What my body means, What I mean

This is the third part of my series on natural law.  Parts 1 and 2 can be found here and here.

Suppose it is true that there are natural meanings to our corporeal acts, independent of and prior to any additional meanings we choose to confer upon them.  To what degree am I accountable for the natural meaning of my acts?  To take a common example, let us admit that sexual intercourse has a natural meaning and purpose, that it is about procreation via family, binding generation to generation and husband to wife, and expressing a radical donation of self to one’s spouse.  Are men and women always obliged to mean all this whenever they engage in the conjugal act?  Must I mean what my body means?

One position would be that natural meanings have, of themselves, no moral import. This would salvage the liberal position, even after admitting natural significations. Most liberals would frown on a man deliberately promising lifelong fidelity to a woman without meaning it. On the other hand, they would insist that what the two parties understand by the conjugal act is the only morally relevant data. A man and a woman who wanted the incidental pleasures of sex without the commitment the act implies could just agree not to mean by intercourse what intercourse naturally means.

This position has the advantage of allowing all sorts of indulgences while attempting to maintain some moral standards.  As a way of relating to one’s body and its given “language” for expressing love and intimacy, though, this is very unsatisfactory.  It implies a practical Cartesianism. My ego or self is conceived as an entirely separate thing from my body, a thing that I am said to “own” the way I own my furniture. But my body is my interface with the world and my fellows; in separating myself from it, I separate myself from them. A lover doesn’t see me, doesn’t touch me, isn’t close to me; she only sees, feels, and embraces my body, an automaton I control but that is too separate from my “self” to be a true locus of intimacy. What’s more, the choice of whether or not to endorse natural meanings is one that we never approach in a contextual vacuum. The natural meanings are always given. They provide a context that conditions any other meanings we choose to affirm. If I have sex with a woman without marrying her, I am rejecting her as my wife and treating her as unworthy of that commitment. I can’t object that marriage was a proposition never brought up, and therefore never rejected. The act of intercourse itself brought it up by natural signification. At that point, the only choices are to consciously endorse the body’s promise or to repudiate it.  If you want to not marry a woman and not reject her, there is only one way: don’t sleep with her.

The most obvious alternative would be to acknowledge a duty to always consciously mean by an act whatever that act naturally means. This is closer to the natural law view. It would mean that, before I perform an action, I should consider the natural meaning, translate it into a series of propositions of the kind I can mentally affirm or deny, and then affirm them all while performing the action with a clear conscience. This view certainly respects the language of the body; in fact, it errors in being too conscientious. Must we really expect every young bride and groom to enumerate in a set of clear propositions the whole meaning of marital love, in all its depth and force and subtlety, before they are allowed to consummate their marriage? I have certainly never done such a thing, nor do I believe that any philosopher or saint has ever done it; I doubt the thing could be done at all.

One important problem is that natural acts and relations like marriage are only really understood from the inside by engaging in them and being mentally shaped by the experience:  “conatural knowledged”, as the Thomists call it.  No doubt the bride and groom must have some idea what marital love means, or they couldn’t meaningfully promise it, but their understanding of it is expected to grow as they live it.  Living marital love forms the mind and the imagination, so that one can more fully understand what it is that one initially promised.  To expect full understanding from the start would have things backwards.

More fundamentally, the second approach falls into the same rationalist error as the opposite, liberal, position.  It assumes that the only kind of meanings are the kind that can be reduced to finite sets of propositions.  This, however, is not true, as we know from the philosophical investigation of art.  A work of art is certainly meaningful, and may even have a “message”, but the meaning can never be completely captured by a verbal explanation; explanations of what the artwork “says” never really capture what it shows.  Natural meanings are another case of showing rather than saying.  They contain propositions, but they are not exhausted by them.  They are in a sense larger than our minds.  What’s more, the fact that something is expressed naturally rather than verbally/intellectually is itself significant.  If a couple were to read off to each other all of my statements about the meaning of sex, this would not be identical to actually performing the marital embrace.

Clarity: good vs evil

I’ve been on the fence about BGC & Proph’s claim that good and evil are getting more unambiguous with time, but this would seem to be a case of it:  a man cultivated and wise by any century’s standard defending the noblest truths about human nature and being confronted by a mob of what any other age would call “unimaginable depravity” but ours calls “tomorrow’s leaders”.

