, and at the end gender and sexual orientations.

Now, Lévi-Strauss' teaching was exactly the opposite: anthropology appears in his work as "the study of the other as non-other".

Since the time of his field work in Brazil, that he narrates in his beautiful Tristes Tropiques, he realized that about the "other as other" we can neither know nor say anything, save that it is other, and to the limit not even this.

The beauty of what he writes, then, about archaic people (I prefer to call them so, rather than primitive), is that he sees ourselves mirrored in them. And he can do it, because he doesn't look at men (male and female, adults and children), as separate entities, but as involved in exchange relations among them, in which they define who they are. So, what they do can be intelligible for us, because it represents a principle of exchange that remains the same with all people, a constant, if I may say so, recognizable as such in the variables of social life.

He calls it "the principle of reciprocity".

It is not the simple do ut des, "I give to you, and you give to me", because it extends to all the generalized exchanges making up our life in society, that never involves just "you and me", but always also "them".

It is therefore, instead, an "I give today on one side, what I received yesterday on the other". Reciprocity is established, then, when the two sides close on each other like in a circle, and everybody has received what he has given, and vice versa.

Lévi-Strauss has recovered thus, by way of the study of what he calls pensée sauvage (which is not, he says, the thought of savages, but thought at a savage state, before being tamed in order to achieve a result), all the classical philosophical reflection on identity and diversity, constancy and change.

He has reopened the classical question of justice, potentially leading to a recovery of the doctrine of natural law: that lost today in the affirmation of natural rights, allegedly pertaining to any single biologically human individual, imagined in a social vacuum where everybody is really "other" for everybody else, with the State however that should warrant to each (only God knows why) the space to exercise his rights.

After a period of wide renown, Lévi-Strauss has been left aside by the individualistic and "multicultural" trends of dominant academic culture. Against the self-contradictory nonsense in which have fallen philosophers, and with them lawyers, it would be worthy to take up again his work: it is a good antidote.


Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On Gifts and Giving: a festive conversation with the HP

Dear HP,

I was very happy to see your reflections on the nature, the purpose, the cause and the end of feasts and feasting.

It strikes me that the turning marked by feasting is not only of the generations, carried into and out of one another by love.

The years and the seasons, too, are marked by feasting...and also by fasting.

So, what of the cosmic significance of feasting - of the turning of the seasons into and out of one another, through the years and decades and centuries and millennia and aeva?

I mean to say that you almost stumbled on the Feast of All Saints - the fourth feast of the Christian calendar. How is this possible? We have Christmas and Easter (though the seasons of Advent and Lent, which are their respective propaedeutics, are less and less pronounced - with the result that events like the Carnival and the Immaculate Conception are less and less before the public consciousness).

Said shortly: what is the relationship of feasting to fasting, and may we succeed in having the one without the other?


Monday, November 02, 2009

Celebrating love

I was still pondering LD's reply to Dowd's article, when it came the Feast of All Saints.

I must say I found that actually LD's refutation came out nicer than my comment. I don't really care about poor Dowd, save as an example of how those like her – they like to call themselves "liberal" – don't seem capable of thinking out the implications of the positions they take.

They can be dreadful: like, say, that there are no feasts.


Because they tell us that we don't have anything to feast about: to celebrate.

And again, why?

To answer, let me start by asking another, exemplary question: what do a man and a woman do when they celebrate the day of their marriage?

They consciously bring back to life the moment in which they said "yes" to each other. Or, I could say, the moment in which they told to each other "I love you". Every time we do it, we do it afresh. Think of how squeamish we are about all the sweetness of love vocabulary (and all the poetry that originated from it) when we are not actually in love. After, when we fall in love, with no effort we slide into it.

Let's make from here a step further: by telling each other, in whatever way, "I love you", we celebrate love.

I can love because other people loved each other, from their love I was born and in their love I grew up.

Of course I am giving the exemplary case. May be they ceased to love each other. But it is always of their old love one lives, however wounded and torn apart, and lacking therefore in celebration. Even when parents only separately show love to their children, it's always something that carries beyond each of them, to a more generalized love exchange.

