The Gestalt of the Book in Questio n

I was disappointed to see”in Paul Griffith’s review, in the January 2010 issue, of Carlos Eire’s A Very Brief History of Eternity ”some unclarity about Eire’s own commitments to the Catholic Church. Although it is true that Eire does not make an unambiguous argument for the Church’s teaching on eternity, I presume that is because he prefers to approach that subject indirectly. In his last chapter he makes quite clear that neither philosophical materialism nor existentialism can do justice to the problem of what human life is all about. The martyrdom of Fr. Kolbe, on the other hand, is lauded without reservation.

Eire’s intention, I believe, is to prod the secular reader to see the inadequacy of what modernity has to offer and to ponder the truths of the Christian tradition. To adopt the voice of a full-throated apologist, Eire must have presumed, would mean losing the readers he hoped to address.

Griffiths, I suppose, might be excused for missing this point because it is made subtly. But, then again, it is hard to make the case for the Catholicity of either Walker Percy or Flannery O’Connor from their novels. They also proceeded by indirection. But in the course of his review, Griffiths mentions that he read Eire’s autobiographical work, Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy . At one point in that work, Eire writes:

No one was allowed to take any belonging out of the country, you see, save two changes of clothing, three pairs of underwear, a hat, and one book.

The books were only a hint of mercy. When my turn came, I got to take with me a copy of Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ . Not my choice, of course. What normal boy would choose a devotional manual from the fifteenth century as his only reading material? . . . My parents insisted I take it along, and I grumbled. But five years later, it would change my life, perhaps even save it. Wait, I’ll take back the ‘perhaps.’ I know it saved my life. Why deny it?

What clearer statement could one make of Christian identity than this?

Gary A. Anderson
South Bend, Indiana

I’m writing in regard to the review of my book by Paul Griffiths, hoping you can help dispel some of the sulfurous smoke that he has attached to my Very Brief History of Eternity and also to my name.

In his review Griffiths repeatedly accuses me of being an unbeliever, and a rabid one at that. How or why he came to such a conclusion is beyond me, for the book contains surplus evidence to the contrary, as does all of my published work. Even worse, the review is largely focused on my alleged godlessness rather than on the contents of the book.

Ironically, many other reviewers of the same book have excoriated me for being too much of a troglodyte believer.

And those other hostile reviewers did get it right, for I’m a devout Catholic, just like Griffiths, and also a chaired professor in Catholic studies. Several individuals whose names are listed on First Things ’ masthead know me well.

Given that Griffiths has no proof to offer of my alleged atheism”other than his suppositions”and that he repeatedly states his mistaken opinions as facts, the review slips uncomfortably past the line that separates serious scholarship from everything else that is not.

What I find most disturbing in this case is not that the reviewer failed to understand the gestalt of the book in question”since this happens all too often in our profession”or that he leveled false accusations, awful as that is, but that his assessment of the book’s merits was focused principally on the author’s spiritual shortcomings rather than on its worth as a work of history.

Calling any scholar’s character into question on the basis of unsubstantiated assumptions is bad enough; publishing a review with such an approach is far worse. Even if the book had really been written by a rabid Dawkinite or Hitchenoid acolyte of atheism, the focus of the review should not have been the author’s lack of faith, but rather his scholarship.

First Things ’ readers deserve better than this kind of uncharitable, counterproductive approach to the choking faithlessness that surrounds us.

Carlos M.N. Eire
New Haven, Connecticut

Paul Griffiths replies:

I’m grateful to Gary Anderson for his instruction about Carlos Eire’s subtleties. I’m happy to know, as Eire himself informed me trenchantly soon after he read my review, that Eire is a faithful Catholic. But discerning an author’s intentions is a difficult matter, and I rather suspect that Anderson’s discernment of what Eire really means was influenced by what he already knew of the man, independent of reading the book. His instances are not to the point, I think: Most Catholic readers, without knowing about O’Connor’s Catholicism, can easily see that her stories are deeply Catholic. The same is not true of the book I reviewed: Reading it is like reading those parts of Pascal’s Pensées that diagnose the condition of the man without faith without those parts that show what faith is and how it is come by. Anderson does not note the howls of anguish in Eire’s book, and they are many.

