Monogamy Made Us Human by William Tucker

In theory and in practice, it’s what keeps a society stable.

William Tucker

Since antiquity, monogamy has been the general rule of Western civilizations. Yet people have always known that other mating systems are possible. The Greek gods practiced a very loose monogamy that bordered on marital chaos. Many of the early Hebrew patriarchs took multiple wives. Although monogamy was established in the legal codes of Greece and Rome and reinforced by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, it was well known that other cultures — mostly Islam in the Middle East — did not acknowledge it.

This became uncomfortably clear as European explorers pushed out among the tribes of Africa, the South Seas, and the American Plains, revealing that the practice of polygamy was almost universal outside the Christian West. Might polygamy’s roots be found in distant prehistory and perhaps even be part of our evolutionary history?

The first attempt to explain the origins of the human family in evolutionary terms came in 1861, two years after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. Johann Bachofen, a Swiss law professor, published Das Mutterrech (“The Mother-Right”), “an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the ancient world.” Bachofen began with the simple observation that remains the most powerful argument of those, including many of today’s feminists, who see family as based in single motherhood. While maternity is always known, paternity is always a bit of a mystery. In a primitive world, the link between sex and paternity would have been obscure, and males would have had more difficulty laying claim to their offspring. The two-parent family was formed, said Bachofen, only when women became weary of rearing children alone and persuaded men to settle down and help. He buttressed his case for this early matriarchy with evidence from mythology and legend.

These speculations were expanded in the next decade by Lewis Henry Morgan, an upstate New York attorney and amateur anthropologist. Among Morgan’s clients were several Iroquois tribes. He became fascinated with their system of matrilineal tribal claims, each of which took the name of an animal. In 1871, in his book Ancient Society, Morgan postulated that these clans were actually the vestiges of “group marriage.” Noting that the Iroquois still practiced polygamy, particularly sororate marriage, where a man marries a group of sisters, Morgan conjectured that in ancient times whole families of brothers had married whole families of sisters, forming the totem clans.

Projecting this logic all the way back to the beginning of human history, Morgan asserted that, without knowledge of paternity or the restraints of later civilization, marriage would have been unknown. He described an indiscriminate form of mating that he called “the primal horde,” a dynamic that Jane Goodall in the 1980s would observe among chimpanzees, who practice sexual communism: Every male gets to mate with every female.

Morgan’s theory probably would not be remembered today if it had not caught the attention of the son of a prosperous British factory owner named Friedrich Engels. In 1884, Engels published, as an addendum to Marx’s Das Kapital, his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State in which he brought back the claims of primitive matriarchy, with a vengeance. He argued that the primal horde had actually been a lost paradise in which men and women lived in a utopia of sexual abandon before the chains of patriarchy were forged.

“The overthrow of the mother-right was the world-historical defeat of the female sex,” wrote Engels (emphasis in the original). Once paternity was recognized, “the man took command in the home also; the woman was degraded and reduced to servitude; she became the slave of his lust and a mere instrument for the production of children.” Once women became “property,” material goods were claimed as property too, and all the evils of capitalism quickly followed. The downfall of the primal horde, said Engels, was the anthropological equivalent of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. It was for this reason that early Communism was often coupled with the idea of “free love.”

Then a few stray facts interrupted this speculation. It had always been assumed that the tribal societies discovered in tropical Africa and the forests of Indonesia and North and South America, all practicing what is called “hoe agriculture,” represented the earlier human societies. As explorers pushed farther into the forgotten corners of the world, however, they discovered a few remaining tribes that were still practicing hunting and gathering — the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, the Pygmies of Central Africa, the Aborigines of Australia. This led to an astonishing revelation: All turned out to be monogamous.

Apparently, it was the invention of agriculture and the accumulation of property and permanent wealth that had caused primitive agriculturalists to take up polygamy, as wealthier men began to acquire more women and male members could now be excluded from the tribe without great consequence. And so by the late 1920s a potential blueprint for the evolution of the family was coming into view: Monogamy was the original form of human bonding while polygamy was a later development. By the 1930s, European anthropologists such as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown were arguing that polygamy was in fact a backsliding, arriving only after the communal norms of hunter-gatherer societies had broken down.

What advantages does monogamy have over other forms of mating to begin with? Perhaps the key lies in another aspect of chimp communism that Goodall discovered after years of observation. Although at first it seemed insignificant, she gradually recognized its import, calling it “the forerunner of human marriage.” It was “the consort relationship.”

Goodall found that, once all the obligations for mating with every male had been met, females — and particularly high-ranking females — liked to sneak off into the jungle with a favorite male. The couple would stay away two or three days, even as long as a week, building a nest in the trees, grooming each other, exchanging signs of affection, and copulating frequently. As further research began to reveal secrets of chimp biology, it was discovered that females actually delay ovulation through the period in which they are mating at random so that they are more likely to conceive with their consorts. In this way, they preserve the aboriginal right of the female of every species, which is to mate with the male of her choice. The public show of uninhibited sexual activity is actually a ruse to deceive the lower-status males. Biologically, chimp females are designed to conceive with a preferred mate. Genetic tests have later shown that half the offspring in a troop are sired in these consort relationships.

So why do female chimps go through the exhausting ritual of mating with every male member of the troop if they really want to be mated with a single, dominant male? It is not a pleasant ritual for them. At the end of it they are often left battered and bleeding. Goodall even noted that young females are often reluctant to go out among the males during their first estrus and have to be urged on by the older females. Because they can generally be fertilized by only one male, females are much more selective about mating, while males — who have ample sperm and can mate with numerous females — are much more eager and indiscriminate. Why do chimp females act so differently?

This was the question that as a young graduate student Sarah Blaffer Hrdy began asking in the 1970s. Hrdy became intrigued by the phenomenon of infanticide among langurs, a species of colobus monkeys in the forests of Southeast Asia. She perceived a pattern now recognized as common to all polygamous species and tied directly to selfish-gene theory and the instinctive understanding males have about fostering their own offspring.

When an alpha male takes over a polygynous harem, no matter how small, he probably has only two or three years before he is displaced by another male. But in species such as the colobus monkey, an infant may nurse with the mother for four years, during which time her hormonal balance will prevent her from becoming fertile again. If the alpha is to take advantage of his dominance, he has only one choice. He must kill the offspring of the previous alpha and put the females to work producing his own.

Hrdy soon realized that while such infanticide was common among other primates, female chimps had evolved a strategy to prevent this. They confuse paternity. By carefully mating with every male member of the group, females give each one reason to think that he might be the father. This accommodation allows them to live in relative peace in the midst of a larger group of males once the infant is born. The females are protecting against infanticide. All of this of course demolishes the theory, going back to Bachofen and Engels, that males are unaware of their paternity. They do not have to understand the nature of intercourse in any theoretical sense. It is all bred into their nature. Male “mate guarding,” as it is known, is a universal behavior. The whole polymorphous polygamous mating system, then, is a set of rules to keep lower-status males loyal to the troop.

Let us conduct a thought experiment. What would happen today if a chimp troop moved out on the savanna and tried to survive in a treeless environment with predators everywhere? Would chimp sexual behavior change?

The first thing to note is that such a group would have to cling much more tightly together. Second, primal-horde mating would become extremely awkward and disruptive, if not impossible. In the relative sanctuary of the tropic forest, when a chimp female goes into estrus, all other activity stops and the males may spend close to a week following her around. On the savanna, however, there would be no such luxury. A chimp troop that spends whole days obsessed with a female in heat would have trouble finding food and leave itself extremely vulnerable to predators.

Third and most important, the consort relationship would no longer be possible. There would be no way to sneak off into the forest with a favored partner. No less than the primal horde, a male and female that left the troop for two or three days on an amorous “safari” would leave themselves highly exposed to predators.

The loss of the consort relationship, the source of half of chimp pregnancies, would be severely disruptive, particularly to high-status males. If they were forced to go back to standing in line with the rest of the troop, their mating success would be severely circumscribed. Given this situation, then, what two members of the troop, male and female, would have the most to gain from defying the social order and forming an exclusive pair bond?

Suppose a lower-status male tried to monopolize a high-status female. He wouldn’t have much luck. The other males would gang up on him and the female would resist as well, since she wants to mate with a more dominant male. So that wouldn’t work. What if a lower-status male tried to monopolize a lower-status female at his own level? His chances might be better. The other males might not object to the loss of a lower-status female. But the female would object because she would not want to be excluded from mating with higher-status males.

There remains then one other possibility. What if the dominant male and the dominant female decided to pair off, making the consort relationship public, so to speak, and defying the mores of the troop? The alpha male now has 100 percent assurance that he will be siring offspring with the dominant female. This is a significant improvement over the crapshoot where he must compete with all the other males in the promiscuous free-for-all. Granted, he might also want to mate with other females as well — but here we are encountering a story that recurs throughout human history. For the time being, he is improving his mating possibilities by monopolizing the most desirable female.

Meanwhile, for the alpha female there is also a vast improvement. She now has the assurance that the alpha male will be siring her offspring. She no longer has to undergo the ordeal of mating with every available male for more than a week. But one problem remains: What about infanticide? After she gives birth she might still encounter a sub-dominant male who knows he is not the father and wants to make her available for his offspring. Living in a large, tightly engaged group, this now becomes a perpetual problem — unless the alpha male stays with her. For the alpha couple, then, pairing off improves mating success for both of them — but only if he remains to guard his offspring after it is born. Since he knows for certain that it is his offspring, however, he will be willing to guard them. And so a permanent, monogamous relationship is born.

But what about the rest of the troop? What happens to them? Well, once the alpha couple have paired off, the beta couple now find themselves in the same position. They have the same advantages in forming a pair bond. Moreover, they have the example of the alpha couple to justify them. After that the gamma couple have the same advantages, and so on down the line — much the way it happens in high school. The important thing is that the solidarity of the troop is maintained. It is now possible for the males to get along with each other with only a minimum of sexual rivalry — unlike polygamy, where males are constantly competing for control of numerous females and the lowest-status males must be excluded.

For a group trying to live in close proximity, the example of the alpha couple becomes crucial. If the “king and queen” can be satisfied with each other, then everyone else can be satisfied as well. But if the alpha male collects a “harem,” then other males can have the same aspiration, and the free-for-all of unlimited sexual competition returns. This is another story that has recurred throughout human history.

Altogether, this is what in game theory is known as Nash Equilibrium, after the contribution of the great mathematician John Nash, the subject of the book and film A Beautiful Mind. Nash’s thesis, still the mainstay of all game theory, says that a system can achieve equilibrium when each player has achieved the best outcome he or she can under the existing rules. For a large heterosexual group with the same number of males and females, monogamy satisfies Nash Equilibrium. Each player has optimized his or her outcome under the rules of the existing system. The only way to improve an individual outcome is to break the rules. That causes other kinds of disruption and works to the disadvantage of the entire group, and so other members have incentive to constantly enforce the rules.

This is why human societies everywhere and throughout all time have enforced some kind of rules on marriage and have frowned on extramarital affairs. The stability of the group is at stake. If people start flaunting the rules of marriage, then the equilibrium is upset as growing numbers of males and females are left without mates. These individuals become disruptive, and the cohesion of the entire society is threatened. Monogamy does not maximize the interests of every participant. What it does is optimize everyone’s individual outcome in a way that maintains the integrity of the entire society, whose credo is “a girl for every boy, a boy for every girl.”

This article is adapted from Marriage and Civilization: How Monogamy Made Us Human.

Monogamy & Its Discontents – Challenge to Western Sexual Values by William Tucker

Why sexual morality, apart from religious edict? As both the highest and lowest strata of our society demonstrate, a culture abandons monogamy only at its peril.

William Tucker

It is remarkable that, little as men are able to exist in isolation, they should nevertheless feel as a heavy burden the sacrifices that civilization expects of them in order to make a communal life possible.

Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion

AMERICA IS in a period of cultural crisis. For as long as we have been a civilization, monogamy, heterosexuality, legitimacy, and the virtues of marital fidelity have been givens of nature. The major religions have sanctioned them, as do four thousand years of Western history. Out-of-wedlock births, homosexuality, and other forms of sexual “deviance” have always existed, but have never laid claim to the mainstream.

All this is now coming under challenge. Part of it may simply be cultural exhaustion–the foolish confidence that the major battles of civilization have been fought and won and that it is now time for a little self-indulgence. Or it may be that the taste for the exotic and forbidden, usually confined to a small minority, has at last become available to the average person.

All this must be tolerated. In a free country, you can’t stop people from doing what they want, especially when they have the money and leisure to do it. The situation is complicated, however, by the existence of a vast American “underclass” that does not generally share in the affluence, but is daily exposed to the sirens of self-indulgence. While the abandonment of cultural norms may have an exotic quality for the affluent, it is a palpable threat to the upward aspirations of the poor.

On the matter of single motherhood and illegitimacy, members of the underclass–particularly those of African-American origin have proved peculiarly susceptible. Single motherhood has virtually become the norm in African-American society. (Over 65 per cent of black children are now born out of wedlock.) The failure to adhere to monogamy and two-parent child-rearing now forms the single greatest obstacle to the advancement of America’s underclass.

Yet to speak in favor of monogamy, sexual modesty, fidelity, restraint, and two-parent families in the current cultural climate is to find oneself subject to the charge of being a bigot, a religious nut, or just hopelessly out of touch. The common assumption, particularly among the intelligentsia, is that all the traditional arguments for monogamy and two-parent families are religious and that everything that could be said in their favor was spoken centuries ago.

Monogamy Misunderstood

I CANNOT AGREE. For as much as monogamy has been sanctioned by Western culture, I do not believe that its function as the center of our civilization has ever been completely understood. There is in everyone a vague awareness that monogamy produces a peaceful social contract that is the framework for cultural harmony and economic advancement. Yet this subconscious recognition has rarely been explored at any great length. There is never any real articulation that monogamy is an ancient compromise whose breakdown only lets loose antagonisms that society has long suppressed. Monogamy, after all, is only one possible outcome of the age-old sexual dance. There are others, whose characteristics may not be quite so appealing.

Yet like all hard-won compromises, monogamy does not produce a perfect outcome for every individual. When examined closely, it proves to be the source of many private dissatisfactions, which form a nagging undercurrent of discontent in any monogamous culture. Ordinarily, these disaffections remain a form of “deviance,” generally suppressed and disapproved by the vast majority, although virtually impossible to eradicate. Only when the core ideals of the culture come under attack–when people begin to celebrate these discontents and embrace them within themselves–only then does the underlying architecture of the social contract come into stark relief.

The question that we face today is how much free rein we can give the discontents of monogamy before we risk overturning the central character of our culture. Society, of course, is not without its defenses. The longstanding, almost universal dislike and disapproval of child-bearing out of wedlock, of sexual infidelity, of easy divorce, of public prostitution and pornography, and of widespread, blatant homosexuality–these are not just irrational intolerances. They are the ancient, forgotten logic that holds together a monogamous society. As long as these attitudes remain unexamined, however, they can play little part in the current debate and will be easily dismissed as mere prejudices.

What we need, then, is a defense of monogamy based on a rational understanding of its underlying principles. Here is an attempted beginning.

The Arithmetic of Reproduction

LET US START with some basic arithmetic. In any reproducing population, the laws of chance dictate that there will be about the same number of males and females. There are thus three ways in which the population can arrange itself for mating purposes: 1) polyandry, in which one female collects several males as mates; 2) polygyny (often called, less precisely, polygamy) , in which one male collects several females; and 3) monogamy, in which each female and each male mate with only one other individual.

Of the three possibilities, the first–polyandry–is the rarest in nature. An understanding of the basics of reproduction tells us why.

In nearly all species, the female role in reproduction is the “limiting factor.” This has to do with the differences between eggs and sperm. Sperm are small and motile, while eggs are large and relatively immobile. The egg generally comes wrapped in a package of nutrients that will feed the fertilized ovum until “birth.” Because eggs are more complex–and therefore harder to manufacture–a female generates far fewer eggs than a male generates sperm. (Among mammals, a single male ejaculation often contains more sperm cells than a female will produce eggs in her lifetime.) Since there are always more sperm than eggs–and since it takes one of each to produce an offspring–eggs are the limiting factor to reproduction.

As a result, females have generally gone on to play a larger role in nurturing offspring as well. The principle that determines this responsibility has been identified by biologists as the “last chance to abandon.” Here is how it works.

When fertilization of the egg takes place, one partner is usually left with the egg in his or her possession — often attached to or within his or her body.

Most often, this is the female. This leaves the male free to go and seek other mating opportunities. The female, on the other hand, has two basic options: 1) she can abandon the egg and try to mate again (but this will only leave her in the same dilemma); or 2) she can stay with the egg and try to nurture it to maturity. The latter is a better reproductive strategy. As a result, females become “mothers,” caring for the fertilized eggs, and often the newborn offspring as well.

The few exceptions prove the rule. Among seahorses, the fertilized egg is nurtured in a kangaroo-like pouch on the male’s stomach. This makes the male the limiting factor to reproduction. As a result, the sex roles are reversed. Male seahorses become “mothers,” nurturing their offspring to maturity, while females abandon their “impregnated” sexual partners and look for new mating opportunities.

The logic of reproduction has produced another universal characteristic in nature, called “female coyness.” Males can spread their sperm far and wide, impregnating as many females as possible, while females may get only one mating opportunity per season. Therefore, females must choose wisely. In almost every species, males are the sexual aggressors, while females hold back, trying to select the best mate. Often the male is made to perform some display of strength or beauty, or go through some ritual expression of responsibility (nest-building) before the female agrees to mate with him. With seahorses, once again, the roles are reversed. Males are coy and reluctant, while females are the sexual aggressors.

It is for these reasons that polyandry–one female forming a mating bond with several males–is uncommon and unfavorable. Even though a single female might consort with several males, she can only be impregnated by one or two of them. Thus, most males would be unsuccessful. Moreover, the attachment of several males to one female would mean that other females would be left with no mates. The outcome would be a very slow rate of reproduction. In addition, any male who broke the rules and left his mate for an unmated female would achieve reproductive success, making the whole system extremely unstable. For all these reasons, polyandry is very rare in nature.

Polygyny, on the other hand–the form of polygamy where one male mates with several females–is universally common. (Although ” polygamy ” can refer to either polyandry or polygyny, it is generally used interchangeably with polygyny.) Polygamy is probably the most “natural” way of mating. It is particularly predominant among mammals, where the fertilized embryo is retained within the female’s body, reducing the male’s post-conception nurturing to near-zero. Given the differences in size, strength, beauty, or social skills among males, it is inevitable that–in an unregulated sexual marketplace-successful males will collect multiple mating partners while unsuccessful males will be left with none. A successful male lion collects a pride of seven to ton female lions, mating with each of them as they come into heat. A male deer mates with about six to eight female deer. A silverback male gorilla collects a harem of five or six female gorillas. Biologists have even determined that the sexual dimorphism in a species–the size difference between males and females–is directly correlated to the size of the harem: i.e., the bigger the male is in relation to females, the more females he will control. On this scale, we are “slightly polygamous,” with male humans outweighing females enough to collect about one and a half mates apiece.

Polygamy’s Winners and Losers

POLYGAMY CREATES a clear social order, with distinct winners and losers. Let us look at how this works. A dominant male wins because he can reproduce with as many females as he can reasonably control. Thus, he can “spread his genes” far and wide, producing many more progeny than he would be able to do under a different sexual regime.

But low-status females are winners, too. This is because: 1) Even the lowest-status females get to mate; there are no “old maids” in a polygamous society. 2) Nearly all females get access to high-status males. Since there are no artificial limits on the number of mates a male can collect, all females can attach themselves to a few relatively desirable males.

