Archive for the ‘Peter Kreeft’ Category


Some Quotes on Personhood

May 20, 2014

How else, but for Christ, could we have known that God loves us? I mean really loves us, not just with proper philanthropy but with utterly improper passion. Even if any man dared to hope this, what ground could there possibly be for such a crazy hope? What data do we have? What evidence? Certainly not nature (“nature red in tooth and claw”), or human life (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”), or human history (“the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples is sacrificed”). The only data we have to know that God is love is Christ.

Jesus knew the crucial answer to the crucial question of metaphysics because He was a Jew. The ultimate truth of metaphysics, the nature of ultimate reality, reality at its most real, was not the unknowable mystery to the Jews that it was to all the pagan tribes, nations, and religions around them. This was not because the Jews were smarter than anyone else. It was because Ultimate Reality, for reasons known only to Himself, had chosen to reveal Himself to them as to no one else. God had come out of hiding. In fact, He had told them His name. And that name was “I AM.” “I” is the name of a Person, not a Force. God is “He,” not “It.”
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

The idea of creation, in the proper sense, is a uniquely Jewish idea. It is expressed by a uniquely Jewish word: bara. It is a word that has no equivalent in any other ancient language. It is a verb that never has any subject besides God. Only God can create. For to create means to make out of nothing, lot out of something. It means to make the very existence of something, not just its form, meaning, structure, order, or destiny.

Creating is not just taking new form in old matter; it is making the very existence of the matter. Not once in history did this idea, the idea of a single God creating the very existence of everything else out of nothing at all, ever enter any human mind except that of the Jews and those who learned from them (mainly Christians and Muslims).

Alone among the many ancient gods, the Jewish God was always “He,” never “She” (or “It” or “They” or the Hermaphrodite). For “She” symbolized something immanent, while “He” was transcendent. “She” was the Womb of all things, the cosmic Mother, but “He” was other than Mother Earth. He created the earth, and He came into it from without, as a man comes into a woman. He impregnated nonbeing with being, darkness with light, dead matter with life, history with miracles, minds with revelations, His chosen people with prophets, and souls with salvation. He was transcendent.

That is why only Judaism, of all ancient religions, had no goddesses and no priestesses. For priests are representatives and symbols of gods. Priests mediate not only Man to God but also God to Man. Women can represent Man to God as well as men can, for women are equally human, valuable, good, and pious. But women cannot represent this God to Man, for God is not our Mother but our Father. Earth is our Mother.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

And here is a second unique Jewish belief: that the divine Will is perfectly good and righteous and holy and just. God is the only god you can’t bribe. And since that is the character of Ultimate Reality — and since in order to be really real we must conform to the character of Ultimate Reality — therefore the meaning of life is to be holy, to be a saint. Morality flows from metaphysics because goodness flows from God. “You must be holy because I the Lord your God am holy.” The connection is repeated like a liturgical formula in the Torah.

Unlike the gods of the polytheists and unlike the god of the pantheists, God has no dark side. And that is why we shouldn’t have a dark side either. The consequences of the Jewish metaphysics for ethics have been world-shaking. The whole world got a Jewish mother, a Jewish conscience, because the world got the Jewish Father. This divine goodness is not just perfect, it is more than perfect. It spills out beyond itself like sunlight. It is agape, generosity, altruism, self-giving, self-sacrificial love. God seeks intimacy with Man, God seeks to marry Man. “Your creator shall become your Husband,” says Isaiah (54:5).

To that end, He makes covenants, to prepare for the fundamental covenant, marriage. No pagan ever suspected the possibility of such intimacy, even with their finite, anthropomorphic gods: that is, the relationship scripture calls “faith,” or fidelity. And therefore no pagan ever understood the deeper meaning and terror of “sin” either, for sin is the breaking of that relationship. Sin is to faith what infidelity is to marriage. Only one who knows the wonder of marriage can know the horror of infidelity.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

How else, but for Christ, could we have known that God loves us? I mean really loves us, not just with proper philanthropy but with utterly improper passion. Even if any man dared to hope this, what ground could there possibly be for such a crazy hope? What data do we have? What evidence? Certainly not nature (“nature red in tooth and claw”), or human life (“solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”), or human history (“the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples is sacrificed”). The only data we have to know that God is love is Christ.
Peter Kreeft, Jesus As Metaphysician

Fr. Norris interprets Aquinas for us:
Being is not just presence, but active presence, tending by nature to pour over into active self-manifestation and self-communication to others. And if personal being is really being itself only at its supra-material levels, then it follows that to be a person as such is to be a being that tends by nature to pour over into active, conscious self-manifestation and self-communication to others, through intellect and will working together.

And if the person in question is a good person, i.e., rightly ordered in its conscious free action, then this active presence to others will take the form of willing what is truly good for them, which is itself a definition of love in its broadest meaning, defined by Thomas as “willing good to another for its own sake.”
To be a person, then, is to be a bi-polar being that is at once present in itself, actively possessing itself by its self-consciousness (its substantial pole), and also actively oriented towards others, toward active loving self-communication to others (its relational pole).

To be an authentic person, in a word, is to be a lover, to live a life of interpersonal self-giving and receiving. Person is essentially a “we” term. Person exists in its fullness only in the plural.

As Jacques Maritain puts it felicitously:

Thus it is that when a man has been really awakened to the sense of being or existence, and grasps intuitively the obscure, living depth of the Self and subjectivity, he discovers by the same token the basic generosity of existence and realizes, by virtue of the inner dynamism of this intuition, that love is not a passing pleasure or emotion, but the very meaning of his being alive.
Jacques Maritain, Existence and the Existent

Thus subjectivity reveals itself as “self-mastery for self-giving .. . by spiritual existing in the manner of a gift.”
Jacques Maritain, Challenges and Renewals

Josef Pieper has also caught well the intrinsic bipolarity of personal being as spirit, when, commenting on a brief sentence of St. Thomas, he unfolds it thus:

The higher the form of intrinsic existence, the more developed becomes the relatedness with reality, also the more profound and comprehensive becomes the sphere of this relationship: namely, the world. And the deeper such relations penetrate the world of reality, the more intrinsic becomes the subject’s existence. . . These two aspects combined — dwelling most intensively within itself, and being capax universi, able to grasp the universe — together constitute the essence of the spirit. Any definition of “spirit” will have to contain these two aspects as its core.
Josef Pieper, Living the Truth

Transpose “spirit” into “person,” as being itself existing on the spiritual level, and Pieper and I are both expressing the same insight.
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas

Viewed from the person’s relational perspective with reality and others, it becomes clear that “the person cannot be looked on as primarily an isolated, self-sufficient individual, with freely chosen relations added on as a merely occasional, accidental complement [the error of secularism]. The person is intrinsically ordered toward togetherness with other human persons — and any other persons accessible to it — i.e., toward friendship, community, and society.” I refer you once again to Simone Weil’s list of declarations of our obligation toward our fellow human beings to see how human relation and relatedness serves her purposes in creating that list:

  •  The human body is above all in need of food, warmth, sleep, hygiene, rest, exercise, clean air.
  • The human soul needs equality and hierarchy.
  • The human soul has a need for consented obedience and for freedom.
  • The human soul is in need of truth and of freedom of expression.
  • The human soul needs, on the one hand, isolation and intimacy, on the other, social life.
  • The human soul needs personal and collective property.
  • The human soul needs punishment and honor.
  • The human soul needs disciplined participation in a common task of public interest, and personal initiative in that participation.
  • The human soul needs security and risk.
  • The human soul needs above all to feel rooted in various natural milieus and to communicate with the universe through them. The homeland, milieus defined by language, by culture, by a common historical past, by the profession, the locality, are examples of natural environments. Everything that results in the uprooting of a human being or which has the effect of preventing him from growing roots is criminal.

Call it human soul or person or spirit, this is who we are and how we need to treat each other. It is precisely what the atheist secular society rejects in its insistence on the “individual,” “rights,” and “fairness” code words for excusing the worst sort of morality and behavior.

As Aquinas himself puts it in a beautiful little aside:“It is natural for man to take delight in living together with other human beings.” [Summa Theologiae, II-I11, question 114, article 2 ad 1.]
Thus precisely because to be a person is to be the highest mode of being, the fullest expression of what it means to be, person means at once that which stands in itself as a self-possessing, autonomous center and at the same time, by the very dynamism of its self-possession, that whose whole being is oriented toward others, especially other persons, in self-communicative expression and sharing of itself, as interpersonal.

Thus one of the small but growing number of contemporary Thomists who have caught on to the intrinsically relational aspect of both being and person, Norbert Hoffman, can speak of “this movement of the pro, this self-openness towards the other” (most luminously manifested in the revelation of divine being as self-communicative interpersonal love), as “the primal mystery and the first of all impulses in the heart of being. All of its own, and not because of subsequent determination, Being posits itself as communicatio; its essential form is called ‘love.”
Fr. W. Norris Clarke, Person, Being, and St. Thomas


QUESTIONS 91 & 94 on Natural Law – St. Thomas Aquinas

December 5, 2013

Justus van Gent was an Early Netherlandish painter (1410-1480) who later worked in Italy. Detail of a painting of St. Thomas teaching from 28 portraits of "Famous Men" in the Louvre.

Justus van Gent was an Early Netherlandish painter (1410-1480) who later worked in Italy. Detail of a painting of St. Thomas teaching from 28 portraits of “Famous Men” in the Louvre.

Questions 91 and 94 of the Summa Theologiae deal with the natural law. Peter Kreeft in the Shorter Summa, further shortens our approach by summarizing the two questions for us.

Question 91: Of the Various Kinds of Law

FIRST ARTICLE Whether There Is an Eternal Law?

I answer that, As stated above (Q. 90, A. I ad 2; AA. 3, 4), a law is nothing else but a dictate of practical reason emanating from the ruler who governs a perfect [complete] community. Now it is evident, granted that the world is ruled by Divine Providence, as was stated in the First Part (Q. 22, AA. I, 2), that the whole community of the universe is governed by Divine Reason. Wherefore the very Idea of the government of things in God the Ruler of the universe, has the nature of a law. And since the Divine Reason’s conception of things is not subject to time but is eternal, according to Proverbs 8:23, therefore it is that this kind of law must be called eternal…

Second Article
Whether There Is in Us a Natural Law?