Carlos Eire responds, overexcitedly, to a review I did not write; so far as I can tell, there is no ground in the text of my review for any of the remarks he makes about it. He also seems to think that my review was of a book he did not write, and for much the same reasons.

This situation is not rare. It exemplifies the fact that we are not masters of the texts we produce and often not the best guides to their meaning. It would be unedifying to pursue the debate textually, in yes-I-did, no-you-didn’t mode. Instead, I suggest that if you’re interested in this disagreement you read the texts that constitute it for yourself. I repeat here what I wrote in my review: “ A Very Brief History of Eternity begins and ends with annihilation dyspepsia.”

So, I still think, it does, and without evident tincture of hope. Eire’s letter offers me no reason for thinking otherwise.

The Centaur Cannot Hold

I agree with Thomas Berg’s criticism”in his review of Gilbert Meilaender’s book in the December 2009 issue”of Meilaender’s use of the centaur image to represent the body-and-soul union of man. Even better than that of Aristotle, however, is the image of Thomas Aquinas. Catholics believe that the soul is immortal, but it would seem that this would require that it be something other than material. The body dies and decomposes, and the material elements of the body become part of the earth to form something else. Therefore, if we, as human beings, do not cease to exist at death, there must be something about us that is not material.

Evelyn Mazzucco
Des Plaines, Illinois

Poetic Power

Dana Gioia’s haunting poem, “Majority” (December 2009), is a simple and elegant example of the way art can outdistance polemics. I am reminded of the story about Abraham Lincoln’s being introduced to the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin , Harriet Beecher Stowe. “So,” said Lincoln, “you are the little lady who started the Civil War.” Where, today, is the literature that can similarly express to the masses the evil of abortion?

John J. Cox
Woodside, New York

Remembering Heschel

Reading, back-to-back, “The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel” by Reuven Kimelman in the December 2009 issue, and “Treasures in Heaven” by Bruce D. Marshall in the January 2010 issue, shows the power of the ideas within First Things to reinforce each other. Incorporating Heschel’s use of simultaneous poles (the dialectic?) would have raised Marshall’s article on sin and debt from the excellent to the extraordinary. Sadly, due to publishing schedules, Marshall wouldn’t have known of Kimelman’s article, but the reader can see that a duality, like that of electrons being waves and particles, resolves the problem of God’s forgiving sins with a payment of a debt, the death of Jesus, extremely well.

Dennis Ashendorf
Costa Mesa, California

As a fan of the late Rabbi Heschel and his work, I enjoyed the interesting and insightful article by Reuven Kimelman (“The Theology of Abraham Joshua Heschel,” December 2009), especially the exposition and integration into Jewish thought of Rabbi Heschel’s radical proposition that Yahweh somehow needs humanity, perhaps either to complete creation or to participate in a continuing divine dialogue.

It seems essential to me, however, that this need must first and foremost answer the question of suffering, especially the meaningless suffering of the innocent; in short, it must solve the problem of Job. Otherwise, does not the “God needs man” mantra become justification for any human action, no matter how outrageous or destructive, simply by explaining that it was undertaken to fill some perceived need of almighty God? The primary arena of cooperation between God and humanity, therefore, must include the joint vision to eliminate suffering, especially the innocent suffering as experienced by Job, and not merely provide a better explanation for it.

Rabbi Heschel was a blessing to all humanity, and it is gratifying that the remainders of his works are now becoming available. His view of Yahweh’s yearning for man, combined with human free will, presents a more complete Jewish picture of man’s predicament in creation. Moreover, his ideas on God’s need for reciprocal love explain why Yahweh necessarily withheld Abraham’s blade from Isaac despite the original command. The rabbi’s insights can even be applied to the Holocaust, the defining catastrophic event in Judaism in the last century, now seen as a massive failure of humanity to cooperate with God’s will. From reading his work, I conclude that although each of us may search for God in widely separate ways, the paths through which God finds us are strikingly similar”most often, I believe, through the words, graces, and examples of humble seekers of truth, no matter how diverse their respective backgrounds.

