Whether the incarnation is self-contradictory?

St Thomas AquinasObjection: It seems that the incarnation of Christ is self-contradictory. For, as John Hick says, to say that Jesus was both man and God is like saying the same shape can be both a square and a circle.

On the contrary, The Apostle Thomas says in John 20, “My Lord and my God!”

I answer that, For two propositions to be contradictory, they must occupy the same logical space, so that a comparison is possible between them. It is true that there is a contradiction between saying that the same shape can be both a square and a circle. However, there is no contradiction in saying that a shape can be both a square and yellow; or between “being yellow” and “its being 4.00 pm on Friday 26 October 2011.” As St Thomas Aquinas painstakingly shows in his doctrine of God, “there is not, and there could not be, any such common territory” between Creator and creature; hence “all possibility of exclusion between them is excluded.”

Reply to Objection: “It is precisely because of, not in spite of, the absoluteness of the difference between Creator and creature that the possibility of that immanence which is the incarnation, an indwelling of the divine and the human in the one person of Christ, is conceivable. [...] [O]nly on a thoroughly idolatrous notion of God, one that reduces God to the standing of a creature, could it be true that, as Hick maintains, there is a contradiction in saying of one and the same person that he is truly human, truly divine.”

Based on Denys Turner’s argument on pp.224ff. of Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait. In jotting down my own brief summary of Turner’s argument, it seemed to fall naturally into this format… 

Vanishing (United) Kingdom?

Scottish independence?That the United Kingdom will collapse is a foregone conclusion. Sooner or later, all states do collapse, and ramshackle, asymmetric dynastic amalgamations are more vulnerable than cohesive nation states. Only the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ are mysteries of the future. 

So writes Norman Davies in his book Vanished Kingdoms, in a discomfiting (for Unionists), perhaps prophetic (Scottish nationalists will hope), section on the centrifugal forces that have been tearing apart the former United Kingdom of Britain and Ireland over the past century or so. Davies continues:

An exhaustive study of the many pillars on which British power and prestige were built – ranging from the monarchy, the Royal Navy and the Empire to the Protestant Ascendancy, the Industrial Revolution, Parliament and Sterling – indicated that all without exception were in decline; some were already defunct, others seriously diminished or debilitated; it suggests that the last act may come sooner rather than later. (p.679)

Whether Davies (writing in 2011) predicted that it could come as soon as a week next Thursday is doubtful, but over the past few days English complacency about the Scottish referendum on Thursday 18 September has been shaken by polls appearing to show momentum building for supporters of Scottish independence – even if, as yet, no opinion poll shows the Yes side with a lead over the Noes.

But even if (as still remains more likely than not) Scotland votes to remain in the Union, Davies would argue that this would merely be postponing the inevitable. Part of the problem is that New Labour left the process of devolution and decentralisation half-finished: Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were given varying degrees of autonomy, but attempts at creating regional democracy in England foundered. The result has:

left the political architecture of the United Kingdom in the early twenty-first century inherently unbalanced. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland cannot develop any sense of equality with their over-mighty English partner; and the English have little incentive to address the inbuilt instability. The kingdom is not well prepared for the next turn of the tide; resentments grow, and solidarity is sapped. (p.680)

Maybe a narrow No vote will finally jolt the English into addressing this imbalance, but I remain sceptical: Westminster will be reluctant to diminish its power and importance. And a No vote will increase the centrifugal forces in one respect at least: it is inevitable that Scotland will be given a much greater degree of devolution than it has now – and, as Davies observes, the history of states such as Austria-Hungary shows that “life in autonomous provinces provides a school for separatists.”

Davies also foresees that the departure of Scotland will push the residual UK towards further disintegration:

When Scotland departs, a crestfallen England – frustrated, diminished and shorn of its great-power pretensions – will be left in the company of two far smaller dependencies. Resultant discomforts will grow sharply. (pp.683f.)

Davies predicts what we might call a “Celtic realignment” between Dublin, Belfast and Edinburgh, leaving Wales “standing alone with England” – though with even its departure “only … a matter of time” (though this, as it happens, is the part of Davies’ argument about which I’m most sceptical). As Davies concludes:

The Welsh, who once were the original Britons, would end up being the last of the Britons.

Sombre stuff (if you’re English!), and perhaps we’re not quite there yet. But Davies’ sketch of Britain’s future unravelling does bring home how even a No vote will not be the end of the matter – and how the biggest threat to the United Kingdom is not Scottish or Welsh separatism, but English centralism.