On the contrary, A gloss on Romans 2:14: When the Gentiles, who have not the [Mosaic] law, do by nature those things that are of the law, comments as follows: Although they have no written law, yet they have the natural law, whereby each one knows, and is conscious of, what is good and what is evil.

I answer that, As stated above (Q. 90, A. 1i ad 1i), law, being a rule and measure, can be in a person in two ways: in one way, as in him that rules and measures; in another way, as in that which is ruled and measured, since a thing is ruled and measured, in so far as it partakes of the rule or measure. Wherefore, since all things subject to Divine providence are ruled and measured by the eternal law, as was stated above (A. I); it is evident that all things partake somewhat of the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends.

Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to Divine providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Wherefore it has a share of the Eternal Reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end: and this participation of the eternal law in the [very nature of the] rational creature is called the natural law.

Hence the Psalmist after saying (Psalms 4:6): Offer up the sacrifice of justice, as though someone asked what the works of justice are, adds: Many say, Who sheweth us good things? in answer to which question he says: The light of Thy countenance, O Lord, is signed upon us: thus implying that the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light.

It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation of the eternal law. [Thus the voice of conscience (natural reason judging good and evil) is the echo of the voice of God, and is therefore sacred and inviolable.that just as, in the speculative reason, from naturally known indemonstrable principles.]

Third Article
Whether there Is a Human Law?

I answer that, As stated above (Q. 90, A. 1, ad 2) , a law is a dictate of the practical reason. Now it is to be observed that the same procedure takes place in the practical and in the speculative reason: for each proceeds from principles to conclusions, as stated above (ibid.).

Accordingly we conclude [Self-evident theoretical axioms like the law of non-contradiction. There are also self-evident practical axioms, both general ("Do good, avoid evil") and specific ("Be just"). These are "the precepts of the natural law", which, since it is in our nature, is also naturally known, just as first theoretical principles are.] we draw the conclusions of the various sciences, the knowledge of which is not imparted to us by nature, but acquired by the efforts of reason, so too it is from the precepts of the natural law, as from general and indemonstrable principles, that the human reason needs to proceed to the more particular determination of certain matters.

These particular determinations, devised by human reason, are called human laws. ["Human law" is "positive law", law posited (made) by man. Moral positivism reduces all moral law to this, denying the eternal law and the natural law. A philosopher could admit the natural law without admitting the eternal law, since one could know the effect without knowing the cause; therefore the argument between legal positivism and natural law does not depend only on whether or not God is admitted. St. Thomas would disagree with Dostoyevsky’s saying, "If God does not exist, everything is permissible."]

Fourth Article
Whether There Was Any Need for a Divine Law? [The divine law is that part of the eternal law which God made known by special revelation.]

I answer that, Besides the natural and the human law it was necessary for the directing of human conduct to have a Divine law. And this for four reasons. First, because…man is ordained to an end of eternal happiness… Secondly … on account of the uncertainty of human judgment… Thirdly, because … man is not competent to judge of’ interior movements, that are hidden…Fourthly, because. . . human law cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds…

QUESTION 94 Of the Natural Law

Fifth Article
Whether the Natural Law Can Be Changed?

I answer that, A change in the natural law may be understood in two ways. First, by way of addition. In this sense nothing hinders the natural law from being changed: since many things for the benefit of human life have been added over and above the natural law, both by the Divine law and by human laws. [E.g.,the Beatitudes and the "evangelical counsels" in the New Testament add significantly to the old law; or there is the obligation to vote in a modern democracy, but not in an ancient monarchy.]

Secondly, a change in the natural law may be understood by way of subtraction, so that what previously was according to the natural law, ceases to be so. In this sense, the natural law is altogether unchangeable in its first principles: but in its secondary principles, which, as we have said (A. 4), are certain detailed proximate conclusions drawn from the first principles, the natural law. . . may be changed in some particular cases of rare occurrence, through some special causes hindering the observance of such precepts, as stated above (A.4)….

Sixth Article
Whether the Law of Nature Can Be Abolished from the Heart of Man?

On the contrary, Augustine says (Confessions ii): Thy law is written in the hearts of men, which iniquity itself effaces not. But the law which is written in men’s hearts is the natural law. Therefore the natural law cannot be blotted out.

I answer that, As stated above (AA. 4, 5), there belong to the natural law, first, certain most general precepts, that are known to all; and secondly, certain secondary and more detailed precepts, which are, as it were, conclusions following closely from first principles. As to those general principles, the natural law, in the abstract, can nowise be blotted out from men’s hearts.

But it [i.e., the knowledge of the moral law, not the "rectitude" or objective rightness of it.] is blotted out in the case of a particular action, in so far as reason is hindered from applying the general principle to a particular point of practice, on account of concupiscence or some other passion, as stated above (Q. 77, A. 2).

But as to the other, i.e., the secondary precepts, the natural law can be blotted out from the human heart … by vicious customs and corrupt habits, as among some men, theft, and even unnatural vices, as the Apostle states (Rom i), were not esteemed sinful. [The greatest harm done by vice is thus its blinding of the reason against even knowing good and evil (cf. John 7:17). Cf. the blithely self-confident justification of "unnatural vice" today.].


The Geometry Of Marriage – Peter Kreeft

August 8, 2013
This monumental flower painting is one of O'Keeffe's early masterpieces. Enlarging the petals far beyond lifesize proportions, she forces the viewer to observe the small details that might otherwise be overlooked. When paintings from this group were first shown in 1924, even Alfred Stieglitz, her husband and dealer, was shocked by their audacity. A perfect introduction to a topic about sex and marriage the metaphysics of the seen and unseen.

This monumental flower painting is one of O’Keeffe’s early masterpieces. Enlarging the petals far beyond lifesize proportions, she forces the viewer to observe the small details that might otherwise be overlooked. When paintings from this group were first shown in 1924, even Alfred Stieglitz, her husband and dealer, was shocked by their audacity. A perfect introduction to a topic about sex and marriage the metaphysics of the seen and unseen.


An Argument about Same-Sex Marriage from Dr. Peter Kreeft, May 2012. Originally published as Do Squares Have Three Sides? I like my title better.


The current demand to redefine marriage to include same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples is often motivated by goodwill, the will to fairness and happiness, while opposition to this redefinition is often motivated by bad will, the fear or hatred of homosexuals. Nevertheless, the rightness or wrongness of same-sex marriage has to be decided on its own merits, not by taking the moral temperature of the advocates on both sides. For

  1. We have no reliable moral thermometer to stick into people’s motives; and
  2. We often have bad motives for good deeds or good motives for bad deeds; and
  3. We need to judge the deed, not the doer.

Two Arguments From Authority
First, the Catholic Church has always taught, and always will teach, these two things with equal insistence: that we should love all sinners, both heterosexual and homosexual, and hate all sins, both heterosexual and homosexual; that we should love all persons, including homosexual persons, and that homosexual sex is “unnatural,” “disordered,” and “sinful.”

Many societies in the past did not believe the first of these two teachings (“love the  sinner”), but not one society in all of human history ever disbelieved the second, except for small  segments in ancient Greece and Rome. In the rest of the world this is still true, but in our society, i.e. in what we still call “Western civilization,” it is exactly the opposite.

But the Church’s counter cultural mission in every time and in every society is to try to conform the mind of man to the mind of God, not vice versa. This assumes, of course, that the Church has “the mind of God,” i.e. divine revelation, and not just human opinion.

That is the essential reason for being a Catholic. And that is the decisive reason for Catholics to oppose same-sex marriage, even if they understand nothing else about the issue. If the Church is officially wrong about that, then she is wrong about her own authority as the infallible voice of God Incarnate; and in that case she is a false prophet, arrogantly claiming “Thus says the Lord” for her own fallible opinions.

And in that case she may very well be wrong also about anything else she teaches, e.g. that we ought to love all people, including homosexuals.

Second, a reason for opposing same-sex marriage is less decisive but still serious. It is not religious or definitive, only pragmatic and probable: it is what G. K. Chesterton calls “the democracy of the dead,” the consensus of all other societies before our own. The vast majority of all mankind, a cross section of all times, places, cultures, and religions, is a serious authority. It is not infallible, and it may be wrong about some things, but that is far less likely than that only one culture, the one we happen to be in, is right and the rest of humanity is wrong. (And even in our culture, only a few nations, and none south of a certain line of latitude, have a majority of approvers.)

I can think of one and only one moral issue on which the vast majority of human beings in all societies in the past were wrong, and only religious Jews and Christians were right: that we should love everyone altruistically, absolutely, and unconditionally, even the wicked and even our enemies.

Argument From Reason
When we turn to arguments from reason rather than arguments from authority, the first thing we must agree about is the need to think honestly, open-mindedly, and clearly, especially about important things, and most especially about important things that we feel very passionate about, like sex. This is what I want to explore for a few minutes, as a philosopher.

It is true that we can change our thoughts, and change our definitions of things, of anything at all. Some of these redefinition’s are possible — e.g. we can criminalize or decriminalize many things, including homosexual acts But some redefinition’s are impossible. We can call squares triangles, but that does not make them into triangles. Calling cats dogs does not make them dogs. And calling homosexual friendships marriages does not make them marriages. This does not depend on whether they are good or bad; it depends on what they are; it depends on their nature, their essence. 

Unless there are no natures or essences, i.e. unless we are complete nominalists, and therefore skeptics. (If you are one of these people, and if you actually practice the philosophy you preach, then please do not invite me to your house for dinner, for you must believe that it is impossible to draw a real and absolute line between people and animals, in which case you may be either a vegetarian or a cannibal — two tastes I do not share.)

What Is Marriage?
The whole question of homosexual marriage depends on just one thing: on what marriage is, or rather on whether marriage has a “what” at all, a nature. If marriage is not a natural essence but an artificial human invention, like a game or a human law, than we can redefine it because we invented it in the first place.