Dan Biezad
San Luis Obispo, California

Reuven Kimelman replies:

These letters point to the remarkable phenomenon known as Heschel. Through speaking from the depth and breadth of the Jewish tradition, he resonated with religiously sensitive people of all stripes. This is true of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, but especially true of Jews and Christians. I have discussed this elsewhere (see “Rabbis Joseph B. Soloveitchik and Abraham Joshua Heschel on Jewish“Christian Relations,” 2004, in the online journal Edah ). The Christian response to Heschel has been overwhelming. I have even heard of Christians who read his writings daily as a devotional exercise. Nothing offers better testimony to Heschel’s thesis than that the seeds of religion sprout from a pretheological ground”a sense that our lives are an object of divine concern.

Dan Biezad underscores Heschel’s insight that humanity is a need of God. This thesis is pivotal to Jewish thinking from the Bible to the Kabbalah. Kabbalah placed at the center of its theological enterprise the idea that human deeds augment divine power in the project of bringing about the redemption of the world. This was based on the ancient rabbinic idea that at the onset of creation, God sought out a partner in the world. For them, humanity collaborates with God by furthering the purpose of creation, judging honestly, and spreading the name of God. Indeed, Heschel ends his book Who Is Man by defining man as “A being in travail with God’s dreams and designs, with God’s dream of a world redeemed . . . . God’s dream is not to be alone, but to have mankind as a partner in the drama of continuous creation. By whatever we do, by every act we carry out, we either advance or obstruct the drama of redemption; we either reduce or enhance the power of evil.”

With regard to the Book of Job, Heschel promoted a distinctive twist by reversing the subject and object. For him, the Book of Job is as much an anthropodicy as it is a theodicy. The goal is not just to justify the ways of God to man but also to justify the ways of man to God. The wager in the Prologue between Satan and God is about the possibility of a just and pious man, that is, one who can transcend calculations of self-interest. Satan denies it. God affirms it. By Job maintaining his integrity, God wins as, of course, does man. In this sense, the book is as much about man’s potential moral stature as about God’s justice.

Fragile as China

I suppose I should not be surprised that the wisest, analytically soundest economic article I’ve read in years appeared in First Things (“The Needle’s Eye,” by Reuven Brenner and David P. Goldman, December 2009). The United States, however, can do little by way of economic diplomacy, stabilizing currencies, opening export markets, and so on, without first undertaking the tax reforms Brenner and Goldman advocate.

The yuan is already fixed to the dollar, and the Chinese are already trying to shift savings to domestic investment, but U.S. fiscal irresponsibility governs the pace and makes it difficult for other countries to take us seriously. The United States can do nothing to influence China in particular, and little to influence other southern economies, until it again becomes a creditor nation.

The United States must first focus on what it is doing to itself. China will speed the shift of export earnings from U.S. financial assets to domestic investment and consumption when U.S. deficits shrink. We can undertake tax reform that stimulates savings and investment, or we can await the financial crisis that might lead to sound policy but offers no guarantee of doing so. The dollar’s role has enabled profligate policies decades too long, giving us a density of powerful interests that will defend unsound policy until China decides we have destroyed ourselves enough. Keynesian economic policy is a deep faith that keeps on giving the political class and its supporters what they want. It won’t change on its own, and China won’t save us by precipitating a financial crisis in the near future.

Beginning a moral dialogue on the subject as you’ve done will help establish the understanding we will need to respond to the crisis when it comes.

