« February 2006 | Main | April 2006 »

March 30, 2006


While you read this, think about why you disapprove of totalitarian states.  Think of some arguments for why totalitarianism is inferior to non-totalitarianism.  Also, what is the difference between tyranny and just rule?  What is the difference between democracy and mob rule?

Relativism is popular in America because we like to get to do what we want, we don't like being told we are wrong, and we don't like to have to come into conflict with other people.  Relativism holds out the promise of all of those things.  It seems only "fair," because by expousing relativism you are giving everyone else the same freedom of choice that you would want for yourself.

However, relativism in the moral sphere contains the seeds of the death of our civilization.

That's a strong statement, but I will back it up. 

There are many different types of relativism, but they all make the same basic claims: 1. Truth in some particular area is not absolute but is relative to some non-absolute framework.  2. None of these frameworks is privileged over the others.

The trouble with this is that it contains a contradiction.  To expose the contradiction, apply relativism to the proposition "Moral relativism is itself immoral." 

This is not a new discovery.  People like Locke were aware of this and talked of it relatively openly.  You will usually see the exceptions to relativism come up in statements like "intolerance only for the intolerant."  In other words, "it is the case that no framework is privileged above others" AND "it is NOT the case that no framework is privileged above others [i.e. because the relativist frameworks are all privileged above the non-relativist ones].  If you cannot see the contradiction inherent in the statement that intolerance is the only thing which must not be tolerated, think about it some more.  I can provide some analogies if you are stuck.

What's so bad about a contradiction?  To begin with, once you have deliberately stated that you maintain both halves of a contradiction, you have as much as abandoned reason.  But suppose this doesn't make a dent in you don't like reason.  After all, as Martin Luther said, "reason is the Devil's whore."  Or perhaps you prefer the tack that reason was made up by dead white men so that they could oppress women and minorities.  Or perhaps you like to say that reason and that which is contrary to reason are equally good.  "Do I contradict myself?  Verily I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes)."  Is there any way to get through to you?

A great many people like relativism because they are to some extent consequentialists; that is, as long as they like the outcome, however they got there is fine with them.  Whatever they want, relativism promises to give them.  Therefore they like relativism.  As long as you don't think about it, that seems ok.  But if you know a little about logic, you know that a contradiction logically entails EVERYTHING.  When your premises contain a contradiction, you can prove anything you want, even 2+2=5, or George W. Bush has five heads, or left-handed people should be rounded up and shot.

Relativism promises what you want in one easy step, but it also allows everything you don't want.  Any key fits in the lock of relativism, you just have to put it in and turn.  No matter whether it's unjust.  Justice doesn't have an objective reality - you're a relativist, remember?  It's just your opinion.

People like relativism because they think it will make them free.  Objective truth seems to restrict their freedom, so the response is to try to get rid of the truth.  Relativism sounds promising because the idea is that everyone gets to pick what he wants, so everyone's happy.  But it's not that simple.  We are not isolated units, we are social beings who live in community and our choices affect one another.  When two people want to choose things that are mutually exclusive, who decides which is right?  If they are relativists, there isn't a "right" answer, so if they both insist on their choices, the stronger (or better-armed, or wealthier, or more influential) one wins, and there is no higher court of appeal.

Since relativism dispenses with civilized methods of resolving disputes, such as attempting to determine what is true or just, all that is left is might-makes-right.

The truth is that truth protects the little guy.  Relativism protects the fat cat and "the man" from being accountable.  As Pope John Paul II observes (Centesimus annus, 45), if there is one thing that the strong who wish to oppress the weak cannot abide, it is an objective criterion of good and evil that is beyond the will of those in power, since by such a criterion they could be judged and found wanting.

Posted by Thomas A. on March 30, 2006 at 10:49 PM | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack


I like it when people post comments that lead me to more developed thought on whatever it is I was talking about, whether I was right and they also were right, I was wrong and they corrected me, or whether they were just plain wrong.  I hope I am not so vigorous in jumping all over commenters who disagree with me that I discourage people from commenting.  A little while ago we had some debate in the comments boxes on the subject of relativism which got me thinking some more, but I did not have a chance to post.  The post was not my best-written ever, but it and the comments have given me the occasion to think out loud about the idea of moral relativism, which is lamentably common in our society.

Posted by Thomas A. on March 30, 2006 at 10:03 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

What's that you were saying?

From HMS blog, apparently there are physiological reasons why men have a harder time listening to women than to men.

Posted by Thomas A. on March 30, 2006 at 09:20 AM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack

Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton?

Mark Shea has brought it to the world's attention that Incubus, the all-Esperanto horror movie starring William Shatner, is coming out on DVD.  Interestingly, this movie is actually available at College Park's movie rental place.