Because we invented football, we can not only change the rules but we could even call it baseball if we wanted to. We could say there were two kinds of football, and one of them used to be called baseball. If we invent a thing, we can redefine it. If not, not.

The question can be phrased this way: is the answer to the question “What is marriage?” dependent on our reason or our will? Artificial things are dependent on our will, for we willed them into existence. Natural things are dependent on our reason; we discover them rather than inventing them. The decisive question about homosexual marriage is just that: whether marriage is artificial, man-made, and dependent on human wills, or natural, discovered, and dependent on human nature.

The issue is not just psychological, or scientific, or religious, or ethical, but philosophical, in fact metaphysical. The deepest reason why popular opinion has changed in favor of same-sex marriage in industrialized countries (but nowhere else) is that these countries no longer think in terms of what is “natural.” We no longer understand, or feel the force of, the old notion of “nature,” which meant the essence of a thing as manifested by its natural activities.

The old notion of “human nature” assumed an inherent, unchangeable telos or purpose or design in it. E.g. “the reproductive system” was designed for reproduction, as the eye was designed to see. (Duh!) But to the typically modern mind “nature” means simply simply stuff, the universe, whatever we can see. It has become an empirical concept, not a philosophical concept.

That is why the notion of “unnatural acts” no longer has a holding-place in our minds. To the modern mind, the difference between homosexual acts (or desires) and heterosexual acts (or desires) is like the difference between the acts on what we now call a football field and the acts on what we now call a baseball field. “Different strokes for different folks” is quite reasonable there.

And if football players have traditionally had special privileges which were denied to baseball players, we feel, quite reasonably, that this injustice must be undone. Let us be inclusive; let’s include “baseball” under “football.” Let’s recognize the artificial quotation marks around these two terms. Let’s be Nominalists: they’re just man-made names, after all, not inherent natures.

An Illustration From Geometry
But suppose marriage is not like a game but like a geometrical figure, or a cat: something discovered, not invented. Then redefining it would be confusion. It would mess up the whole geometry of marriage, so to speak, as calling cats dogs would mess up the whole veterinary treatment of both animals.

And if marriage is as natural as geometry, then those who voted for a “Defense of Squares” act would not necessarily be motivated by a personal fear or hate of triangles, but by a love of geometry.

This is the first necessary thing for people on both sides of this deep divide to understand: that their opponents are not loveless cads, idiots or liars. There is an inherent reasonableness to both sides.

But they contradict each other. And therefore one side must be wrong and the other right. For the law of non-contradiction, at least, is not invented but discovered. There is no alternative to it. Its opposite is literally unthinkable. Contradictories are incompatible. The concept of “same sex marriage” may or may not be an oxymoron, but the concept of ”compatible contradictories” certainly is. Two propositions that contradict each other cannot both be true. That’s why neither side can compromise: not because these two groups of people intolerantly exclude each other but because their ideas do.

The traditional definition of marriage contains four properties, as a square contains four sides. If you subtract any one side from a square, you don’t change the nature of squares so as to have a larger set of squares, one that includes three-sided squares as well as four-sided squares; you simply don’t have a square any more, but something else, a triangle.

Four Dimensions of Marriage
That something else may be good or bad — it may be just as good as a square, or it may be less good — but it’s not a square. It’s a triangle. The four dimensions of marriage, as traditionally defined, are:

  1. Freedom
  2. Exclusivity
  3. Permanence, and
  4. Sex

It’s the fourth dimension that is most in question today — though the others are also, and there is no reason why any or all of them cannot be questioned and changed if marriage is artificial, like football.

1. Freedom
Small children cannot marry because they have not yet the maturity to make such a binding covenant freely, just as they cannot yet make legal contracts. “Shotgun marriages” are not marriages then, for the same reason. They are oxymorons. Arranged marriages are not necessarily oxymorons, but they are valid (i.e. real marriages) but only if both parties freely consent to them.

2. Exclusivity
Marriage is between two persons, not one, not three, not many. There can be covenant relationships among more than two persons, but they are not marriages. They are friendships or communes or kibbutzes or states.

3. Permanence
Marriage is for life. Perhaps divorce is literally impossible (as the Catholic Church says), perhaps it is possible and permissible as an extreme, emergency treatment, like amputation, but it is not natural, normal, or intended. Marrying a person is not like leasing a car. That’s why the argument for premarital sex and cohabitation (“let’s give the car a road test before we buy it”) is not only a bad analogy but an insulting one.

4. Sex
Marriage, as traditionally defined, obviously has something to do with sex. The sex between the married couple is to be (a) faithful and exclusive and (b) open to children (that’s part of the definition of a family). This second feature is why it has to be heterosexual: because heterosexual sex, unlike homosexual sex, can and often does produce children. That’s its nature, and its natural end, purpose, design, telos. (The “reproductive system,” remember!) And that’s the aspect that’s controversial today. Essential to the traditional idea of marriage is the idea that marriage, by its nature, produces children, is for children, is about children, is for the sake of children’s existence and welfare.

That’s the ultimate point of traditional marriage. To be complete, marriage needs children, and to be complete children need to be born into a marriage and a family. Every child needs the protection of a family, and every child needs two parents, not only to be procreated but also to be educated, by two different role models. Men and women are “hard-wired” with different instincts and different talents, and children need both. Deliberately depriving a child of a father or a mother is child abuse. What motivates (or should motivate) opposition to same-sex marriage is not hatred of homosexuals but love of children.

Notice how dependent this argument is on the old notion of “nature” and what is “natural.” This is an a priori concept, not an empirical one. It’s true that empirical psychological studies have reinforced it. But they cannot prove it. Such studies have shown that many psychological disorders come from the lack of a father or a mother in a child’s life. But these studies cannot of themselves decide the issue, since they can only compare the probable consequences of the two different arrangements, not adjudicate their intrinsic rightness.

There’s no way around it: philosophy is going to have to decide this issue. Or mythology, which is unconscious, instinctive philosophy. Is there such a thing as “the nature of things”? “To be or not to be, that is the question” not only for traditional marriage but also for Mother Nature herself. How big is the camel whose nose is newly under our tent? Read Brave New World, the most prophetic book of our time, to find out.


The Presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings — Peter J. Kreeft

August 5, 2013
There is no room for failure in the philosophy of Sauron. There is room for failure in the philosophy of Tolkien, for the philosophy of Tolkien is simply Christianity. And according to Christianity, the most revealing thing that ever happened in history happened at another Crack of Doom, when Christ "failed", lost, died. That was how the meek little Lamb defeated the great dragon beast (see Revelations 17, especially verse 14): by His blood. Frodo did what Christ did, and it "worked" because Christ did it, because it was real, not fantasy, and it was real because the real world is a "Christian" world. Only in a Christian world can this "failure" have such power.

There is no room for failure in the philosophy of Sauron. There is room for failure in the philosophy of Tolkien, for the philosophy of Tolkien is simply Christianity. And according to Christianity, the most revealing thing that ever happened in history happened at another Crack of Doom, when Christ “failed”, lost, died. That was how the meek little Lamb defeated the great dragon beast (see Revelations 17, especially verse 14): by His blood. Frodo did what Christ did, and it “worked” because Christ did it, because it was real, not fantasy, and it was real because the real world is a “Christian” world. Only in a Christian world can this “failure” have such power.

This essay is an excerpt from Peter J. Kreeft’s 2005 book, The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind The Lord of the Rings. A reblog from the Ignatius publisher website of the time.

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College. He is an alumnus of Calvin College (AB 1959) and Fordham University (MA 1961, Ph.D., 1965). He taught at Villanova University from 1962-1965, and has been at Boston College since 1965.

He is the author of numerous books (over forty and counting) including: C.S. Lewis for the Third Millennium, Fundamentals of the Faith, Catholic Christianity, Back to Virtue, and Three Approaches to Abortion.


Can any one man incarnate every truth and virtue?

Throughout the New Testament we find a shocking simplicity: Christ does not merely teach the truth, He is the truth; He does not merely show us the way, He is the way; He does not merely give us eternal life, He is that life. He does not merely teach or purchase our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption, but “God made [Him] our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). How can all these universal values and truths be really and completely present in one concrete individual person? Only if that Person is divine (thus universal) as well as human (thus particular); only by the Incarnation; only by what C. S. Lewis calls “myth become fact”.

J. R. R. Tolkien, like most Catholics, saw pagan myths not as wholly mistaken (as most Protestants do), but as confused precursors of Christianity. Man’s soul has three powers, and God left him prophets for all three: Jewish moralists for his will, Greek philosophers for his mind, and pagan mythmakers for his heart and imagination and feelings.

Of course, the latter two are not infallible. C. S. Lewis calls pagan myths “gleams of celestial strength and beauty falling on a jungle of filth and imbecility” (Perelandra, p. 201). One of the key steps in Lewis’s conversion, as recounted in his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, was his reading the chapter in Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man that showed him the relationship between Christianity and pagan myths of salvation, death, and resurrection. Christianity was “myth become fact”.

Tolkien’s Catholic tradition tends to have a high opinion of pagans who know and follow the “natural law”, for it interprets these pagans not apart from Christ, but as imperfectly knowing Him. For Christ is not just a thirty-three-year-old, six-foot-tall Jewish carpenter, but the eternal Logos, the Mind of God, “the true light that enlightens every man” (John  1:9).

So Christ can be present even when not adequately known in paganism. This is exactly what St. Paul told the Athenians (in Acts 17:23): “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Christ’s presence is not limited to the presence of the explicit knowledge of Christ, or the revelation of Christ. As the Reformed tradition puts it, there is also “general revelation” as well as “special revelation”.

So even though The Lord of the Rings is not an allegory of the Gospels, we can find numerous parallels to the Gospels in The Lord of the Rings, since the Person at the center of the Gospels is omnipresent in hidden ways, not only in His eternal, universal nature as Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, but even in His particular historical manifestation, His Incarnation. For instance, Frodo’s journey up Mount Doom is strikingly similar to Christ’s Way of the Cross. Sam is his Simon of Cyrene, but he carries the cross bearer as well as the cross.