Show me your conscience; don’t tell me about it

Wrong:

Catholic institutions shouldn’t have to pay for their employees’ contraceptives because it goes against our consciences, and we should have religious freedom not to have to violate our consciences.

Right:

Contraception is evil.  It desecrates the marital bond, offends against chastity, and is a menace to public morals.  It is reprehensible to engage in contraceptive acts or to cooperate in them in any way.  This is a matter of natural law; it has nothing to do with religion.  Public bodies should not be promoting or enabling this sin.  Neither Holy Mother Church, nor any other group, religious or secular, nor any individual should be forced by government to divulge funds for such wicked purposes.

The first message, the wrong one, can be translated as follows:

We Catholics have this weird idea that contraception is bad.  We have no reason for this belief.  Don’t look at us, man; it’s the old man in Rome.  He made up this rule and the rest of us are stuck with it.  It’s like the Jews and pork–a ‘religion’ thing.  However, even though poor, poor women (Who cares about men, after all?) are going to, like die, or whatever it is that happens to chicks who don’t get their contraceptive pills, we are selfishly sticking with our arbitrary dislike, and we think we’ve found something in the constitution that forces you to let us.

If you say the second thing, people might think to themselves

Whoa.  They really believe this stuff.  I guess it would be wrong to force them to do something they think is that bad.  Maybe these laws are getting a little pushy.  And maybe it isn’t a ‘religion’ thing; maybe we’ve been running over peoples’ consciences for a long time, and it’s only now that the target was big enough to fight back.

So, what’s actually going to happen?  I think this comment at What’s Wrong with the World sounds most plausible:

I predict the following:
1. Most if not all the bishops will start out sounding strong in solidarity in trying to get this reversed.
2. Some catholic organizations (colleges, hospitals, clinics, etc) will refuse to go along with the bishops, will not follow their lead, and will give in to the demand to provide the insurance.
3. Some bishops (but not all) who have Catholic orgs in their diocese who give in (#2 above) will “enter into” dialogue with them, and this dialogue will become extraordinarily complex to sort out. Aug 2013 will pass without resolution of the dialogue. (Recall the complex discussions Cardinal Law had about a Catholic org entering into contracts with non-Catholic entities for shared space?)
4. Approximately 6 bishops who have orgs in #2 above will timely excommunicate members of the boards. Bruskewitz of Lincoln NE (if he has any boards so foolish as to tempt him) being first, followed quickly by Olmstead of Phoenix, Chaput of Philly, and Loverde of Arlington VA.
5. Several org boards will simply renounce their Catholic ties and become non-affiliated orgs. Then they will buy the insurance. (This has already happened by one group, so it doesn’t take much prescience.) They will hope to avoid excommunication this way.
6. A large number of theologians will announce that giving in to the regulations is not (a) formal cooperation with evil, and (b) is not immediate material cooperation with evil, and therefore is subject to the usual “cooperation with evil” rule, requiring proportionate good.

The practical problem the bishops (as a body) have with making any kind of effective political stand is the combination of 3, 5 and 6 above. The more they hold a hard line with solidarity, the more pressure some board members will feel to sever Catholic association, and use 6 to justify themselves – resulting in a noticeable number of rats leaving the ship, upsetting the ONE LARGE BLOCK UNITED IN OPPOSITION picture. If they were unified and pro-active they would pre-emptively formulate a strategy together to _all_ (a) give a 1-month hard deadline to all orgs trying to go with the HHS regulation for all “discussion”, and (b) publicly punish all orgs and their boards that EITHER sever ties over this or buy the insurance, and (c) formally silence theologian dissent on the issue. I don’t even know if these are readily possible within Canon Law.

Repost: The beauty of women

Here’s one of my posts from back when Throne and Altar was getting ten hits per day:

love to look at pretty girls–I could watch a beautiful woman for hours an be completely content.  Christ says that this is adultery, and I don’t doubt it, but it’s also a curious phenomenon.  Why do so many of us find the beauty of women so enthralling?