“Legitimacy” and wealth

Hugh Dancy, Gwendolen Harleth and Hugh Bonneville in the BBC adaptaion of Daniel DerondaAs we saw in my previous post, a key theme in both Jane Austen’s novels and George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda is that of the entail: the requirement that entailed real property pass down the male line, even if that leaves widows and female descendants unprovided-for.

The “male line” means, of course, the legitimate male line. In Daniel Deronda, Deronda himself suspects (at least earlier in his life) that he is the illegitimate son of Sir Hugo Mallinger – a position from which he is unable to supplant Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt as heir to the Mallinger estates.

Attitudes towards illegitimacy have, of course, transformed over the past century or so – to the extent that even the word “illegitimacy” has fallen almost completely from use. Usually this is presented as a change in moral attitudes: depending on their point of view, some will hail this as a sign that we have become more liberal and enlightened, while others will decry it as a descent into moral anarchy.

However, “illegitimacy” was (as the word itself demonstrates) a legal category, and it was a series of changes in the law that largely emptied it of meaning. The Legitimacy Act 1926 allowed for children born out of wedlock to be “legitimised” if the parents subsequently married one another; the Family Law Reform Act 1969 allowed “illegitimate” children to inherit property on the death of an intestate parent. As a result, almost all the former legal impediments of “illegitimacy” have been swept aside. (Succession to hereditary titles, including the monarchy, continues to apply only to children born within wedlock.)

Why did these changes occur? I don’t think it is any coincidence that the 1926 Legitimacy Act was passed in the year after the “fee tail” was abolished in English law. Underlying (and preceding) the changes in both law and public attitudes is a change in the nature and distribution of wealth.

As we saw in my previous post, wealth at the beginning of the 19th century remained largely a matter of agricultural land, owned by the hereditary upper class. It had been that way for centuries, and the entail was an intrinsic part of the resulting system of land ownership.

When wealth is held in the form of land (and society is thoroughly patriarchal in organisation), ensuring that ownership remains in the male line is not simply a matter of preference. It is imperative for ensuring that family wealth remains within the family, rather than being divided and dissipated down the generations. And the one thing you can’t do is allow a family’s wealth to be put at risk by the young master of the house fathering a son by a serving maid. Hence marriage and legitimacy play a crucial role in maintaining economic relations within society.

However, as we saw (both from Thomas Piketty’s charts and from the contrasting nature of wealth in Pride & Prejudice and Daniel Deronda), during the 19th century the balance of wealth in Britain shifted from agricultural land to other forms of capital, principally bonds.

Bonds are a much more flexible form of wealth than land. They can be bought from the issuer without having to wait for an aristocratic holder to sell, and they can be subdivided easily for distribution between different heirs. Thus, while a wealthy bondholder may prefer to see his estate go to his (legitimate) male heirs, provision for daughters or for illegitimate offspring can be made without threatening the integrity of the underlying property. So the economic imperative for legitimacy is reduced. It is therefore unsurprising that legitimacy therefore came to be emptied of both its legal meaning and its moral force. It’s equally unsurprising that legitimacy continues to be relevant to forms of “property” that cannot, by their nature, be subdivided – namely, hereditary titles.

Another factor that undoubtedly played a role was the growth in the use of trusts. Trusts enabled wealthy families to protect their riches from dissolute heirs, while allowing greater flexibility to the trustees than was possible under the fee tail. Thus a family trust could achieve the objective of property preservation, without the manifest injustice to women that drives the plots of Austen’s novels and (to a lesser extent, as befits the changed economic circumstances of the 1860s) Daniel Deronda.

So once again, the message is: follow the capital.

Capital drives plot?

Lizzie Bennet and Gwendolen HarlethOne of the themes of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (see previous post) is the importance of income from capital for the European upper classes prior to 1914. This was the result of a number of related factors: a high capital/income ratio, low growth and low inflation – so that capital held its value, and the returns from capital outstripped those from the growth of the wider economy, enabling the rich to hang on to their wealth.

Some of the best sections of Prof Piketty’s book are those in which he illustrates this from the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen. For a modern reader, one of the striking features of Austen’s novels is people’s openness about one another’s wealth and income (such as Mr Darcy’s “10,000 pounds a year”). Piketty argues that this was largely because the two were interchangeable: for the upper classes, one’s income was almost entirely determined by one’s wealth, in particular one’s holdings of land. As there was no secret about the latter, there could be no secret about the former – and low inflation meant that amounts such as “1,000 pounds a year” (the threshold to a truly comfortable existence) retained a reasonably stable meaning over decades.

