This Reply doth most certainly warrant Further Reply. Quoth Greg:

Thanks for this! I will now shamelessly take the bait.

Although I share your appreciation for the improvement that the Middle Ages represented as compared to what came before, I cannot refrain from saying that the battle against bigotry does not seem to me to have reached its apex at that time. [Insert clichéd, oversimplified and historically half-literate references to medieval marginalization, abuse and torture of outsiders here]

It’s also worth noting that we owe our knowledge of the personhood of the embryo entirely to modern science. Thomas Aquinas condemned abortion on grounds that it was contraceptive, because he did not know it was homicide. If you’re glad that you know the embryo is an infant human, thank Francis Bacon.

(source: This Exam Only Needs One Question | Hang Together)

Hah!  Bait strictly accidental, sir.  I couldn’t consistently speak my mind on the subject without putting it that way, although I almost edited it out because I realized it might accidentally resonate with a remark you made in your post about “natural rights” at ETS.  (I’m sorry I didn’t try to attend, now that I know you did.  I may well try to put together a paper for next year–I’ve kept my membership, but haven’t had opportunity to make much use of it, lately.)

As I plan to make a post soon about the “downstream from culture” point and the controversial status of “natural rights” logic in religious discourse (and how “fundamental human rights” and “civil rights” may complicate that picture), I’ll disengage your riposte to my “Christendom” remark as follows:

First, I suspect that we, being both half-breed children of the Enlightenment and Christendom, would agree that the hegemony of post-Christian Western thought has produced evils that even the ancient empires could scarcely rival:  the rationalist regimes of the 20th Century, and their quasi-religious totalitarian counterparts, and even the wars of the supposedly englightened nations, more than keep up with the corvee labor of the Egyptians, the genocides of the Assyrians, or the wars of the Macedonians and Romans, Huns and Vandals.  If you prefer the 17th to the 13th Century, I still hardly think you’ll prefer Mao or Margaret Sanger (or Attila or Peter Singer or Alexander) to Aquinas or More (or Locke or Burke).  And if you prefer to see Aquinas as a swerve on a path that leads more truly through Locke, and I have come to see Locke as a swerve back toward a path more truly drawn forward through Aquinas, then we only prove that we are half-breeds, as our common cause in the post-Christian West is our repudiation of its most distinctive strains in favor of those elements most attributable to its Christian patrimony.

Further, I cannot imagine in what respect Aquinas, Bacon, Locke, or pretty much anyone even tangentially related to the tradition that ran through Aquinas could find themselves at odds on the point in question.  As you say, Aquinas and Christians generally got the moral question right (the moral difference between contraception and abortion is real, as is the moral difference between blasphemy and sacrilege, but less important than the truth that these are all acts that pit us against the gracious work of God, and cut us off from its merits and benefits), quite without benefit of more recent science.  It beggars belief to imagine that the protege of Albertus Magnus and great Dominican defender of Aristotelianism (against a settled Platonist reduction of Augustinian theology that had repeatedly proved vulnerable to dualist misinterpretation) would suddenly *reverse* the course he had charted in theses that were mistakenly (and briefly) condemned and in his controversy against the “double truth” theory of Siger of Brabant; he would hardly suddenly decide that honest understanding of nature was *not* coordinate with honest understanding of revelation!  You can’t have Francis Bacon without Aquinas, the better-formed product of the same 13th-Century University of Paris that produced the brilliant but troubled Franciscan Roger Bacon (and the route forward from Aquinas would have been better if Scotus, Ockham, and others of the Schoolmen hadn’t been so radically deficient in their understanding of his synthesis).

In sum, Aquinas believed, based on the best science available to him, that “quickening” was the point at which a truly human being–a living soul–was verifiably present in a woman’s womb.  In slightly different ways, so did Augustine and St. Jerome, if we are right to rely on popular snippets of their more obscure works.  All roundly condemned “abortion” thus [mis]understood as contraceptive rather than technically homicidal, and all considered abortion homicidal at least from the moment human life could be detected by ordinary means, so it’s really a question of using scientific data to help us decide *which* mortal sin to avoid and *how* to help heal the guilty soul).  I can conceive of no morally or scientifically significant difference between refusing to even vote on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act and refusing to even vote on the Kicking Unborn Child Protection Act.

In any case, I know that you will unhesitatingly agree that none of this in any way exculpates the post-Christian West insofar as, with modern embryology to tell us better, we not only refuse to accept the data when it leads us more certainly to more correct conclusions about the humanity of infants, but also enshrine as a “human right” the willful and publicly-funded slaughter of these innocent, language-learning, pain-capable, helpless humans.

Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it….

(source: James 4:17 RSVCE – Whoever knows what is right to do and – Bible Gateway)

4 Thoughts.

  1. Re: “downstream from politics,” did you see my article on the U.Va. case, which was basically about that?

    Re: “our common cause in the post-Christian West is our repudiation of its most distinctive [i.e. its most post-Christian] strains in favor of those elements most attributable to its Christian patrimony,” I can go along with that on two conditions. 1) “Post-Christian” must be modified to “post-Christendom.” Turkey is currently post-Christian, but the U.S. is post-Christendom without being unambiguously post-Christian. 2) It had better not morph at some later time into into “our common cause in the modern West is our repudiation of its most distinctive [i.e. its most modern] strains in favor of those elements most attributable to its pre-modern patrimony.”

    Re: Aquinas, Bacon, and abortion, I was not at all suggesting that Aquinas might fail to recognize that abortion is homicide if he knew what we know now; obviously he would not. I was only reminding you that the reason we know what we know now is due to the rise of modern empirical science – and the rise of modern empirical science was opposed tooth and nail for centuries by those who understood themselves to be, and were universally understood in their own time to be, the guardians of the intellectual legacy of the Middle Ages. The idea that Aquinas is somehow a patron of the empirical sciences seems to me to involve an unjustified assumption that any advance in learning must somehow owe a debt to Aquinas.

    Here’s how things look to those of us who don’t take your line. From the moment modern empirical science began to develop, the Thomas Aquinas Fan Club began to spit on it. For centuries, they did everything in their power to destroy it. (Locke was denied a chair at Oxford because he wanted to do empirical science – in fact, medical science – and the Platonists couldn’t put up with that.) And now, with the Thomas Aquinas Fan Club having been proved disastrously wrong about empirical science, suddenly y’all want us all to forget about that, and you even strut around claiming credit (“you can’t have Francis Bacon without Aquinas” – really?) for developments that you did everything in your power to discredit and prevent.

    I have left nominalism behind, because I see now why it doesn’t work. But let the record show that the nominalists were as successful as they were primarily because they got a lot of big questions right, centuries before the realists were dragged along kicking and screaming.

    • quick notes not hit in the post reply:

      Yes, saw the UVA post, and a couple others that I’ve been wanting to do a “link and discuss” conversation post with. I finally read your Locke book early this winter, after long wanting to, and though I had to return the ILL copy (sorry, it’s library priced), I enjoyed it and have tried to keep your reading of Locke in mind as I read & comment.

      I think “post-Christian” versus “post-Christendom” is a less significant difference than you do. I would regard the achievement of a truly charitable, hospitable toleration as good, and de facto pluralism as tolerable, but I regard de jure pluralism as intrinsically anti-Christian. When I speak of the “post-Christian global West,” however, I am continuing to use a characterization from my Derridean phase; I am thinking of Heidegger’s “destitute time” or the period when the culture has passed below Schaeffer’s “line of despair,” and noting as they both do that the synthesis we have abandoned as a culture is the Christian one that held at least in part from at least Aquinas to Kant.

      I think that conflating the synthesis Aquinas achieved with “the Catholic past” and rejecting it is mistaken. For one thing, both Aquinas and his chief opponents were Catholics trying to influence the hierarchy, and there is a pretty sharp difference between, say, Aquinas on the one hand and Bonaventure and Anselm on the other–precisely on the points in question, here.

      I also think it is a mistake to view the shortest method to a particular result as the best. I grant that we can get quicker results if we try all methods of inquiry, but that won’t make either you or me vote for a repetition of the Milgram experiments–and it should probably give us some sympathy for anti-vivisectionists, too.

      • I never said anything about “the Catholic past,” and this is not (for me, at least) about Catholic/Protestant debates. In fact, the “Platonists” who tried to run Locke out of Oxford because he specialized in empirical science were militant persecutors of Catholics. For purposes of this discussion there is no important difference between the Catholic metaphysical realists who spent centuries trying to destroy modern science and now want to claim credit for it and the Protestant metaphysical realists who spent centuries trying to destroy modern science and now want to claim credit for it.

        I am very strongly in favor of both the Milgram experiments and vivisection, but especially the Milgram experiments. I think very few people in the 20th century contributed more to the destruction of dangerous illusions than Milgram, and it is a sign of our cultural decline that we are less upset with ourselves for being what Milgram showed us to be than with Milgram for having the audacity to show us what we really are.

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