Dumb question, you might be thinking:  it’s my sex drive, vile sinner that I am.  Now there’s no doubt that I’m sexually attracted to women, and these desires can be strong, but I don’t think that’s it, at least that’s not most of it.  The way I respond to a pretty girl is nothing like the way I respond to, say, a juicy steak.  I’m interested in the steak for the satisfaction it can give me by eating it; if I can’t eat it, it might as well not exist as far as I’m concerned.  When I see a lovely girl, my thoughts are seldom on how she might delight me in bed.  In fact, my experience is ecstatic in the old sense of the term–I am lifted outside myself; I joyously forget about myself completely.  For an instant, the girl is everything–her face, her eyes, her smile, her hair.  I’m enthralled; I would be content to just look forever.

Is this the disinterestedness of a true aesthetic response, or am I just fooling myself?  I don’t think I’m fooling myself, for three reasons.  First, it’s not just men that are enraptured by women’s beauty–I’ve seen it have the same effect on women and children.  I can remember times when one of them (say, my wife or one of my little nieces) pointed out a pretty girl to me.  “Look at how pretty she is!” they say with the excitement that comes not from desire but from delight.  A beautiful woman brings happiness to everyone who sees her:  men, women, and children.  We rejoice that something so lovely exists.

Second, I find that I can have a similar, but much weaker, appreciation for the beauty of some animals.  Perhaps you, too, have been struck by the gracefulness and perfect design of a cat, and you’ve thought to yourself “What a magnificent creature!”  We can appreciate the grace and perfection of a woman in the same way, although for a woman the impression is much, much more intense. The reason, I think, is that human women really are more beautiful than cats, although desire might augment our interest (as might our appreciation of the woman as a fellow person, with consciousness and intelligence).

I have another reason to think that the appreciation of female beauty isn’t purely carnal, but I’m afraid I don’t know a delicate way to say it.  When I judge a steak, I do so solely on the basis of how much pleasure it would give me to eat it.  Now, this can’t be the “edge” that a pretty woman has over a plain one, because, frankly, sex with either one would probably feel about the same to me.  Furthermore, the thought of adultery is not only morally, but also viscerally repellent to me.  If looking at girls always meant plotting to sleep with them, I would rather have an urge to avoid it.

Furthermore, the awe elicited by a pretty girl doesn’t just come from the form of her face and body (although she needs these to be pretty).  What most enthralls us is this form charged with life.  We love to watch her hair bounce and her body sway as she walks, to see her lovely eyes move from one object to another, to watch her concentrate, blush, smile, and laugh in turn.  A woman’s vitality is part of her beauty.  This is why a pretty girl in a movie is much more alluring than the same girl in a photograph.  And this is still all at the level of superficial appreciation.  Even if I don’t know or care about a girl, I can appreciate and be attracted to her vitality and her femininity.

The appreciation for a woman’s beauty is thus a spiritual as well as a carnal affair.  This makes it both promising and dangerous.  It is promising because it can fuse with and complement real love so easily.  If my desire for a woman was the same as my desire for a steak, I could perhaps both love her and desire her in this way, but the two feelings would be totally separate.  In fact, they would tend to oppose one another, since one treats her as an end and one as a means.  On the other hand, attraction to a woman’s beauty, vitality, and femininity can merge seamlessly with love for her as a person and a child of God.  Both aesthetic appreciation and love are value responses; both treat the object as an end in itself.

On the other hand, this spiritual element can make the desire for a girl a more dangerous temptation than a mere carnal desire could be.  If I want a steak but know I shouldn’t eat it, it’s not too hard to change my attention to something else.  The steak had only made a claim on a part, a fairly humble part, of my soul.  A woman, though, can entrance and intoxicate me body, soul, and spirit.  This is all to the good if she is, or can become, my wife.  If she’s not,  then it might require all of my strength to put her out of mind.  Christ was right to turn us away from such danger.

A Rubicon moment for the Anglo-American Left?