It would have been interesting if Piketty had taken some examples from novels later in the 19th century, though, to see what changes had occurred. I’m currently reading Daniel Deronda by George Eliot, a novel set in what is (in many ways) a very similar milieu to that of Jane Austen’s novels, that of the landed upper classes. However, it also has some telling differences, ones that illustrate some of the trends described by Piketty.

One important area of similarity (not least as a driver for the plot of both Austen’s novels and Daniel Deronda) is the impact on women of a system of wealth based on land. In Daniel Deronda, as in Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility, the “entail” is of central importance. “Entailed interests” meant that ownership of land passed down the male line. If a man had no sons, his nearest male relative would inherit his property – potentially leaving his wife and daughters destitute. This is the fate which looms over Elizabeth Bennet and her sisters in Pride and Prejudice, making Lizzie’s rejection of the marriage proposal from Mr Collins – the heir to Longbourn – a decision which threatens her family with homelessness and poverty. (As my wife pointed out to me today, this indicates the sheer revulsion that Lizzie must feel for Mr Collins: to put it bluntly, that she would prefer to see her mother and her sisters financially ruined than to have sex with Mr Collins.)

In Daniel Deronda, the villainous Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt is the heir presumptive to Sir Hugo Mallinger, making him an attractive match (it would seem) for Gwendolen Harleth. It also gives him considerable power over the sonless Sir Hugo, since he is all too aware of Sir Hugo’s desire to make provision for his wife and daughters by buying out Grandcourt’s reversionary interest in their home.

However, other threads within the novel show how we have moved away from the early 19th century world of Austen’s novels. In Austen’s novels, individual members of the upper class may be more or less profligate, and incur greater or lesser debts, but in the end their wealth (being based on their land, and protected from dissipation by the fee tail) appears stable and safe. By the 1860s depicted by Eliot, though, things have changed: now we are in a world where a symbiotic relationship is developing between a rising bourgeoisie (for whom a “good marriage” can give them the upper-class respectability that mere “trade” could never provide) and the upper class (for whom marriage to a wealthy bourgeois heiress can provide much-needed capital). Hence the fate of Catherine Arrowpoint, whose family’s fortune leaves her fending off proposals from the likes of Lord Slogan (“an unexceptionable Irish peer, whose estate wanted nothing but drainage and population”) or Mr Bult, a rising MP, with prospects of a peerage, who “had the general solidity and suffusive pinkness of a healthy Briton on the central table-land of life.”

What had led to this change? I think we can find a clue to this by returning to Thomas Piketty. Piketty refers throughout his book to the two principal forms that capital took in the 19th century: agricultural land and government bonds. Both of these assets existed to produce rents, “that is, dependable, regular payments to [their] owners”:

In the classic novels of the nineteenth century, wealth is everywhere, and no matter how large or how small the capital, or who owns it, it generally takes one of two forms: land or government bonds. (Capital, p.113)

Of the two, government bonds were by far the more recent form of wealth, dating only from the previous century. They also (I speculate) provided a means by which the bourgeoisie could now accumulate fortunes to rival those of the landed upper class. After all, accumulating land at the expense of the upper class was far from easy, given the limited ability of landowners to alienate property held under an entail. Bonds, however, could be purchased and accumulated without waiting for existing upper class owners to feel the need to sell them.

One of Piketty’s charts (from p.116) appears to confirm this. Look at how the composition of British national wealth changes over the course of the 19th century, with the dominance of agricultural land being almost completely overhauled by that of “other domestic capital” (such as bonds). This process was about halfway to completion at the time when Daniel Deronda is set (the 1860s):

Capital in Britain, 1700-2000, from Capital by Thomas Piketty

In short, it would have been interesting had Thomas Piketty looked in more detail at literary examples from later in the 19th century (he tends to jump straight from Austen to the character of Hockley in James Cameron’s Titanic). As we can see, some of the differences in plot dynamic between Jane Austen and George Eliot can be explained in terms of changing patterns of capital ownership during the half century or so between them.

“Felt needs” and the desire for grace

St Thomas Aquinas

Denys Turner, in his book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (see previous post), has an interesting discussion on the extent to which it is possible for human beings to desire God’s grace of their own accord: for reconciliation with God to be, as it were, a “felt need” for us.