There is no one complete, concrete, visible Christ figure in The Lord of the Rings, like Aslan in Narnia. But Christ is really, though invisibly, present in the whole of The Lord of the Rings. The Lord of the Rings is like the Eucharist. Under its appearances we find Christ, who under these (pagan, universal) figures (symbols, not allegories), is truly hidden: quae sub hisfiguris vere latitat. He is more clearly present in Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn, the three Christ figures

  1. First of all, all three undergo different forms of death and resurrection.
  2. Second, all three are saviors: through their self-sacrifice they help save all of Middle-earth from the demonic sway of Sauron.
  3. Third, they exemplify the Old Testament threefold Messianic symbolism of prophet (Gandalf), priest (Frodo), and king (Aragorn). These three “job descriptions” correspond to the three distinctively human powers of the soul, as discovered by nearly every psychologist from Plato to Freud: head, heart, and hands, or mind, emotions, and will. For this reason many great tales have three protagonists: Gandalf, Frodo, and Aragorn; Mr. Spock, Bones McCoy, and Captain Kirk; Ivan, Alyosha, and Dmitri Karamazov; St. John the philosophical mystic, St. James the practical moralist, and St. Peter the courageous leader and Rock.
  4. A fourth hidden presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings is in the theme of divine providence (see section 2.2); for from the New Testament point of view Christ is the supreme example in history of divine providence–in fact, the single point of all other examples, of all history.
  5. A fifth presence of Christ in The Lord of the Rings is in the creative power of its language (see sections 9. 1 and 9-3). Christ is the Logos, the Word of God. He is mentioned in the Bible as early as Genesis 1:3 (cf. John 1:3), but as a verb, not a noun.
  6. A sixth presence is ecclesial. Tolkien was a Catholic and called The Lord of the Rings “a Catholic book” (see section 2.4). He removed “churches” from The Lord of the Rings not only to avoid anachronism but also to show the presence, in the depths of his plot, of the universal (“catholic”) Church. For the Church is not only an organization but also an organism, an invisible, “mystical” Body, a “fellowship”. The word “church”, from the Greek ek-klesia, means “the called out”. A good description of the Fellowship of the Ring.

For the Church, too, is a “fellowship of a ring”, but her ring is exactly the opposite of Sauron’s. It is the Eucharist: a little wafer that is equally round, but full rather than empty; the humble extension of the Incarnation of God into man rather than the proud self-exaltation of man in order to make himself God. The Ring takes your life, your blood, like Dracula, a perfect opposite to Christ, Who comes to give His blood, to give us a blood transfusion. The two symbols are perfect opposites: the Ring of Power and the Bread of Weakness, the Lord of the Rings and the Lamb of God.

The whole of history, as revealed in the Bible, is the cosmic jihad between Christ and Antichrist, martyr and vampire, humility of God versus pride of man. Throughout the Bible there is vertical symbolism exemplifying this contrast. Paradise is made in Eden by God’s self-giving descent and lost through man’s self-taking, man’s succumbing to the devil’s temptation to become “like God”. The apparent rise is really the “fall”. After Paradise is lost, the City of Man tries to rise up to Heaven again by its own power, in the Tower of Babel, and falls. And when Paradise is finally regained, the New Jerusalem of the City of God descends from Heaven as a grace.

The most fundamental Christian symbol is the Cross. This also is perfectly opposite to the Ring. The Cross gives life; the Ring takes it. The Cross gives you death, not power; the Ring gives you power even over death. The Ring squeezes everything into its inner emptiness; the Cross expands in all four directions, gives itself to the emptiness, filling it with its blood, its life. The Ring is Dracula’s tooth. The Cross is God’s sword, held at the hilt by the hand of Heaven and plunged into the world not to take our blood but to give us His. The Cross is Christ’s hypodermic; the Ring is Dracula’s bite. The Cross saves other wills; the Ring dominates other wills. The Cross liberates; the Ring enslaves.

The Cross works only freely, by the vulnerability of love. Love is vulnerable to rejection, and thus apparent failure. Frodo offers Gollum free kindness, but he fails to win Gollum’s trust and fails himself, at the Crack of Doom, to complete his task. But his philosophy does not fail.

He could have used the philosophy of Sauron, of the Ring. He could have used force and compelled Gollum, or even justly killed him. But no one can make another person good by controlling his will, not even God. Frodo nearly won Gollum by his kindness, but Gollum chose not to trust and lost both his body and his soul. Frodo failed.

There is no room for failure in the philosophy of Sauron. There is room for failure in the philosophy of Tolkien, for the philosophy of Tolkien is simply Christianity. And according to Christianity, the most revealing thing that ever happened in history happened at another Crack of Doom, when Christ “failed”, lost, died. That was how the meek little Lamb defeated the great dragon beast (see Revelations 17, especially verse 14): by His blood. Frodo did what Christ did, and it “worked” because Christ did it, because it was real, not fantasy, and it was real because the real world is a “Christian” world. Only in a Christian world can this “failure” have such power.

It is a very strange philosophy. A few pagan sages like Lao Tzu understood the principle of the power of weakness, but he did not know it would come from a literal, bloody event in history. Neither did Frodo. Like Socrates, Buddha, and Lao Tzu, Frodo did not see Christ, yet somehow believed: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John  20:29).


Arguments For Absolutism – Peter Kreeft

May 30, 2013
The list of Catholic saints contains more than 10,000 names. The Roman Catholic church chooses saints through a process called canonization. Beginning with the first martyrs of the early Church, saints were selected based on public acclaim. There was no hard and fast rule used to recognize saints. Because many stories were misrepresented by legend, and some never truly existed, the Vatican took over as the main authority for sanctioning saints. The title of saint means the person has lived a holy life…now resides in heaven…and is to be held in esteem by the universal Church. God wants you, too, to become a saint. You do not have to be canonized to become a saint. You can be a saint by doing God's will at all times. This means loving God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself for the love of God

The list of Catholic saints contains more than 10,000 names. The Roman Catholic church chooses saints through a process called canonization. Beginning with the first martyrs of the early Church, saints were selected based on public acclaim. There was no hard and fast rule used to recognize saints. Because many stories were misrepresented by legend, and some never truly existed, the Vatican took over as the main authority for sanctioning saints. The title of saint means the person has lived a holy life…now resides in heaven…and is to be held in esteem by the universal Church. God wants you, too, to become a saint. You do not have to be canonized to become a saint. You can be a saint by doing God’s will at all times. This means loving God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself for the love of God

The following is a reblog of material on Peter Kreeft’s website. This is the transcript from an audio lecture on the topic.


But merely refuting the most popular arguments for relativism does not refute relativism itself. We need positive arguments for absolutism as well. Here are five simple ones.

Argument for Absolutism:  Consequences
First the pragmatic argument from consequences. If the relativist argues against absolutism from its supposed consequences of intolerance, we can argue against relativism from its real consequences. Consequences are, at least, a relative indicator. They are clues. Good morality should have good consequences, and bad morality should have bad ones. Well, it’s exceedingly obvious that the main consequence of moral relativism is the removal of moral deterrents. Just as the consequences of “do the right thing” are doing the right thing, so the consequences of “if it feels good, do it” are doing whatever feels good. Takes no PhD to see that. In fact, it takes a PhD to miss it.

All immoral deeds and attitudes, with the possible exception of envy feel good. That’s the main reason we do them. If sin didn’t seem like fun, we’d all be saints. Relativism has never produced a saint. That is the pragmatic refutation of relativists. The same goes for societies. Relativism has never produced a good society, only a bad one. Compare the stability, longevity, and happiness of societies founded on the principles of moral relativists like Mussolini, and Mao Tse Tung, with societies founded on the principles of moral absolutists like Moses and Confucius. A society of moral relativists usually lasts one generation. Hitler’s thousand-year Reich lasted not even that long.

I think the following quotation should be sent to the U.S. Supreme Court, the ACLU, the National Teacher’s Association, Hollywood, and all network TV executives:

Everything I have said and done is these last years is relativism, by intuition. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology, and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories, and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective immortal truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascism.
Benito Mussolini

Argument for Absolutism:  Tradition
Second, the argument from tradition. This argument should appeal to egalitarians who argue against absolutism because they think it is somehow connected with snobbery. It is exactly the opposite. Absolutism is traditional morality, and tradition is egalitarianism extended into history. Chesterton called it “the democracy of the dead, the extension of the franchise to that most powerless of classes, those disenfranchised not by accident of birth but by accident of death. Tradition counters a small and arrogant oligarchy of the living, those who just happen to be walking around the planet today.

To be a relativist, you must be a snob, at least on this centrally important issue. For you stand in a tiny minority, almost totally concentrated in one culture: the modern west; that is, white, democratic, industrialized, urbanized, university-educated, secularized, apostate, post-Christian society. To be a relativist, you must believe that nearly all human beings in history have ordered their lives by an illusion. Even societies like ours that are dominated by relativistic experts’ popular opinion still tends to moral absolutism. Like the Communists, relativists pretend to be the party of the people, while in fact scorning the peoples’ philosophy. In fact, for a generation now, a minority of relativistic elitists who have gained the power of the media have been relentlessly imposing their elitist relativism on popular opinion by accusing popular opinion — that is, traditional morality — of elitism.

Argument for Absolutism:  Moral Experience
Third, there is the argument from moral experience. This is the simplest and, I think, strongest argument for moral absolutism. In fact, it is so strong that it seems like an unnatural strain to put it into the form of an argument at all — it is more like primary data. The first and foundational moral experience is always absolutistic. Only later in the life of the individual or the society does sophistication sometimes suggest moral relativism. Every one of us remembers from early childhood experience what it feels like to be morally obligated. To bump up against an unyielding moral wall. This memory is enshrined in the words “ought,” “should,” “right,” and “wrong.”

Moral absolutism is certainly based on experience. For instance, let’s say last night you promised your friend you would help them at 8:00 this morning. Let’s say he has to move his furniture before noon. But you were up ’til 3:00 am. And when the alarm rings at 7:00, you are very tired. You experience two things — the desire to sleep, and the obligation to get up. The two are generically different. You experience no obligation to sleep, and no desire to get up. You are moved, in one way, by your own desire for sleep, and you are moved in a very different way by what you think you ought to do. Your feelings appear from the inside out, so to speak, while your conscience appears from the outside in. Within you is the desire to sleep, and this may move you to the external deed of shutting off the alarm and creeping back to bad.