On the European Continent–especially France, Spain, and Russia–there’s never been any doubt that the Left is anti-Christian; the quest to eradicate Christianity from public life has been practically its defining feature since the eighteenth century.  Liberalism in England and America, while acknowledged by friends and enemies as a Leftist movement, has always tried to understand its relationship to Christianity, and other religions and “comprehensive” philosophies, differently.  Supposedly, Anglo-American Leftism does not require historical Christian orthodoxy to be false, only controversial or irrelevant to governing.  Liberalism presents itself as a neutral position, an agreement to disagree and not throw the weight of government coercion one way or the other.  Thus, liberals are fond of saying that a policy of legal abortion is a way of not deciding whether the act in question is murder or harmless lifestyle enhancement.  I think this claim is untenable–and I especially don’t see how the neutrality line is consistent with liberals’ insistence that the government make sure that women have easy access to abortions, as if whether or not this is something that is good to have access to weren’t the very thing liberals claim to be neutral about–but that’s an argument for another time.  Sometimes the supposed neutrality of the liberal state is presented as a recognition of how little power government has to influence the private morals of its citizens:  “You can’t police bedrooms”, and all that.  Again, there are arguments for and against this view, but at least it’s not obviously absurd.  It seems perfectly possible for someone to say, for example, “I think prostitution is utterly wicked, but attempts by the government to suppress it would be futile and counterproductive”.

In the past few years, Anglo-American liberalism has basically abandoned this “neutrality” position.  It did this by embracing the homosexual agenda.  Now, one can imagine a sodomy-friendly liberal policy that plausibly respects the strictures of official neutrality, e.g. “We liberals don’t think the state should take any position on the morality or lack thereof of homosexual acts.  We won’t punish them, and we won’t bar sodomites from government positions.  If someone thinks that what these people are doing is wrong, they are free to argue it in the free marketplace of ideas.”  However, the Left–and I mean the entire Anglosphere Left–has gone far beyond this.  It insists that homosexual relationships are positively good.  It sets aside a whole month to officially celebrate them.  It seeks to award civil benefits to those who claim to be engaged in such relationships.  It demands that public schoolchildren be taught to hold a positive view of active homosexuals.  Furthermore, the Left–and I mean the entire Left–believes that disapproval of homosexuality is itself a social vice that must be eradicated by government action.  Schoolchildren holding gender essentialist views are now actively terrorized by euphemistically-named “anti-bullying” campaigns.  The state has broken off collaborations with the Catholic Church precisely because the Church refuses to endorse what the Left regards as the unquestionable good of homosexuality.  There is no way that a liberal can say that liberalism is neutral on the moral question of homosexuality–or the related ontological/teleological question of gender; it is actively campaigning for one view and using the power of the state to discourage other views.  Nor can liberals claim that they are simply keeping their noses out of other peoples’ business because they don’t think the state has any real power to affect public morals.  The whole point of their campaign is to alter the public’s moral perceptions.  This necessarily means redefining marriage in the minds of its participants into a genderless arrangement and impeding the ability of gender essentialist and/or religious parents from transmitting their moral beliefs to their children.

So liberalism isn’t even pretending to be neutral anymore.  Fine, you might say, what’s the big deal?  I mean, nobody but a few political science professors ever really imagined it was.  Most liberal voters hold the more forthright view that their moral opinions are objectively correct and should be reflected in law for that reason.  It’s best that they drop the whole “neutrality” smokescreen now, so we can get to the serious work of arguing over whether their beliefs (utilitarianism, tolerance, etc) really are true.

But there is something new and troubling.  Aside from idolatry and possibly adultery, no sin is condemned as clearly and forcefully by the Christian tradition as sodomy.  Whether one looks at the Bible, the Fathers, Popes, or Protestant Reformers, the witness is unanimous.  Nor is this a belief that the Church just absorbed from the surrounding culture; opposition to homosexuality was, like opposition to infanticide and polygamy, one of the defining features of Christian life in opposition to paganism, whose opinion of these practices was more ambiguous.  Now, liberalism claims that not only is homosexuality morally unproblematic, but that disapproval of it is itself a grave moral fault–the supreme liberal sin of intolerance.  Thus, liberalism now claims that one of Christianity’s clearest and strongest moral stands is itself wicked.  If true, this would mean that Christianity must be a false religion.  Liberals may admit that Christianity has a few correct teachings, but they are committed to eradicating the belief that it is a reliable guide to truth about morals and human nature.

That’s the new thing.  Anglo-American liberalism has not admitted before that it wants to make it official policy that Christianity is a false religion.  The real reasons to oppose the androgynist agenda, of which the approval of homosexual perversion is only one part, are philosophical and anthropological; they don’t rely on any particular revelation.  However, it is certainly worth noting that Leftism now regards it a matter of basic justice that the religion of the majority of the American population be rejected as false.