John Penfold
Easton, Pennsylvania

David Goldman and Reuven Brenner reply:

John Penfold is very generous, and his emphasis on tax reform is well placed. He is correct to observe that the Chinese yuan is pegged informally to the dollar and that China would like to shift savings to domestic investment. Still, economic diplomacy could do a great deal to help. As Reuven Brenner and I noted, corruption is the biggest obstacle to China’s success. Without a transparent financial market, it is as hard to get savings to where they are needed as, well, it is to get a camel through the needle’s eye. Infrastructure investment in the United?States requires many layers of public scrutiny, from congressional appropriations to referenda on local government bond issues. China has only the state banks. Local governments in China do not have to answer to voters, bankers do not have to answer to stockholders, and there are no checks and balances in the appropriations process at the national level. One cannot simply flip a switch and turn foreign-currency reserves into installment loans, infrastructure credits, and so forth, as there are no credit-rating agencies, no securitization”in short, no infrastructure to control credit. Even with quite elaborate infrastructure, the American system failed miserably in the matter of subprime and related lending. China faces enormous obstacles.

Of all these obstacles, perhaps the greatest is the absence of confidence in an inconvertible currency. Our proposal was to fix the yuan to the dollar by solemn agreement in a package that would include convertibility. This would be a first step, to be sure, but an indispensable one in transforming China’s financial system. Once Chinese savers knew their money was good anywhere in the world, they would reduce their precautionary savings. A convertible currency also would make it easier for foreign banks to operate in China.

An agreement of this sort with China, moreover, would serve as a template for similar arrangements with other developing countries and might, in time, create a virtuous circle of economic expansion in the developing world as well as the United States.

Idiotic Headlines

“Pete Seeger Is a Communist.” “Mitch Albom Is an Idiot.” Who approved those headlines on the front cover of the January 2010 issue? I know you have to sell magazines, but has First Things sold its soul to the tabloids?

Richard Patterson Jr.
Mechanicville, New York

I am not attempting to defend Albom’s work; in fact, I agree with much of your reviewer’s analysis. There is, however, no need for name-calling.

It is beneath the high standards I have come to expect from your magazine.

Randall Meissner
Edmonton, Alberta

Labeling Mitch Albom as an “idiot” on the cover is literally incorrect, and I found it to be rude and crudely sensationalistic. Ari Goldman’s scathing attack article that followed this headline told me too much about Goldman and too little about Albom. Lauren Weiner’s article about the mid-twentieth-century American folk-music movement was informative, but I don’t recall reading in it that “Pete Seeger is a communist.” Rather, I read that Seeger was one, very likely. What motivated First Things to shout out on the cover, “Pete Seeger is a communist,” and attribute the shout to the author of the article? I suppose it was intended to get the reader’s attention. It worked rather like an unwelcome eye poke.

Rand Anderson
Sacramento, California

I am a Catholic seminarian and share many of the views of your essayists and editorial staff, and I do appreciate the important contribution of your publication. Nevertheless, I will not put this issue out on the reading table in the refectory, largely because of the tone expressed in the title that calls Mitch Albom an idiot and also the snarky commentary. I don’t think this would bring out the best in my brother seminarians, nor do I see, despite the fact that there is some good writing in this issue, the good in such an obvious temptation to pride and wrath.

Barry Schoedel
Spokane, Washington

It is bad enough to resort to those parallel descriptions of Cicero, Pete Seeger, and Mitch Albom as though this dull and unfunny format were sassy and engaging, when it is not. It is worse when First Things resembles a McCarthyite rag by outing Seeger as a Red with no further nuance than a blaring headline. But poor taste crosses the line to scandal when you inexcusably describe Albom as an “idiot.”

Richard Bernier
Montreal, Canada

My first comment has to do with the cover title “Mitch Albom Is an Idiot.” I am completely in agreement with this, and while I think it is a simple statement of fact, I also see it as a departure from the precedent of charity.

The second change I’d like to comment on is the recent addition of pull quotes, the large-print excerpts that are inserted into the text. I believe pull quotes are a distraction to the reader and undermine the composition of a thoughtfully written article. I understand their editorial appeal”to draw the reader’s attention and fill blank space”but I think they are inappropriate for a journal of the caliber of First Things . Pull quotes are for magazines that need to draw the reader beyond the photos and entice them into the text. (I write for one such magazine.) First Things readers need no such enticements, and First Things articles are too well written to be fragmented by redundant and extraneous text. Inserting disjointed sentences into what is otherwise coherent text does a disservice to the reader. I urge you to abandon the pull quotes and go back to the old format, which I believe is much more appropriate to the thoughtful and coherent nature of the magazine.