In short, Thomas’s answer to this question is: “not in the slightest.” As Turner writes:

It could not be the case that grace answers to known natural need, because what is by nature required must itself be of the natural order that requires it, and therefore not grace. For grace is the free gift of divine friendship that exceeds not only any actual human power to achieve; it exceeds any power of human imagination to conceive, attainable or unattainable. In short, grace cannot answer to natural need as naturally known; for if it did it would not be grace. (p.170)

A further problem is that, in our fallen state, we are “self-deceived” and “self-ignorant”: we do not know our need, and are therefore content to remain in it undisturbed (however discontent we may be with our earthly circumstances).

Therefore, for Thomas it takes grace to know that we are in need of grace; and it takes grace for us to know that there is a possible condition to which nature is restored, a condition far beyond the powers of nature even as they were before the Fall. (p.171)

This is what Thomas means when he says that nature is “perfected” by grace:

not as if, knowing what we want, human beings are by grace given the gift of it, but rather, not knowing what we want, the gift of grace reveals to us the depth and nature of our need, a need that, as heretofore we were, was unknown to us. (p.171)

But things go further than this for Thomas, because grace is not merely rectifying a problem, repairing a defect, that we didn’t know we had:

Grace, therefore, does not exactly answer to our desire, as if we knew what our desire is. Grace answers to desires that only it can arouse in us, showing us what it is that we really want: grace is pure gift, the gift we could not have known that we wanted until we were given it. For grace does not merely solve the problem of the gap opened up by the Fall, restoring us to where we were before Adam’s sin. It goes far beyond and above that, calling us into a friendship which is surplus by an infinite degree to the solution required. (p.171)

In short:

By grace, then, we are not only given what we want. By grace we come to want the grace that we are given.

Or, as John Newton was to put it, 500 years later:

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear,
The hour I first believed!

Thomas Piketty’s challenge to “the 0.1%”

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas PikettySo, a couple of days ago I finished reading Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I’m reliably informed that this means I’m now allowed to have an opinion on the book.

That said, there are still plenty of more learned opinions on Piketty’s book out there, so there is a limit to what I can usefully add here. It probably won’t come as a shock to hear that I enjoyed it and found it persuasive: I was firmly #TeamPiketty before I’d even read the first page, so to some extent the book was just confirming my prejudices.

What did surprise me was how well written and readable it is: helped by an excellent translation, but principally down to Piketty’s own clarity of argument and use of illuminating literary illustrations (principally Balzac and Austen, but with James Cameron’s Titanic occasionally thrown in for light relief).

Some of Piketty’s more enthusiastic supporters initially hailed his book as providing the final, devastating, data-driven, evidence-based proof that social democracy is RIGHT and neoliberal economics is WRONG. Piketty himself disclaims any such ambition, making it clear that arguments over socially sustainable (or morally appropriate) levels of inequality will always remain a matter of politics rather than science, and that:

It is not the purpose of social science research to produce mathematical certainties that can substitute for open, democratic debate in which all shades of opinion are represented. (p.571)

He also acknowledges that his proposals for combating the growth of inequality in the coming decades – such as a global, progressive tax on capital, and a return to confiscatory levels of income tax for the highest earners – are politically unfeasible, an “ideal” against which to measure any proposals that can be made into a reality. (Though he also observes that the idea of a progressive income tax once seemed similarly far-fetched and idealistic.)

However, what Piketty does is to clarify the terms of that debate, and the challenge he places before those who disagree with him – particularly on his recommendations for policies to combat inequality – is for them to be honest about the consequences of their position. Probably the fundamental claim he makes in Capital is that:

it is an illusion to think that something about the nature of modern growth or the laws of the market economy ensures that inequality of wealth will decrease and harmonious stability will be achieved. (p.376)

Yes, you may be “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” (or at least, see no cure for this that isn’t worse than the disease). Yes, you may regard it as counterproductive, even immoral, to return to the era of 80%+ top income tax rates (pioneered, counterintuitively, by the USA and Britain). Yes, you may be similarly opposed to a global tax on capital, especially one based on the automatic sharing of financial information between governments.

But in that case, Piketty says, be honest about what the consequences are, especially the consequences of continuing on the current path of a “race to the bottom” in taxation: a return to a world in which concentrations of wealth and income start to approach those of the “Old Europe” whose “suicide” between 1914 and 1945 created the illusion (which still lingers with us) that inequality had been conquered during the years of postwar growth.