Posted by Thomas A. on March 30, 2006 at 09:15 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack


I know I've been away from the blog.  But sometimes when you're a college student you have things to do besides sit in front of the screen and type.

Posted by Thomas A. on March 30, 2006 at 09:09 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 29, 2006

Give it Time

Pro-choicer: "Prove to me that the clump of cells in my uterus is really a human being!"

Pro-lifer: "Can you wait nine months until I can think of an answer?"

(I probably should have used this for a comic strip...unfortunately I'm still proofreading this stupid dissertation. Did you know, if I revised twenty pages a day, every day, I could have revised the whole thing three times by June 1st? It's just ashame my committee is all going abroad for the summer...)

Posted by Peter Terp on March 29, 2006 at 02:44 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 26, 2006

Out and about

Wednesday I had a little outing.  You might think that being so close to DC I might get to go downtown quite a bit and see the Smithsonian museums.  But I actually don't all that often because when you factor in the time of the Metro ride on top of how you need to put aside a good block of time to properly visit a museum, I don't get to do it all that often.  But I got to go yesterday.  I decided on things I haven't been to see many times before (I have been to the Museum of Natural History, American History, and the Air and Space Museum many, many times, but a long time ago).

Since it didn't work out to have a friend along to share the experience with, I told Pat I'd write about what I saw and did so he and anyone else who wants to read part or all of it can vicariously enjoy it and we can have a little conversation about it.

I first visited the Museum of the American Indian, on the grounds that it hove into view when I was strolling along the Mall, and I had never seen it before or heard of it and so I was curious.  I will tell you what I thought of it.

The first impression I had of it was the exterior of the building.  It is maize-colored and stone or stone-looking, irregularly shaped with rough, wavy walls.  One side made me think of a rock face or mesa in the desert southwest, while on the other there is a fountain outside that is reminiscent of a small waterfall with boulders.  On entering the front door you find yourself in a spacious, well-lit rotunda with an oculus in the top of the dome.  It is an interesting blend of the neoclassical architecture characteristic of Washington with modern architecture and a vaguely American Indian feel (only the latter two are apparent from the street, from what I could see, though).

I must report, unfortunately, that I was less than impressed with the exhibits inside.  A friend put a finger on what I was trying to describe when he said that it is really more of a cultural center than what you would expect of a Smithsonian Museum.  Yet it is billed as a Smithsonian Museum.  Understand that this is nothing against Native Americans or their culture, but imagine if (for instance) the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center, otherwise unchanged, was instead located on the Mall and called the Smithsonian Museum of Catholicism.  It'd be pretty disappointing, wouldn't it? 

The exhibits all seem to focus more on how contemporary people of Native American descent try to adapt to the modern world while staying in touch with their heritage than on any sort of historic information. The exhibits I saw may touch on history, but never treat of history without the main focus being on the present.  I understand that this is probably because they want people to think of Native Americans as a dynamic reality of the present rather than a static reality of the past (or something along those lines).  But it doesn't make for much of a museum.

The place also suffers from all the typical vices of a brand new museum.  In one of the more prominent displays, none of the items are labeled.  Instead, there are touchscreen computer consoles in front of the display case.  To discover the significance of any of the items, one must look at a pictorial on-screen layout of the display case and browse through layers of menus to discover a few lines of text.  You get the same info you would have gotten from little placards, only the annoyance factor is increased by orders of magnitude because it takes much longer to obtain the information, and while you are doing it you have to look away from the exhibit itself.  What?  You think I'll be bored unless I get to play with a touch-screen computer?  Or that your museum is cheap and unsophisticated unless you use unnecessary computer displays?  If the interactive computer doohickey is the big deal, put it on your website and I'll just access it there without having to bother to make the trip to the museum. 

The Museum of Natural History wreckovated their Insect Zoo years ago on this model.  The way I remember it, the Insect Zoo used to be just that - it featured a great variety of very interesting insects and other arthropods.  There were bombardier beetles and whiptail scorpions and tarantulas and more with informative signs explaining about their peculiarities.  There was an area where the curator would give demonstrations and show you interesting specimens up close and explain about them.  There was even a working beehive with a tube running through the outside wall so the bees could come and go.  The presentation was kind of plain but what was being presented was really fascinating.  It was old and probably in need of some renovation by the time they renovated it, but I was disappointed by the result.  Some company put up the money to renovate it, so what did they do with all this money?  That's right, when the new Insect Zoo opened they had lots of touch-screen computers, models, and simulations.  It looked really slick.  Oh, and there were some insects, too.  Almost forgot.

Anyway, my advice for the Native American museum would be that if you go in expecting more of a cultural center you will probably enjoy it more.  And Rome wasn't built in a day; perhaps with time it will develop into a really excellent museum.