But, if instead you get up to fulfill your promise to your friend, it will be because you chose to respond to a very different kind of thing: the perceived moral quality of the deed of fulfilling your promise, as opposed to the perceived moral quality of the deed of refusing to fulfill it. What you perceive as right, or obligatory — getting up — pulls you from without, from itself, from its own nature. But the desires you feel as attractive — going back to sleep — push you from within, from yourself, from your own nature. The moral obligation moves you as an end, as a final cause, from above and ahead, so to speak. Your desires move you as a source, as an efficient cause, from below, or behind, so to speak.

All this is primary data, fundamental moral experience. It can be denied, but only as some strange philosophies might deny the reality immediately perceived by our senses. Moral relativism is to moral experience what teaching of Christian Science is to the experience of pain and sickness and death. It tells us these experiences are illusions to be overcome by faith. Moral absolutism is empirical. Moral relativism is a dogma of faith.

Argument for Absolutism:  Ad Hominem
Fourth, there is the ad hominem argument. Even the relativist always reacts with a moral protest when he is treated immorally. The man who appeals to the relativistic principle of “I gotta be me,” who justified breaking his promise of fidelity to his own wife, whom he wants to leave for another woman, will then break his fidelity to his relativistic principle when his new wife uses that principle to justify leaving him for another man. This is not exceptional, but typical.

It looks like the origin of relativism is more personal than philosophical. More in the hypocrisy than in the hypothesis. The contradiction between theory and practice is evident even in the relativist’s act of teaching relativism. Why do relativists teach and write? To convince the world that relativism is right and absolutism wrong? Really right and really wrong? If so, then there is a real right and a real wrong. And if not, then there is nothing wrong with being an absolutist, and nothing right with being a relativist. So why do relativists write and teach? Really, for all the effort they’ve put into preaching their gospel of delivering humanity from the false and foolish repressions of absolutism, one would have thought they really believed this gospel.

Argument for Absolutism:  Moral Language
Fifth, there’s the argument from moral language. This is a very obvious argument, used by C.S. Lewis, at the very beginning of Mere Christianity. It is based on the observation that people quarrel. They do not merely fight, they argue about right and wrong. This is to act as if they believed in objectively real and universally binding moral principles. If nothing but subjective desires and passions were involved, it would be merely a contest of strength between competing persons. Or between competing passions within a person. If I’m more hungry than tired, I’ll eat; if I’m more tired than hungry, I’ll sleep. But we say things like, “That isn’t fair.” Or, “What right do you have to that?” If relativism were true, moral argument would be as stupid as arguing about feelings. “I feel great.” “No, I feel terrible.”

In fact, the moral language that everyone uses every day — language that praises, blames, counsels, or commands — would be strictly meaningless if relativism were true. We do not praise or blame non-moral agents like machines. When the Coke machine steals our money without delivering a Coke, we do not argue with it, call it a sinner, or tell it to go to confession. We kick it. So when some of our psychologists tell us that we are only very complex machines, they are telling us that morality is only very complex kicking. This is so absurd it hardly deserves an argument. I think it deserves a spanking, which is only practicing what they preach: kicking, but more honestly. The argument is simple. Moral language is meaningful, not meaningless. We all know that. We know how to use it, and we do. Relativism cannot explain that fact.

Postscript: Cause and Cure
Finally, most importantly of all, my postscript. What is the cause, and cure of moral relativism? The real source of moral relativism is not any argument at all, and therefore its cure is not any refutation of an argument. Neither philosophy nor science nor logic nor common sense nor experience have ever refuted traditional moral absolutism. It is not reason, but the abdication of reason that is the source of moral relativism.

Relativism is not rational, it is rationalization. It is not the conclusion of a rational argument. It is the rationalization of a prior action. It is the repudiation of the principle that passions must be evaluated by reason and controlled by will. That is the virtue Plato and Aristotle called self-control. It is not just one of the cardinal virtues, but a necessary ingredient in every virtue. That classical assumption is almost the definition of civilization. But romanticists, existentialists, Freudians, and many others have convinced many people in our culture that it is oppressive and unhealthy and inauthentic. If we embrace the opposite principle, and let passion govern reason, rather than reason govern passion, there is little hope for morality or for civilization.

Obviously, the strongest and most attractive of the passions is sexual passion. It is therefore also the most addictive and the most blinding. So, there could hardly be a more powerful undermining of our moral knowledge and our moral life than the sexual revolution. Already, the demand for sexual freedom has overridden one of nature’s strongest instincts: motherhood. A million mothers a year in America alone pay hired killers, who are called healers or physicians, to kill their own unborn daughters and sons. How could this happen? Only because abortion is driven by sexual motives. For abortion is backup birth control, and birth control is the demand to have sex without having babies. If the stork brought babies, there’d be no Planned Parenthood.

Divorce is a second example of the power of the sexual revolution to undermine basic moral principles. Suppose there were some other practice, not connected with sex, which had these three documentable results. First, betraying the person you claim to love the most, the person you had pledged your life to, betraying your solemn promise to her or him. Second, thereby abusing the children you had procreated and promised to protect, scarring their souls more infinitely than anything else except direct violent physical abuse, and making it far more difficult for them ever to attain happy lives or marriages. And thirdly, thereby harming, undermining, and perhaps destroying your society’s future. Would not such a practice be universally condemned? Yet, that is exactly what divorce is, and it is universally accepted. Betrayal is universally condemned unless it is sexual. Justice, honesty, not doing other harms — these moral principles are affirmed, unless they interfere with sex.

The rest of traditional morality is still very widely believed and taught, even in TV sitcoms, soap operas, and Hollywood movies. The driving force of moral relativism seems to be almost exclusively sexual. Why this should be, and what we should do about it, are two further questions that demand much more time and thought than we have available here and now. But if you want a very short guess at an answer to both, here is the best I can do.

I think a secularist has only one substitute left for God, only one experience in a desacrilized world that still gives him something like the mystical, self-transcending thrill of ecstasy that God designed all souls to have forever, and to long for until they have it. Unless he is a surfer, that experience has to be sex. We’re designed for more than happiness; we’re designed for joy. Aquinas writes, with simple logic, “Man cannot live without joy. That is why one deprived of true spiritual joys must spill over to carnal pleasures.”

Drugs and alcohol are attractive because they claim to feed the same need. They lack the ontological greatness of sex, but they provide the same semi-mystical thrill: the transcendence of reason and self-consciousness. I do not mean this merely as moral condemnation, but as psychological analysis. In fact, though they sound shocking, I think the addict is closer to the deepest truth than the mere moralist. He is looking for the very best thing in some of the very worst places. His demand for a state in which he transcends morality is very wrong, but it’s also very right.

For we are designed for something beyond morality, something in which morality will be transformed. Mystical union with God. Sex is a sign and appetizer of that. Moral absolutists must never forget that morality, though absolute, is not ultimate. It is not our Summum Bonum. Sinai is not the Promised Land; Jerusalem is. And in the New Jerusalem, what finally happens as the last chapter of human history is a wedding between the Lamb and His bride. Deprived of this Jerusalem, we must buy into Babylon. If we do not worship God, we will worship idols, for we are by nature worshippers.

Finally, what is the cure? It must be stronger medicine than philosophy, so I can give you only three words in answer to this last and most practical question of all. What we can do about it? What is the cure? These three words are totally unoriginal. They are not my philosophical argument, but God’s biblical demands. Repent, fast, and pray. Confess, sacrifice, adore. I know of no other answer, and I can think of nothing else that can save this civilization except Saints.

Please be one.


Refuting Arguments For Relativism 1 – Peter Kreeft

May 28, 2013
“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” John Adams, 1770

“Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” John Adams, 1770

The following is a reblog of material on Peter Kreeft’s website. This is a transcript from an audio lecture on the topic of relativism.


Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day defined a good society as one that makes it easy for you to be good. Correlatively, a free society is one that makes it easy to be free. To be free, and to live freely, is to live spiritually, because only spirit is free — matter is not. To live spiritually is to live morally. The two essential properties of spirit that distinguish it from matter are intellect and will — the capacity for knowledge and moral choice. The ideals of truth and goodness. The most radical threat to living morally today is the loss of moral principles.

Moral practice has always been difficult for fallen humanity, but at least there was always the lighthouse of moral principles, no matter how stormy the sea of moral practice got. But today, with the majority of our mind-molders, in formal education, or informal education — that is, media — the light is gone. Morality is a fog of feelings. That is why to them, as Chesterton said, “Morality is always dreadfully complicated to a man who has lost all his principles.”

Principles mean moral absolutes. Unchanging rocks beneath the changing waves of feelings and practices. Moral relativism is a philosophy that denies moral absolutes. That thought to me is the prime suspect — public enemy number one. The philosophy that has extinguished the light in the minds of our teachers, and then their students, and eventually, if not reversed, will extinguish our whole civilization.

Therefore, I want not just to present a strong case against moral relativism, but to refute it, to unmask it, to strip it naked, to humiliate it, to shame it, to give it the wallop it deserves, as they say in Texas, America’s good neighbor to the south.

How important is this issue? After all, it’s just philosophy, and philosophy is just ideas. But ideas have consequences. Sometimes these consequences are as momentous as a holocaust, or a Hiroshima. Sometimes even more momentous. Philosophy is just thought, but sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. This is just as true for societies as it is for individuals.

How important is the issue? The issue of moral relativism is merely the single most important issue of our age, for no society in all of human history has ever survived without rejecting the philosophy that I am about to refute. There has never been a society of relativists. Therefore, our society will do one of three things: either disprove one of the most universally established laws of all history; or repent of its relativism and survive; or persist in its relativism and perish.