Burke Mees
Anchorage, Alaska

Joseph Bottum replies:

My thanks to all who wrote in about the January issue. As we head toward a redesign of the magazine, we’re trying out many new, small changes”and a livelier cover is one of them”in an attempt to address the surprising collapse of newsstand sales over the last five years.

Of course, an increase in newsstand sales would hardly be worth offended subscribers, and the fault is mine. I confess, at the moment I thought the strung-together headlines on the cover quite funny. But time has a way of making such things clearer”and wearing such jokes thin. So, learning bit by bit, on we go, with my real apologies to all.

I must defend, however, the actual articles. Ari Goldman was spot on in his review of Mitch Albom’s deeply annoying book, and Lauren Weiner wrote a fine and serious account of the communist origins of the folk-music boom. The readers who used their distaste for the cover as an excuse to dismiss these articles need to read the articles again.

Hungry Nature

Somewhere in Plato’s dialogues, Socrates says that someone’s words were so persuasive that he nearly forgot who he was. I had a similar experience reading Paul Griffiths’ “The Nature of Desire” (December 2009). He almost had me convinced that “no particular desire is natural,” but what stopped me short was his disregard for the connection between particular desires and such elementary human needs as truth, beauty, goodness, justice, love, and, yes, happiness. To speak of desire apart from these needs of the heart is to fall into unreality and a level of abstraction that is nearly comical. Is it reasonable that Michelangelo’s desire would have been fulfilled equally by eating a cheeseburger as by painting the Sistine Chapel?

The violence of separating desire from elementary needs is intensified by Griffiths’ reduction of desire to what appears to be instinct or impulsiveness. While impulses may be resisted or tempered, they cannot be reasoned with; desires can be (must be!) judged in the light of experience and those needs for truth and beauty. Confronted with a desire, I ask myself, “Is this what you really want?” or “Does this correspond to you?” These reflections are not the result of either programming or systematic catechesis; they are the result of being a man. When confronted with the desire of thirst, I have never found myself musing, “Hmm, Pabst Blue Ribbon or gasoline?”

Yet Griffiths’ anthropology suggests something similar to gargling gasoline: Were I not told (catechized, says he) by another (Society, the Church, or Big Brother; on his account, it doesn’t seem to matter much), I would not know “what human flourishing and human corruption are like.” This is horribly reminiscent of Orwell’s O’Brien in 1984 : “All men are malleable.” Nonsense. The desire for the infinite is ineffaceable.

Matt McGuiness
Fort Lupton, Colorado

I am surprised and puzzled at the purported rebuttal of natural law by Paul Griffiths. No reference is made to any theory of natural law”neither the non-Thomistic, analytic approach of John Finnis and others, which has received much attention among philosophers recently, nor the defense of the traditional natural-law theory of Thomas Aquinas and others, which I supported in my 2004 book on the subject.

If Griffiths had made clear what theory of natural law he was referring to, I might take this opportunity to address the argument or arguments. But, as St. Paul says in one place, “if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who can prepare himself for battle?” I presume Griffiths’ reference to the sadly unrealizable infinity of human desires depicted by Shakespeare and other artists is not meant to be the final clincher against the possibility of natural law.

I find Griffiths’ detailed expatiation on the multiple paths and byways of human desires reminiscent of Herbert Marcuse’s partly Freudian, partly Marxist Eros and Civilization , which became de rigueur reading for progressives during the 1960s and helped lay the groundwork for movements of polymorphous sexuality that still haven’t lost their momentum. If, analogously, humans are simply the playground of polymorphous desires, this realization can be a godsend for serious relativists.

Even the pedophiles that Mary Eberstadt speaks about in her article in this same issue of First Things can take solace in the fact that the current “un-chic-ness” of pedophilia is merely a temporary cultural phenomenon and certainly not “unnatural” in any moral sense.