On the unusually low libidos of Leftists

This is just an impression I’ve got–no evidence–but what are blogs for but to throw out new ideas?

There’s a stereotype out there, created by we conservatives, that Leftists are a bunch of lechers who have decided to tear down the moral patrimony of our civilization just so they can more easily gratify their own carnal cravings.  Listening to them, though, I more often get the impression that Leftists are people with unusually weak sex drives.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’m sure they get laid more often than conservatives, but that’s not for trying harder.  It’s because chicks dig Leftist radicals.

Here are some of the things that give me the impression that powerful lusts are more often absent in the Leftist constitution:

  • As I said in an earlier post, they seem to have a hard time imagining that immodestly dressed women and indecent pictures in public places might make it harder for young men to be chaste.  We always hear from them “Women have a right to dress however they want!  Men have a duty to not notice!”  A semi-dressed woman should be able to walk up to a man, basically throw her boobs in his face, and he must not only not look, he must treat her precisely the same way he would treat a woman in a nun’s habit.  They even think it silly to imagine that a man’s concentration on work might suffer in the presence of exposed female flesh.  I ask you, are these they expectations of ordinary men?
  • They’re always politicizing sex, as if that’s the only way they can make it interesting for themselves.  Feminist academics going on about their lesbianism are a particularly obvious case.  One gets the distinct impression that sticking it to the patriarchy, rather than any mere corporeal pleasure, is the main motive for lesbian activity.  Sexual radicals like Wilhelm Reich saw promiscuity as the easy rode to communism, and I expect that’s the main reason Leftists could be bothered engineering a sexual revolution.
  • Even among heterosexual progressives, and the culture that reflects their influence, they’re always pushing transgression as something needed to make sex exciting.  Anything sex-related is peppered with words like “naughty” or “forbidden” even when the act in question is morally licit (for married couples).  Again, it seems like, for our progressive brethren, the act of coitus itself is a dull affair.  It’s only interesting if it can be related to a revolutionary project:  flouting established moral norms and that sort of thing.  I myself have often enough wanted to indulge in sex acts that would have been immoral for one reason or another, but I’ve never wanted to do anything because it was forbidden.  I would have rather the act not been immoral, so that I could have licitly indulged myself.  For the transgressive crowd, that would take away all the fun.
  • Use of weirdly trivializing words to describe sex, like saying that it should be “fun”.
  • The urge to trivialize sex.  “It’s just sex.  It doesn’t mean anything”, or at least it doesn’t mean anything to those of us who are “grown up”.  Now, it shouldn’t take an active sex drive for one to appreciate the sublimity of the conjugal act.  However, it may be that having powerful urges that one has difficulty controlling helps one to appreciate that this is a sphere that one must take seriously.  This is especially the case if, as Burke imagined, the sublime is connected to danger and power.  The ordinary non-Leftist, learning to take sex seriously, is more likely to sense that the licit expression of this powerful force must be a holy thing.  When he sees how it channels the divine act of creation, he becomes sure of it.
  • The use of Satanic words to describe sex, like “empowering”.
  • The vices they project onto us vs. the vices we project onto them.  Conservatives imagine that liberals are promoting promiscuity and perversion because of their own lust, projecting our own horniness onto them.  Leftists accuse patriarchal conservatives of using sex as a weapon to establish domination, projecting their own obsessions with power, their own libido dominandi, onto us.  According to them, men have sex with their wives to maintain our power over them.  Why else would we do it, after all?
  • Their tendency to call consensual sex that they don’t like (e.g. marital intercourse) “rape”.
  • The way they make far-reaching policies on sexual harassment that basically prohibit any unwanted expression of romantic interest (and how can one know if it’s wanted until it’s been expressed?) without bothering to provide protocol whereby a gentleman may properly express interest in a lady.  They simply don’t care about his predicament.  “Why is he so interested in women anyway?  Doesn’t he know that there are more interesting things to spend his time on, like the Revolution?”
  • The tendency to turn sex (but not gender–heaven forbid!) into an identity-forming characteristic.  For example, gay men see it as their ticket out of the “white oppressor” category up the victimization hierarchy.  Here group membership is brought into the mix to make sex seem interesting.

