Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Laborem Solis sive Eclipsis Moralis: Reditum Sophista

THE SOPHIST DELIGHTED IN MAKING black white and white black, in making the better cause the worse or the worse cause the better. In fine, the sophist was indifferent to truth, and exhibited all the flexibility of a man without a standard. His words were for hire; they had become verbal prostitutes, to be used and then dispensed with after they were soiled. And if his words were prostitutes, his brain was a brothel. There was no tie, no marriage, between words and truth. Indeed, for the sophist all morality, all law, all truth was a matter of convention (just like words were), and as flexible and as malleable as soft clay on a potter's wheel. Using the supple rhetorical art of the sophist, words and hence truth could be molded to mean anything that they were wanted to be. "Language is not an instrument for finding truth," in the sophist toolkit, "but for changing it." Budziszewski (2003), 167.

Modernly, sophistry is alive and well, though it is found using different (more sophisticated!) monikers: "postmodernism," "epistemological relativism," "antifoundationalism" and the like.* But sophistry's name is Legion, and it blossoms, like fields of poppies, in multiple colors other than classic red. Whatever their shade, all sophistries tend to lull the mind to sleep not unlike Dorothy was lulled to sleep in Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz. "Now it is well known that when there are many of these flowers together their odor is so powerful that anyone who breathes it falls asleep, and if the sleeper is not carried away from the scent of the flowers, he sleeps on and on forever." Under the spell of this soporific, we operate in an irrational torpor, on our way to intellectual sleep.

The infection is endemic: it is found among the populace, informed largely by advertising jingles, talking media heads, and pop music and rap songs. But it is also found in the marble halls of the Supreme Court, bouncing within the heads of some of the wizened or wizening--though not for all that wise or wisening--black robed justices. The infamous "sweet-mystery-of-life" language of Justice Kennedy is classic sophistry, and apparently there are some justices who view the Constitution as an instrument of a sophisticated stripe:
At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and the mystery of human life.
What? That squishy language is found in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey, written by Justice Kennedy. So the sweet liberty to define the "mystery of human life" allows us to define that mystery to exclude those in the human womb, or (later when the language was cited to in Lawrence v. State of Texas) to engage in intrinsically sterile homosexual sex? This is pure sophistry. To be sure, it is shallow, banal, clownish, sophomoric sophistry, but it is sophistry just the same. Did it ever occur to Justice Kennedy that liberty is given us not to define one's truth and one's good, but to discover the truth and good, and live in the truth and to do that good? Apparently not. Too much sophist lint; not enough philosophical brains; and certainly no Gospel salt there to keep the little Justice's brain there is from spoiling, regardless of its raw talent.

"Abuse of words," John Adams observed, "has been the great instrument of sophistry and chicanery, of party, faction, and division of society." The abuse of words comes back to haunt their abuser. They are like a fickle woman, a woman who spurns the man who once caressed her, for she enjoys the caressing, but not fidelity, not love. She leaves his mouth a lover, and returns a termagant. Sophistry, the poet tells us, is "nature's lay idiot."
Nature’s lay idiot, I taught thee to love,
And in that sophistry, oh, thou dost prove
Too subtle: Fool, thou didst not understand
The mystic language of the eye nor hand:
Nor couldst thou judge the difference of the air
Of sighs, and say, this lies, this sounds despair . . . .
John Donne, "Elegy VII"

Liberty, like love, is not the realm of sophistry; and it is a tragedy of liberty as it is of love not to understand the "mystic language of the eye nor hand." There is a huge and yawning difference between the hand of the law that--in the name of liberty--protects innocent life, and the hand of a law that--in the name of liberty--wields the murderous instruments of dilation and curetage. One protects innocent blood, the other allows it to be shed. These liberties are opposites: strangers, not kinsmen. Only one of them is loyal.

"I would define liberty," John Adams further said (are you listening Mr. Justice Kennedy?), "to be a power to do as we would be done by."** In John Adams's unsophisticated view, liberty is the ability to live the Golden Rule, which, of course would usually be interpreted to mean the power to live in accordance with the natural moral law. This further means that we should not slaughter innocents since we (being innocent) would not want to be slaughtered.

The problem of sophistry is, by and large, fueled by the academic world. Academia is the stronghold of the sophist. "[I]f the modern university is not theoretically Sophist, it is operationally Sophist, and the extremists hold the high ground." Budziszewski (2003), 169. Certainly, the philosophy of natural law has been replaced wholesale, and the academic world seems to teem with relativists, nihilists, consequentialists, utilitarians, feminists, and "ists" of every kin, kith, and kind. Budziszewski should know. He rubs shoulders with the Sophists, but, to his credit (and God's grace), he is also head and shoulders above them. He left the cave of sophistry into the light of day of the natural law. Let us make sure we follow.

*Budziszewski defines these terms: "Postmodernism is 'suspicion of metanarratives . . . A metanarrative is a Big Story that tries to make sense of how it really is. Suspicion of metanarratives, then, means thinking no one ever gets the Big Story right." "Epistemological relativism is the view that truth is relative to one's point of view. In other words, there is no Truth with a capital T, but only your truth . . . and my truth." "Antifoundationalism is the view that there are no first principles. Everything goes around in circles." Budziszewski (2003), 167. These all share the aspect of sophism that all is conventional or relative, and there is no absolute right and wrong or absolute truth falsehood.
**Letter to J. H.Tiffany (March31,1819), The Works of John Adams (Boston: Little & Brown,1856), Vol. 10, p. 377.

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