Howard P. Kainz
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

How neatly Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths dismantles for undergrads the preposterous claims of the natural law! Don’t you see: If anyone is capable of desiring to have sex with a corpse, it shows that there’s nothing natural about a man desiring to have sex with his wife.

Well, modernism, even tricked out with flair, is still a fraud. No matter how much it claims that natures are unknowable, men constantly, unavoidably, identify natures and what is proper to them and judge individual acts accordingly.

The modernist error confuses the order of knowing with the order of being. In the order of knowing, nature is secondary to our acts of knowing, and these acts of knowing can be subverted by our wills. But, clearly, our acts of knowing are in reality secondary to our natures. Our natures are what they are, whether we perceive them rightly or not. Twisted desires and thoughts may arrive at false conclusions, but they don’t alter the realities.

Thus, we do not say that geometry alters according to the desires of the student, but that some students do, and some don’t, get it. And, similarly, that many have distorted perceptions of sex, etc., doesn’t obliterate the realities of human nature or the rightness and wrongness of various acts and desires.

Tragically, our desires often don’t correspond to our natures. Sometimes, we think our desires are correct; more often, we realize pretty well that what we desire is wrong. It is the challenge of the moral life to control our desires according to right reason and, to the extent possible, to train them to move us toward the right objects. To assert, as Griffiths seems to do, that reason cannot perceive the proper objects of desire is contrary both to universal experience and to the Judeo-Christian faith”and, I would imagine, singularly unhelpful to college students.

Daniel J. Grimm
Ojai, California

I enjoyed immensely Paul Griffith’s article, but when he writes, “Adam and Eve’s desires were focused on God without need for catechesis, and the desire for God was natural to them as a heartbeat,” he seems to miss a crucial detail in the text. The Lord specifically instructed”catechized”Adam (before the surgery that gave him Eve) with the words, “You are free to eat of all the trees in the garden but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat” (Genesis 2:17). As we know, it was Adam and Eve’s forgetting or willful ignoring of God’s lesson that led them astray. Perhaps this reminds us that any discussion about desire, in Eden or afterward, necessarily includes the fact of our use or misuse of freedom. Assessed as primal or refined, mundane or strange, sinful or saintly, all desires share at least one element in common: Each requires the consent of the will in order to become actual.

Brewster Hastings
Abington, Pennsylvania

I was glad to see Paul Griffiths’ beautiful meditation on the meaning of human longing in the last issue. But I don’t think desire actually conflicts with morality as Griffiths claims, nor do I see how he finds that in the natural-law tradition. He says that natural law is all about “categorizing some desires as natural and others as unnatural.” This seems to be a common misunderstanding.

How does Griffiths (or the philosophers he criticizes) square this with what Thomas Aquinas actually says”that “a man desires for his ultimate end, that which he desires as his perfect and crowning good”? Man’s last end, his crowning good, is to act virtuously, or to exercise all of his moral faculties to their fullest”and take supreme pleasure in it. Our deepest desire, the source of all other desires, is not only God himself, but also the condition we are in when we enter his presence. Indeed, speaking of man’s last end, Thomas says that there “is added another good, which is pleasure, denoting the repose of the appetite in a good that is presupposed.”

Griffiths is correct to point out how deranged our desires can be. But the point of natural law is in seeing how that derangement is never complete. Those who wish this was not the case must find it truly exasperating: “my pleasures,” “my lifestyle,” “my freedom,” “my body””none of these can really be called “mine.” They all come from the same source, and they all owe themselves to it. We might twist and distort and derange them every which way. But, in the end, desires are still made of the same stuff: God’s goodness, which is the natural law written on our hearts.

Kevin Walker
Laguna Beach, California

In one short essay, Paul Griffiths positions himself as if to demolish the traditional framework for Catholic morality, depicts post-lapsarian humans as nothing more than ciphers, and refashions God into the Supremely Arbitrary Being. Of course, each of these developments has its antecedents and its contemporary defenders”pretty much wherever we look”in the various forms of skepticism, relativism, subjectivism, and nihilism. Griffiths is aware that thinkers in the natural-law tradition will object to his stance on the question of a natural desire for God. But does he recognize just how radically his views diverge from the Catholic tradition in general? Honestly, I kept waiting for him to give up the ruse and confess that he was only speaking ironically. For Griffiths aims not to cavil over the natural or supernatural status of our desire for God, a question that I suspect would matter little to him. Instead, Griffiths calls into question the very essence of desire”indeed, its very existence.