Why would such a world be a problem? Partly because of the power that it would give the wealthiest to influence and control the lives of everyone else, subverting democracy. But Piketty is clearly aware that making a moral case against such levels of inequality is not enough. On a number of occasions through the book, he rather drily observes what the long term practical consequences are likely to be of allowing such inequality to flourish:

If, for example, the top decile appropriates 90 percent of each year’s output (and the top centile took 50 percent just for itself, as in the case of wealth), a revolution will likely occur, unless some peculiarly effective repressive apparatus exists to keep it from happening. When it comes to the ownership of capital, such a high degree of concentration is already a source of powerful political tensions, which are often difficult to reconcile with universal suffrage. […] [I]f the same level of inequality applies to the totality of national income, it is hard to imagine that those at the bottom will accept the situation permanently. (p.263)

And not just those at the bottom:

Even if the top thousandth’s capital returned only 4 percent a year, their share would still practically double in thirty years to nearly 40 percent. Once again, the force for divergence at the top of the wealth hierarchy would win out over the global forces of catch-up and convergence, so that the shares of the top decile and centile would increase significantly, with a large upward redistribution from the middle and upper-middle classes to the very rich. Such an impoverishment of the middle class would very likely trigger a violent political reaction. (p.439)

So, in the end, the question that Piketty poses to the “1%” (and, even more, to the “0.1%” of the hyper-wealthy top thousandth), as they calmly contemplate a century that promises to deliver them an ever greater share of global wealth and income, is: do you feel lucky, punk? 

Well, do you?

The end of the mind’s tether: St Thomas’s “third way”

Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, by Denys Turner“Why is there something rather than nothing?”

This may not be a question that we ask ourselves every day, but it is still (as Denys Turner puts it in his book Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait) a question that “demands to be asked” by the “nature of rationality itself”.

Prof Turner discusses it as part of his spirited defence of the third of St Thomas’s “five ways” of proving the existence of God, the argument from “contingency” (that is, the argument that a universe made up of “contingent causes” must be underpinned by a non-contingent, “necessary” cause: God). As Turner observes, this argument has frequently been criticised, even ridiculed. Critics insist that Thomas is making a basic logical error: that there is no need to require a non-contingent or “necessary” cause for the chain of contingent causes that constitute the observed universe. After all, the universe could be like an infinitely long rope made up of individual threads of finite length: “Just because each of its threads has a beginning and an end it does not follow that the rope does.”

Turner, however, says that this misunderstands Thomas’s argument. Thomas knows full well that the universe could be unlimited in duration, without beginning or end – like the infinitely long rope made up of individual threads. It is only on separate grounds of faith that he believes that in fact the universe happens to have had a beginning. Rather, what Thomas is pointing to is the deeper question with which I opened this post: “How come there is anything at all?”

As Turner puts it:

We can ask that question; indeed, to refuse to do so is irrational. The ability to do so is what the word “rational” names, a power to question that is also an obligation. But there is no answer to be found within the things that exist as to why there is not nothing rather than something, not nothing rather than anything at all. (p.142)

It’s often pointed out today (quite correctly) that the Big Bang theory does not represent a point at which we “must” posit a divine creator to “light the blue touchpaper and retire”. Various mechanisms are proposed by which the “something” of the universe could indeed have come from the “nothing” of what came “before” the Big Bang. Alternatively, it is suggested that the universe is just one part of a “multiverse”. This misses the point, however. Thomas is going deeper than this:

For as Thomas makes clear, the making that is out of nothing is not to be thought of as if there were some soupy kind of undifferentiated lawless stuff called “nothing” out of which what there is was made by some explanatory causal process. The nothing, he explains, governs the “out of,” so as to say: there is a making here, but it is a making with no “out of” at all, no process, no antecedent conditions, no “random fluctuations in a vacuum,” no explanatory law of emergence, and, there being nothing for the “something” to be “out of,” there can be no physics, not yet, for there is nothing yet for physics to get an explanatory grip on. (p.142)

The Big Bang – and, for that matter, a “multiverse” theory – may explain “the natural laws governing the something that exists”, but they can’t explain “how come there is anything for those physical laws to be true of.”

At this point, “the head spins”, because it is impossible for us to comprehend what it could mean for absolutely nothing to exist – for us to understand how “Why anything?” can be a meaningful question:

Here in the apotheosis of reason is its chief instrument, language, finally defeated. [...] At the end of its tether, the human mind, in its characteristically rational modality of interrogating the world, finally falls silent before the mystery of the unknowable Godhead. (p.143)

And it is this Unknowable, which we find “where the mind reaches the end of its tether”, that Thomas describes as:

“what all people refer to when they speak of God.”