How important is the issue? C.S. Lewis says, in The Poison of Subjectivism, that relativism “will certainly end our species and damn our souls.” Please remember that Oxonians are not given to exaggeration. Why does he say “damn our souls?” Because Lewis is a Christian, and he does not disagree with the fundamental teaching of his master, Christ, and all the prophets in the Jewish tradition, that salvation presupposes repentance, and repentance presupposes an objectively real moral law. Moral relativism eliminates that law, thus trivializes repentance, thus imperils salvation.

Why does he say, “end our species,” and not just modern Western civilization? Because the entire human species is becoming increasingly Westernized and relativized. It is ironic that America, the primary source of relativism in the world today, is also the world’s most religious nation. This is ironic because religion is to relativism what Dr. Van Helsing is to Count Dracula.

Within America, the strongest opposition to relativism comes from the churches. Yet a still further irony, according to the most recent polls, Catholics are as relativistic, both in behavior and in belief, as non-Catholics. Sixty-two percent of Evangelicals say they disbelieve in any absolute or unchanging truths, and American Jews are significantly more relativistic and more secular than Gentiles.

Only Orthodox Jews, the Eastern Orthodox, and Fundamentalists seem to be resisting the culture, but not by converting it, but by withdrawing from it. And that includes most Muslims, except for the tiny minority who terrorize it. When Pat Buchanan told us in 1992 that we were in a culture war, all the media laughed, sneered, and barked at him. Today, everyone knows he was right, and the culture war is most essentially about this issue.

We must define our terms when we begin. Moral relativism usually includes three claims: That morality is first of all changeable; secondly, subjective; and third, individual. That it is relative first to changing times; you can’t turn back the clock. Secondly, to what we subjectively think or feel; there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so. And thirdly, to individuals; different strokes for different folks. Moral absolutism claims that there are moral principles that are unchangeable, objective, and universal.

We should examine the arguments for moral relativism first, and refute them, to clear the way for the arguments against it. So first, I will refute each of the common arguments for relativism, and then relativism itself.

Argument for Relativism:  Psychological
The first argument is psychological. In practice, psychological reasons — that is, psychological becauses, subjective personal motives — are usually a more powerful source of moral relativism than logical becauses — that is, objective logical arguments. So we should ask, what is the main motive for preferring relativism? Since our deepest desire is for happiness, and since fears correspond to desires, it is probably the fear that moral absolutism would make us unhappy by making us feel guilty.

So we call moral absolutism unloving, or uncompassionate. Turned into argument, it looks like this: Good morality has good consequences, bad morality has bad consequences. Feelings of unhappiness and guilt are bad consequences, while feelings of happiness and self-esteem are good consequences. Moral absolutism produces the bad feelings of guilt and unhappiness, while moral relativism produces the good feelings of self-esteem and happiness. Therefore, moral absolutism is bad, and moral relativism is good.

The answer to this argument is first of all that absolute moral law exists not to minimize, but to maximize human happiness, and therefore it is maximally loving and compassionate, like labels, or roadmaps. You’re not happy if you eat poison or drive off a cliff. But what about guilt? Removing moral absolutes does indeed remove the sense of guilt, and this sense obviously does not make you happy in the short run. But guilt, like physical pain, may be necessary to avoid greater unhappiness in the long run, if it is realistic, that is, in tune with reality and not pathological.

So the question is, does reality include objective moral laws? If it does not, guilt is an experience as pointless as paranoia. But if it does, it is as proper as pain, and for a similar reason: to prevent harm. Guilt is a warning in the soul, analogous to pain as a warning in the body.

The relativist’s argument also has a question-begging assumption. It assumes that feelings are the standard for judging morality. But the claim in traditional morality is exactly the opposite: that morality is the standard for judging feelings.

Finally, if the argument from self-esteem versus guilt is correct, it logically follows that if rapists, cannibalists, terrorists, or tyrants feel self-esteem, they are better persons than if they feel guilty. That Hitler’s problem was a lack of self-confidence. Some ideas are beyond the need for refutation, except in universities.

Argument for Relativism:  Cultural Influence
A second argument for relativism is the argument from cultural relativism. This argument seems impregnable. The claim is that anthropologists and sociologists have discovered moral relativism to be not a theory but an empirical fact. Different cultures and societies, like different individuals, simply do, in fact, have very different moral values. In Eskimo culture, and in Holland, killing old people is right. In America, east of Oregon, it’s wrong. In contemporary culture, fornication is right; in Christian cultures, it’s wrong, and so forth.

Descartes noted in A Discourse On Method that “there is no idea so strange that some philosopher has not seriously taught it.” Similarly, there is no practice so strange that some society has not legitimized it; for instance, genocide, or cannibalism. Or, so innocent that some group has not forbidden it; for instance, entering a temple with a hat on, or without one. So anyone who thinks values are not relative to cultures is simply ignorant of the facts, so goes the argument.

To see the logical fallacy in this apparently impregnable argument, we need to look at its unspoken assumption — which is that moral rightness is a matter of obedience to cultural values. That it is right to obey your culture’s values. Always. Only if we combine that hidden premise with the stated premise — that values differ with cultures — can we get to the conclusion that moral rightness differs with cultures. That what is wrong in one culture is right in another.

But surely, this hidden premise begs the question. It presupposes the very moral relativism it is supposed to prove. The absolutist denies that it is always right to obey your culture’s values. He has a trans-cultural standard by which he can criticize a whole culture’s values. That is why he could be a progressive and a radical, while the relativist can only be a status-quo conservative, having no higher standard than his culture. My country, right or wrong. Only massive, media, big-lie propaganda could so confuse people’s minds that they spontaneously think the opposite.

But in fact it is only the believer in the old-fashioned natural moral law who could be a social radical and a progressive. He alone can say to a Hitler, or a Saddam Hussein, “You and your whole social order are wrong and wicked and deserve to be destroyed.” The relativist could only say, “Different strokes for different folks, and I happen to hate your strokes and prefer mine, that’s all.”

The second logical weakness of the argument about cultural relativism is its equivocation on the term “values.” The moral absolutist distinguishes subjective opinions about values from objectively true values. Just as he distinguishes objective truth from subjective opinions about God, or about life after death, or about happiness, or about numbers, or about beauty, just to take 5 other non-empirical things. It may be difficult, or even impossible, to prove these things, or to attain certainty about them, or even to know them at all.

But that does not mean they are unreal. Even if these things could not be known, it does not follow that they are unreal. And even if they could not be known with certainty, it does not follow that they could not be known at all by right opinion. And even if they could not be proved, it does not follow that they could not be known with certainty. And even if they could not be proved by the scientific method, it does not follow that they cannot be proved at all. They could be real, even if unknown; known, even if not certainly known; certainly known, even if not proved; and proved, even if not scientifically proved.

The basic equivocation in the cultural relativist’s argument is between values and value opinions. Different cultures may have different opinions about what is morally valuable, just as they may have different opinions about what happens after death. But this does not entail the conclusion that what is really right in one culture is really wrong in another, any more than different opinions about life after death entails the conclusion that different things really happen after death, depending on cultural beliefs.

Just because I may believe there is no Hell does not prove that there is none and that I will not go there. If it did, a simple and infallible way of salvation would be simply to stop believing in Hell. Similarly, just because a good Nazi thinks genocide is right does not prove it is, unless there is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so. But that is the relativist’s conclusion. It cannot also be his premise without begging the question.

There is still another error in the cultural relativist’s argument. It seems that just about everything that can possibly go wrong with an argument goes wrong with this one. The argument from facts doesn’t even have its facts right. Cultures do not, in fact, differ totally about values, even if the term values is taken to mean merely value opinions. No culture has ever existed which believed and taught what Nietzsche called for: a transvaluation of all values. There have been differences in emphasis, for instance, our ancestors valued courage more than we do, while we value compassion more than they did. But there has never been anything like the relativism of opinions about values that the relativist teaches as factual history.

Just imagine what that would be like. Try to imagine a society where justice, honesty, courage, wisdom, hope, and self-control were deemed morally evil. And unrestricted selfishness, cowardice, lying, betrayal, addiction, and despair were deemed morally good. Such a society is never found on Earth. If it exists anywhere, it is only in Hell and its colonies. Only Satan and his worshippers say “evil be thou my good.” There are indeed important disagreements about values between cultures.

But beneath all disagreements about lesser values, there always lies an agreement about more basic ones. Beneath all disagreements about applying values to situations — for instance, should we have capital punishment or not — always lies agreement about values — for instance, murder is evil since human life is good. Moral disagreements between cultures as well as between individuals would be impossible unless there were some deeper moral agreements, some common moral premises. Moral values are to a culture’s laws something like what concepts are to words.

When you visit a foreign country, you experience initial shock. The language sounds totally different. But then beneath the different words you find common concepts. And this is what makes translation from one language to another possible. Analogously, beneath different social laws, we find common human moral laws. We find similar morals, beneath different mores. The moral agreement among Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Socrates, Solomon, Jesus, Cicero, Mohammad, Zoroaster, and Hammurabi is far greater than their moral differences.


Is Evil Real? Peter Kreeft

March 21, 2013
Anders Behring Breivik leaves the courthouse feeling pleased with himself. He is the perpetrator (whacko) of the 2011 Norway attacks. In a sequential bombing and mass shooting on 22 July 2011, he bombed government buildings in Oslo, resulting in eight deaths and then carried out a mass shooting at a camp of the Workers' Youth League (AUF) of the Labor Party on the island of Utøya, where he killed 69 people, mostly teenagers. He was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism in August 2012

Anders Behring Breivik leaves the courthouse feeling pleased with himself. He is the perpetrator (whacko) of the 2011 Norway attacks. In a sequential bombing and mass shooting on 22 July 2011, he bombed government buildings in Oslo, resulting in eight deaths and then carried out a mass shooting at a camp of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) of the Labor Party on the island of Utøya, where he killed 69 people, mostly teenagers. He was convicted of mass murder, causing a fatal explosion, and terrorism in August 2012

Tolkien’s classical Christian theology avoids two opposite errors, two oversimplifications. One is a Rousseauian optimism: the denial, or ignoring, of evil’s reality and power, and consequently a kind of spiritual pacifism, the denial of spiritual warfare. The other would be the Manichean error, the idea that evil has the same kind of reality as goodness, equally powerful and equally substantial — in fact, that evil is, in the last analysis, a second God, or an equal, dark “side” of God, as Shiva the Destroyer is forever equal to Vishnu till Preserver.