One cannot help but conclude that Griffiths is chopping away at the foundation of any realist moral theory by rejecting the idea that some things are good for us and some are not; that some forms of human behavior are objectively productive of excellence while others are not. People, he claims, can be trained (“configured”) to prefer any sort of thing, such as one food over another. Even the infant, he informs us, must acquire a taste for the mother’s milk.

I wonder, though, whether Griffiths would be willing to place old newspapers and mud on his list of foods that we may learn to desire, remembering that right now there are children in the world making themselves sick by ingesting inedible substances out of starving desperation. But how, after all, would Griffiths even be able to apply a value-laden word like sick , when his universe is so entirely lacking a compass, and when the will of his God is so arbitrary that the Christian no longer knows what is meant by such words as truth , goodness , and beauty ?

Thomas G. Eikamp
Eastchester, New York

Paul Griffiths would do well to clarify his philosophical basis. His entire thought rests on the assertion that human desire, post-Fall, is infinite”infinitely “open” and “focused” on a limitless range of possibility”or, as he states, “we are not in fact more open to any particular configuration of desire than to another.” It is natural for fallen human desire to be entirely unbounded by nature.

What, then, is “natural” that it can be entirely lost in Adam’s sin? The traditional theological and philosophical understanding of natural is placed in terms of the natural law”that is, according to the order of human inclinations to the good. By Divine Providence we are inclined to the good as to our self-perfection”the fulfillment of our beings”even after the Fall. The derangement of which Griffiths speaks does not imply a complete loss, but rather a disordering of something still there.

Now a thing that still exists”in this case, a will inclined to the good as apprehended by the intellect”cannot be without some definite, obtainable end. If desire is never able to rest”that is, attain to any of its objects”then we are left with an absurd and meaningless existence. Griffiths admits to the fact that we always, in fact, desire something , as opposed to anything .

But to say that we always desire something in fact renders the statement that we are “focused” on an infinite range of things impossible in fact. To say we desire the infinite is not the same as to say we desire an infinite sum because we know, according to our consciences and Christian faith, that we desire some infinite and good determinate”that is, some most definite being that can bring ultimate rest to our restless desire.

Michael J. Sauter
Ann Arbor, Michigan

In his attempt to show that it is indemonstrable how men are essentially most inclined toward noble desires, Paul Griffiths overlooks the Aristotelian idea that our greatest happiness is found when we follow virtue and not vice. The fact that human happiness is tied to a certain class of desires and not to others is evidence that the former are the more natural to men.

Paul J. Malocha
Ann Arbor, Michigan

I know Paul Griffiths personally, and I admire him greatly as a fellow Catholic philosophical theologian. That said, I am not sure whether he offers a competing theory to that of “Catholic theologians and Thomistic philosophers” or only a different lens for viewing the same data.

The main difference (and, from a Thomistic philosopher’s perspective, inaccuracy) is that Griffiths seems to view desire as its own per se faculty, rather than as a power determined by the intellect. Thus, he conceives of derangement as an appetitive defect, rather than an intellective defect; and he conceives of desire as a brute faculty that”now, at least”has no determined “nature” to speak of.

By seeing the will as properly determined through the intellect, however, we can envisage an avenue for holding onto “natural desire” language while still accounting for the peculiar aspects of human beings that Griffiths masterfully adumbrates.