The effect upon high-status females is approximately neutral, but the clear losers are low-status males, the “bachelor herd” that is shut out of the mating equation. In some species, like elephants, the bachelor herd forms a dispirited gaggle living relatively meaningless lives on the edge of society. In others, like various monkeys, the subdominants form all-male gangs that combine their efforts to steal females from successful males. In a highly social species, such as baboons, the bachelor herd has been incorporated into the troop. Subdominant males form a “centurion guard” that protects the dominant male and his harem from predators. Among themselves, meanwhile, they engage in endless status struggles, trying to move up the social ladder toward their own mating possibilities.

Altogether, then, polygamy is a very natural and successful reproductive system. Since all females mate, the reproductive capacity of the population is maximized. There is also a strong selective drive toward desirable characteristics. As the operators of stud farms have long known, allowing only the swiftest and strongest males to breed produces the most desirable population.

Yet despite the clear reproductive advantages of polygamy, some species have abandoned it in favor of the more complex and artificially limiting system of monogamy. Why? The answer seems to be that monogamy is better adapted to the task of rearing offspring. This is particularly true where living conditions are harsh or where the offspring go through a long period of early dependency. The task is better handled by two parents than one. Quite literally, a species adopts monogamy “for the sake of the children.”

Among animals, the most prominent example is birds. Because the fertilized egg is laid outside the female’s body, a long period of nesting is required. This ties the male to the task of nurturing. Most bird species are monogamous through each mating season, and many mate for life.

Once mammalian development moved the gestating egg back inside the female’s body, however, the need for “nesting’ disappeared. With only a few exceptions (beavers, gibbons, orangutans), mammals are polygamous.

Yet as human beings evolved from our proto-chimp ancestors, the record is fairly clear that we reinvented monogamy. Present-day hunter-gatherers–who parallel the earliest human societies–are largely monogamous. Only with the invention of horticulture did many societies around the world revert to polygamy. Then, when animals were harnessed to the plow and urban civilizations were born, human societies again became almost exclusively monogamous. This wandering pattern of development has been the cause of much confusion. When monogamous Western European civilizations discovered the primitive polygamies of Africa and the South Seas in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they assumed that the earliest human civilizations had been polygamous and had later evolved into the “higher” pattern of monogamy. It was only with the discovery of monogamous hunter-gatherers that the mystery was finally resolved. Rather than being an earlier form, polygamy is actually a later development in which many cultures have apparently become sidetracked. Both the earliest and the most advanced (economically successful) human civilizations are generally monogamous.

What has made monogamy so successful a format for human cooperation? First and foremost, monogamy creates a social contract that reduces the sexual competition among males. The underlying assumption of monogamy is that every male gets a reasonable chance to mate. As a result, the do-or-die quality of sexual competition among males abates. When one male can collect many females, mating takes on a deadly intensity. With monogamy, however, a more democratic outcome is assured. The bachelor herd disappears.

Second, because monogamy assures the possibility of reproduction to every member of the group, a social contract is born. One need only consider the sultan’s harem–where male guards must be eunuchized–to realize that a society that practices polygamy has an inherently non-democratic character. No offer can be extended to marginal or outcast members that entices them to be part of the group. Under monogamy, however, society can function as a cohesive whole.

This is why, under monogamy, other forms of cooperation become possible. Males and females may pair off, but they also maintain other familial and social relationships. Both males and females can form task-oriented groups (in primitive societies, the line between “men’s” and “women’s work” is always carefully drawn). As society becomes more complex, men and women frequently exchange roles and, although there is always a certain amount of sexual tension, males and females can work together in non-mating settings.

Other social primates have never reached the same level of complexity. Gibbons and orangutans are monogamous–but almost too much so: mated pairs are strongly attached to each other, but live in social isolation, rarely interacting with other members of the species. Gorilla bands generally ignore each other–except when males raid each other’s harems. Baboon troops are more organized and task oriented, often encompassing as many as fifty to a hundred individuals. But behavior is rigidly hierarchical. Females are kept at the center of the troop, under close supervision of the alpha male and his associates. Subdominant males guard the periphery. Only the alpha and an occasional close ally mate with females as they come into heat.

Perhaps the most interesting attempt at creating a more complex society is among our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. Chimps practice a polymorphous polygamy, where every female takes care to mate with every male. Sex takes place in public and is relatively noncompetitive. When a female comes into estrus, her bottom turns bright pink, advertising her receptivity. Males queue up according to status, but every male, no matter how low on the social ladder, is allowed to copulate.

This creates its own social harmony. For males, it reduces sexual rivalry. Within the “brotherhood” of the tribe, there is little overt sexual competition (although it persists in other subtle ways). As a result, male chimps cooperate in establishing territories to exclude other males and occasionally hunt smaller animals such as monkeys.

The system also creates an advantage for females. Within a polygamous social group, one of the greatest hazards to child-rearing is male jealousy. The male owner of a female harem constantly guards against the possibility that he is wasting energy protecting the offspring of other males. When a new male lion displaces the former owner of a pride, he immediately kills off all the young in order to set the females to work reproducing his own offspring. The heads of polygamous monkey clans do the same thing.

But with chimpanzees, things are different. By taking care to mate with every male, a female assures each male member of the troop that he might be the father of her offspring. By “confusing paternity,” females create a safe harbor for themselves, within which they are able to raise their offspring in relative tranquillity.

These techniques of unrestricted sexuality and indeterminate paternity have been tried from time to time in small human societies, notably among small religious and political sects. However, they have generally been a failure. The difficulty is that we have eaten too much of the tree of knowledge. We are too good at calculating which progeny are our own and which are not. (Child abuse and infanticide are most common when a man doubts his paternity.)

Rather than living in collective doubt, we have developed complex personalities that allow us to maintain private sexual relationships while sustaining a multilayered network of relatives, friends, acquaintances, associates, co-workers, and strangers with whom our interactions are mainly non-sexual. The result is the human society in which we all live.

The Price of Monogamy

HUMAN MONOGAMY thus holds out distinct advantages. Yet these advantages–as always-are bought at a price. Let us look at where the gains and forfeitures occur.

The winners under polygamy, you will recall, are high-status males and low-status females. Under monogamy, these parties lose their advantages, while compensating advantages are gained by high-status females and low-status males. High-status females no longer have to share their mates with low-status females, a particular advantage where long periods of child-rearing are involved. Low-status males, instead of being consigned to the bachelor herd, get a reasonable chance to a mate.

Perhaps we should pause here a moment to define what we mean by “high” and “low” status. High status usually has to do with desirable characteristics– beauty, strength, swiftness, bright feathers, or intelligence-whatever is admired by the species. In agencies where males fight for control of females (elk, lions, kangaroos), size and strength are usually the deciding factor. In species where females exercise some choice, physical beauty tends to play a greater role. As Darwin first noted, the bright plumage of the male bird is solely the result of generations of female selection.

In almost every species, youth is considered a desirable quality. In females, it implies a long, healthy life in which to raise offspring. In males, youth and vigor also suggest a wide variety of resources for child-rearing. Among the more social species, however, age, intelligence, and experience can play an important role. The alpha baboon is usually quite mature and sustains his access to females not through sheer strength or aggressiveness, but through the skillful formation of political alliances.

Under monogamy, another crucial characteristic is added–the willingness of the male to be a good provider. Yet this creates a dilemma for females. Unfortunately, the two favored characteristics–physical attractiveness and willingness to be a good provider–do not always come together. In fact, they often seem mutually exclusive. The peacock, the most beautiful of male birds, is notoriously a philanderer and a poor provider. With polygamy, females can ignore this problem and attach themselves to the most attractive males. With monogamy, however, females find themselves caught on the horns of the dilemma. Juggling these competing demands becomes a vexing responsibility–one that, at bottom, most females would ultimately like to escape.

Alternatives have always been available–at least covertly. In the 1950s, a research scientist began a routine experiment concerning natal blood type, trying to figure out which characteristics were dominant. To his astonishment, he found that 11 per cent of the babies born in American hospitals had blood types belonging to neither the mother nor the father–meaning the biological father was not the male listed on the birth certificate. The researcher was so dismayed by these findings that he suppressed them for over twenty years. Even at a time when monogamy was an unquestioned norm, at least 10 per cent of American women were resolving the female dilemma by tricking one man into providing for the child of another.

The Sources of Discontent

WITH ALL this in mind, then, let us look at where we should expect to find the major points of dissatisfaction with monogamy. First and foremost, monogamy limits the mating urges of high-status males. Everywhere in nature, males have an underlying urge to mate with as many females as possible. Studies among barnyard animals have shown that a male that has exhausted himself mating with one female will experience an immediate resurgence of sexual desire when a new female is introduced into his pen. (This is dubbed the “Coolidge effect,” after Calvin Coolidge, who once observed it while making a presidential tour of a barnyard.)

“Hogamous, higamous, men are polygamous. Higamous, hogamous, women monogamous,” wrote Ogden Nash, and the experience in all societies has been that the male urge to be polygamous is the weakest link in the monogamous chain. This has become particularly true in America’s mobile culture, where status-seeking males are often tempted to change wives as they move up the social ladder. “Serial monogamy” is. the name we have given it, but a better term might be “rotating polygamy. ” A serious op-ed article in the New York Times a few years ago proposed that polygamy be legalized so that men could be compelled to support their earlier wives even as they move on to younger and more attractive women.

Marital infidelity, the lathering of illegitimate children, the pursuit of younger women, the “bimbo” and “trophy wife” syndromes–all are essential breaches of the monogamous social contract. When a Donald Trump deserts his wife and children for a woman almost twenty years his junior, he is obviously “wrecking a home” and violating monogamy’s implicit understanding that children should be supported until maturity. But he is doing something else as well. By mating with a much younger, second woman, he is also limiting the mating possibilities of younger men. One swallow does not make a summer, but repeated over and over, this pattern produces real demographic consequences. In societies that practice polygamy, competition over available females is always more intense.

The problems with male infidelity, then, are fairly clear. What is not always so obvious is that women’s commitment to monogamy is also somewhat circumscribed. The difficulties are two fold: 1) the general dissatisfaction of all women in being forced to choose between attractive males and good providers; and 2) the particular dissatisfaction among low-status women at being confined to the pool of low-status men.

In truth, low-status people of both sexes-or perhaps more significantly, people who are chronically dissatisfied with their status form a continuing challenge to any monogamous society. Unless there is an overwhelming cultural consensus that marriage and the joint raising of children forms the highest human happiness (which some people think it does), low-status males and females are likely to feel cheated by the relatively narrow pool of mates available to them. Their resentments and underlying desire to disrupt the rules of the game form a constant undercurrent of discontent in any monogamous society.

For males, one obvious way of by-passing the rules is rape. Although feminists, in their never-ending effort to repeal biology, have insisted that rape reflects some amorphous “hatred against women,” the more obvious interpretation is that it is a triumph of raw sexual desire over the more complex rules of social conduct. Rape overwhelmingly involves low-status men seeking sex with women who are otherwise inaccessible to them. (Rape is even more of a problem in polygamous societies, because of the more limited options for low-status males.) If “hatred” is involved, it is more likely to be general resentment of monogamy’s restrictions, which inaccessible, high-status women may come to represent. But this is all secondary. The basic crime of rape is the violation of a woman’s age-old biological right to choose her own sexual partners.

The other avenues for low-status males are prostitution and pornography. Each offers access to higher — status females, albeit under rather artificial circumstances. Individual females may benefit from pornography and prostitution in that they are paid (however poorly) for their participation. There is always a laissez-faire argument for allowing both. But when they become public and widespread, pornography and prostitution become another nagging reminder of the dissatisfactions some people will always feel with monogamy. In other words, they disrupt “family values.”

Female dissatisfaction with monogamy, on the other hand, is not always as obvious. Yet the restrictions put upon females–particularly low-status ones–will always be present and, in their own way, form their own undercurrent of discontent.

The principal female dissatisfaction is the dilemma of finding a mate who is both physically attractive and a good provider. As many and many a woman has discovered, it is much easier to get an attractive male into bed with you for the night than to keep him around in the morning.

The Murphy Brown Alternative

THERE IS, HOWEVER, a practical alternative. This is to return to the greater freedom of polygamy, where females can choose the most attractive males without regard to forming a permanent bond. This, of course, is the essence of “single motherhood.”

The rise of single motherhood is basically the expression of female discontent with monogamy. Rising female economic success makes it more practical (social scientists have long noted that marriage becomes more unstable as females become more economically independent). This undoubtedly accounts for the rising rate of divorce and single motherhood among affluent Americans.

But the emergence of almost universal single motherhood among the black underclass undercuts the purely economic argument (except, of course, to the degree that female independence has been subsidized by the welfare system). Black women are not opting for single motherhood because of rising economic success. What the availability of welfare does, however, is enable them to dispense with the courtship rituals of monogamy and choose the most desirable man available to them, regardless of the man’s willingness or ability to provide domestic support. It is this dynamic of liberated female sexual choice and not just the greater economic support offered by welfare that is driving black single motherhood today.

The essence of single motherhood, then, is status — jumping. By dispensing with the need to make a single choice, a woman can mate with a man who is far more desirable than any she could hope to retain under the artificial restraints of monogamy. The same dynamic is even more obvious among single mothers of the middle and upper classes. When asked to justify their choice, these women refer with surprising regularity to the unavailability of movie stars or other idealized males. (“I know so many women who were waiting for that Alan Alda type to come along,” one unwed mother recently told Newsweek. “And they were waiting and waiting.”) Yet when these women get themselves impregnated by otherwise unattainable men-or artificially inseminate themselves with accomplished doctors and lawyers, talented musicians, or Nobel Prize-winning scientists — what are they practicing but a contemporary form of high-tech polygamy?

The rebellion against monogamy, then, is being led by men dissatisfied because they cannot have more women and women dissatisfied with the choice of available men. (As an aging divorcee, Murphy Brown, despite her attractiveness, had a very limited pool of mating possibilities.) Yet each of these rebellions is driven by the most powerful human sexual dynamic–the desire of every living creature to produce offspring with the most desirable possible mating partners. Monogamy limits those desires.

The Homosexual Alternative

WHERE DOES homosexuality fit in all this? At its core, homosexuality is driven by a different dynamic. In every society, there is a small nucleus of men and women who feel uncomfortable with their sexual roles. For whatever reasons; biological, psychological, or a combination–they find it difficult or impossible to play the reproductive role dictated by their bodies and to mate with the opposite sex. This does not necessarily constitute a challenge to monogamy. Homosexuals and people with homosexual tendencies have often played important social roles. Priests, prophets, witch-doctors, artists, entertainers, cultural leaders–all have often been overtly or covertly homosexual or tinged with an undercurrent of ambiguous sexuality. All this forms no great social problem so long as homosexuality remains largely covert and marginal. The difficulty comes when it breaks out of the underground and becomes a mainstream alternative, particularly to the point of recruitment among the young. (Socrates, remember, was condemned to death for luring the youth of Athens into homosexuality.)

Once again, simple arithmetic begins to assert itself. When male homosexuality becomes widespread, it creates a dearth of eligible young men. This is particularly visible in urban environments. The growing population of male homosexuals in New York and other cities during the 1980s created the widely reported “man shortage” for young women. In the end, this large homosexual population seems to have induced an equally large lesbian population.

Are all these individuals really biologically determined to homosexuality? It seems doubtful. Rather, what seems to be happening is that homosexuality is becoming an acceptable form of protest for both men and women who do not like the choices offered to them by monogamy.

Once again, the problem is most pronounced with low-status people. For example, although there are undoubtedly some very attractive lesbian women, even a casual survey of the population reveals a very high incidence of members whose mating opportunities are obviously limited under monogamy. Moreover, the men who are available to them are themselves likely to be bitter and resentful over their choice of mates–in other words they “hate women.” One need only read the melancholy chronicle of Andrea Dworkin’s experiences with a string of sadistic, self-loathing men to realize why this woman has become one of the nation’s leading exponents of lesbianism. The professed ideology of both these groups is that they “hate” the other sex. Yet it would be much more correct to say that they hate the members of the opposite sex to which monogamy has confined them.

(I sometimes think the high point of America’s commitment to monogamy came around 1955, the year that Paddy Chayevsky’s low-budget Marty was a surprise box-office success and winner of the Academy Award. The story told of two plain people who, after numerous personal rejections, discover each other at a Saturday — night dance hall. The message of the movie, as articulated so often during that era, was that “For every girl there’s a boy and for every boy there’s a girl.”)

Despite its disruptive nature, homosexuality as a rebellion has little permanent impact until older biological urges begin to assert themselves and homosexuals want to have children. For men, there are few options. Apart from a few highly publicized cases, there are few homosexual men raising families. But for women, once again, we are back to single motherhood. Numerous lesbian couples are now having children, and lesbians have organized the most sophisticated sperm banks. How these children will react ten or fifteen years down the road to the realization that they are the children of anonymous sperm donors is anybody’s guess. But it seems likely they will have difficulty forming monogamous unions themselves and their resentments will only add to the sea of dissatisfactions.

Polygamy in Our Future?

TO SUM up, then, let us admit that no system of monogamy can ever bring complete happiness to everyone. Given the variability among individuals and given the universal desire to be paired with desirable mating partners, there will always be a sizable pool of dissatisfaction under monogamy. The real question is: How far can society allow this pool to grow before these private dissensions begin to rend the social fabric? In short, what can we expect society to look like if the monogamous ideal is abandoned?

It isn’t necessary to look very far. Western and Oriental cultures form a monogamous axis that spans the northern hemisphere (Orientals are far more monogamous than Westerners are), but a large part of the remaining world practices polygamy.

Polygamy is tolerated by the Koran–although it should be recognized that, like the principle of “an eye for an eye,” the Islamic law that allows a man four wives is a restriction from an earlier practice. The Koran requires that a man support all his wives equally, which generally confines the practice to wealthy males. In most Moslem countries, polygamous marriages are restricted to the upper classes and form no more than 4 to 5 per cent of all marriages.

In sub-Saharan Africa, on the other hand, polygamy is far closer to the norm. In parts of West Africa, more than 20 per cent of the marriages are polygamous. Marriage itself is rendered far more fragile by the practice of matrilinearity–tracing ancestry only through the mother’s line. In West Africa, a man may sire many children (Chief M.K.O. Abiola, of Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe, a self-made billionaire and chairman of ITT Nigeria, has 26 wives), but the paternal claim he can lay upon any of them. is far more tenuous than it would be in Oriental or Western societies. In West Africa, women can take their children and leave a marriage at any time, making the institution extremely unstable. In these tribal societies, Christianity and Islam which teach marital fidelity and permanent unions–are generally regarded as progressive social movements.

What qualities do we find in societies that tolerate polygamy? First, the shortage of women usually leads to the institution of the “bride price,” where a young man must pay a sizable sum of money to the bride’s family in order to obtain a wife. (The “dowry,” in which a sum is attached to an eligible daughter to make her more attractive, is purely a product of monogamy.) This makes wives difficult to obtain for men who come from less well-to-do families.

The numerical imbalance between eligible males and females also forces older men to court younger women. Girls in their teens are often betrothed to men ten and fifteen years their senior. In some South Seas societies, infant females are betrothed to grown men. These strained couplings make marriage itself a distant and unrewarding relationship, far different from the “peer marriages” of Western and Oriental cultures.

Finally, polygamy tends to produce a high level of male violence. Because low-status males are not assured any reasonable chance of mating by the social contract, they are essentially impossible to incorporate into the larger work of society. Instead, they form themselves into violent gangs or become the foot soldiers of extremist political groups. In Pakistan, the recent news has been that the country is being overrun by these violent gangs, which have become the competing “parties” in the country’s turbulent political system. The head of one of these factions was recently accused of raping dozens of airline stewardesses.