For half a century our culture has been as embarrassed by words like “sin” “wickedness”, and “evil” as a teenager is embarrassed at being seen with his parents in a mall.

Some of our Deep Thinkers think that evil is only a temporary evolutionary stage, a hangover from ancient barbarisms of race, class, or gender that we will grow out of we grow out of diapers. We are still waiting for the toilet training to take place.

Others say that evil is just ignorance, and therefore curable by education. After a century of universal education, we are still waiting for the cure to take. A study of which Nazis were most willing to kill Jews in Hitler’s death camps revealed that this evil was indeed related to education, but not in the way expected: the more educated they were, the more willing they were.

Some say that evil against others is only the acting out of a lack of positive self-esteem. So Hitler did not esteem himself enough.

Most of our culture actually admires F.D.R.’s famous nonsense that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It sounds somehow healthy and even pious.

And then we saw the events of 9/11. In the chorus of voices that filled our media for the next few months, one was conspicuously silent from the babble: psychobabble. Where had all the gurus gone?

Tolkien’s Christian theology told him that since the good God is the only creator of all beings, therefore all beings are ontologically good. But that theology also told him that God had given man free will and man had fallen into sin, which corrupts goodness and therefore corrupts beings (since being is the place where goodness can be found). Finally, his theology also told him that a man may, through evil choices, go to Hell, where he is hopelessly and forever evil.

The first of these three doctrines — ontological goodness — grounds Tolkien’s “optimistic” cosmology; the other two — man’s sinfulness and the reality of Hell — ground his “pessimistic” psychology. Both are shocks to secular philosophies: How can mud, mosquitoes, and even hemorrhoids be good, and how can we be so bad?

Yet, though he takes evil very seriously, Tolkien is not a pessimist, even about human nature. In fact, it is his moral optimism, his faith and hope in divine grace and in the triumph of good over evil, that deeply offends the modern secular critic. These critics label the heroes of The Lord of the Rings as simplistically moral, yet the antiheroes of most modern novels are much more simplistically immoral or amoral. It is the critics who are one-sided; Tolkien sees both the good and the evil sides better and deeper than they do. He is like a giant with both arms outstretched, one into the heights and the other into the depths. He scandalizes some small, simplistic souls by his glimpses of Heaven and others by his glimpses of Hell.

Think of the first time you saw the spectacular images of September 11th. Now, remember not the images outside but the feeling inside. It was a sudden change from a peacetime consciousness to a wartime consciousness. It was a lot like the change from sleeping consciousness to waking consciousness, which your alarm clock triggers in you each morning. It was a sudden light, a sudden enlightenment. The world you woke up to was not brought into being by your waking up; it was always there. But you were not always there. You were dreaming. God sent prophets to wake you up, like alarm clocks.

That vision of life as a spiritual warfare between good and evil is the vision of life presupposed in every great story. For any great story must take both good and evil very serious in order to generate great drama; and the fundamental theme of every great story is always this spiritual warfare between some particular good and some particular evil. The conflict between good and evil is the source of all conflict within each characters. The source of all external conflict between characters is the internal conflict between good and evil within each character.

But Tolkien is not a Manichee: this war is not between equally powerful powers. It is not even between equally real powers. It requires a little philosophical clarification to make this point clear.

Good and evil are not equally powerful, because they are not equally real – even though evil appears not only equal to good but even stronger than good (“I am Gandalf, the White, but Black is mightier still”). But appearance and  reality do not coincide here, and in the end evil will always reveal its inevitable self-destruction (although often after a terrible price is paid: e.g., Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin) The self-destruction of evil is not just something to believe in and hope for, but to be certain of. It is metaphysically necessary, necessary because of the very kind of being evil has by its unchangeable essence. For evil can only be a parasite on good. It depends on a good host for it to pervert.

“Nothing is evil in the beginning” or by nature: Morgorth was one of the Ainur, Sauron was a Maia, Saruman was the head of Gandalf’s order of Wizards, the Orcs were Elves, the Ringwraiths were great Men, and Gollum was a Hobbit. And whenever a parasite succeeds in killing its host it also kills itself. So if evil succeeds, it fails; it commits suicide.

The philosophical argument for evil being a parasite on good is simple: evil can exist only in some being, and all being is ontologically good, good for something, desirable somehow. Evil is the perversion of some version, the unnatural twisting of some nature; and all nature is good.

The argument for all being being good, in turn, is simply that “good” means “desirable”, and everything real is desirable for something. Even the murderer’s shot must be a good shot; moral evil can happen only by using ontological goodness.

The theological argument for the same conclusion is that every being is either the good God or a creature of this good God Who, being totally good, cannot will or create anything evil (though He can allow it, for a greater good, as He allows human sin in order to preserve human free will).

Yet though evil is not as real as goodness, it is real, terribly real; and life is spiritual warfare — there are snakes in the grass. And they come not just from the next yard. They come not from earth but from Hell. “For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers” (Ephesians 6:12). You do not need to commit the sin of allegory to see who the Black Riders are: “They come from Mordor,’ said Strider in a low voice. From Mordor, Barliman, if that means anything to you,” Strider’s laconic: “They are terrible!” is more suggestive than any detailed description could be.

More evils come from Mordor than we think. “All those arts and subtle devices for which he [Saruman] forsook his former wisdom, and which fondly he imagined were his own, came but from Mordor.” And so did the little local evils in the Shire that had to be “scoured”:

“This is worse than Mordorl” said Sam. “Much worse in a way. It comes home to you, as they say, because it is home, and you remember it before it was all ruined.”

“Yes, this is Mordor,” said Frodo. “Just one of its works”

Tolkien certainly believes in the goodness of goodness all the badness of badness. He is not a moral relativist. But that does not make him a legalist or a fundamentalist. A common but indefensible error of some critics is to see The Lord of the Rings as morally “simplistic”, as a “white versus black, good guys versus bad guys” story. This is so far from the truth as to be literally absurd. With the exception of Tom Bombadil,  there is hardly a character in The Lord of the Rings who is no tempted by evil. The war is not just external, between the white chess pieces and the black, but within every single piece on the board, even while there is an external war going on between two sides that really but imperfectly represent the good (the Fellowship) and the evil (Mordor). Tolkien certainly would approve Solzhenitsyn’s famous remark about the line between Good and Evil not dividing nations or cultures or ideologies but running through the middle of every human heart.

Tolkien is not a psychological absolutist but a moral absolutist: no person is absolutely good or evil; but goodness and evil themselves are absolutely distinct. He believes that “there’s a little good in the worst of us and a little bad in the best of us”; but not that there’s a little good in evil and a little evil in good. He believes in human moral complexity but not in logical moral complexity. He believes in the law of non-contradiction, in the goodness of goodness and the badness of badness. If that is his offense in the eyes of the critics, that tells us little about Tolkien but much about the critics.

Indeed, moral doubleness or “relativism” in the concrete does not contradict, but presupposes, moral singleness or absolutism in the abstract. If good and evil are not objectively real and absolutely distinct essences in the abstract, then the judgment that a concrete character is partly good and partly evil becomes meaningless.

Tolkien’s moral absolutism contradicts the worldview of modern post-Christian moral relativism. But it also contradicts the pagan pre-Christian religious relativism. To see this, consider Tolkien’s primary pagan source, Norse mythology. Odin, their supreme god, is not morally good, like the God of the Bible. He is addicted to power, like Sauron. The Vikings would never have understood the philosophy that “power corrupts.”

In fact, all the pagan gods, Northern (Germanic) or Southern (Mediterranean) are, like us, partly good and partly evil. They are “divine”, or superior, not in goodness but only in power — in fact, in three powers: power over nature by a supernatural or “magical” technology, power over ignorance (cleverness, farsight and foresight), and power over death (immortality). (Exactly modernity’s superiority over the past! If that is all divinity means, we are now approaching divinity.) The Jewish and Christian claim that the one God is totally good and not evil was as much of a shock to the old paganism as it is to the new.


Is The Supernatural Real? – Peter Kreeft

March 15, 2013
Morning in Enedwaith. The wide lands that lay between Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south. Originally deeply forested, the great forests of this region were cut down by the Númenóreans during the Second Age. In the years after their founding, Enedwaith lay between Arnor to the north and Gondor to the south, and so the people who lived here were known as the 'middle-folk'. Though Enedwaith did not belong to either Kingdom, it was jointly administered by the Dúnedain, and the Wild Men who lived here ultimately did so under their control. Tolkien goes so far as to hint that, in the earliest days of the Two Kingdoms, Enedwaith was considered to fall within the boundaries of Gondor.

Morning in Enedwaith. The wide lands that lay between Arnor in the north and Gondor in the south. Originally deeply forested, the great forests of this region were cut down by the Númenóreans during the Second Age. In the years after their founding, Enedwaith lay between Arnor to the north and Gondor to the south, and so the people who lived here were known as the ‘middle-folk’. Though Enedwaith did not belong to either Kingdom, it was jointly administered by the Dúnedain, and the Wild Men who lived here ultimately did so under their control. Tolkien goes so far as to hint that, in the earliest days of the Two Kingdoms, Enedwaith was considered to fall within the boundaries of Gondor.

C. S. Lewis explains what supernaturalism means as clearly as anyone has ever done:

Ever since men were able to think, they have been wondering about what this universe really is and how it came to be there. And, very roughly, two views have been held. First, there is what is called the materialist view. People who take that view think that matter and space just happen to exist, and always have existed, nobody knows why; and that the matter, behaving in certain fixed ways, has just happened, by a sort of fluke, to produce creatures like ourselves who are able to think…. The other view is the religious view According to it, what is behind the universe is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know. That is to say, it is conscious, and has purposes, and prefers one thing to another. And on this view it made the universe … to produce creatures like itself — I mean, like itself to the extent of having minds.’`
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

The supernatural is not the same as the magical. Magic can be part of nature. There is as much magic in The Hobbit as in The Silmarillion, but The Hobbit is not about the supernatural, while The Silmarillion is.