After my visit there, I went to the National Gallery of Art, where I was planning to attend a lecture and slideshow on French painter Paul Cezanne.  Not because I was a big fan of his, but more in the interest of learning about something new - I just picked out something that looked interesting from the schedule on www.si.edu.  Here's what I learned about him (Cezanne fans especially may feel free to comment if I have left anything out or transmitted it inaccurately).

Cezanne, who lived from about the 1840s to the early 1900s, is a "painter's painter" - not meaning that he was a painter who was outstanding even among great painters, but rather that he was a painter whose work is appreciated most by other painters rather than by the general public.  In Cezanne's paintings, the subject of the painting is not anywhere near as important as how the painting is done.  You might say that his paintings are as much or more about painting than about anything else.  A critic once said of him that Cezanne would not paint an apple - he'd paint the apple's relationship to the other apples in the painting, its space, its color, etc.  He was one of the first to deliberately distort and even abandon conventional perspective to create an effect.  His style is said to walk the line between objective depiction and abstraction.  He was a very important influence on Picasso and is widely considered to be "the father of modern painting." 

Cezanne's early work was heavily influenced by the Impressionists, but it would not be entirely accurate to characterize him as an Impressionist.  They had in common that they were looking for a new direction to take painting besides straight representation because the camera had been invented, with the result that people felt that if you wanted an exact picture of something, you took a photograph of it.  The Impressionists, I understand, wanted to capture fleeting, ephemeral moments.  Cezanne, on the other hand, wanted to take Impressionism and transform it into something that depicted the solid, the enduring, the timeless.  He wanted to banish the anecdotal and the particular from his painting and search for the universal.  His landscapes never had people in them partly for this reason  (he was also not much of a people person - a loner and recluse who preferred isolation; I wonder whether this too had anything to do with it).  Even when he painted people, there is an odd quality to it, as though they were just part of the setting, like boulders or trees.

Some of his oddest paintings are his bather paintings.  While most artists, in doing such a painting, would probably use the techniques of their art to explore the ideals of feminine beauty or whatnot, Cezanne used the depiction of people to explore the techniques of his art.  The reason I say they are odd is that in them Cezanne purposely disregards anatomical proportion, much less conventions of beauty, in order to achieve the effect he desired with regard to composition, color, space, or whatever it was he was exploring in that picture.  The result is that ordinary people look at them and say "ugh, weird-looking pictures of ugly distorted weird people," while painters say "what an interesting idea." 

There is one of these paintings where the women and the trees seem oddly alike, and they are almost even conflated.  It is as though it was a landscape painted by some outer-space alien who just painted the people as part of the landscape the way that you would just paint boulders or oak trees as just part of the landscape.  I wonder if, apart from the exploration of painting technique, this doesn't reveal some sort of estrangement he might have felt from other people and humanity.  It seems akin to the a-humanistic streak I see in a fair amount of literature from around that period.  I wonder if this a-humanistic tendency in art is not an expression of a sort of counterreaction of the late modern to postmodern worldview against the excessive and disordered humanism that developed in the early modern to modern period.

But I digress.  Since I've been going on and on about how important his technique was, here are some more examples of the things he experimented with.  Since, as I mentioned, photography was displacing some of the traditional depictive roles of painting, Cezanne tried out things that were unique to the artifice of painting.  He used rough, expressive, clearly visible brushstrokes.  He layered paint on very thick, sometimes even applying it with a palette knife rather than a brush.  The result was a very forceful appearance - a critic said of one of his portraits that it looked like he had painted it "not only with a knife but with a pistol as well."  He deliberately set up tension between the three-dimensionality of the objects he painted and the two-dimensionality of the canvas - destabilizing space by merging the foreground and the background or distorting the perspective (which laid the groundwork for cubism) or some other experiment.  In many of his paintings he would use the directionality of the visible brushstrokes to subtly guide the eye - in some of his landscapes your eye naturally takes a "walk" through it along a path guided by the brushstrokes.

With all this explained to me, I can understand how his work can be considered interesting and and even legitimate.  As a trumpet player I can definitely understand how sometimes you work on and demonstrate your technique and skill for your own satisfaction and to show or show off to others without necessarily playing an actual song, or a song where the song is itself important.  Go to trumpetstuff.com and you'll see what I mean.  In among the legitimate music are recordings of stuff like "high note duels" and octave-jump etudes and songs like "The Maynard Ferguson Song" and "Hot Canary" that trumpet players could spend a bunch of time gawking at that non-trumpet players wouldn't even see the point of.

But I don't think you'll see a Cezanne print hanging on my wall anytime soon.  No matter how cleverly or interestingly it's painted, as a non-painter, my interest in it is limited.  Even if I was a painter, there would probably be a pretty low limit on it.  I can only listen to "Hot Canary" so many times, even if it's Maurice Andre playing it - I need to listen to real music, like Andre or Wynton Marsalis playing a trumpet concerto by a great composer or something.