Yet even where polygamy is openly sanctioned, childrearing is always built around the formation of husband-and-wife households–even if these households may contain several wives. Only among the American underclass has polygamy degenerated into a purely polymorphous variety, where courtship is forgone and family formation has become a virtually forgotten ritual.

In a recent issue of The Public Interest, Elijah Anderson, professor of social science at the University of Pennsylvania, described an on-going acquaintance with a 21-year-old black youth whom he called “John Turner.” Anderson described the social milieu of Turner’s neighborhood as follows:

In Philadelphia, . . the young men of many individual streets organize informally bounded areas into territories. They then guard the territories, defending them against the intrusions and whims of outsiders …

Local male groups claim responsibility over the women in the area, especially if they are young. These women are seen as their possessions, at times to be argued over and even fought over. When a young man from outside the neighborhood attempts to “go with” or date a young woman from the neighborhood, he must usually answer to the boys’ group, negotiating for their permission first…

At twenty-one years of age, John was the father of four children out of wedlock. He had two sons who were born a few months apart by different women, one daughter by the mother of one of the sons, and another son by a third woman.

This mating pattern is not uncommon in nature. It has recently been observed in dolphins and of course bears a strong resemblance to the structure of some primate tribes. Yet what works for these species is no longer plausible for human beings. Once again, we have eaten from the tree of knowledge. We have too much intimate knowledge of the details of sexual connection and paternity to be satisfied with this vague collectivism.

Thus “John Turner” explains how his efforts to put some order into his life by creating a bond between two of his sons resulted in his being jailed for assault: Well, see, this girl, the girl who’s the mother of my one son, Teddy. See, I drove my girlfriend’s car by her house with my other son with me. I parked the car down the street from her house and everything. So I took John, Jr., up to the house to see his brother, and we talk for awhile. But when I get ready to leave, she and her girlfriend followed me to the car. I got in the car and put John in. Then she threw a brick through the window.

The unavoidable consequence of polymorphous polygamy among humans is a tangle of competing jealousies and conflicting loyalties that make ordinary life all but impossible. The central institution at the axis of human society–the nuclear family–no longer exists.

Unfortunately, while such a mating system virtually guarantees child abuse (usually involving a “boyfriend”), internal turmoil, and rampant violence, it is also extremely reproductive. While their social life has degenerated into extreme chaos, the American underclass are nonetheless reproducing faster than any other population in the world. This follows a well-known biological principle that when populations come under stress, they attempt to save themselves by reproducing faster, with sexual maturity usually accelerated to a younger age.

The culture of polygamy is also self-reinforcing and self-perpetuating. If men feel there is nothing more to fatherhood than “making babies,” then women will feel free to seek the most attractive men, without making any effort to bind them to the tasks of child-rearing. As a cultural pair, the footloose male and the single mother, if not held back by the force of social convention, can easily become the predominant type. The result is a free-for-all in which human society as we know it may become very difficult, if not impossible.

Back to ‘Family Values’

THIS, THEN, is the essence of “family values.” Family values are basically the belief that monogamy is the most peaceful and progressive way of organizing a human society. Dislike and distaste for anything that challenges the monogamous contract easy divorce, widespread pornography, legalized prostitution, out-of-wedlock child bearing, blatant homosexuality-are not just narrow or prudish concerns. They come from an intelligent recognition that the monogamous contract is a fragile institution that can easily unravel if dissaffections become too widespread.

What is likely to happen if we abandon these values? People will go on reproducing, you can be sure of that. But families won’t be formed (“litters” might be a more appropriate term). And the human beings that are produced in these litters will not be quite the same either. If marriage is a compromise between men and women, then the breakdown of monogamy can only let loose the natural egocentrisms of both.

It is probably not too alarmist to note that societies that have been unable to establish monogamy have also been unable to create working democracies or widely distributed wealth. No society that domesticates too few men can have a stable social order. People who are incapable of monogamy are probably incapable of many other things as well.

As a basically limiting human compact, monogamous marriage is bound to produce its peculiar difficulties. As with any compromise, each individual can argue based on present or previous deprivation, real or imagined-that he or she should not be bound by the rules.

Yet it should also be clear that, beyond the personal dissatisfactions we all may feel, each of us also retains a permanent, private stake in sustaining a system that creates a peaceful social order and offers to everyone a reasonable chance of achieving personal happiness. If monogamy makes complex demands on human beings, it also offers unique and complex rewards.

National Review
October 4, 1993

Problem of Grudge Informer by Lon L. Fuller

Lon L. Fuller

By a narrow margin you have been elected Minister of Justice of your country, a nation of some twenty million inhabitants, At the outset of your term of office you are confronted by a serious problem that will be described below. But first the background of this problem must be presented. 

For many decades your country enjoyed a peaceful, constitutional and democratic government. However, some time ago it came upon bad times. Normal relations were disrupted by a deepening economic depression and by an increasing antagonism among various factional groups, formed along economic, political, and religious lines. The proverbial man on horseback appeared in the form of the Headman of a political party or society that called itself the Purple Shirts.

In a national election attended by much disorder the Headman was elected President of the Republic and his party obtained a majority of the seats in the General Assembly. The success of the party at the polls was partly brought about by a campaign of reckless promises and ingenious falsifications, and partly by the physical intimidation of night-riding Purple Shirts who frightened many people away from the polls who would have voted against the party. 

When the Purple Shirts arrived in power they took no steps to repeal the ancient Constitution or any of its provisions. They also left intact the Civil and Criminal Codes and the Code of Procedure. No official action was taken to dismiss any government official or remove any judge from the bench. Elections continued to be held at intervals and ballots were counted with apparent honesty. Nevertheless, the country lived under a reign of terror. 

Judges who rendered decisions contrary to the wishes of the party were beaten and murdered. The accepted meaning of the Criminal Code was perverted to place political opponents in jail. Secret statutes were passed, the contents of which were known only to the upper levels of the party hierarchy. Retroactive statutes were enacted which made acts criminal that were legally innocent when committed. No attention was paid by the government to the restraints of the Constitution, of antecedent laws, or even of its own laws. All opposing political parties were disbanded. Thousands of political opponents were put to death, either methodically in prisons or in sporadic night forays of terror. A general amnesty was declared in favor of persons under sentence for acts “committed in defending the fatherland against subversion.” Under this amnesty a general liberation of all prisoners who were members of the Purple Shirt party was effected. No one not a member of the party was released under the amnesty. 

The Purple Shirts as a matter of deliberate policy preserved an element of flexibility in their operations by acting at times through the apparatus of the state which they controlled. Choice between the two methods of proceeding was purely a matter of expediency. For example, when the inner circle of the party decided to ruin all the former Socialist-Republicans (whose party put up a last-ditch resistance to the new regime), a dispute arose as to the best way of confiscating their property. One faction, perhaps still influenced by pre-revolutionary conceptions, wanted to accomplish this by a statute declaring their goods forfeited for criminal acts. Another wanted to do it

by compelling the owners to deed their property over at the point of a bayonet. This group argued against the proposed statute on the ground that it would attract unfavorable comment abroad. The Headman decided in favor of direct action through the party to be followed by a secret statute ratifying the party’s action and confirming the titles obtained by threats of physical violence. 

The Purple Shirts have now been overthrown and a democratic and constitutional government restored. Some difficult problems have, however, been left behind by the deposed regime. These you and your associates in the new government must find some way of solving. One of these problems is that of the “grudge informer.” 

During the Purple Shirt regime a great many people worked off grudges by reporting their enemies to the party or to the government authorities. The activities reported were such things as the private expression of views critical of the government, listening to foreign radio broadcasts, associating with known wreckers and hooligans, hoarding more than the permitted amount of dried eggs, failing to report a loss of identification papers within five days, etc. As things then stood with the administration of justice, any of these acts, if proved, could lead to a sentence of death. In some cases this sentence was authorized by “emergency” statutes; in others it was imposed without statutory warrant, though by judges duly appointed to their offices. 

After the overthrow of the Purple Shirts, a strong public demand grew up that these grudge informers be punished. The interim government, which preceded that with which you are associated, temporized on this matter. Meanwhile it has become a burning issue and a decision concerning it can no longer be postponed. Accordingly, your first act as Minister of Justice has been to address yourself to it. You have asked your five Deputies to give thought to the matter and to bring their recommendations to conference. At the conference the five Deputies speak in turn as follows: 

FIRST DEPUTY: “It is perfectly clear to me that we can do nothing about these so-called grudge informers. The acts they reported were unlawful according to the rules of the government then in actual control of the nation’s affairs. The sentences imposed on their victims were rendered in accordance with principles of law then obtaining. These principles differed from those familiar to us in ways that we consider detestable. Nevertheless they were then the law of the land. One of the principal differences between that law and our own lies in the much wider discretion it accorded to the judge in criminal matters. This rule and its consequences are as much entitled to respect by us as the reform which the Purple Shirts introduced into the law of wills, whereby only two witnesses were required instead of three. It is immaterial that the rule granting the judge a more or less uncontrolled discretion in criminal cases was never formally enacted but was a matter of tacit acceptance. Exactly the same thing can be said of the opposite rule which we accept that restricts the judge’s discretion narrowly. The difference between ourselves and the Purple Shirts is not that theirs was an unlawful government—a contradiction in terms—but lies rather in the field of ideology. No one has a greater abhorrence than I for Purple Shirtism, Yet the fundamental difference between our philosophy and theirs is that we permit and tolerate differences in viewpoint, while they attempted to impose their monolithic code on everyone. Our whole system of government assumes that law is a flexible thing, capable of expressing and effectuating many different aims. The cardinal point of our creed is that when an objective has been duly incorporated into a law or judicial decree it must be provisionally accepted even by those that hate it, who must await their chance at the polls, or in another litigation, to secure a legal recognition of their own aims. The Purple Shirts, on the other hand, simply disregarded laws that incorporated objectives of which they did not approve, not even considering it worth the effort involved to repeal them. If we now seek to unscramble the acts of the Purple Shirt regime, declaring this judgment invalid, that statute void, this sentence excessive, we shall be doing exactly the thing we most condemn in them. I recognize that it will take courage to carry through with the program I recommend and we shall have to resist strong pressures of public opinion. We shall also have to be prepared to prevent the people from taking the law into their own hands. In the long run, however, I believe the course I recommend is the only one that will insure the triumph of the conceptions of law and government in which we believe.” 

SECOND DEPUTY: “Curiously, I arrive at the same conclusion as my colleague, by an exactly opposite route. To me it seems absurd to call the Purple Shirt regime a lawful government. A legal system does not exist simply because policemen continue to patrol the streets and wear uniforms or because a constitution and code are left on the shelf unrepealed. A legal system presupposes laws that are known, or can be known, by those subject to them. It presupposes some uniformity of action and that like cases will be given like treatment. It presupposes the absence of some lawless power, like the Purple Shirt Party, standing above the government and able at any time to interfere with the administration of justice whenever it does not function according to the whims of that power. All of these presuppositions enter into the very conception of an order of law and have nothing to do with political and economic ideologies. In my opinion law in any ordinary sense of the word ceased to exist when the Purple Shirts came to power. During their regime we had, in effect, an interregnum in the rule of law. Instead of a government of laws we had a war of all against all conducted behind barred doors, in dark alleyways, in palace intrigues, and prison-yard conspiracies. The acts of these so-called grudge informers were just one phase of that war. For us to condemn these acts as criminal would involve as much incongruity as if we were to attempt to apply juristic conceptions to the struggle for existence that goes on in the jungle or beneath the surface of the sea. We must put this whole dark, lawless chapter of our history behind us like a bad dream. If we stir among its hatreds, we shall bring upon ourselves something of its evil spirit and risk infection from its miasmas. I therefore say with my colleague, let bygones be bygones. Let us do nothing about the so-called grudge informers. What they did do was neither lawful nor contrary to law, for they lived, not under a regime of law, but under one of anarchy and terror.” 

THIRD DEPUTY: “I have a profound suspicion of any kind of reasoning that proceeds by an ‘either-or’ alternative. I do not think we need to assume either, on the one hand, that in some manner the whole of the Purple Shirt regime was outside the realm of law, or, on the other, that all of its doings are entitled to full credence as the acts of a lawful government. My two colleagues have unwittingly delivered powerful arguments against these extreme assumptions by demonstrating that both of them lead to the same absurd conclusion, a conclusion that is ethically and politically impossible. If one reflects about the matter without emotion it becomes clear that we did not have during the Purple Shirt regime a ‘war of all against all.’ Under the surface much of what we call normal human life went on—marriages were contracted, goods were sold, wills were drafted and executed. This life was attended by the usual dislocations—automobile accidents, bankruptcies, unwitnessed wills, defamatory misprints in the newspapers. Much of this normal life and most of these equally normal dislocations of it were unaffected by the Purple Shirt ideology. The legal questions that arose in this area were handled by the courts much as they had been formerly and much as they are being handled today. It would invite an intolerable chaos if we were to declare everything that happened under the Purple Shirts to be without legal basis. On the other hand, we certainly cannot say that the murders committed in the streets by members of the party acting under orders from the Headman were lawful simply because the party had achieved control of the government and its chief had become President of the Republic. If we must condemn the criminal acts of the party and its members, it would seem absurd to uphold every act which happened to be canalized through the apparatus of the government that had become, in effect, the alter ego of the Purple Shirt Party. We must therefore, in this situation, as in most human affairs, discriminate. Where the Purple Shirt philosophy intruded itself and perverted the administration of justice from its normal aims and uses, there we must interfere. Among these perversions of justice I would count, for example, the case of a man who was in love with another man’s wife and brought about the death of the husband by informing against him for a wholly trivial offense, that is, for not reporting a loss of his identification papers within five days. This informer was a murderer under the Criminal Code which was in effect at the time of his act and which the Purple Shirts had not repealed. He encompassed the death of one who stood in the way of his illicit passions and utilized the courts for the realization of his murderous intent. He knew that the courts were themselves the pliant instruments of whatever policy the Purple Shirts might for the moment consider expedient. There are other cases that are equally clear. I admit that there are also some that are less clear. We shall be embarrassed, for example, by the cases of mere busybodies who reported to the authorities everything that looked suspect. Some of ‘these persons acted not from desire to get rid of those they accused, but with a desire to curry favor with the party, to divert suspicions (perhaps ill-founded) raised against themselves, or through sheer officiousness, I don’t know how these cases should be handled, and make no recommendation with regard to them. But the fact that these troublesome cases exist should not deter us from acting at once in the cases that are clear, of which there are far too many to permit us to disregard them.”

FOURTH DEPUTY: “Like my colleague I too distrust ‘either-or’ reasoning, but I think we need to reflect more than he has about where we are headed. This proposal to pick and choose among the acts of the deposed regime is thoroughly objectionable. It is, in fact, Purple Shirtism itself, pure and simple. We like this law, so let us enforce it. We like this judgment, let it stand. This law we don’t like, therefore it never was a law at all. This governmental act we disapprove, let it be deemed a nullity. If we proceed this way, we take toward the laws and acts of the Purple Shirt government precisely the unprincipled attitude they took toward the laws and acts of the government they supplanted. We shall have chaos, with every judge and every prosecuting attorney a law unto himself. Instead of ending the abuses of the Purple Shirt regime, my colleague’s proposal would perpetuate them. There is only one way of dealing with this problem that is compatible with our philosophy of law and government and that is to deal with it by duly enacted law, I mean, by a special statute directed toward it. Let us study this whole problem of the grudge informer, get all the relevant facts, and draft a comprehensive law dealing with it. We shall not then be twisting old laws to purposes for which they were never intended. We shall furthermore provide penalties appropriate to the offense and not treat every informer as a murderer simply because the one he informed against was ultimately executed. I admit that we shall encounter some difficult problems of draftsmanship. Among other things, we shall have to assign a definite legal meaning to ‘grudge’ and that will not be easy. We should not be deterred by these difficulties, however, from adopting the only course that will lead us out of a condition of lawless, personal rule.” 

FIFTH DEPUTY: “I find a considerable irony in the last proposal. It speaks of putting a definite end to the abuses of the Purple Shirtism, yet it proposes to do this by resorting to one of the most hated devices of the Purple Shirt regime, the ex post facto criminal statute. My colleague dreads the conclusion that will result if we attempt without a statute to undo and redress ‘wrong’ acts of the departed order, while we uphold and enforce its ‘right’ acts. Yet he seems not to realize that his proposed statute is a wholly specious cure for this uncertainty. It is easy to make a plausible argument for an undrafted statute: we all agree it would be nice to have things down in black and white on paper. But just what would this statute provide? One of my colleagues speaks of someone who had failed for five days to report a loss of his identification papers. My colleague implies that the judicial sentence imposed for that offense, namely death, was so utterly disproportionate as to be clearly wrong. But we must remember that at that time the underground movement against the Purple Shirts was mounting in intensity and that the Purple Shirts were being harassed constantly by people with false identification papers. From their point of view they had a real problem, and the only objection we can make to their solution of it (other than the fact that we didn’t want them to solve it) was that they acted with somewhat more rigor than the occasion seemed to demand. How will my colleague deal with this case in his statute, and with all of its cousins and second cousins? Will he deny the existence of any need for Jaw and order under the Purple Shirt regime? I will not go further into the difficul ties involved in drafting this proposed statute, since they are evident enough to anyone who reflects. I shall instead turn to my own solution. It has been said on very respectable authority that the main purpose of the criminal law is to give an outlet to the human in stinct for revenge. There are times, and I believe this is one of them, when we should allow that instinct to express itself directly without the intervention of forms of law. This matter of the grudge informers is already in process of straightening itself out. One reads almost every day that a former lackey of the Purple Shirt regime has met his just reward in some unguarded spot. The people are quietly handling this thing in their own way and if we leave them alone, and instruct our public prosecutors to do the same, there will soon be no problem left for us to solve. There will be some disorders, of course, and a few innocent heads will be broken. But our government and our legal system will not be involved in the affair and we shall not find ourselves hopelessly bogged down in an attempt to unscramble all the deeds and misdeeds of the Purple Shirts.” 

As Minister of Justice, which of these recommendations would you adopt?

On Wisdom by Elizabeth Anscombe

Elizabeth Anscombe

There is an ancient Greek saying, πολυμαθιη νοον εχειν ου διδασκει “Much learning doesn’t teach you sense” — the truth of which is fairly obvious. This, in spite of the fact that you need to have a fair — often, a considerable — amount of intelligence in order to be justly counted as having a lot of learning. The Greek word νοος, which I have translated “sense”, might be translated “intelligence” but I think “sense” is better because what the author of this maxim was thinking of was obviously that much learning doesn’t make you wise. Wisdom is something beyond technical intelligence. You might say: One needs wisdom to know when and how to exercise one’s technical intelligence well; and sometimes to know that one needs a particular technical intelligence to deal with some matter, and hasn’t got it.

This is of special relevance in considering the topic of the future of higher education. There has developed in this century, if not before, a certain deadly fault in the exercise of the still higher education that some have received. It is connected with the great esteem that accrues to learned and clever people if they leave their mark on a subject. This may be achieved by successfully insisting that a commonly held assumption or opinion is mistaken. No doubt this is sometimes right. That butter is better for one than margarine may be an example. I don’t know if some original cardiologist made his name by surprisingly denouncing butter, only that cardiologists tend to be hostile to butter now; and they may be entirely correct. The general field of what may be bad for you is so prominent that it has become rather a joke, but that doesn’t mean that a cardiologist’s disapproval of French fries as a frequent item of diet is as mistaken as it is likely to be ineffective.

I want, here and now, not to attend to sound and unsound opinions and practices in eating and drinking, but to concentrate on a quite different field of possible, or even frequent, misbehaviour. It is that of translations of the Scriptures.

The translation and the sense

I have been startled by some things here, in ways which have convinced me that these were cases of misbehaviour. I have heard readings at Mass which have made me jump and think “Can that be right? It doesn’t sound like what I’ve been used to.” One time was when I heard a reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 1, where he said he spent fifteen days seeing Peter in Jerusalem. The reading went on “I did not see any other apostle. I saw James, the brother of the Lord.” Hearing this I hurried home to look up the Greek, which seemed to say “I did not see any other apostle ‘except’ James, the brother of the Lord”, which was how I remembered the passage. The Greek is ει μη two words which taken together mean “unless” but which form a very usual way of saying “except” —the way, indeed, that the older translations I looked at take them. Being myself in Jerusalem a few months later, I consulted François Dreyfus O.P., 1 who took me to look at Lagrange’s commentary. Here the matter was discussed, Lagrange mentioning two or three places where it doesn’t look as if ει μη meant “except” but concluding that it pretty surely does mean “except” in this text of St. Paul. I wondered why on earth this new translation had been foisted on us, and concluded that what had been at work to start with was the ambition I have mentioned, to make one’s name by introducing new and different translations. The particular matter was not of very great importance, but I noted it as an example of the various kinds of things that seem wrong in the readings of the Scriptures that we hear at Mass. The punch line in a story is left out, e.g. some things never read, like what St. Paul wrote about ‘Israel according to the flesh’ — i.e. the unbelieving Jews who did not join in that formation of the early Church almost entirely by Jews. To this I might add a fault in the English translations which is not new but very old. It is especially noticeable in translations of St. John’s Gospel, where it is repeatedly said that the Jews wanted to kill or otherwise get rid of Jesus, that he was warned that the Jews were after him, and so on. These passages are quite incomprehensible when you remember the facts; they make a perverted sense to later, non-Jewish Christians. They’d become intelligible if the word given was ‘‘Judaeans’’ (meaning the authorities of the main people living in Judaea) and not “Jews”; the Greek and Latin do not make a difference in the word for “Jews” and the word for “Judaeans” and hence the unintelligible translation in languages that do.

I encountered something much more serious last year. We were discussing what our Lord meant when he said to Pontius Pilate “Those who are of the truth hear my voice”. Who were, or are, “those who are of the truth”? I reminded the man who was talking with me of what it says earlier in St. John’s Gospel, chapter I verse 9: “That was the true light, that enlightens every man who comes into the world”. My interlocutor said he had not heard of that sentence, and he looked it up in the ‘revised version’, I in some other text I happened to have with me. In both cases it ran “The true light, which enlightens everyone (or: every man), was coming into the world”. That is quite different and destroyed my explanation of what Jesus said to Pilate. I had recourse to the Greek text, and found that there was no question of a variant reading, but that because of a peculiarity of Greek grammar, you could take “coming into the world” as a phrase agreeing with “light”. You just could; it was harsh Greek, for reasons I will not bother you with. But I thought “Aha! — the same thing again — someone decided to offer a new translation just because it occurred to him as grammatically possible. I then learned that everyone, from the earliest times, and from Augustine and Jerome and subsequent Christians, including Luther and Calvin, had taken it in the way I was used to — right up to the nineteenth century translation my friend happened to have with him.

This was not a trivial matter at all. It had been anciently thought and taught that in the eighth chapter of the book of Proverbs, where Wisdom speaks, that Wisdom is the Word of the Father, the divine Wisdom, the second Person of the Trinity. This is earnestly argued, for example, in St. Athanasius’ writings against the Arians. And, without knowing that fact, I had taken it as true that here was a case of the ‘greater’, as St. Thomas calls them, among the Hebrews having some knowledge of the Holy Trinity in the times before the Messiah was born incarnate into the world. The Wisdom in Proverbs “was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John, ch. 1,v.4) Thus those who remained true to it — such were the people ‘of the truth’ of whom Christ said “They hear my voice” —i.e. the voice of him incarnate as a man who spoke to them in a material voice. You see in this how grave an error was involved in the rendering “The light was coming into the world”. He was already in the world, and the world was made through him, and his delight “was with the children of men” — “deliciae meae esse cum filiis hominum”. Furthermore, this Wisdom says “The Lord had me in the beginning of his ways, before he made any beginning of things.” (Proverbs ch.VIII,v.22) I am told that the word I render here as ‘had’ is the Hebrew word also for ‘begot’. Also: “before the abysses were made, I was conceived” (ibid. v.24).

Science and knowledge

That the divine Wisdom is the source and cause of human reason and speech in its essential working seems to me to be the truth, which a wise intelligence will perceive. But I have a confirmation of this by the work of a highly intelligent present day philosopher who nevertheless has not perceived it.

This philosopher is Willard Van Orman Quine, an American logician, for a long time professor at Harvard. His many books include some not concerned with technicalities of logic alone; he knows many languages and has thought much about problems of translation and communication, of how we know what a piece of language says. His handling of these problems gives occasion for enunciating a famous formula; which expresses a doctrine largely sound and clarifying, but which raises a fundamental difficulty for his this-worldly philosophical programme, by which all possible knowledge should fall within the bounds of ‘science’ (in this word’s usage in English and also in French and Italian). Science so conceived is ‘natural science’ and is thoroughly materialistic. Quine’s famous dictum is: “To be is to be the value of a variable.” I should offer a brief explanation of this. In modern logical notation we have sentences which can be read “For all x, x is F.” To give an example, a true proposition of this form would be “For some x, x is an even prime”, i.e. “Something is an even prime number”. The “x” in these notations is called a variable, and in a logical system it is likely to be said what the variables, x, y, n and so on ‘range over’. n is the most usual letter to choose when you are talking about numbers. Thus we would be most likely to find e.g. “For some n, n is an even prime” and it would be obvious that the variable n ranges over numbers. There is only one even prime, the number 2, but that doesn’t mean that the only possible substitution for n in the ‘open sentence’ n is an even prime is 2. It is the only substitution for n which results in a true sentence: “2 is an even prime”, but as the variable n ranges over numbers, you could produce a well-formed but false sentence by substituting 7, or 10 or any other numeral.

Now when Quine said “To be is to be the value of a variable” he meant that to be is to be a member of the class of things that a variable ranges over. Thus, if numbers are what the variable ranges over, numbers are being reckoned to exist.

This brings us to a further idea that Quine has: that of ‘ontological commitment’. Your ontological commitment is to the things that your theory says there are. That is, you must now not choose false sentences like “There are 3 even primes”, but rather true ones like “There are just five primes from the number 1 to the number 10” — true if 1 itself is allowed to count as a prime number. This proposition implies that there are numbers, and so your adoption of a variable whose values are numbers shows that you have an ontological commitment to numbers.

It is of course possible to criticize this account of existence, but there are many things that are very interesting about it. One of these is that it seems to be a matter of choice what variables you are going to accept in your system. This may not seem correct when the example is ‘numbers’; after all, how can you avoid admitting that there is just one even prime number, and, in doing that, aren’t you admitting that for some n, n is an even prime number, and therefore that for some n, n is a number? This last is rather unlikely to be a theoretical statement that you will find yourself making, but it does seem to be one you’d have to assent to if you granted that ‘to be is to be the value of a variable’ and that you can express arithmetical truths by using formulae in which the variable n occurs, which ranges over numbers. To say you have an ontological commitment to numbers is to say that your theory says that numbers exist, inasmuch as it uses a variable ranging over numbers to say that there are numbers with this or that property.

The intentional verbs

I now come to a peculiar difficulty which Quine has, though he does not let it bother him to the extent of giving up his thesis. It is that he can find no properly scientific account of intentional verbs. If we are strict with ourselves, we shall eschew them. That is to adopt as our own the ‘severe’ muse of ‘science’. But we cannot easily do this, and Quine doesn’t want to forbid us e.g. to speak of someone as believing or saying such and such. In his big book Word and Object he does indeed find a way of construing sentences to the effect that someone believes something, which allows him not to speak of an intentionality apparently involved in them.

To explain ‘intentionality’ quickly: a verb like “believe”, indirectly governing a sentence, as in “James believes that Tom is a thief” might be true of a particular James who knows a particular Tom. But it might nevertheless be false to say “James believes that his mother’s cousin is a thief”, even though he believes that Tom is one and also Tom is in fact his mother’s cousin, but he doesn’t know the relationship. Hence the occurrence of “Tom” is not ‘purely referential’, since another perfectly true way of referring to Tom can turn a true sentence into a false one. This is the characteristic of intentionality in our verbs of attitude etc. Quine manages to devise a way in which he can take ‘believes’ not as a term, but only as part of a longer expression which has not got this characteristic.

But – and this is what I’ve been leading up to in telling you of Quine’s philosophy – he has not found a way of sterilizing the expression “says that” as it occurs in speaking of what a theory says, so as to make it appear as part of a construction that is innocent of the objectionable characteristic of intentionality. To repeat, he doesn’t want to forbid the use of such expressions as have that characteristic – but he does want, or need, to have a possible analysis in the background to which he could retreat. In the case of “says that” he hasn’t got such an analysis. What then becomes of his conception of ontological commitment to what one’s chosen theory, or conceptual apparatus, says exists?

“Such and such — or so-and-so — says that” — this remains a locution which Quine knows he can’t forbid. But his philosophy insists that it ought to be forbidable, because he is in some odd sense a materialist. I say “in some odd sense” because after all he believes e.g. that numbers exist and they are not material. Yet he does not hold that if he followed his conceptions of the scientific, he would have to strive after an analysis involving no mention of numbers. Intentionality however is unacceptable.

The ‘austere muse’ of scientism and subjectivism

If I have any lessons for you in what I have been saying, they are two: (1) beware of modern translations of ancient texts, when the translators may be inspired by the spirit I spoke of. Alas, it has even infected the translators of the Scriptures into Latin. The revised Vulgate perhaps corrects errors of St. Jerome; but concerning verse 9 of chapter 1 of St. John’s Gospel, it corrects him where he was not only right, but all importantly so. His text — and the Greek one— say that Jesus was the light that enlightens every man who comes into the world. This leads to (2), for it means first of all that developing humans become able to express, or at least realize, that something is so. Quine’s fancy here is that there are primarily ‘stimulus sentences’. They may consist of just one ejaculation, e.g. “Rabbit!”. (He makes up the word “Gavagai”.) We observers discover what stimulus this is a response to by e.g. trying it as a response and seeing whether it itself evokes signs of assent or dissent on the part of the people to whose language it seems to belong. If it evokes assent, we may learn that it is a stimulus response to what we were trying it as a response to.

This is wrong in so far as it assumes that a primary stimulus response can be regarded as something saying that such-and-such is present. But think: one may say “Mmm” in response to the song of a blackbird. If someone else has a response of the same kind, that may show that their utterance is a suitable translation of our “Mmm”. It would not show e.g. that anything has been named or said to be present.

Saying what is so, or is to be so, is the act of a word. Not indeed of just any word. (Counter-examples are easy to find.) Nor yet indeed always of a word that can have that role. Sometimes a gesture, not even a conventional one, can be a word. But if there is a saying that something is or is to be, this done by some sort of word that says it.

Quine’s marriage to what he counts as the ‘austere muse’ of the strictly scientific prevents him from being able to give any account of ‘saying that…’ He cannot legitimately accept the lack of “transparency”, the unavoidable “referential opacity” of intentionality. He does something to avoid it for the verb “believe”; but his effort at an account of “says that” only uses what looks like, but he says is not, direct speech, after “says”: it remains “referentially opaque”. This he calls an advantage, as indeed it must be if the account is to succeed. For though in “A saystrue ‘B is an F’ ” he allows substitution of equivalent terms, he cannot allow substitution of alternative designations which merely happen to designate the same. Thus he deserts his ‘severer muse’ and grants that one must do so as a matter of convenience for communication. But what has become of ‘ontological commitment’? How can a man in his position so much as speak of this as if it belonged in a ‘scientific’ account? We are left wandering in a desert waste of subjectivity.

Proposition and existence

Let me now return to the fact that ‘saying that …’ is the act of a word. If there is a linguistic utterance which is a “saying that “ then it is a sentence, even if it consists of only one ‘printer’s word’, or is a complex sentence with subordinate clauses. There are indeed plenty of sentences, of one ‘word’ or many, which do not ‘say that’ anything. Consider the following:


Fire! (imperative)


Fiat lux

When I bang the table you will leave the room Lovely! Going, going, gone.

Of these, the third could be a ‘saying that’. The last is the utterance of an auctioneer in a sale. His performance makes it the case that the bidding for an item is finished. The fourth, “Fiat lux” (in English “Let there be light”) is taken from Genesis telling of the creation: “God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light”.

The similarity and the contrast between this and the case of the auctioneer are interesting. The bidding in the sale of the item is finished because that is the rule in an auction. By contrast, in the Genesis story light is made to come into existence by the creating will which the human writer symbolized in the word “Fiat lux.” That creating will is the thought whose occurrence of existence is the occurrence or existence of the created thing. The act of a creating intelligence is indicated by logical and mathematical calculi being usefully applicable in exploring phenomena. Cf. Newton’s feeling of ‘thinking God’s thoughts after Him’. He was apparently seeing what was so in the universe.

We utter words of many kinds. Often they are sentences, and among sentences some are sayings that. These we perhaps call ‘propositions’, which in turn are of many varying kinds. The ‘saying that’ by many propositions is what gives them their enormous importance. This lies in the extremely usual peculiar connexion between a saying that… and a reality. Where there is this connexion, it exists whether the proposition is true or false, for a false proposition is converted into a true one by negating it, and negation introduces no new feature.

Not every saying that has this characteristic; that some utterance is a saying that may merely be a mark of its surface grammar, the form of words that makes one call what is said “an indicative statement”. In doing philosophy we should beware of being misled by this into pointless searches. Galton found that many people have coloured visual images in connexion with numbers. (See his Enquiry into the Human Faculty). He did not find out or (I believe) try to find out ‘what having such images is’. The reports were ‘sayings that’ in their grammatical form, but not reports where truth was anything other than not pretending.

Here we may note that Quine’s test, by observing assent and dissent on the part of users of a language we are trying to understand, would have no application in this case. If A says the number five is yellow and B says it is purple this is not a relevant case of ‘dissent’; nor would it be assent on B’s part if he too said it was yellow. Quine in fact has no account of assent and dissent which will serve to characterise a bit of language as a ‘saying that’. Sympathy with a cry of fear, for example, or response to a call for help will not give us examples.

The power of thinking what is so, even wrongly, is created in men, giving them language that can express it. ‘Being so’ is the first thing to get into the nascent human intellect, the beginning of knowledge which is not wisdom but is its background.


1. François Paul Dreyfus (1918–1999); a convert from Judaism who became a Dominican priest and biblical scholar; Professor of New Testament Studies at the Dominican House of Studies, Le Saulchoir, 1957–1969; Professor of Biblical Theology at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française in Jerusalem, 1969–1990.

Illusion of Animal Rights by David S. Oderberg

David S. Oderberg

You might be wondering what an article on animal rights is doing in a journal devoted to the defence of human life. It turns out that the connections are closer than you may think. Grasping them is crucial to a proper understanding of just why innocent human life must be defended, of why the killing of even the tiniest, youngest member of the human species is an unspeakable crime. For it is by analysing the issue of whether animals have rights that we come to see the core differences between humans and other animals1 – the differences in the nature of humans and animals that mean humans have rights and animals do not. Understanding the issue also gives us an insight into the ideological motivations of the anti-life movement, at least the significant strand of it which is influenced by Peter Singer and his followers. 

The animal rights issue certainly has stoked up strong passions. In Britain, few other issues are capable of bringing so many people of apparent good will onto the streets; of causing otherwise quiet, politically inactive middle class citizens to pelt trucks (containing live animal exports) with rocks, form human barricades, break into laboratories to release captive animals into the wild, disrupt fashion shows and hunting meets, and bombard their politicians with letters of complaint about the abuse of animals. 

True, Britain has been derided as a nation of “animal lovers,” but such sentimentalism aside, one finds much hard-nosed, ideological resentment at the way animals are treated, resentment which can turn into action at a slight provocation. When the philosopher Michael Leahy published a book against animal rights,2 he was subjected to a fierce hate campaign. Academics like Roger Scruton3 and Peter Carruthers4 have braved ridicule and even contempt for their philosophical opposition to animal rights. Most people, seeing the passion and commitment with which animal rightists defend their cause, think: “Surely people who can get so worked up about an issue have a point?” And when someone stands up to say that animals do not have rights, or that it is at least an arguable issue, in many eyes it is tantamount to saying: “It’s OK to do what you like to animals – they’ve got no rights,” where the special emphasis on the last few words is supposed to convey the idea that because they have no rights, they have no moral standing whatsoever. 

It is time the animal rights issue, like the abortion and euthanasia issues, was looked at in a less emotionally charged and more philosophical way. It’s time that some myths, often deliberately sown, were cleared up. Here are a few. Myth #1: If you think animals do not have rights, you must think it is all right to do anything to them, that their welfare does not matter. Myth #2: Peter Singer and his followers believe in animal rights. Myth #3: Traditional moralists, who are both pro-life and oppose animal rights but believe in animal welfare, can make common cause with what I will call revolutionary moralists, who are both pro-abortion and either believe in animal rights or take a Singerian consequentialist line giving no special moral priority to humans just because they are humans. 

Note the distinction between traditional and revolutionary morality. Singer himself subtitled his 1995 book Rethinking Life and Death as The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics,5 his target being precisely the morality that regards human life as both sacred and qualitatively distinct from that of any other creature on the planet. His use of “traditional” is correct. Indeed, one can go further: the traditional moral position of Western civilization is that humans have rights and animals do not. There are, however, people in the pro-life movement (their numbers are hard to assess), who believe that the sanctity of human life is justified by the same reason that justifies the sanctity of all (sentient? conscious?) life: these are all God’s creatures, and they all have their special destiny. Whatever the merits of such a position – and I believe them to be few – this is not, and must not be portrayed as, the traditional moral position. 

As a prelude to explaining the myths stated above, I want to sketch the traditional position on animal rights. Once we get clear on what ethical status animals lack we can be clear about what status they have, and about how the traditional and revolutionary positions differ, with such drastic consequences for the abortion debate. Note initially, however, that there is no puzzle in the idea that we have a duty, say, not to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals, but that they have no right not to be treated this way. There are many things one person ought not to do to another, but which do not involve a right by the second against the first. You ought to be kind to strangers, but they do not have a right to your kindness. You ought not to use bad language, but others do not have a right not to be subjected to your profanities. Rights and justice go together – when you violate a right you are being unjust. But when the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side, they were not being unjust to the man who fell among robbers; they were being uncharitable. Morality involves more than rights: it involves duties, virtues (like charity and compassion), customs, traditions, and so on. 

So how do rights fit in? What is a right, anyway? In order to understand the concept of a right, we need to understand the concept of a good. Then we need to grasp why it is that paradigmatic holders of rights, namely human beings, have such a status; and we can then see why this status cannot be extended to other animals. To begin, a good can be defined as that end of an action which fulfils the nature of a thing. There are a number of goods which fulfil human nature, without which a human being cannot flourish or live a distinctively human life. These include such material things as food, shelter, warmth and health, but also things of a more psychological, emotional or intellectual nature, such as family, friendship, knowledge and understanding, work, play, artistic experience, and religion. These are some of the principal things which, to use Aristotle’s term, fulfil us as rational animals. The absence of any of them diminishes our human dignity, our integrity – it leaves not just a quantitative but a qualitative gap in our lives. 

But if human beings are rational animals, and have rights, this means some animals have rights – so why not others? What’s so special about us humans? Isn’t it arbitrary – to use Singer’s term, “speciesist” – to say that human animals have rights but others do not? When we see how rights interact with goods, it becomes clear why it is not insofar as we are animals that humans have rights, but insofar as we are rational. A right is best thought of as a kind of protection conferred by morality. For example, my right to privacy means that I am protected by morality itself in my pursuit of the good which privacy constitutes, namely a sphere of activity which remains unknown to others. Without such a sphere of activity a person’s integrity would be undermined; privacy is essential to human dignity, and is therefore a good. Now, like many goods it may not be protected by the legal system. But this does not mean we can invade each other’s privacy, since morality itself confers protection: I have a moral right to privacy, and your violation of that right would be blameworthy unless justified by a greater right, say the right to life.

A right, then, protects a person in his pursuit of some good. It means that others are under a duty not to violate that right; that the right holder is morally permitted to exercise his right without hindrance; and even, in some cases, that he is permitted to use force in safeguarding his right ( e.g. the right of self-defence). That is all well and good, say animal rights supporters – but why are animals excluded from being right holders? Don’t they, just like humans, have whatever is necessary for the possession of rights? Why the distinction? 

It is here that animal rightists start going off in different directions. Traditionalists need to ask them: “So what do you think is necessary and sufficient for the possession of rights, seeing as you are so sure animals possess them?” A number of proposals have been put forward. Perhaps the most sophisticated defence of animal rights has been set out by the philosopher Tom Regan,6 who groups a number of ideas together into a complex criterion which he calls being a “subject-of-a-life.” Animals have rights, he says, because they are not mere “receptacles” of pain and pleasure, but conscious subjects with lives of their own just like us, goods to pursue just like us, and separate identities just like us. Now, I have no space to evaluate Regan’s theory in depth.7 Instead I will briefly discuss the most important elements of his criterion, one or more of which are fixed on by animal rightists in support of their case.

The first is consciousness. Surely being conscious is enough for a creature to have rights? For a start, not all animals are conscious, so consciousness, if it conferred rights, would only confer them on some animals. But you might also ask: what is meant by consciousness? Here the animal rightists might mean several things, such as sentience (the capacity to feel pain and pleasure), perception, memory, a sense of the future, and various other features that make a creature a psychological subject. It is true that we humans have all of these things, but that doesn’t mean that we have rights because we have these mental characteristics. The truth is that there is no straight entailment between consciousness in any or all of the respects just mentioned, and the possession of rights. What is the logical connection between sentience and rights? Feeling pain/pleasure is just another way that a creature’s life can go badly/well for it, along with having or lacking food, having or lacking disease, and so on. So why don’t plants have rights? They aren’t sentient, but their lives can go well or badly in other ways. What is so special about pain and pleasure? 

The same goes for perception, memory or a sense of the future. Why should we think that a creature has rights simply because it perceives or remembers or anticipates the future? Conceptually, none of these take us beyond sentience. The animal rightist might say that what matters is memory of self, and a sense of one’s own future – but this brings in self-consciousness, which I will come to in a moment. For the present, it seems that sentience, perception, memory and a sense of the future guarantee that an animal is a psychological subject – but not that it is a moral subject. The animal rightist needs to bridge the conceptual gap between the two. 

What about beliefs and desires, as well as other mental states such as being afraid, or contented, or sad – don’t they guarantee that the animal possessing them has rights? To be sure, there is much philosophical debate about whether animals even have beliefs and desires, or other mental states such as those mentioned. (Note: it is the job of the philosopher to judge this, not the animal behaviourist – the issue is not just empirical but conceptual, though empirical evidence is of course relevant.) But I am prepared to accept for the sake of argument that some animals do have beliefs, desires and other mental states, even if their content is radically impoverished compared to human mental states. The question, however, is: Even if some animals have beliefs and desires, how does it follow that they have rights? Again, what is the logical connection between the two? It may be that an animal which has beliefs and desires (as well as perceptions, memories, and so on) has an inherent value in the sense that one can assess how well or badly its life is going independently of how useful it is to other creatures. But the same can be said for ants, amoebae and rose bushes. All that having complex mental states such as beliefs and desires does is to make the ways in which the possessor’s life can go well or badly more subtle and complex: desires can be frustrated, beliefs can be the product of deception, memories can be disturbing, and so on. But none of this implies that animals which have these mental characteristics have rights. 

Self-consciousness is one of the features which animal rightists most commonly refer to in support of their thesis. It is not mere awareness, they say, but awareness of self which confers rights; not a mere sense of the past or the future, but a sense of one’s own past or future. Again, I am prepared to accept for the sake of argument that some animals are self-conscious, though there will not be many. Perhaps only higher apes such as chimpanzees are self-conscious: for one thing, they are capable of grooming themselves with a mirror and a comb. But whether the numbers are large or small, the familiar question reappears: what is the conceptual or logical connection between being self-conscious and having rights? How does being conscious of self add something importantly different from merely being conscious? What is important is not that an animal is self-conscious, but the way in which it is self-conscious, as I will explain. In fact, my argument against animal rights implies as a necessary consequence that right holders will be self-conscious, but self-consciousness is not part of what it means to possess rights. 

A similar point can be made about another of the more common features appealed to by animal rightists: that some animals have language. The truth is that the empirical evidence for linguistic competence by animals is, despite the media propaganda, woefully inadequate. The only serious contenders are some kinds of chimpanzee, but even these creatures show very little if any ability to communicate using language. They can imitate, they can react, they can be conditioned – but the rest looks like the product either of wishful thinking, or of deliberate skewing of the evidence, by the scientists who hopefully observe them.8 But even supposing they did possess language – why should it follow that they had rights? There is a philosophical mistake involved in basing rights on language: language is a tool of communication, of interpersonal relation; and to ground rights in it would be to take a contractualist or communitarian view of rights, a view which held that a creature has rights because it is “in relation” to other creatures. Such a doctrine is both false and pernicious, as much when applied to the unborn child (“It can’t communicate with others or enter into a meaningful relationship with others, therefore … “) as when applied to adult humans or any other creature. Having rights depends upon the way the creature itself is, not on what kinds of relationship it enters into. To be sure, it is a necessary consequence of having rights that a being has linguistic capacity as well as self-consciousness, but again having rights is not grounded in linguistic capacity. 

Having put the main alternative views to one side, I can now say that what matters in the having of rights is twofold: (a) knowledge; (b) freedom. More precisely, a right holder must, first, know that he is pursuing a good, and secondly, he must be free to do so. No one can be under a duty to respect another’s right if he cannot know what it is he is supposed to respect. Similarly, no one can call another to account over respecting his right if the former cannot know what it is the latter is supposed to respect. By “call to account” I mean making a conscious demand on them, even without speaking a word. How can the right holder make a conscious demand on another if he cannot know what he is demanding? 

Again, no one is under a duty to respect another’s rights if he is not free to respect or not to respect, if he is not able to choose between right and wrong. Similarly, no one can possess a right if he is not free to pursue the good it protects, if he is not capable of planning his life, ordering his priorities, choosing to live in a dignified and human way or a squalid and less – than human way. 

Now it becomes clear why animals – nonhuman ones – cannot possess rights. It is because they do not possess the two features which are necessary for being a right – holder. No animal knows why it lives the way it does; no animal is free to live in one way or another. Animals, from the smallest single celled organism to the most human – like ape, are governed purely by instinct. That is why, for instance, even the most hard – line animal rightist does not advocate prison ( or worse) for chimpanzees that go on random killing sprees, as they are known to do. Nor do they advocate forcible prevention of lions from eating gazelles – “They can’t help it,” it is said. And that is precisely the point: they can’t. Such is the paradox at the heart of animal rightism. 

We humans are governed partly by instinct, of course: you do not get up every morning and think, “To eat or not to eat – that is the question” – you just go and make some toast! But note two things. First, the more animalistic our behaviour, the more instinctive it is. Food, drink, reproduction – these are the sorts of activities that are largely if not wholly instinctive. Secondly, no matter how instinctive, every such activity can come within the sphere of choice, or free will; otherwise there would be no hunger strikers and no celibates! As babies, when mentally handicapped or senile, or even comatose, humans may be governed far more by instinct than by knowledge and free choice, but this does not mean such people have no rights. They are still qualitatively different from other animals because of the kind of creatures they are; and so they have human rights just as much as the sleeping, the drunk and the drugged. Neither age, nor illness, nor abnormality can change the fundamental fact that all such people are instances of a distinctive kind of animal – free to choose and aware of why it does so. 

Not so for the animal kingdom. No experiment that has ever been conducted into animal behaviour has demonstrated that animals know why they do what they do, or are free to choose one course of action over another. From insects to apes – all kinds of complex behaviour have been demonstrated, such as deception, tool – making, social group formation, mutual assistance. But nothing has been found which sets the ape apart from the insect in any qualitative sense bearing on freedom and knowledge of purpose. The “gee whiz” articles that appear in the popular press on a regular basis, revealing the latest trickery or intelligence on the part of some animal (usually an ape), are therefore useless as forming an empirical justification for regarding animals as metaphysically, in their nature, the same as human beings. 

Now to return to the myths I stated earlier. First is the supposition that if you think animals do not have rights, you also think it is OK to treat them however you like. But how does one follow from the other? Only if rights are the whole of morality, which I have said they are not. The traditional moral position is that although we have no duties toward animals, we do have duties in respect of them. We are not free to be cruel to them or cause them unnecessary suffering. We are bound to look after and preserve the entire natural world that has been given to us, in a way consistent with our own flourishing as a species. Hence we are free to use animals for our benefit and for reasons that do not in themselves involve vice or immorality, such as food, modest clothing and scientific research that can benefit the life and health of man. But if this also means condemning fur coats as fashion accessories, or investigation into the latest ways of pandering to our human vanity (such as cosmetics research), so be it. I do not imagine the animal rights lobby will object. We are also free to hunt animals for the protection of our property, of the countryside, and even for leisure. None of this, however, licenses cruelty, bloodlust, or the deriving of pleasure from a sentient being’s pain. The basic principle is one of modesty: the living of an unluxurious life, attention to necessities, and respect for God’s creation. 

The second myth is that Singer and his followers believe in animal rights. As I have said in various places, and as cannot be repeated often enough, utilitarians do not believe in rights, for animals or humans. All that matters are the costs and benefits (however they are measured; some utilitarian comes up with a new way of calculating them every week). Singer himself is on record as saying: “I am not convinced that the notion of a moral right is a helpful or meaningful one …. “9  but that “[t]he language of rights is a convenient political shorthand. It is even more valuable in the era of thirty second TV news clips …. “10 Now if that is not a case of the cynical manipulation of ethical debate for one’s own advantage, I don’t know what is. So for all that Peter Singer has performed the service of alerting us to the mistreatment of animals in farming, science and elsewhere, and pleading for a radical change in our attitude to animals, the animal rightists can forget it if they think they will find support in his writings for absolute opposition to meat – eating, absolute opposition to animal experimentation, or to any treatment of animals that would be inconsistent with their having basic rights. 

The third myth is that traditionalist moral theorists can make common cause either with animal rightists or Singerian utilitarians. They cannot make common cause with the second group because Singer’s defence of animals rests on a conceptual move the traditionalist can only abhor – the downgrading of human beings as just another animal, with no special rights (indeed no rights at all), no special status; with every human able, in the appropriate cost-benefit situation, to be sacrificed for the benefit of other humans, or even for the benefit of other animals. When it comes to animal experiments, for instance, Singer does not rule them out per se: all he pleads for is consistency. If we are prepared to use animals, he argues, we should be prepared to use brain – damaged babies (or maybe even normal babies) at a similar level of mental development ( whatever that means). And since research on humans will tell us more about humans than research on other animals, science itself dictates that it is the baby who would be the most desirable experimental subject. The traditional ethicist, ought, I think, to be able to spot the Trojan horse that constitutes Singer’s impassioned defence of animals. As for the animal rightists, well, they may say they believe in human rights (though it’s hard to find anti – abortionists among them), but they go astray by pretending to upgrade the status of animals to that of humans. While Singer collapses the distinction between humans and animals in one direction, the animal rights supporter collapses it in another. And the latter’s position is no more a part of traditional moral theory than Singer’s. Let the animal rightists try to defend a quasi – Buddhist reverence for all life, or some other ethical stance such as Deep Ecology – but it won’t be the stance of traditional Western ethics, and it won’t be coherent either. 

Perhaps, as implied earlier, we look in the wrong direction for the source of our modem brutality towards animals. It is not the traditional distinction between man and beast that needs correcting, but our own selves: the moral degeneracy which makes factory farming, bullfights and horrendous scientific experiments on animals a part of life. It is the lack of virtue, and flowering of excess, which has resulted in there being far more animal suffering in the world today than ever existed in prior ages. 


  1. Of course we humans are animals as well. Sometimes I will use the term “animal” in an inclusive sense, and sometimes in contradistinction to humans. The context will make it clear which sense I mean.
  2. Michael Leahy, Against Liberation (London: Routledge, 1994).
  3. Roger Scruton, Animal Rights and Wrongs (London: Metro Books, 2000).
  4. Peter Carruthers, The Animals Issue (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992).
  5. Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).
  6. Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (London: Routledge, 1 984).
  7. See chapter 3 of my Applied Ethics (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000).
  8. For an entertaining and persuasive demolition of the thesis that apes have language, see Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct (London: Penguin, 1994), pp.335-49. See also my Applied Ethics, pp.109-14.
  9. Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993; 2nd ed.), p.96.
  10. Singer, Animal Liberation (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990; 2nd ed.), p.8.

Loving Pets v Loving Animals by Roger Scruton

Is our love of pets always compatible with a love of wildlife? Putting the cat among the pigeons.

Roger Scruton

I live on a pasture farm, in a part of England where a thin topsoil covers a sub soil of clay. The only human use for this land is to support things that live on grass or its by-products. That means cows, sheep, pigs, chickens by way of domestic animals, game birds by way of wildlife, and horses for riding.

By far the most profitable of these animals, from the point of view of our local farming economy, are the horses, which bring people who earn real money into the countryside, and encourage them to turn that money into grass. Those who are trying to turn grass into money have a much harder time of it. Still, all in all, I see our little patch of farmland as an example of good-natured animal husbandry. All our domestic animals live in an environment to which they are adapted, enjoy basic freedoms, and are saved by our intervention from the lingering misery of old age and disease, or from a long drawn-out death from physical injury.

Wildlife, however, presents a moral problem. We go out of our way to ensure that the predators get through the hard days of winter, but do little or nothing for the mice and voles. Moreover we wage relentless war on the rats. There is a widespread habit in our neighbourhood of poisoning rats with warfarin, which then poisons the owls, buzzards and foxes that eat their remains. This habit has contributed to the near-terminal decline of the barn owl in our countryside, although I am glad to see that there is a petition afoot organised by the Barn Owl Trust to put a stop to it.

On the other hand, if we did not intervene in the natural order in this selective way, the scavengers would take over. When I read of “wildlife sanctuaries” I wonder how far their wardens are prepared to go, by way of managing those species which, if left to themselves, can turn a viable habitat into a desert – grey squirrels, for instance, roe deer, Canada geese, or cormorants.

And then – greatest problem of all – there are the pets. One neighbour has a dog which she walks along the public bridle way, leaving it free to run in the hedgerows and out into the fields. This dog does what dogs do – it sniffs for quarry and, when it finds something, gives chase. In the winter, when birds are hidden under leaves, conserving their energy as best they can, they cannot easily survive being chased every day.

The same is true of hares, rabbits and voles. Of course our neighbour is adamant that her dog would not dream of killing the things he chases – he is only doing what his nature requires. The same is true of the pheasant, the stoat or the rabbit that he is chasing. The difference is that the dog goes home to a warm house and a supper consisting largely of other animals which have been pressed into a tin, while its quarry goes hungry, trying to recover from the shock and weakened for its next encounter.

Another neighbour has a pair of cats – attractive animals, which know how to simulate affection towards their human owners, while policing all around them with the invincible insolence of a dominant species. Both dogs and cats are predators, but dogs can be trained not to kill. They can be trained to focus their hunting instincts on a particular species, or they can be bred to focus the very same instincts on some other and more humanly useful pursuit, such as herding sheep or retrieving game birds.

Not so cats. Everything in their nature tends towards the single goal of killing, and although they can be pampered into relinquishing this goal, they are by that same process pampered into relinquishing their nature. A true cat wants out, and when out he or she wants death. The distinctions between fair and unfair game, between vermin and protected species, between friend and foe – all such distinctions have no significance for a cat, which sets off from the house in search of songbirds, field mice, shrews and other harmless and necessary creatures with no thought for anything save the taste of their blood.

One estimate puts at 180 million the number of wild birds and mammals lost to cats each year in Britain. The domestic cat is, without exception, the most devastating of all the alien species that have been brought onto our island. It is also protected, not only by law, but by the inquisitors sent round by the RSPCA, an organisation that claims to love wild animals, while devoting considerable resources to the creatures that destroy them.

Two questions should be asked of every love – does it benefit the one who receives it, and does it benefit the one who gives it? There are loves that enslave, stifle, exploit and abuse. Then again, there are loves which corrupt the people who enjoy them, giving them a false and flattering view of themselves, and a comforting picture of their own cost-free lovableness. I guess Hitler’s love for his dogs was a bit like that. Love is not good in itself. It is good when part of virtue, bad when part of vice. Learning how and what to love is part of moral education, and love, like other emotions, must be disciplined if it is not to collapse into sentimentality on the one hand, or domination on the other. There are childish loves, dreamy loves, sugary loves, and we expect people to grow out of these things in time. Often, when they fail to do so, it is because a pet stands in the way.

Love for animals is only exceptionally love for an individual animal. I love the wild animals on our farm but few of them are really individuals for me. It is the presence of bullfinches – not of any particular bullfinch – that delights me, and for which I work as best I can. Of course I am concerned when I come across a bird or a mammal in distress, and will try to help it, but this is not love, only ordinary kindness.

However, when it comes to dogs there is no doubt, not only that dogs reciprocate the affection of their owners, but also that they become attached to us as individuals, in a way that renders the owner irreplaceable in their affections – so much so that the grief of a dog may strike us as desolate beyond anything that we could really feel. The focused devotion of a dog, when it occurs (and not all dogs are capable of it), is one of the most moving of all the gifts that we receive from animals – all the more moving for not being truly a gift but rather a need. It seems to me that the recipient of such a love is under a duty to the creature that offers it, and that this creates a quite special ground for love that we must take into account. The owner of a loving dog has a duty of care beyond that of the owner of a horse, a sheep or a cow. To neglect or abandon such a dog is to betray a relation of trust.

Hence my neighbour is right to think that her obligation to her dog takes precedence over my duty to care for the wildlife whose welfare he threatens. It would be a moral deficiency in her to assume the right to enjoy her dog’s unswerving affection while denying him what she can easily provide by way of a reward for it. Hence I don’t judge her adversely for her irritating dog or her equally irritating love for it. The fault is mine, like the fault of being upset by the selfishness of families, as they strive to secure the best seats on a train. Each of us has a sphere of love, and we are bound to the others who inhabit it, whether they be people or animals.

Still we must recognise that by loving our pets as individuals we threaten the animals who cannot easily be loved in any such way. Loving our dogs and cats we put a strain upon the natural order that is felt most grievously by the birds and beasts of the field. And even if those creatures have no rights, this does not cancel the fact that we have duties towards them. Their duties become everyday more serious and demanding, as we humans expand to take over the habitats that we confiscate without scruple and enjoy without remorse. And our lack of scruple is only amplified by the love of pets, which inculcate in us the desire for easy-going, cost-free and self-congratulatory affections towards the animal kingdom, and which thereby threaten the rest of nature. The world of animals does not ask for the love of our favourites, which is easy, but for the love of the rest, which is hard.

I’m Person for Ethical Treatment of Animals by Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

We often wonder how people of the past, including the most revered and refined, could have universally engaged in conduct now considered unconscionable. Such as slavery. How could the Founders, so sublimely devoted to human liberty, have lived with — some participating in — human slavery? Or fourscore years later, how could the saintly Lincoln, an implacable opponent of slavery, have nevertheless spoken of and believed in African inferiority?

While retrospective judgment tends to make us feel superior to our ancestors, it should really evoke humility. Surely some contemporary practices will be deemed equally abominable by succeeding generations. The only question is: Which ones?

I’ve long thought it will be our treatment of animals. I’m convinced that our great-grandchildren will find it difficult to believe that we actually raised, herded, and slaughtered them on an industrial scale — for the eating.

To be sure, there has been a salutary turn in our attitude toward animals, especially their display and confinement. To its credit, Barnum & Bailey is retiring its elephant acts. Festooning these magnificent creatures with comically gaudy costumes and parading them about, often shackled, is a reproach to both their nobility and our humanity.

Or consider those SeaWorld commercials reassuring us how well their orcas are treated. The tone is contrite and almost apologetic, as befits a business that trains splendid creatures to jump high on command for fish — and for our amusement.

And although some of these measures are market-driven — SeaWorld has been hemorrhaging customers and Cirque du Soleil has been thriving without animals — they are nonetheless welcome. As are the improvements in zoos. The zoo animals I remember from my childhood were so sadly caged, so restlessly pawing the ground, so piteously defeated. Today, the enclosures are more forgiving, the bars largely gone, the running space more ample.

It’s understandable. The zoo used to symbolize man’s dominion over his menacing adversaries, his competitors for living space. Tigers still roamed, and could eat you. Now the competition is over. Our rivals have either been wiped out or driven back to the bush. Except for the occasional shark dining on some intrepid surfer, the threat is gone — and with it, the thrill of conquest.

No need, therefore, to display wildlife bound and tamed, King Kong–like. The overriding mission of today’s zoo is conservancy — the care, study, preservation, and propagation of the various species, some of them endangered.

Another advance, and not just for them but for us. One measure of human moral progress — amid and despite the savageries we visit upon each other — is how we treat the innocent in our care. And none are more innocent than these.

One measure of human moral progress — amid and despite the savageries we visit upon each other — is how we treat the innocent in our care. And none are more innocent than these.

Which brings us to meat-eating. Its extinction will, I believe, ultimately come. And be largely market-driven, as well. Science will find dietary substitutes that can be produced at infinitely less cost and effort. At which point, meat will become a kind of exotic indulgence, what the cigar (of Cigar Aficionado) is to the dying tobacco culture of today.

As a moderate carnivore myself, I confess to living in Jeffersonian hypocrisy. It’s a bit late for me to live on berries and veggies. My concession to my qualms is a few idiosyncratic distinctions (of no particular import). And while I don’t demand that every chicken I consume be certified to have enjoyed an open meadow and a vibrant social life, if I can eat free-range, I will.

No. I’m not joining PETA. Indeed, I firmly believe that man is the measure of all things. Sometimes you have to choose. I cringe at medical experimentation, but if you need to study cats’ eyes in order to spare some humans from blindness, do it. (Though not to test cosmetics.)

If the Delta smelt has to die to conserve 1.4 trillion gallons of water for the parched humans of California, so be it. If the mating habits of the Arctic caribou have to be disturbed so we can produce 1 million barrels of oil a day — on a drilling footprint the size of Dulles Airport in a refuge the size of Ireland — I say: Apologize to the amorous herd, then drill.

But some things are unnecessary. Caging beautiful creatures. Displaying them for spectacle. It’s good that these are being rethought.

The cheeseburger question we leave to our progeny. Though, when their time comes, they should refrain from moral preening. They will, by then, have invented abominations of their very own. Humans always do.

24 Thomistic Theses

Decree of the Sacred Congregation for Studies with commentaries by Pedro Lumbreras, O.P., S.T.Lr., Ph.D. and footnotes by Dr. William H. Marshner

Thomas Aquinas from San Domenico, Fiesole Altarpiece by Fra Angelico, 1425

After our most Holy Father Pius X ordered in the Motu Proprio Doctoris Angelici, on June 29, 1914, that in all schools of philosophy the principles and main teachings of Thomas Aquinas be held, some teachers from various institutions proposed some theses for this Sacred Congregation to examine, which theses they had been accustomed to teach and defend as being those of the Holy Teacher [St.Thomas], especially in metaphysics.

They are as follows:



Potency and Act so divide being that whatsoever exists either is a Pure Act, or is necessarily composed of Potency and Act, as to its primordial and intrinsic principles. *

Commentary: Every actual subsisting being—inanimate bodies and animals, men and angels, creatures and Creator—must be either Pure Act—a perfection which is neither the complement of Potency, nor the Potency which lacks further complement—or Potency mixed with Act—something capable of perfection and some perfection fulfilling this capacity. This statement is true both in the existential and in the essential order. In each of these orders the composition of Act and Potency is that of two real, really distinct principles, as Being itself; intrinsic to the existing being or to its essence; into which, finally, all other principles can be resolved, while they cannot be resolved into any other. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 77 a. 1Sententia Metaphysicae, lib. 7 l. 1 et lib. 9 l. 1 et l. 9]

* The noun ens means either “a being” or the whole set of them. A being is “a thing which is,” hence a thing which is “in being” and hence in that set. Without qualifiers, “a being” is a thing which exists. Given a qualifier, a being is “a thing which is such-and-such.”


Act, because it is perfection, is not limited except by Potency, which is capacity for perfection. Therefore, in the order in which the Act is pure, it is unlimited and unique; but in that in which it is finite and manifold, it comes into a true composition with Potency. *

Commentary: Since Act means perfection, perfection belongs to Act by reason of itself; imperfection, then, by reason of something else. Limits, therefore, belong to Act but on account of Potency. Consequently, if an Act is pure, it is perfection without limits, and gives no ground for distinction and multiplicity. On the contrary, any finite or manifold Act is mixed with Potency: for it is only as subjected in Potency that it is limited and multiplied according to the capacity of the subject. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 7 a. 1 et a. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 43Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 43 q. 2]

* A thing’s “act” need not be an action it does. It can be the thing’s operative status or its current “actual” state. 


Wherefore, in the exclusive domain of existence itself God alone subsists, He alone is the most simple. Everything else, which participates in existence, has a nature whereby existence is restricted, and is composed of essence and existence as of two really distinct principles. *

Commentary: If there is any being, the actuality of whose existence—for existent means actual—is not received into the potentiality of essence, such a being subsists of itself, because it is perfection without limits; it is unique, because it excludes composition of any kind; it is the most simple Being: God. All other things, the actuality of whose existence is received into the potentiality of the essence, participate in existence according to the capacity of the essence, which limits in this way the actuality of existence. Essence and existence hold in them the place of Potency and Act in the existential order, and are two real and really distinct principles, which intrinsically constitute the compound, the existing being, in the order of existence. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 50 a. 2 ad 3; Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 38 et cap. 52 et cap. 53 et cap. 54Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 19 q. 2 a. 2De ente et essentia, cap. 5; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 1; De veritate, q. 27 a. 1 ad 8]

* Factors are “really” distinct when they are not just “conceptually” distinct (so as to be named or described differently) but are “thing-wise” distinct, i.e. distinct as one thing from another. The adverb ‘realiter’ comes from the noun ‘res’, which means a “thing.” In scholastic Latin, not every “thing” was an object (objectum), because an object was so called in relation to a faculty: object of sight, object of thought, object of desire. A “thing” didn’t have to be the object of any such faculty.


Being, which derives its name from existence, is not predicated univocally of God and creatures; nor yet merely equivocally, but analogically, by the analogy both of attribution and of proportionality. *

Commentary: If the actuality of existence is in God a Pure Act and is in creatures an Act mixed with Potency, Being cannot be predicated of God and creatures in an identical way: God is self-existing, creatures have their existence from God. Still, because the effect in some manner reproduces its cause, Being does not belong to God and creatures in a totally different sense. Being, as predicated of God and creatures is an analogous term. Its analogy is first that of attribution, since Being appertains to creatures as far as they have it from God, to whom it appertains by essence; and is secondly that of proportionality, since the actuality of existence is intrinsic to God and creatures as existing beings. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 13 a. 5Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 32 et cap. 33 et cap. 34De potentia, q. 7 a. 7]

* A term is applied to different things “univocally” when its definition is kept constant, as in “strong ox” and “strong man;” a term is applied to them “equivocally” when it is applied under unrelated definitions, as in “fast day” and “fast car;” a term is applied to them “analogously” when it is applied under related definitions, as in “healthy man” and “healthy diet” (analogy of attribution) or when it captures a “proportion,” such as, God’s power : God’s effects :: a creature’s power : the creature’s effects.


There is, moreover, in every creature a real composition of subsisting subject with forms secondarily added—that is, accidents; but such a composition could not be understood unless the existence were received into a distinct essence. *

Commentary: The compound of essence and existence is itself the subject or Potency of a further complement or Act: this Act or complement is but an accidental perfection. The new composition is a real one, as the addition itself is real. It can be observed in every creature. Bodies have quantity, spirits have faculties and operations upon which, furthermore, quality follows; every creature has some relation to the Creator. But this real composition of accidents and subsisting compound lacks a philosophical basis if we put aside the composition of essence and existence. The subsisting being cannot be the subject of accidental Act except in so far as it is Potency; but existence is not Potency. The actuality, then, of existence and that of accident come together in the same substantial essence only because this essence is a Potency really distinct from both Acts. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 3 a. 6Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 23Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 52De ente et essentia, cap. 5]

* A “subsisting” thing is a concrete whole (not abstract and not a part) having what it takes to exist “on its own.” An accident, by contrast, is not apt to exist on its own, outside the subject in which it inheres. Typically, an accident exists by inhering. The composition of a subject/substance with its accidents enriches the being of the subject without altering its essence; hence it would be unintelligible if the subject’s being and its essence were not really distinct.


Besides the absolute accidents there is also a relative accident, or ‘toward something.’ For although ‘toward something’ does not mean, by its own nature, anything inhering in something, frequently, however, it has a cause in things, and, therefore, a real entity distinct from the subject. *

Commentary: In addition to the absolute accidents—which modify the subject in itself—there is a relative accident—which affects the subject with respect to something else. The proper nature of predicamental relation consists in the very habitude to something else; relation, as relation, does not indicate inherence in something, but reference toward something. We may think of a merely logical relation. This is not always the case. For often we have a real subject, and a real and distinct term, and a real foundation, no one of which, however, is that very habitude which relation means. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 28 a. 1]

* This thesis addresses the important contention that, while some relations are just products of thought (like x is better liked than y), others are real (like x is the father of y). The real relations are thing-like (realis) because they are “there” whether anyone thinks of them or not.


The spiritual creature is as to its essence altogether simple. Yet there remains a twofold composition in it: that, namely, of essence with existence and that of substance with accidents.

Commentary: The essence of angels is only Act, for the actuality of the form is not received into the potentiality of matter. Angels, indeed, are but intellectual substances, since to understand is a wholly immaterial operation. The last statement of the thesis has already been justified. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 50 a. 1 ff.; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 1]



The corporeal creature, on the contrary, is in its very essence composed of Potency and Act. Such a Potency and Act of the essential order are designated by the names of matter and form.

Commentary: Besides the composition in the existential and accidental order, bodies are composed also in the order of essence. Bodies, indeed, are extended and active, divisible and yet one, multiplied in individuals while keeping specific unity, subject to substantial changes, which by different and often contrary successive properties are made known. Consequently, there must be in bodies an intrinsic principle as the basis of extension, division, numerical multiplicity, the permanent subject of the substantial change; and another intrinsic principle as the foundation of the activity, unity, specific likeness, the successive phases of the change. The first principle, passive, undetermined, incomplete, potential, the root of extension, the support of the substantial change, is material and substantial. The second, active, determining, completing, term of the substantial change, is substantial and formal. Matter and form, then, constitute the essence of bodily substance: neither one is an essence, a substance, a body: each is but a part of the compound, which is a single essence, a single substance, a single body. [De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 1]


Neither of those parts has existence, properly speaking; nor is produced or destroyed; nor is placed in a Category except by way of reduction, as a substantial principle. *

Commentary: Since existence is the Act of essence, neither matter nor form can be granted an existence of its own; the existence belongs to the compound. And because production brings things into existence, and destruction deprives them of it, the term of production or destruction is likewise the compound. Finally, since matter and form are substantial principles, they cannot be collocated among accidents. But neither can they be placed directly in the category of substance, for it is the complete substance, which is classed there. They fall, then, into the category of substance by reduction, as principles of substance, as substantial Potency and substantial Act. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 45 a. 4De potentia, q. 3 a. 5 ad 3]

* This thesis points out the deep differences between a genuine “thing which is” and a mere factor “whereby it is.” The latter is not an item of what-there-is but of how-it-is. What is produced, destroyed, and put into one of Aristotle’s ten categories is “what there-is,” not “how it is.” If Aquinas’s metaphysics had been “first order,” he would have included in “what there is” only sub-stances, and their matter and form would have been only the “how they are” of a material substances. But like Aristotle, of course, he included not only substances but also sizes, qualities, relations, etc. Thus in all ten Categories, a Thomist can distinguish what-there-is (in that category) from how-it-is. The later is called a “mode.” Thus a “heat” of 90˚ C. differs in mode from a “boiling” heat.


Although extension into integral parts follows corporeal nature, it is not, however, the same for a body to be a substance and to be extended. For substance of itself is indivisible; not certainly after the manner of a point, but after the manner of that which is outside the order of dimension. On the other hand, quantity, which makes substance to be extended, really differs from substance, and is a veritable accident. *

Commentary: To have integral parts—homogeneous, distinct and outside of each other, united together at the extremities—is a proper sequence of matter, one of the essential principles of body. Still, body as a substance implies only essential parts, matter and form—heterogeneous, within each other, united together by compenetration. Substance, of itself, is indifferent to any quantity, and may even exist, miraculously, without any quantity. It is, then, of itself indivisible: not simply as a point—unextended by privation, —but as something devoid of dimension—unextended by negation. Substance is indebted to quantity for its integral parts; but as there is a real distinction between subject-of-existence and extended-into-parts, between the persevering support of successive quantities and these quantities in succession, substance is not really identical with quantity. Faith teaches us that in the Holy Eucharist the substance of bread disappears, but not its quantity. Quantity, therefore, is a genuine accident. [Contra Gentiles, lib. 4 cap. 65Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 37 q. 2 a. 1 ad 3Super Sent., lib. 2 d. 30 q. 2 a. 1]

* This thesis is against Descartes’ identification of being a body with being extended. To be extended is to have component or “integral” parts lying outside one another, and thus to occupy “so much” space or to be “so big.” Well, a bodily substance like a rabbit can be big or small. Thus, what it takes to be a rabbit is “outside the series of dimensions.”


Matter as subjected to quantity is the principle of individuation or numerical distinction—impossible among pure spirits—whereby individuals of the same species are distinct from each other. *

Commentary: The principle of individuation cannot be the essence, for Peter is not humanity; nor some extrinsic mode added to the composite substance, for this mode, if accidental, cannot constitute an individual which is a substance and substantially differs from other individuals, and, if substantial, cannot be received but into some already constituted individual substance; nor the existence, for existence actualizes, does not modify reality and is received, moreover, into a substance which is an individual substance. Though that principle must be intrinsic to the substance, it is not the form, because form is a principle of specific and common unity rather than of numerical multiplicity and incommunicability. This principle is matter. Yet not matter of itself, since of itself it is undetermined and capable of being in this and that individual, while the principle of individuation is a determining principle, and renders the subject incommunicable. Matter, as subjected to quantity, is such a principle. For, as related to quantity, it is conceived as divisible into homogeneous parts, and, as related to this quantity, it is conceived as incapable of some other quantity, and, then, as incommunicable to anything else related to different quantity. It is because pure spirits are not composed of matter and form, but are simple forms, Act only which exhausts by itself all the perfection of the essential order, that they cannot be multiplied in the same species: the individuals, indeed, would differ on account of their form, and a difference on the part of the form makes a difference in the species. [Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 92 et cap. 93Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 50 a. 4De ente et essentia, cap. 2]

* Signate matter is the source of individuation in a kind because it is “just enough” matter to make one instance of the kind. Thus an atom of chlorine and an atom of sodium is “just enough” matter to make one instance of salt. Thus, too, a single cell with the right DNA is “just enough” matter to make one instance of a virus, or one instance of a horse.


It is also quantity that makes a body to be circumscriptively in one place and to be incapable, by any means, of such a presence in any other place. *

Commentary: Since quantity makes a body to be extended, and, thus, to have its parts outside of each other, it makes the whole body to occupy some place so that each part of the body occupies a different portion of the place. We have, therefore, some commensuration of the dimensions of the body with the dimensions of the place; and this we call a circumspective presence. But just on account of this commensuration quantity makes a body to be incapable of circumscriptive presence in more than one place; for the dimensions of the body are equal, not greater than the dimensions of the first place, and, since those dimensions are exhausted by this place, it is not possible for the same body to occupy simultaneously a second place. This impossibility is, therefore, a metaphysical one: not even by a miracle can we conceive of any such bilocation. [Summa Theologiae, IIIª q. 75Super Sent., lib. 4 d. 10 q. 1 a. 3]

* This thesis is relevant to the Eucharist, wherein Christ’s body is in many tabernacles at once but is not “circum-scriptively” in those many places, because His body’s substance is in the Eucharist without its accident of size or quantity.



Bodies are divided into two classes: some are living, others without life. In living bodies, in order to have intrinsically a moving part and a moved part in the same subject, the substantial form, called the soul, requires an organic disposition, or heterogeneous parts.

Commentary: Not all bodies are endowed with life: but some are. As living bodies, they have within themselves the principle and the term of their movement. This is to be understood, not as if the whole body, or one and the same part of the body, were both the mover and the moved, but that by nature one part is ordained to give and another part to receive the motion. The different parts, then, must be arranged into some hierarchy, and must be coordinated, not only as regards the whole, but even with respect to each other: all the parts, accordingly, cannot be homogeneous. The soul, substantially informing the organism, informs all the parts, and each of them according to the function each has in the whole. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 18 a. 1 et a. 2 et q. 75 a. 1Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 97Sententia De anima]


Souls of the vegetative and sensitive order, properly speaking, do not subsist and are not produced, but merely exist and are produced as a principle whereby the living thing exists and lives. Since they depend entirely on matter, at the dissolution of the compound, they are indirectly destroyed.

Commentary: The substantial form does not subsist in the organic bodies of plants and irrational animals, because it has no operation independent of matter; it is but a principle of substance. A principle, however, that, in giving matter the complement wanted by matter for making up the compound—which properly exists and lives—is called the principle of existence and life. Its relation to production and destruction has been previously explained. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 75 a. 3 et q. 90 a. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 80 et cap. 82]


On the contrary, the human soul subsists by itself, and is created by God when it can be infused into a sufficiently disposed subject, and is incorruptible and immortal by nature.

Commentary: The human soul, independent of material conditions for some of its operations, is by itself a simple and complete substance. It is, then, produced from nothing, or created, and created by God, as we shall see. Naturally ordained to inform the human body, it is created when infused into the body. But, since the reception of any form presupposes a convenient disposition in the receiving matter, the infusion of the human soul implies a sufficient disposition of the human body. Such a disposition is not likely to be found in a body recently formed: vegetative and sensible souls would precede the human soul, as the servants precede the master for preparing a lodging worthy of him. Being simple, the human soul cannot be directly destroyed. Being subsisting, it can neither be destroyed indirectly upon the destruction of the compound. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 75 a. 2 et q. 90 et q. 118Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 83 ff.; De potentia, q. 3 a. 2Sententia De anima, a. 14]


This same rational soul is so united to the body as to be its single substantial form. By it man is man, and animal, and living, and body, and substance, and being. Soul, therefore, gives man every essential degree of perfection. It communicates to the body, furthermore, the act of existence whereby itself exists.

Commentary: Every one is aware of the intrinsic and mutual influence, which exists in man between body and soul. Their union is not accidental. Body and soul come together as two constituent principles of a single nature, that of man. The human soul, the substantial form of body, gives matter, the substantial potency of soul, the first substantial act. By itself, then, it informs and determines the undetermined matter to a particular species. It gives to the compound all the perfection, which is implied in this species. And it is subsisting; it communicates its existence directly to the compound, indirectly to the body. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 76Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 56 et cap. 68 et cap. 69 et cap. 70 et cap. 71Sententia De anima, a. 1De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 3]


Faculties of a twofold order, organic and inorganic, naturally spring from the human soul. The subject of the organic, to which sense belongs, is the compound. The subject of the inorganic is the soul alone. The intellect, then, is a faculty intrinsically independent of any organ.

Commentary: The immediate principles of operation are distinct from the soul: they are accidents, as the operations themselves. But their root is the soul, for they are vital faculties, and the soul is the principle of life. They are divided into two classes, according to the mode in which they spring from the human soul; subsisting by itself, and the form of body. In the latter case we have those faculties whose act is performed by means of bodily organs. Not only the vegetative faculties, but the sensitive likewise, are among them; for their object is extended. As organic faculties, they have for their subject the animated organism, which is neither the soul alone, nor the body alone, but the compound. There are some other faculties whose operations are far above matter, and, accordingly, cannot be subjected in the organism, even as animated: they are termed inorganic and are subjected in the soul alone. Intellect is such a faculty. Though extrinsically dependent on the imagination and indirectly on the organism, it is intrinsically independent of them. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 77 et q. 78 et q. 79Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 72Sententia De anima, a. 12 ff.; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 11]


Intellectuality necessarily follows immateriality, and in such a manner that the degree of intellectuality is in proportion to the remoteness from matter. The adequate object of intellection is being as such; but the proper object of the human intellect, in the present state of union, is restricted to the essences abstracted from material conditions. *

Commentary: Intellectuality means ability to reproduce in oneself the forms of the objects known, without any injury to the proper form. Matter determines forms to be but in this individual: no form can be known except as abstracted from matter; no subject can be intelligent except as independent of matter. A greater intellectuality corresponds to a greater immateriality, and, since matter stands for potency, to a greater act. In the summit of intellectuality the Pure Act is fixed; next, the Act mixed with Potency in the order of existence; then, the Act mixed with Potency in the very order of essence. A form cannot be reproduced except in so far as it is. Being is knowable in itself, and everything is knowable in so far as it is being. Still, the mode of operation is according to the mode of being, and since the being of our soul, in the present condition, communicates with the body, the connatural object of our knowledge is now the forms taken from the matter. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 14 a. 1 et q. 89 a. 1 et a. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 59 et cap. 72 et lib. 4 cap. 2]

* A thing’s quiddity is an answer to the question, “What is it?” Any useful answer goes beyond mere sense-impressions of the thing, so as to be a way of “understanding” it. Thus the “proper object” of human understanding in this life (where our minds are dependent on our senses) is a what-it-is of one or another empirical thing. (‘Quiddity’ is often a synonym of ‘essence’, but this is misleading unless one is working in a science, where the ‘What is it?” question is looking for an answer which is not just a “handle” on the thing but something as close as possible to its real make-up or scientific definition.)


We, therefore, receive our knowledge from sensible things. But since no sensible thing is actually intelligible, besides the intellect which is properly intelligent we must admit in the soul an active power which abstracts the intelligible forms from the phantasms. *

Commentary: Our knowledge proceeds, at present, from sensible things. This gives a reason for the union of soul and body. Upon the injury of some organs our mental operation becomes impossible; nor is it by chance that this is associated with sensible images. A sensible image, however, is not intelligible; for intelligible means immaterial. The intellect, which properly understands is a passive faculty: it receives the intelligible forms, and does not make the forms to be intelligible. The abstractive faculty, notwithstanding, belongs to the soul alone, for it brings its object to the realm of the immaterial. It is, moreover, an intellectual faculty, for its function is to make something intelligible. It is called the active intellect. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 79 a. 3 et a. 4 et q. 85 a. 6 et a. 7Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 76 ff.; De spiritualibus creaturis, a. 10]

* This “active power” is called the agent intellect. It performs an operation upon the data of the senses, called abstracting. The intellect which is “formally said to understand” is called the passive or possible intellect. It is so called because it “receives” the abstracted kind into itself (as species impressa) and is thereby put “into act” to understand this kind; whereupon it can “do” the act of understanding, in which it expresses this abstracted kind to itself as a concept (species expressa). Thus any case of understanding “what something is” is a case of bringing it under a concept.


Through these species we directly know the universal; the singular we know by the senses, and also by the intellect through a conversion to the phantasms; we rise by analogy to the knowledge of the spiritual. *

Commentary: Since matter individualizes the forms, the forms become universal when abstracted from matter: it is the universal, then, we know directly. The singular implies material conditions and is known directly by the senses, dependent on matter themselves, and indirectly by the intellect, which, in taking the universal from the individuals, perceives the individuals, which offer the universal. Starting from the material abstracted essences we arrive at the nature of pure spirits. We affirm of those spirits some positive perfections noticed in the inferior beings, and these we affirm of them in a higher degree, while we deny of them some, or all, the imperfections to which those perfections were associated in the material objects. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 85 et q. 86 et q. 87 et q. 88]

* Since the intelligible kind received and expressed is an abstracted kind, the content of a concept is a universal. Hence the understanding of a universal is antecedent to (not the sensation of, but) the understanding of a particular. A spiritual entity, however, provides no sense data, and hence “what it is” admits of no abstraction. If it is not divinely revealed, it can only be conjectured via analogical reasoning from (and with) concepts reached as discussed above.


The will follows, does not precede, the intellect; it necessarily desires that which is offered to it as a good which entirely satisfies the appetite; it freely chooses among several good things that are proposed as desirable by the wavering judgment. Election, then, follows the last practical judgment; still, it is the will which determines it to be the last.

Commentary: Will is not prior but posterior to the intellect, in dignity, in origin, in acting. The posteriority in acting is chiefly intended here. Every act of the will is preceded by an act of the intellect; for the act of the will is a rational inclination, and while inclination follows a form, rational inclination follows the intellectually apprehended form. The intellect, in presenting to the will some apprehended good, moves it as to the specification of its act. If the presented good is the absolute or universal good, the will desires it of necessity. If it is good mixed with evil, relative or particular good, it is partially attractive and partially repulsive. The will may desire it, or may not. Once the intellect has settled on the practical excellency of some particular good, the will must accept such an object. Yet, it is the will, which freely committed itself to the determination of the intellect; it is the will, which freely sustained the intellect in its unilateral consideration; and it is the will, which freely wants the process not to be submitted to a further revision. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 82 et q. 83Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 72 ff.; De veritate, q. 22 a. 5De malo, q. 11]



That God exists we do not know by immediate intuition, nor do we demonstrate it a priori, but certainly a posteriori, that is, by things which are made, arguing from effect to cause.


  • from things, which are in movement and cannot be the adequate principle of their motion, to the first mover immovable;
  • from the procession of worldly things from causes, which are subordinated to each other, to the first uncaused cause;
  • from corruptible things, which are indifferent alike to being and non-being, to the absolutely necessary being;
  • from things, which, according to their limited perfection of existence, life, intelligence, are more or less perfect in their being, their life, their intelligence, to Him who is intelligent, living, and being in the highest degree;
  • finally, from the order, which exists in the universe, to the existence of a separate intelligence which ordained, disposed, and directs things to their end.

Commentary: Since the proper object of our intellect is the essences of material things, it is clear we have no immediate intuition of God’s spiritual essence, and, consequently, neither of His existence. Since the notion we have of His essence is an abstract notion, the existence implied in that notion belongs to the essential order and in no way to the actual. Still, we can demonstrate His existence with a rigorous demonstration, which goes from the effects to their ultimate cause. St. Thomas furnishes five proofs, already classical. Things are in movement; whatsoever is moved is moved by something else; above the moved-movers is some immovable-mover. Things are efficient causes of others; they are not the efficient cause of themselves; outside the caused-causes is some uncaused-cause. Some beings did not always exist, some will not always exist: their existence is not essential to them; above beings, which do not exist of necessity, is a necessary being. Things are more or less perfect than others; the less perfect has not in itself the reason of that perfection; above things, which are limited in their perfection is some being supremely perfect. Things which lack intelligence act for some end; an intelligent being only could adapt and direct them to this end; there is an universal governing intelligence. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 2Contra Gentiles, lib. 1 cap. 12 et cap. 31 et lib. 3 cap. 10 et cap. 11De veritate, q. 1 et q. 10De potentia, q. 4 et q. 7]


The Divine Essence is well proposed to us as constituted in its metaphysical concept by its identity with the exercised actuality of its existence, or, in other terms, as the very subsisting being; and by the same token it exhibits to us the reason of its infinity in perfection.

Commentary: Nothing in the Divine Essence itself can have the character of a constituent, for the Divine Essence is most simple. It is only according to our mode of understanding that we may ask which among the different perfections attributed to God is conceived as first, so as to distinguish God from creatures and to give ground to all the other divine perfections. That first perfection is the real identity of essence and existence: the subsisting being. By that God is distinct from creatures. In that is based any other perfection belonging to Him; for existence means act, and existence which is not received into essence means act without potency, perfection without limits. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 4 a. 2 et q. 13 a. 11Super Sent., lib. 1 d. 8 q. 1]


By the very purity of His being God is, therefore, distinguished from all finite beings.

  • Hence, in the first place, it is inferred that the world could not have proceeded from God except through creation;
  • secondly, that the creative power, which directly ‘affects being as being,’ cannot be communicated, even miraculously, to any finite nature; and,
  • finally, that no created agent exercises any influence on the being of any effect except through a motion received from the first cause.

Commentary: God’s essence is God’s existence; God is distinct from creatures whose essence is potency for existence. The world proceeds from God as the contingent from the necessary being. It proceeds by means of creation, for no emanation is possible in the pure act. Since creation implies the production of being from non-being, it is contradictory to suppose a creature exercising any causality in creation; it could not exercise that causality which belongs to the principal cause, for being is an universal effect, above the proportion consequently of any particular cause; not that causality which belongs to the instrumental cause, for there is nothing presupposed to creation upon which the instrument could exercise its efficiency. Finally, since every agent, by its act, moves toward the effect, this movement cannot be conceived independently of the first mover. The agent depends on God for its existence, for its powers, for the conservation of that existence and of these powers. It depends also on God for the very exercise of these powers. Because in exercising these powers the agent passes from Potency to Act, its faculties do not move except in so far as they are moved; there must be a motion coming from the immovable mover. This motion is received into the agent previously to the agent’s motion; it is properly called pre-motion. And since it moves the agent to the exercise of its powers, it is properly called physical pre-motion. [Summa Theologiae, Iª q. 44 et q. 45 et q. 105Contra Gentiles, lib. 2 cap. 6 et cap. 7 et cap. 8 et cap. 9 et cap. 10 et cap. 11 et cap. 12 et cap. 13 et cap. 14 et cap. 15 et lib. 3 cap. 6 et cap. 7 et cap. 8 et cap. 9 et lib. 4 cap. 44De potentia, q. 3 a. 7]

These are the theses Catholic professors must teach. They are the foundation upon which all the philosophical teaching must be based. And if professors recommend to their students any textbook that does not correspond to these theses, they must point that out. Because Catholic professors are reminded not only that “they cannot set St. Thomas aside, however slightly, especially in Metaphysics, without grave detriment,” but also that “they did not receive the faculty of teaching to communicate to their pupils their own opinions, but to impart to them the doctrines most approved by the Church.”

Given at Rome

July 27, 1914

Benedetto Cardinal Lorenzelli, Prefect

Monsignor Ascenso Dandini, Secretary

* * * * *

The Twenty-Four Fundamental Theses Of Official Catholic Philosophy

By P. Lumbreras, O.P., S.T.Lr., Ph.D.

Nobody can deny that the Church has full authority to regulate the teaching of philosophy in Catholic educational institutions. Pope Leo XIII said: “The only-begotten Son of the Eternal Father, who came on earth to bring salvation and the light of divine wisdom to men, conferred a great and wonderful blessing on the world when, about to ascend again into heaven, He commanded the Apostles to go and teach all nations, and left the Church which He had founded to be the common and supreme teacher of the peoples.”1 And Pius X: “Let no sincere Catholic dare to doubt the truth of this statement of the Angelic Doctor: ‘The regulation of studies belongs chiefly to the authority of the Apostolic See, by which the universal Church is governed, whose welfare is promoted by general study.'”2 The reason is obvious. For since there was given to the Church a certain number of truths spoken certainly by God, but to men and consequently in our human language, it is a duty on the part of the Church, not only to keep intact such a sacred deposit, but also to explain it as much as possible, and to defend it by means of human reason. The Church, therefore, has an absolute and exclusive right to pronounce judgment on the accordance of any system of philosophy with revealed dogma; to determine which of the various philosophical systems is more suitable for the right explanation of this dogma and offers the most solid basis for its safeguard and vindication. “The Apostle warns us,” Leo XIII declares, “that the faithful of Christ are often deceived in mind ‘by philosophy and vain deceit.’ For this reason the supreme pastors of the Church have always held that it is part of their office to advance, with all their power, knowledge truly so called; but at the same time to watch with the greatest care that all human learning shall be imparted according to the rule of the Catholic faith. Especially is this true of philosophy, on which the right treatment of other sciences depends in great measure.”3 Furthermore, since the professors in Catholic institutions receive from the Church their right to teach, and teach, consequently, in the name of the Church, the Church is evidently entitled to control their teaching, and to determine for them a line of doctrine to be followed in their teaching. It is Pius X, who addressing the professors of Christian philosophy and sacred theology reminds them that “they did not receive the faculty of teaching to communicate to their pupils their own opinions, but to impart to them the doctrines most approved by the Church.”4

There arises then a true and strict obligation for all Catholic teachers, the day the Church fixes a body of philosophical doctrine to be taught by them. Catholic teachers must fulfill such an obligation, and must teach the doctrine the Church wants them to teach, and must teach it with that favor, that praise, that commendation which the Church demands.

It may be objected that this ecclesiastical interference might become an obstacle to further progress, or to any improvement in philosophical sciences. This is not true. If, as intelligent Catholics, we are sure of the divine assistance which guides the Church in all her doctrinal judgments, especially when this doctrinal judgment concerns the universal body of Catholic teachers, then it would seem that this very definite system should give us greater help and confidence in real advancement, since we know how to advance in the right way. Such a system would insure us against false progress, and ratify, assure and encourage true progress. It was in the use of such a power conferred upon the Church and in the accomplishment of his duty to teach the faithful, that Pope Leo XIII, on August 4, 1879, restored the scholastic philosophy. “If anyone look carefully,” he says, “at the bitterness of our times, and if, further, he consider earnestly the cause of those things that are done in public and in private, he will discover with certainty the fruitful root of the evils which are now overwhelming us, and of the evils which we greatly fear. The cause he will find consists in this—evil teaching about things human and divine — has come forth from the schools of philosophers; it has crept into all orders of the State; and it has been received with the common applause of very many. Now, it has been implanted in man by nature to follow reason as the guide of his actions, and, therefore, if the understanding goes wrong in anything, the will easily follows. Hence it comes about that wicked opinions in the understanding flow into human actions and make them bad.”5 And afterwards: “Here and there a certain new kind of philosophy has taken the place of the old doctrine; and because of this, men have not gathered those desirable and wholesome fruits which the Church and civil society itself could have wished. The aggressive innovators of the sixteenth century have not hesitated to philosophize without any regard whatever to the Faith, asking, and conceding in return, the right to invent anything that they can think of, anything that they please. From this it quickly followed, of course, that systems of philosophy were multiplied beyond all reason, and that there sprang up conflicting and diverse opinions even about some of the chief things, which are within human knowledge. From a multiplicity of opinions men very often pass to uncertainty and doubt; while there is no one who does not see how easily their minds glide from doubt into error.”6

Such a deplorable condition was not the exclusive lot of non-Catholic students of philosophy. For the same Pope adds: “But, since man is drawn by imitation, we have seen these novelties lay hold of the minds of some Catholic philosophers, who, undervaluing the inheritance of ancient wisdom, have chosen rather to invent new things than to extend and perfect the old by new truths, and that certainly with unwise counsel, and not without loss to science; for such a manifold kind of doctrine has only a shifting foundation, resting as it does on the authority and will of individual teachers. For this reason it does not make philosophy firm and strong and solid, like the old philosophy, but, on the contrary, makes it weak and shallow.”7

As the only remedy, the Roman Pontiff desires the scholastic philosophy to be implanted everywhere. “The Doctors of the Middle Ages,” he says, “whom we call scholastics, set themselves to do a work of very great magnitude. There are rich and fruitful crops of doctrine scattered everywhere in the mighty volumes of the holy Fathers. The aim of the scholastics was to gather these together diligently, and to store them up, as it were, in one place, for the use and convenience of those that come after.”8 And, having quoted the authority of Sixtus V, who said that God had enriched and strengthened His Church by the founding of scholastic theology, whose study must always be of great assistance, “whether it be for the right understanding and interpretation of Scripture, or for reading and expounding the Fathers with greater safety and profit, or for laying bare and answering different errors and heresies,” Leo XIII expresses himself in these terms: “Although these words seem to bear reference solely to scholastic theology, nevertheless they may plainly be accepted as equally true of philosophy and its praises. For the noble endowments which make the scholastic theology so formidable to the enemies of truth—to wit, as the same Pontiff adds, that ready and close coherence of cause and effect, that order and array as of a disciplined army in battle, those clear definitions and distinctions, by which light is distinguished from darkness, the true from the false, expose and strip naked, as it were, the falsehoods of heretics wrapped around by a cloud of subterfuges and fallacies —those noble and admirable endowments, We say, are only to be found in a right use of that philosophy which the scholastic teachers have been accustomed carefully and prudently to make use of even in theological disputations. Moreover, since it is the proper and special office of the scholastic theologians to bind together by the fastest chain human and divine science, surely the theology in which they excelled would not have gained such honor and commendation among men if they had made use of a lame and imperfect or vain philosophy.”9

The warning of Pope Leo XIII was not sufficiently heeded. And years after, his successor, Pope Pius X, was obliged to condemn an error which had spread not only among the Church’s open enemies, but among many who belonged to the Catholic laity, and, what is far more lamentable still, to the ranks of the priesthood itself, who lacked, as the Pope testifies, the firm protection of philosophy and theology. This error is known under the name of Modernism.