Gender, sex, and childhood

I actually do believe that children are “sexual beings”, although not in the way that the sickos Laura Wood quotes mean it.  There’s a strand of progressive thought that likes to insinuate that children have sexual desires.  Freud is their big hero.  I’m always baffled that this opinion is given so much respect, given that EVERY ONE OF US remembers being a child and not having sexual urges until puberty.  Scientism is the enemy of science.  The prestige of science comes from its grounding in experiment and observation.  The mark of scientism is that one will believe a claim that directly contradicts all experience if only it’s made by someone claiming to be a scientist.

As I’ve noted, gender roles facilitate our relationships with children, even before they’re born:

The pregnancy books list the advantages of determining the child’s sex before birth; the main one is that you can buy gender-appropriate baby stuff.  They don’t qualify it by saying “things our homophobic, patriarchal culture regards as gender-appropriate” or anything like that.  In the pregnancy world, there are boyish boys and girlie girls…

It is interesting that parents are most insistant about gender distinctions at this time in life when they really do matter least.  After all, without the cues from colored clothes, we would hardly be able to tell the difference between a baby girl and a baby boy.  And perhaps this is the issue.  For us, being manifestly gendered is a part of being human.  If what you’re carrying in your stomach or your arms isn’t a “he” or a “she”, it must be an “it”, a thing.  It was a real relief for my wife and I when the ultrasound technician told us we had a girl.  At last we knew what pronoun to use, and this allowed us to relate to our baby much more vividly.  We could only really think of her as a person when we knew her as not just a person, but as a girl.  All deep relationships are “gendered”.  Only in the impersonal workforce are people just “people”, rather than being the rich realities of men and women.

When we dress a baby girl in girlish clothes, or surround her with girlish toys, we are attempting to complete the manifestation of her humanity.  “This is not an ‘it’”, we say, “This is a ‘she’”.  As children mature, sex differences become more obvious, and there is less need for color cues.  The battle switches inward.  Then we must resist the capitalist-feminist complex that is ever-eager to reduce our “he”s and “she”s into “it”s.

Sex roles are powerfully present in all our memorable children’s literature, including Disney movies:

One Disney movie treats sex in a particularly profound way.  I mean The Jungle Book.  In this movie, Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves, lives happily in the jungle outside of human society.  The jungle is a place of danger, but–provided one is content with the “bear” necessities–one without work or responsibility.  Mowgli’s position resembles the “state of nature” of the philosophes’ imaginations.  What will draw him out of it and force him to join human society?  How about physical danger?  That was a popular eighteenth-century answer.  Man lives in society to pool his defenses.  At first it seems like this is what’s going to happen.  The animals determine that Mowgli must leave the jungle to protect him from Shere Khan, the tiger.  However, the tiger is later defeated, so Mowgli will not be forced to leave the jungle for this reason after all.  And, in fact, Mowgli fully intends to stay with the animals, away from the world of men…until he comes near the human village and sees a girl.  While fetching water for her family, the girl sings a song about the duties of husbands and wives.  Hypnotized, Mowgli follows her into the village, laying aside the freedom of the jungle and taking upon himself the duties of civilization.  The wise panther Bagheera explains that Mowgli is now “with his own kind”, “where he belongs.”

What is the message?  First of all, the movie affirms Aristotle and rejects Rousseau:  civilization is man’s natural state.  And what holds man in society?  Sex, of course.  That is, the duties to spouses, children, kin, and clan.  So it was, and so it must be.  Notice that Disney’s treatment of sex is the opposite of the one fashionable now.  Movies nowadays tend to treat sex as an anarchic thing.  They associate it with the breaking of social bonds in pursuit of pleasure.  “Freedom” and “sexual bliss” are as sononymous to screenwriters as they are to adolescent boys.  But this is entirely backwards.  As The Jungle Book makes clear, it is the nature of sex to bind.  First of all, it binds a man to his wife and the children this act produces.  Less directly, it locks the man into the wider civilization, forces him to work, gives him a stake in the social order.

The story Walt Disney tells here is very old.  Indeed, it is the oldest known story in the world.  When the countryside of Uruk was being ravaged by the wild man Enkidu, Gilgamesh sends out a temple prostitute to give herself to the savage.  By uniting himself to a woman, Enkidu is separated from the world of animals and joins the world of men.  The Sumerians, too, knew that sex binds.

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