Anyway, it was very interesting lecture and I really thought it was a good experience.  After it, I saw the Audubon exhibit in the same art gallery, which is just about as different from Cezanne as you could get, in the sense that Cezanne worked to unhinge painting from representation, whereas Audubon's work (the illustrations of "Birds of North America") is scientific illustration done with such an eye for truth and beauty that it ascends to the level of art.  Really all that would have been needed for the purposes of the book is if the drawings were accurate enough for the birds to be recognizable.  But Audubon devised a way to pose his specimens in lifelike attitudes (innovative taxidermy involving an internal wire frame) so that he could make exactingly precise, extremely detailed drawings of scenes you would otherwise get only with a modern camera, and situated the drawing of each bird within a setting that obeyed the artistic rules of composition.  Now his illustrations are hanging in an art gallery.

I took some time for a quick look at some of the other exhibits in the art gallery and then went off to see the new exhibit at the Museum of Natural History.  On loan from the Colombian national museum is an exhibit of the gold artifacts from pre-Hispanic Colombian society. Really neat.  Well-done exhibit - the thing presented was interesting and the presentation didn't get in the way but was interesting and informative.  The art and artifacts were on display, clearly labeled, with signs that gave background information that allowed you to have some grasp of the context in which the items were made and used and to fed the curiosity of a museum-goer like me.

To the indigenous Colombians, gold had no monetary value.  It had a great religious symbolic and ceremonial value, however.  Because of its color and brilliance it symbolized the sun, and because of its durability and beauty it had other spiritual significance as well.  All of the appurtenances for religious ceremonies were made from it.  Many of the ceremonies seemed to center around transformations into were-animals (were-bat, were-leopard, etc.) which were considered to have powers over different aspects of nature.  The ceremonies were accomplished by means of wearing ritual garments and golden ornaments, fasting, dancing, and taking hallucinogenic drugs.  They didn't explain the whole religious system, but there were both shamans and priests, who had different functions.  The priests had a really long and intense formation, it seems.  To study to be one, one had to do all these rituals including fasting and hallucinating while living in a cave. For ten years.  And you thought seminary sounded strict.

I didn't have much time to look around after that because I had an appointment to keep.

Posted by Thomas A. on March 26, 2006 at 11:43 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Angelus series

It seems that Pope Benedict is imitating his predecessor in starting off his papacy developing an extended series of homilies on a single theme.  For Pope John Paul that was what has come to be called "Theology of the Body."

Pope Benedict's, Zenit reports, is the relationship between Christ and his Church.

From the first,

[T]here is no way to reconcile Christ's intentions with the slogan that was fashionable a few years ago, "Christ yes, the Church no." The individualist Jesus is a fantasy. We cannot find Jesus without the reality that he created and through which he communicates himself. Between the Son of God, made man and his Church, there is a profound, inseparable continuity, in virtue of which Christ is present today in his people.

He is always our contemporary -- our contemporary in the Church built upon the foundation of the Apostles. He is alive in the succession of the Apostles. And his presence in the community, in which he himself always gives himself, is the reason for our joy. Yes, Christ is with us, the Kingdom of God is coming.

Posted by Thomas A. on March 26, 2006 at 11:14 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 23, 2006

Lazy Bum

I'll admit it. It's spring break, and I haven't made it to daily Mass yet this week. I think I've been so totally spoiled by the fifteen-minute noon Mass that I can just walk to from my apartment, that I'm now too lazy to get in my car and drive to the forty-minute noon Mass up the street.

I mean, how lousy would we feel if Jesus told us at the Second Coming, "Yeah, I suppose I could have come and saved humanity sooner...but I just didn't feel like it until now. I think I was probably just watching re-runs of the cretaceous period before I decided to come down. Dinosaurs are cool, man. I did a good job on those."

Posted by Peter Terp on March 23, 2006 at 10:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 22, 2006

Prince of Sacraments

Just cogitatin' here, but it seems to me that the Eucharist is like the Prince of Sacraments.

All of the other sacraments bow before the Eucharist.

Baptism is a gateway to the Eucharist. Confession is preparation for the Eucharist. Confirmation perhaps activates the Eucharist more fully within us. Holy Orders sets aside men to perform the sacrament of the Eucharist. Matrimony is a reflection of the Eucharist. Last rites relies upon the Eucharist.

God is, of course, present in all the other Sacraments. He blesses us in Baptism and confirmation; he forgives us in confession; but God is not the water of Baptism; he is not the chrism of Confirmation. God is the Eucharist though.

Posted by Peter Terp on March 22, 2006 at 08:07 PM | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack