Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review of Examined Lives

If you are a reader of First Things, you might find of interest my review of James Miller’s Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche, which appears in the June/July issue.  (I’d link to the online version, but it’s behind a paywall.)  If you’re not a reader, do the good people at FT a favor and pick up a copy – or subscribe, as the magazine begins a new era under the able leadership of new editor R. R. Reno.


  1. Should I really resubscribe? To be honest, I thought FT started going really downhill towards the end of Neuhouse's tenure and after he died, so I let my subscription drop. Towards the end there - and I mean this with no disrespect whatsoever to anyone - I felt like it was almost entirely book reviews: there was the book review section, but then a huge number of the feature articles were just longer book reviews as well. A few years ago there was a big feature that was a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which ended up being pretty much just a summary and review of the book. That was a turning point for me: if I'm going to regularly pay for a publication I expect more than that.

  2. Dr. Feser,

    Would you please respond to Janet E. Smith's recent article?
    She is a Thomist, but criticizes Aquinas's perspective on lying. I find her argument convincing, but am curious what you would say in response.


  4. Anonymous,

    Brandon Watson has a couple of posts on Smith's recent article (and her previous paper).

    Look here:

  5. Hilary Putnam and Alvin Plantinga discuss God's existence in this audio:

  6. Dr. Feser,

    I would also like to hear your commentary on Janet Smith's article concerning the morality of lying. She brings up cases which she thinks the rigorous, traditional view found in Augustine and Aquinas cannot adequately handle.

    "Indeed, the failure of the Catechism to condemn explicitly such practices as spying, sting operations, the deceptive missives and maneuvers of warfare, and research that involves deception suggests that the question remains open."

    "Similarly, a soldier can hide in the bushes to ambush his enemy, but he cannot place his empty tent strategically to deceive the enemy about his whereabouts, for that would be to lead another to think falsely about reality."

  7. Anon:

    "Similarly, a soldier can hide in the bushes to ambush his enemy, but he cannot place his empty tent strategically to deceive the enemy about his whereabouts, for that would be to lead another to think falsely about reality."

    If that's indicative of the overall calibre of Dr. Smith's essay, that's kinda sad. Aquinas deals with this problem explicitly in the Summa (I think Dr. Watson at Siris brings this up, too).

    What's more, St. Thomas also notes in that article that the problem is not deception as such, but telling a man something false, or breaking a promise. Sheesh!

  8. Leo,

    That article by Aquinas is not relevant to the case Dr. Smith presents. In her case, you do something to implant in the enemy's mind the notion that you are somewhere you are not. In the article by Aquinas, you do nothing to reveal your whereabouts, but stop short of doing anything to implant in the enemy's mind the false notion that you are somewhere other than where you are.

    "Wherefore much more ought the plan of campaign to be hidden from the enemy. For this reason among other things that a soldier has to learn is the art of concealing his purpose lest it come to the enemy's knowledge."

    Concealing one's purpose is different from announcing a false purpose. I think Dr. Smith is right to assert that Aquinas' take on lying would allow the former but not the latter.

  9. Anon:

    I concede that St. Thomas does not explicitly allow for empty-tent-like deception in the article; nevertheless, he a.) heavily suggests that such actions would be acceptable by using the word "deception" to describe the soldiers' permitted actions and b.) cites Fontinus' Stratagematum, I, i, as a defence of his conclusion, and there Fontinus brings up some pretty undeniably deceptive acts.

  10. Concealing one's purpose is different from announcing a false purpose. I think Dr. Smith is right to assert that Aquinas' take on lying would allow the former but not the latter.

    But the latter can clearly only be done by speech or some other established signs. Simply putting up Potemkin villages doesn't announce anything to anyone -- it's merely an action combined with a hiding of one's purpose in performing it. There are lots of reasons one might put up empty tents, and people don't in general, unless they have pre-arranged codes, put up tents for the purpose of communicating their intentions; only where the latter is involved is there any dissimulation, on Aquinas's account of dissimulation. This fits, in fact, with a number of examples provided by Frontinus, as Leo notes.

    Indeed, Smith's interpretation of Aquinas, in both the First Things summary and the paper it is summarizing, repeatedly treats Aquinas as making much stronger claims than he seems ever actually to make; part of this, I think, is because she fails to read the discussion of lying in its context (i.e., potential parts of justice in general and the virtue of truthfulness immediately) and thus fails to characterize correctly the way in which truth functions as an end here, which can only be understood with reference to the virtue of truthfulness that lying violates.

  11. Leo and Brandon,

    Is part of Aquinas' (and your) argument that not all acts are morally wrong by which we intentionally seek to instill a false belief in someone? Our end in such cases is to bring about a false belief in someone -- I don't see what further specifications need to be made to determine that such an act is morally wrong from Aquinas' point of view. I am basing my judgment of this on Dr. Feser's rehearsal of Aquinas' view when he was considering this whole matter in several repeated posts. In those posts he attributed to Aquinas the view that, on natural law, it is wrong to produce intentionally a false belief in the intellect since the intellect is by its nature ordered to knowing the truth.

    I believe that, given such a view, it would be entirely ad hoc to condemn lies, defined as speech acts intended to produce a false belief in someone, while failing to condemn other actions which have as their intention the production of false beliefs in someone. The moral wrongness here lies in the intention to produce false beliefs in others, not in the means (words, other signs, etc.) by which one seeks to do this. As you can see I am focusing on the end the agent has in mind in my determination of what makes for moral wrongdoing here; I am open to counterarguments to this.

    Here is what Dr. Feser stated: "It is also wrong to lie in wartime. That certain deceptive practices are justifiable in war does not show otherwise, because lying is not the same thing as deception. Broad mental reservations, evasive speech, feints, etc. during wartime are fine, but deliberately speaking contrary to one’s true thoughts is always lying and thus always wrong."

    If we can set aside the emphasis on the end of one's action for a moment, I want to confess that with regard to pitching an empty tent in wartime it is important to note the fact that a pitched tent by itself conveys no inherent or conventional meaning in the sense speech may be thought to (thank you, Brandon). But this is why the end of the tent-pitcher would be crucial to determining the morality of such an action -- separated from the end of the agent, the act is morally neutral, I take it.

    Lest the issue of inherent and conventional meaning cloud things, perhaps the core issue Dr. Smith was addressing can be restored by bringing in her example of spying. Is it not immoral, on Aquinas' view, for a spy to say that he is not American (i.e., "I am not an American") when in fact he is? This gets to Dr. Smith's core point -- that our postlapsarian world calls for intentionally implanting false ideas in others at times.