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.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Response to Griffiths' "The Nature of Desire"

I thought I would post my comments to Paul J. Griffiths' "The Nature of Desire," found in the December 2009 Issue of First Things. You may see Griffiths' article at Griffiths is the Warren Professor of Catholic Theology at Duke Divinity School. There seems to be something wrong with Griffiths' article, and my best articulation of the problem, prepared in a short period of time, is given below.

In his "The Nature of Desire," Paul Griffiths’ vision of man is unfortunately more Humean than Catholic. He is perceptive enough to anticipate a virulent Thomistic—indeed Catholic—opposition to it. Whatever his view of man and morality, it seems well-outside the confines of the Catholic moral tradition; in fact, in many ways it seems antithetical and incompatible with it. Indeed, Griffiths seems to recognize and relish in that very fact. Though he suggests his vision to be more true than the received theories of natural law that govern Catholic moral teaching, he does not advance persuasive arguments for that assessment.

Griffiths’ argument starts from a very narrow and Humean view that man post lapsus, that is, after the Fall, is nothing but a bundle of desires. For Griffiths, man is impulse only, and he possesses no nature to distinguish him from the brute (except perhaps, after the Fall, the dubious ability to have infinite desires). In defining man as a bundle of desires only, Griffiths appears wholly to neglect the role of reason as the defining distinction between man and brute (tellingly, the word reason is not used once in his article as a source of binding norms). In Griffiths' view, man is not homo sapiens, but homo desiderius. Focusing then entirely on human desire as the only possible basis for the natural moral law, and rejecting reason’s role without mention why reason plays no part, Griffiths finds postlapsarian human desire to be “deranged,” infinitely “protean,” total “chaos,” and bereft of the least whiff of God’s prior antelapsarian ordering. This infinitely “plastic” desire no longer betrays a clue to a divine order, and therefore retains no value in informing us of what is right and good. Human nature is for Griffiths is what it was for Calvin (though the latter included reason in his definition of nature): hopelessly depraved. Desire, which for Griffiths is the sum and substance of man, accordingly yields no clue to God’s law, and is no accurate source to determine our good, or, for that matter, of our telos or end. It is unable to give us a definition of what is natural to man. It is too ambivalent a source to allow us to define human nature, i.e., what is natural to us, or what accords with our good. “The nature of human desire," Griffiths concludes, "is that no particular desire is natural.”

Thus among the cacophony of the chorale of myriad desires, Griffiths despairs on ever finding the key to harmony, that is, he cannot find the natural law in man’s nature. There is no basso continuo, no steady constant, no deep melody in man. For Griffiths there is no essence, no nature from which we may glean a natural moral law, since our essence is “glassy,” insubstantial, invisible, and undiscoverable. And so, finally, Griffiths proclaims that a “full appreciation of human nature—a sort of meta naturalism—properly denies the natural.”

With such a narrow and emasculated view of nature, Griffiths rightly concludes, then, that any natural moral law predicated upon man’s subjective desires is bound to fail. While Griffiths acknowledges that these chaotic desires in man are subject to being configured (by social convention, self-imposed strictures, or even divinely-given strictures), these strictures—conventional or self-imposed or even willed by God—are equally unavailing in determining the good because they cannot be ranked. “[W]e are not in fact more open to any particular configuration of desire than to another,” Griffith concludes. These configurations appear to be extrinsic, accidental molds placed upon our plastic desires, and so morality is an act not unlike a baker shaping his muffins.

What is worse, there are no means by which these various efforts to fence in and mold the otherwise infinite plastic desires may be objectively judged, or at least Griffiths despairs of finding such means. So the moral difference between a necrophiliac and a celibate priest is the difference between speaking English or speaking Japanese, between preferring oysters to roasted cat.

For a Christian, Griffiths concedes, the molder or the source of the configuration is Christ, and Christians are called to configure their desires so as to “turn us from death and fit us for life,” whatever that means. But this self-imposed law is fideistic, subjective, and proper to Christians alone. It is decidedly not universal. Though Griffiths suggests that “theoretically” there is a “hierarchy of goodness” that may allow us to rank these “configurations,” Griffiths never offers any suggestion as to how this may be done. In fact, he appears resigned to the practical impossibility in ranking these configurations. He confesses that all configurations—presumably also the Christian’s configuration—are “to some extent, damaged, blood-and-violence threaded, idolatrous, lured by lack and absence.” He further cautions that the theoretical ordering of configurations is not “easily” obtained, and “never without qualification and ambiguity.” So what is already theoretically well-nigh unattaniable is a fortiori practically impossible. The way I interpret Griffiths' comments, there is no way to distinguish the configuration chosen by Judas from the configuration chosen by St. John of the Cross. Presumably even God has problems judging configurations, and so (unrepentant!) rapists and torturers may be found in Paradise with repentant saints.

Ultimately—because human desire is so amorphous, and because the configurations so subjective and fraught with ambiguity—there is no overriding, universal moral concept, no natural law that governs all men, and by which all men shall be judged. So Christians ought not to talk about a fundamental law, an objective natural law binding on all men, but rather ought to use Griffiths' horribly clumsy term to refer to their own particular subjectively-preferred configuration, a "to-be-cultivated-in-response-to-divine-gift law."

Superficially, the prolix suggestion for a new term for the "natural moral law" is risibly clumsy. But, more seriously, Griffiths' theory of "to-be-cultivated-in-response-to-divine-gift law" not only ill-suits the English language, it ill-suits a Catholic theologian.

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