On this alternative telling of the story, desire is (as Griffiths himself hints) necessarily constrained to an infinite object: universal good (as St. Thomas would put it, cf. Summa Theologiae Ia“IIae.2.8). This fact remains true of human beings both pre- and post-Fall. The derangement that sets in is consequently intellective : We are capable of viewing virtually any object as a good . Human desire can seek nothing without this intellective maneuver, and the difference between our desires and those of our dogs is also clearly explained by this intellectual distinction of our species. Thus, the chief postlapsarian curse is not a “double derangement” of desire. The desire for an infinite good is natural, created, and itself good; the single defect is the intellectual ability of convincing ourselves that just any object may be good for us.

The upshot is that we still have a perfectly meaningful way of defining the “natural””i.e., in terms of the good, God, and what we are created for. Again, Griffiths himself hints at this when he notes that “to desire God is good for us because it prepares us for intimacy with him, which is what we were created for.” Those definitions remain intact despite the Fall (albeit our intellects become capable of gross misrepresentation).

I am certain that Griffiths knows well the details of this alternate view; however, there is little in the way of argument against the nuanced natural-law understanding. If he thinks that the Thomistic position cannot explain the data he describes (on the assumption of his “doubly-infinite” desire view), then I hope I have shown why this point does not hold.

Ultimately, I do agree with Griffiths’ suggestive comments that the beatific vision perhaps will have gained something irreplaceable and indeed “happy” through the history of perverted intellect and desire. Bach cantatas may well not have been, if not for Adam’s felix culpa ; but the desire for such goods is certainly not incompatible with the constant natural human desire for the universal good, who is God.

Stephen R. Ogden
New Haven, Connecticut

I would like to thank Paul Griffiths for his powerful and masterfully crafted article. I will make sure my students read it. The only thing that puzzles me is why he hedges himself on several occasions against a possible disagreement with “Catholic theologians and Thomistic philosophers.” Isn’t it obvious that his project is one of a phenomenological nature and, as such, belongs to a very different discourse than the one of metaphysics? Although very different, both types of discourse do not exclude each other but, rather, can and should complement each other, somewhat as faith and reason do. One of John Paul II’s more significant contributions to philosophy was his attempt to create an anthropology in which the basic metaphysical framework is enriched by a phenomenological account of lived experiences.

Andrzej Fister-Stoga
Warsaw, Poland

A nonbeliever, raised a Catholic, who subscribes to First Things to keep up on what intelligent believers are thinking, I looked forward to the article on natural law in the December 2009 issue. I was disappointed to see it had nothing to say to nonbelievers, nor, apparently, to believers who do not accept “the Fall” as literally true. It is not necessary to try to see how many different uses of the word natural can dance on the head of a pin if one faces up to God’s responsibilities in creation. If God is God”that is, as described by believers”then God made all that is, and every instance of our experience is “natural.” If God is God, he is not fooled by the attempts to rationalize the fact that we are not he. Give up the myth and, if you still accept there is God, accept that he made creation what it is, including us.

Richard Ranville Jr.
Flint, Michigan

Paul Griffiths replies:

Thanks to all those who wrote about my essay on desire”and to the dozens who sent me e-mails, some anonymously and some (usually the same ones) detailing with pleasure my imminent torments in hell. It would be tedious to respond in detail to each, although I am happy that Fister-Stoga saw what I was after and cited the appropriate papal precedent.

The following comments apply to most of the letter writers. First, the claim that a desire is natural in the order of being is distinct from the claim that the same desire is naturally known to be so; not to see this is not to see a fundamental and elementary distinction between the order of being and the order of knowing. (Grimm is the only one to address this distinction, and his comments show that he doesn’t understand it.)

Second, the question of how desires get formed”of how we become habituated, of how our voluntas acquires pondus ”is distinct from the question of what is good for us. Apply these distinctions (aren’t Thomists supposed to be good at distinctions?), and most of the objections dissolve.

Desires (and acts of the will) are not, as Ogden suggests, “determined through the intellect”; I recommend a close reading of books Seven and Eight of Augustine’s Confessions for a contrary (and correct) view. The sad thing about these arguments is that I suspect that most of my interlocutors and I are in rather deep agreement about what is good for us in the way of desire and what is not; what we differ about is how easy it is to tell, and what account should be given of how we come to be able to tell.

And about that I am right, and they are wrong.