When I tell somebody "I love you", I reactualize the same love my parents, their parents, and so on for generations unending, everybody in short, celebrated by saying it.

It is the same love of all the love poems ever written, of all the stories ever told, of how people exchange words, goods, and, allow me, body fluids.

Now, I would like to ask peoples of Dowd's persuasion what they think of this Feast of All Saints, in which we celebrate those among our deceased who lived a good life.

We celebrate them as being still living and feasting, i.e. fully enjoying now the feast of life to which we also partake, precisely by celebrating love.

I am afraid that they would tell me that these are just words, because love is only a feeling, aroused by our hormones when we see some fitting object of desire.

No, love is not a feeling, but the mutual relation making up the giving and receiving of life. Feeling is only the proof of our being in love.


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Feast of All Saints, AD 2009

In lieu of my own penetrating spiritual insights - I am a Lazy Disciple, after all - I offer for your edification and delight the remarks of Pope Benedict XVI at the All Saints' Angelus last year (a few brief reflections of my own do follow, infra):

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today we are celebrating with great joy the feast of All Saints. Visiting a botanical nursery garden, one is amazed by the variety of plants and flowers, and often one is drawn to think of the imagination of the Creator who has given the earth a wonderful garden. A similar feeling of wonder strikes us when we consider the spectacle of sainthood: the world appears to us as a "garden", where the Spirit of God has given life with admirable imagination to a multitude of men and women Saints, of every age and social condition, of every language, people and culture. Every one is different from the other, each unique in his/her own personality and spiritual charism. All of them, however, were impressed with the "seal" of Jesus (cf. Rv 7: 3) or the imprint of his love witnessed through the Cross. They are all in joy, in a festival without end, but, like Jesus, they achieved this goal passing through difficulties and trials (cf. Rv 7: 14), each of them shouldering their own share of sacrifice in order to participate in the glory of the Resurrection.

The Solemnity of All Saints came to be affirmed in the course of the first Christian millennium as a collective celebration of martyrs. Already in 609, in Rome, Pope Boniface iv had consecrated the Pantheon, dedicating it to the Virgin Mary and to all the martyrs. Moreover, we can understand this martyrdom in a broad sense, in other words, as love for Christ without reserve, love that expresses itself in the total gift of self to God and to the brethren. This spiritual destination, toward which all the baptized strive, is reached by following the way of the Gospel "beatitudes", as the liturgy of today's Solemnity indicates (cf. Mt 5: 1-12a). It is the same path Jesus indicated that men and women Saints have striven to follow, while at the same time being aware of their human limitations. In their earthly lives, in fact, they were poor in spirit, suffering for sins, meek, hungering and thirsting for justice, merciful, pure of heart, peacemakers, persecuted for the sake of justice. And God let them partake in his very own happiness: they tasted it already in this world and in the next, they enjoy it in its fullness. They are now consoled, inheritors of the earth, satisfied, forgiven, seeing God whose children they are. In a word: "the reign of God is theirs" (Mt 5: 3,10).

On this day we feel revive within us our attraction to Heaven, which impels us to quicken the steps of our earthly pilgrimage. We feel enkindled in our hearts the desire to unite ourselves forever to the family of Saints, in which already now we have the grace to partake. As a famous spiritual song says: "Oh when the Saints, come marching in, oh how I want to be in that number!". May this beautiful aspiration burn within all Christians, and help them to overcome every difficulty, every fear, every tribulation! Let us place, dear friends, our hand in Mary's maternal hand, may the Queen of All Saints lead us towards our heavenly homeland, in the company of the blessed spirits "from every nation, people and language" (cf. Rv 7: 9). And already now we unite in prayer in remembering our dear deceased, who we will commemorate tomorrow.

I have always experienced these two days as extremely powerful gifts of the Church to those who have need of real conversion of heart. We can call on the intercession of all the saints in Heaven, and they come.

We can unite our prayers to those of all the saints, in behalf of those who have gone before us in hope, reconciled to God and ready to be made utterly perfect.

We remember our mortality.

We remember that this life is as serious a business as it is, because it is the briefest preparation for eternity.

Omnes Sancti et Sanctae Dei,
R. intercedite pro nobis.