What difference does it make whether you are a naturalist or a supernaturalist? All the difference in the world. It makes a difference to everything. Imagine you are acting in a play. The supernaturalist is like one who believes that the play is not the whole of reality, that there is a far greater reality outside it. The naturalist denies that. Even though the supernaturalist and the naturalist may speak the same lines in the play, their meaning is not the same. Context makes a difference, and the supernatural is the ultimate context.

Tolkien, as a Christian, was of course a supernaturalist. As we shall see when we treat the topic of religion, Tolkien kept the supernatural hidden in The Lord of the Rings; yet it is ubiquitous, and he himself explicitly told us so.

Tolkien claims that fantasy naturally treats the supernatural:

[F]airy-stories as a whole have three faces: the Mystical towards the Supernatural, the Magical towards Nature, and the Mirror of scorn and pity towards Man
J.R.R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

Fantasy treats the supernatural not because it is fantastic but because it is real.

C. S. Lewis gives the following “aesthetic” argument for supernaturalism in Miracles:

As long as one is a Naturalist, “Nature” is only a word for “everything” — And Everything is not a subject about which anything very interesting can be said or (save by illusion) felt…. But everything becomes different when we recognize that Nature is a creature, a created thing, with its own particular tang or flavor…

The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current.
C. S. Lewis, Miracles

The capacity to evoke wonder, which is the great power of fantasy, almost requires supernaturalism. It is inconceivable that a worldly pragmatist like John Dewey or Karl Marx could write fantasy. Only a supernaturalistic metaphysics has room for it. It says that our world has edges, that it is not all there is, that there is more. In such a world you can never say, with the bored, jaded author of Ecclesiastes, “I have seen everything” (Eccles 1:14).

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion the world is flat (until its fall) and therefore has an edge. A flat world is a physical symbol for a supernaturalistic metaphysics. It points to a “beyond” beyond its edges, a “more”. But a round world is self-contained, and absolutely relative. In The Silmarillion the world is changed from flat to round as a divine punishment. This is far from fantastic; it is symbolically quite accurate. For, in fact, the divine punishment was that our worldview, rather than our world, was changed from supernaturalism to naturalism.

Yet one edge, one absolute, remains even in our round, relative world, though not in space but in time. There is death, personal time’s absolute edge Supernaturalism’s practical payoff is the hope of divine grace. Grace is needed because evil is powerful. We are far too weak to have much hope without it. Frodo is wise because he knows this. The whole of Middle earth — souls as well as bodies — depends on his mission, and he knows he is not strong enough to fulfill it.

Yet, because of an implicit trust in grace, he volunteers: “I will take the Icing, though I do not know the way” (Lord of the Rings, p. 264). It was a Marian moment. St. Luke showed us the same thing at the Annunciation. Mary’s mission was strikingly similar to Frodo’s. The salvation of the whole world depended on it. And the words of her acceptance of her mission were also similar to Frodo’s: “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Neither Tolkien nor St. Luke tells us what invisible force in the soul motivated this visible choice. But there are only two possibilities: pride or humility. When we hear “I will take the ring”, we may think we hear pride, but when we hear “though I do not know the way”, we know we hear humility. Tolkien kept explicit religion out of The Lord of the Rings, but here is a powerful example of implicit religion. No one but an arrogant fool could do what Frodo did without throwing an anchor out into the deep of supernatural grace.


The Size of Tolkien’s Reality – Peter Kreeft

March 14, 2013
"In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia,” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller…is actually fulfilling God's purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.”  J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

“In making a myth, in practicing “mythopoeia,” and peopling the world with elves and dragons and goblins, a story-teller…is actually fulfilling God’s purpose, and reflecting a splintered fragment of the true light.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters

“Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom”. It should be what it means. The fact that it has largely ceased to be that in modern “philosophy departments” does not mean that its essence has changed, but that its disciples have. Similarly, the fact that most Christians in North America are not martyrs or saints like the early Christians does not mean that the meaning of Christianity has changed, only that Christians have.

Metaphysics is the most important, most foundational, part of philosophy. It is rational, not irrational; it is a “science” in the broad, ancient sense of the word: a body of knowledge ordered through explanations and causes. Like the rest of philosophy, it does not use the modern scientific method. (Neither does anything else except modern science!) But it is a science, and it should not be classified under “the occult”, as it is in some bookstores.

Unlike all other sciences, including other philosophical sciences, metaphysics explores reality as such, all of reality, not just some part or dimension of reality, such as living things, chemicals, human history, or morality. It seeks the truths, laws, and principles that are true of all being. (“Being” is the traditional term, but “reality” sounds more concrete and less occultic than “being”.)

Here are a few sample questions of metaphysics:

  • Is all being one, true, good, and beautiful?
  • Is evil real?
  • Is matter real?
  • Is spirit real?
  • Is God real?
  • Is chance real?
  • Is causality real?
  • Is time real?
  • How can a being change, that is, be both the same being it was, and also different?
  • What is the relation between a thing’s essence (what it is) and its existence (that it is)?
  • Does language reflect reality? Are there in reality things (nouns), acts (verbs), qualities (adjectives), relations (prepositions and conjunctions), etc.?
  • Are “universals” like justice, human nature, squareness, and redness real things, or real aspects of things, or only concepts, or only words?

The Lord of the Rings illuminates at least three important metaphysical questions:

  1. How big is reality? Is it larger or smaller than our thought?
  2. Does it include the supernatural?
  3. Does it include universals, “Platonic Ideas”, or “Jungian archetypes”?

We shall take up the first in this post and give you the other two later on.

How big is reality?
There are only three logically possible answers to this question.

  1. The first is that “there are more things in heaven and earth ( i.e., in reality) than are dreamed of in your philosophies (i.e., in thought).” That was Shakespeare’s philosophy, as expressed by Hamlet to Horatio, who found it hard to believe in ghosts. This is the philosophy of the poet and of the happy for whom nature is a fullness, a moreness, and therefore wonderful. It is the philosophy of all pre-modern cultures.
  2. The second possible answer is that there are fewer things in reality than in thought; that most of our thought is mere myth, error, convention, projection, fantasy, fallacy, folly, .dream, etc. This is the philosophy of the unhappy man, the cynic, the pessimist: “Trust nobody and nothing.” This philosophy is hardly ever found in any pre-modern culture, except in a small minority.
  3. The third possibility is that there are exactly the same number of things in reality and in thought, that is, that we “know it all”.

What difference does it make to your life which philosophy you believe?

It makes a total difference, a difference to absolutely every single thing in your life. It colors everything.  For if you believe the first philosophy, as Shakespeare did, as Tolkien did, and as most pre-modern peoples did, then your fundamental attitude toward all reality is wonder and humility. You are like a small child in a large house. As Tolkien said in one of his letters, “You are inside a very great story.”

You expect mysteries, you expect moreness: terrors to stop your heart and joys to break it. Reality is big. I think of the simple, haunting line in Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal: “It is the Angel of Death that’s passing over us, Mia, it’s the Angel of Death, the Angel of Death. And he’s very big.” In this big world there may be not only things like dragons, but even heroes.

The larger-than-life world is the one our ancestors lived in. Our culture’s greatest sadness is that we no longer live in this world. Tolkien’s greatest achievement is that he invites us to inhabit this world again. He shows us that this world is our home. He even shows us heroism: he not only shows us heroes but he also shows us that we ourselves believe in heroes. For after we have read Tolkien’s unashamedly heroic epic, we do not say, “Well, that was a pleasant little escape from reality”, but, “Hey! That was real!”

If you believe the second philosophy, that there are fewer things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies, then you are cynical, skeptical, suspicious, bored, jaded, detached, ironic, and definitely non-heroic. You are a reductionist: you reduce mystery to puzzle, love to lust, thought to cybernetics, reasoning to rationalizing, ideals to desires, man to ape, God to myth.

In other words, you are a typically modern or post-modern man. (Is there much of a difference?) You buy into the first step of the scientific method: “Doubt everything that is not proved; treat every thought as guilty until proved innocent, false until proved true.” The older philosophy treated thoughts as we treat people in court: innocent until proved guilty. (Compare Socrates’s method with Descartes’s on this score.)

The third philosophy is rationalism, in fact, arrogant rationalism:  Everything in my thought is real, and everything real is in my thought. In ancient Greece Parmenides said, “What is thought and what is real is the same”, and in modern Germany Hegel said, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real;” but I think only those with a divinity complex can actually believe that. And even pantheists, who believe that the whole cosmos is only a thought or dream, believe it is not our dream but God’s, and therefore still “more”, or transcendent to our thought — unless there is some confusion between us (or me) and God, in which case a shrink or a smack will serve the soul better than a syllogism.

Thomas Howard calls good fantasy a “flight to reality” because, though its details are fictional, the nature of its world, its universal principles and values, are true. Tolkien shows us the nature of the real world by his fantasy. He is making a statement about reality, about being, about metaphysics when he says:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered.
J R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories

The fundamental reason for the popularity of The Lord of the Rings is that people sense it is real. No mere escape from reality can be voted “the greatest book of the century”.

And that is why Tolkien does not tell us half of what he knows about his world. You can tell everything about your fantasies, your dreams, or your thoughts, but not about anything real.

That is also why The Lord of the Rings bears endless rereading: it is heavy enough to bear the mind’s journeys into it, like our world. In fact, it is perhaps the most “heavy”, full, detailed, complex, real invented world in all of human literature.

Tolkien himself tells us that he felt, in creating it, as we feel in reading it: that it was discovered, not invented, that it had always been there, and it was as much a surprise to Tolkien to discover it as it is to us: “I had the sense of recording what was already `there,’ somewhere; not of `inventing.’ Great authors often say that about the experience of writing their masterpieces.

C. S. Lewis wrote from the same point of view:

We must not listen to [Alexander] Pope’s maxim about the proper study of mankind. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man.” The proper study of mankind is everything.

We should never ask of anything “Is it real?” For everything is real. The proper question is, “A real what?”


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