Now, one of the demands of the Modernists was the “reform of philosophy, especially in the seminaries: the scholastic philosophy is to be relegated to the history of philosophy among obsolete systems, and the young men are to be taught modern philosophy which alone is true and suited to the times in which we live.”10

But Pius X, a man of our days, living in our own century, and conscious of present progress, not less than of present evils, condemned such a tendency, as a Modernistic one. And coming to the remedies to be applied to such a critical situation he says: “In the first place, with regard to studies, We will and ordain that scholastic philosophy be made the basis of the sacred sciences.”11

Scholastic philosophy, however, is a very large name. For there were many who strove in the Middle Ages for the establishment of a rational philosophy in conformity with dogma and with a view of affording assistance to the theological studies. Since then we have had several systems of philosophy among the schoolmen. And each system has its opinions. And these opinions are never uniform, often contradictory.

When the Pope, therefore, decrees the teaching of Scholastic Philosophy, does he mean indifferently any of those systems of philosophy? Are all the scholastic teachings, in the mind of the Pope, on an equal basis in this regard?

Certainly not. For there is one schoolman specially mentioned in the pontifical documents; and there is a system of scholastic philosophy, which is individually praised, and praised with special recommendation by the Roman Pontiffs. “Far above all other scholastic Doctors,” Leo XIII says, “towers Thomas Aquinas, their master and prince. Cajetan says truly of him: ‘So great was his veneration for the ancient and sacred Doctors that he may be said to have gained a perfect understanding of them all.’ Thomas gathered together their doctrines like the scattered limbs of a body, and moulded them into a whole. He arranged them in so wonderful an order, and increased them with such great additions, that rightly and deservedly he is reckoned a singular safeguard and glory of the Catholic Church. His intellect was docile and subtle; his memory was ready and tenacious; his life was most holy; and he loved the truth alone. Greatly enriched as he was with the science of God and the science of man, he is likened to the sun, for he warmed the whole earth with the fire of his holiness, and filled the whole earth with the splendor of his teaching. There is no part of philosophy, which he did not handle with acuteness and solidity. He wrote about the laws of reasoning; about God and incorporeal substances; about man and other things of sense; and about human acts and their principles. What is more, he wrote on these subjects in such a way that in him not one of the following perfections is wanting: a full selection of subjects; a beautiful arrangement of their divisions; the best method of treating them; certainty of principles; strength of argument; perspicuity and propriety in language; and the power of explaining deep mysteries. Beside these questions and the like, the Angelic Doctor, in his speculations, drew certain philosophical conclusions as to the reasons and principles of created things. These conclusions have the very widest reach, and contain, as it were, in their bosom the seeds of truths well-nigh infinite in number. These have to be unfolded with most abundant fruits in their own time by the teachers who come after him. As he used his method of philosophizing, not only in teaching the truth, but also in refuting error, he has vanquished all errors of ancient times; and still he supplies an armory of weapons, which brings us certain victory in the conflict with falsehoods ever springing up in the course of years. Moreover, carefully distinguishing reason from faith, as is right, and yet joining them together in a harmony of friendship, he so guarded the rights of each, and so watched over the dignity of each, that, as far as man is concerned, reason can now hardly rise higher than she rose, borne up in the flight of Thomas; and faith can hardly gain more and greater helps from reason than those which Thomas gave her.”12 And again: “There is nothing which We have longer wished for and desired than that you (the Bishops), should give largely and abundantly to youths engaged in study the pure streams of wisdom which flow from the Angelic Doctor as from a perennial and copious spring.”13

This same principality was granted to St. Thomas’ philosophy by Pius X. “Let it be clearly understood above all things,” he says, “that the scholastic philosophy We prescribe is chiefly that which the Angelic Doctor has bequeathed to us, and We, therefore, declare that all the ordinances of Our Predecessor on this subject continue fully in force, and, as far as may be necessary, We do decree anew, and confirm, and ordain that they be by all strictly observed. In seminaries where they may have been neglected let the Bishops impose them and require their observance, and let this apply also to the Superiors of religious institutions.”14 And the Pope ends this paragraph with these precise words: “Further let professors remember that they cannot set St. Thomas aside, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment”; words which come again a short time after with some little, but meaningful modification: “Let professors remember that they cannot set St. Thomas aside, however slightly, especially in metaphysical questions, without grave detriment.”15

Still, St. Thomas’ philosophy is not simply the chief one within the official Scholasticism, but it is the only one.

Leo XIII had expressed this before: “We, therefore, while We declare that everything wisely said should be received with willing and glad mind, as well as everything profitably discovered or thought out, exhort all of you, Venerable Brothers, with the greatest earnestness to restore the golden wisdom of St. Thomas, and to spread it as far as you can, for the safety and glory of the Catholic Faith, for the good of society, and for the increase of all the sciences. We say the wisdom of St. Thomas; for it is not by any means in our mind to set before this age, as a standard, those things which may have been inquired into by Scholastic Doctors with too great subtlety; or anything taught by them with too little consideration, not agreeing with the investigations of a later age; or lastly, anything that is not probable. Let, then, teachers carefully chosen by you do their best to instill the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas into the minds of their hearers; and let them clearly point out its solidity and excellence above all other teaching. Let this doctrine be the light of all places of learning, which you may have already opened, or may hereafter open. Let it be used for the refutation of errors that are gaining ground.”16

But it was Pius X who gave the most express and conclusive interpretation: “Since We have said (in the Motu Proprio ‘Sacrorum Antistitum‘) that Aquinas’ philosophy was chiefly to be followed, and We did not say solely, some thought to comply with, or at least not to oppose Our will in taking the philosophy of any of the Scholastic Doctors indiscriminately, even when such a philosophy was in repugnance to the principles of St. Thomas. But these their mind has greatly deceived. It is quite evident that when We set St. Thomas up as the leader of scholastic philosophy, We have wished this to be understood especially of his principles, upon which such a philosophy is established. Because as we must reject that old opinion which held as irrelevant for the faith what anyone thinks about creatures, if he thinks rightly about God—since an error on the nature of creatures originates false knowledge of God—so we must keep reverently and inviolately St. Thomas’ principles on philosophy, from which flows such a doctrine on creatures as is in harmony with faith; by which all errors of all ages are refuted; by which we are made aware of those attributes which must be given to God and to nothing else but Himself; and by which both the diversity and the analogy between God and creatures is skillfully illustrated… Neither sane reason will neglect, nor religion will allow that such a wonderful richness of science—which he received from his predecessors and with his almost angelic genius he himself ameliorated, increased and used to prepare, illustrate and defend the sacred doctrine for human minds—suffer any loss. Particularly, for if the Catholic truth be destitute of this valuable help, in vain would anyone seek help from that philosophy whose principles are common with, or not opposed to Materialism, Monism, Pantheism, Socialism and Modernism… Consequently We have already instructed all teachers of philosophy and sacred theology that to deviate a single step from St. Thomas, especially in metaphysical questions, would not be without great detriment. Now furthermore We say that those who have perversely interpreted or absolutely despised the principles and chief propositions of St. Thomas’ philosophy, those not only do not follow St. Thomas, but wander also widely from him.”17 And the Pope, overcoming some objection which could be made from pontifical documents praising some other Doctor or philosopher, adds: “If We or any of Our Predecessors have ever approved the doctrine of some other author or saint, even as to recommend and ordain its divulgation and defense, it is easily understood that the same is to be approved, inasmuch as it is consonant with the principles of St. Thomas, or at least not opposed to them.”18

Such a disposition of the Popes became finally a formal universal precept, since the promulgation of the Canon Law: “Religious who have already studied their humanities should devote themselves for two years at least to philosophy, and four years to theology, following the teaching of St. Thomas in accordance with the instructions of the Holy See.”19 And “The study of philosophy and theology and the teaching of these sciences to their students must be accurately carried out by professors according to the arguments, doctrine, and principles of St. Thomas, which they are inviolately to hold.”20

Nevertheless, St. Thomas did not write a textbook on philosophy, neither did he draw up a list of the fundamental principles of his philosophy.

Hence we have many philosophical books, which claim to reflect the mind of St. Thomas, though they contain opinions contrary to each other. We know of several scholastic doctors, who appropriate for themselves the title of Thomists and whose teaching is contradictory in many points. And we are aware that some of the doctrines, which by one school are supposed to be fundamental in the Thomistic Philosophy, are neglected and may be rejected by another school.

Pope Leo XIII had admonished on this subject: “But lest the false should be drunk instead of the true; or lest that which is unwholesome should be drunk instead of that which is pure; take care that the wisdom of Thomas be drawn from his own fountain, or at any rate from those streams which, in the certain and unanimous opinion of learned men, yet flow whole and untainted, inasmuch as they are fed from the fountain itself. Take care, moreover, that the minds of the young be kept from streams which are said to have flowed from thence, but in reality have been fed by unhealthy waters from other springs.”21

Yet, such a distinction was anything but easy, on account of the traditional prejudices of every School.

Hence a further official declaration was necessary.

The Congregation of Studies published on July 27, 1914, a document whose title is as follows: “Certain theses, contained in the doctrine of St. Thomas Aquinas, and proposed by masters of philosophy, are approved.” Here is the introduction: “After the Holy Father Pope Pius X, by the Motu Proprio ‘Doctoris Angelici published on June 29, 1914, wisely prescribed that in all the schools of philosophy the principles and major propositions of Thomas Aquinas should be sacredly held, not a few masters, appertaining to different institutions, proposed to this Sacred Congregation of Studies for examination some theses which they were accustomed to teach and defend as conformable to the holy Doctor’s principles, especially in metaphysics. This Sacred Congregation, having duly examined the above mentioned theses, and submitted them to the Holy Father, at the command of His Holiness, replies that they clearly contain the principles and major propositions of the holy Doctor.”22

By a later document, these same theses were all officially declared to contain the genuine teaching of St. Thomas.23 And to the question whether they should be imposed upon Catholic schools to be held, the Congregation answered: “Proponantur veluti tutae normae directivae.”24 Proposed, not imposed: since it is philosophy, not faith, which is concerned.

But they must be proposed; namely, taught. For we have such an interpretation in the following words of Pius X: “The chief doctrines of St. Thomas’ philosophy cannot be regarded as mere opinions—which anyone might discuss pro and con, but rather as a foundation on which all science of both natural and divine things rests. If they are taken away, or perverted in any way, then this necessarily follows: that the students of sacred studies will not perceive even the meaning of those words whereby the divinely revealed dogmas are uttered by the teaching of the Church.”25

These theses must be taught as a sure guide of direction; sure guide of direction on the philosophical official teaching in the Church; sure guide of direction on the support, which faith derives from philosophy; and sure guide of direction on philosophical truth.

These theses are twenty-four in number. All of them are concerned with metaphysics, since it was chiefly upon the metaphysical teaching of St. Thomas that the Popes insisted. In the next issue we intend to publish a short treatise on these theses.


1 Encycl. Aeterni Patris,” August 4, 1879.

Motu Proprio “Doctoris Angelici,” June 29, 1914.

3 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”

M. P. “Doctoris Angelici.”

5 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”





10 Encycl. Pascendi,” September 8, 1907.

11 Ibid.

12 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”

13 Ibid.

14 Enc. Pascendi.”

15 Motu Proprio “Sacrorum antistitum,” September 1, 1910.

16 Encycl. Aeterni Patris.”

17 M. P. “Doctoris Angelici.”

18 Ibid.

19 Canon 589.

20 Canon 1366, 2.

21 Enc. Aeterni Patris.”

22 Acta Apost. Sedis, August, 1914.

23 Acta Ap. Sed., May, 1916.

24 Ibid.

25 M. P. “Doctoris Angelici.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on Dictatorship of Relativism

Homily at the Mass for the Election of a Roman Pontiff

Vatican Basilica
Monday 18 April 2005

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger attends Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, April 12, 2005

At this moment of great responsibility, let us listen with special attention to what the Lord says to us in his own words. I would like to examine just a few passages from the three readings that concern us directly at this time.

The first one offers us a prophetic portrait of the person of the Messiah – a portrait that receives its full meaning from the moment when Jesus reads the text in the synagogue at Nazareth and says, “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4: 21).

At the core of the prophetic text we find a word which seems contradictory, at least at first sight. The Messiah, speaking of himself, says that he was sent “to announce a year of favour from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God” (Is 61: 2). We hear with joy the news of a year of favour: divine mercy puts a limit on evil, as the Holy Father told us. Jesus Christ is divine mercy in person: encountering Christ means encountering God’s mercy.

Christ’s mandate has become our mandate through the priestly anointing. We are called to proclaim, not only with our words but also with our lives and with the valuable signs of the sacraments, “the year of favour from the Lord”.

But what does the prophet Isaiah mean when he announces “the day of vindication by our God”? At Nazareth, Jesus omitted these words in his reading of the prophet’s text; he concluded by announcing the year of favour. Might this have been the reason for the outburst of scandal after his preaching? We do not know.

In any case, the Lord offered a genuine commentary on these words by being put to death on the cross. St Peter says: “In his own body he brought your sins to the cross” (I Pt 2: 24). And St Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians: “Christ has delivered us from the power of the law’s curse by himself becoming a curse for us, as it is written, “Accursed is anyone who is hanged on a tree’. This happened so that through Christ Jesus the blessing bestowed on Abraham might descend on the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, thereby making it possible for us to receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal 3: 13f.).

Christ’s mercy is not a grace that comes cheap, nor does it imply the trivialization of evil. Christ carries the full weight of evil and all its destructive force in his body and in his soul. He burns and transforms evil in suffering, in the fire of his suffering love. The day of vindication and the year of favour converge in the Paschal Mystery, in the dead and Risen Christ. This is the vengeance of God: he himself suffers for us, in the person of his Son. The more deeply stirred we are by the Lord’s mercy, the greater the solidarity we feel with his suffering – and we become willing to complete in our own flesh “what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ” (Col 1: 24).

Let us move on to the second reading, the letter to the Ephesians. Here we see essentially three aspects: first of all, the ministries and charisms in the Church as gifts of the Lord who rose and ascended into heaven; then, the maturing of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God as the condition and content of unity in the Body of Christ; and lastly, our common participation in the growth of the Body of Christ, that is, the transformation of the world into communion with the Lord.

Let us dwell on only two points. The first is the journey towards “the maturity of Christ”, as the Italian text says, simplifying it slightly. More precisely, in accordance with the Greek text, we should speak of the “measure of the fullness of Christ” that we are called to attain if we are to be true adults in the faith. We must not remain children in faith, in the condition of minors. And what does it mean to be children in faith? St Paul answers: it means being “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4: 14). This description is very timely!

How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves – flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.

Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be “tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine”, seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.

We, however, have a different goal: the Son of God, the true man. He is the measure of true humanism. An “adult” faith is not a faith that follows the trends of fashion and the latest novelty; a mature adult faith is deeply rooted in friendship with Christ. It is this friendship that opens us up to all that is good and gives us a criterion by which to distinguish the true from the false, and deceipt from truth.

We must develop this adult faith; we must guide the flock of Christ to this faith. And it is this faith – only faith – that creates unity and is fulfilled in love.

On this theme, St Paul offers us as a fundamental formula for Christian existence some beautiful words, in contrast to the continual vicissitudes of those who, like children, are tossed about by the waves: make truth in love. Truth and love coincide in Christ. To the extent that we draw close to Christ, in our own lives too, truth and love are blended. Love without truth would be blind; truth without love would be like “a clanging cymbal” (I Cor 13: 1).

Let us now look at the Gospel, from whose riches I would like to draw only two small observations. The Lord addresses these wonderful words to us: “I no longer speak of you as slaves…. Instead, I call you friends” (Jn 15: 15). We so often feel, and it is true, that we are only useless servants (cf. Lk 17: 10).

Yet, in spite of this, the Lord calls us friends, he makes us his friends, he gives us his friendship. The Lord gives friendship a dual definition. There are no secrets between friends: Christ tells us all that he hears from the Father; he gives us his full trust and with trust, also knowledge. He reveals his face and his heart to us. He shows us the tenderness he feels for us, his passionate love that goes even as far as the folly of the Cross. He entrusts himself to us, he gives us the power to speak in his name: “this is my body…”, “I forgive you…”. He entrusts his Body, the Church, to us.

To our weak minds, to our weak hands, he entrusts his truth – the mystery of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; the mystery of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (Jn 3: 16). He made us his friends – and how do we respond?

The second element Jesus uses to define friendship is the communion of wills. For the Romans “Idem velle – idem nolle” [same desires, same dislikes] was also the definition of friendship. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn 15: 14). Friendship with Christ coincides with the third request of the Our Father: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. At his hour in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus transformed our rebellious human will into a will conformed and united with the divine will. He suffered the whole drama of our autonomy – and precisely by placing our will in God’s hands, he gives us true freedom: “Not as I will, but as you will” (Mt 26: 39).

Our redemption is brought about in this communion of wills: being friends of Jesus, to become friends of God. The more we love Jesus, the more we know him, the more our true freedom develops and our joy in being redeemed flourishes. Thank you, Jesus, for your friendship!

The other element of the Gospel to which I wanted to refer is Jesus’ teaching on bearing fruit: “It was I who chose you to go forth and bear fruit. Your fruit must endure” (Jn 15: 16).

It is here that appears the dynamism of the life of a Christian, an apostle: I chose you to go forth. We must be enlivened by a holy restlessness: a restlessness to bring to everyone the gift of faith, of friendship with Christ. Truly, the love and friendship of God was given to us so that it might also be shared with others. We have received the faith to give it to others – we are priests in order to serve others. And we must bear fruit that will endure.

All people desire to leave a lasting mark. But what endures? Money does not. Even buildings do not, nor books. After a certain time, longer or shorter, all these things disappear. The only thing that lasts for ever is the human soul, the human person created by God for eternity.

The fruit that endures is therefore all that we have sown in human souls: love, knowledge, a gesture capable of touching hearts, words that open the soul to joy in the Lord. So let us go and pray to the Lord to help us bear fruit that endures. Only in this way will the earth be changed from a valley of tears to a garden of God.

To conclude, let us return once again to the Letter to the Ephesians. The Letter says, with words from Psalm 68, that Christ, ascending into heaven, “gave gifts to men” (Eph 4: 8). The victor offers gifts. And these gifts are apostles, pro-phets, evangelists, pastors and teachers. Our ministry is a gift of Christ to humankind, to build up his body – the new world. We live out our ministry in this way, as a gift of Christ to humanity!

At this time, however, let us above all pray insistently to the Lord that after his great gift of Pope John Paul II, he will once again give us a Pastor according to his own heart, a Pastor who will guide us to knowledge of Christ, to his love and to true joy. Amen.

On Reading of Old Books by C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology. Wherever you find a little study circle of Christian laity you can be almost certain that they are studying not St. Luke or St. Paul or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or[Richard] Hooker or [Joseph] Butler, but M. [Nikolai] Berdyaev or M. [Jacques] Maritain or M. [Reinhold] Niebuhr or Miss [Dorothy] Sayers or even myself.

Now this seems to me topsy-turvy. Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why—the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (“mere Christianity” as [Richard] Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny. They thought that they were as completely opposed as two sides could be, but in fact they were all the time secretly united—united with each other and against earlier and later ages—by a great mass of common assumptions. We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century—the blindness about which posterity will ask, “But how could they have thought that?”—lies where we have never suspected it, and concerns something about which there is untroubled agreement between Hitler and President Roosevelt or between Mr. H. G. Wellsand Karl Barth. None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

I myself was first led into reading the Christian classics, almost accidentally, as a result of my English studies. Some, such as Hooker, [George] Herbert, [Thomas] Traherne, [Jeremy] Taylor and [John] Bunyan, I read because they are themselves great English writers; others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were “influences.” George Macdonald I had found for myself at the age of sixteen and never wavered in my allegiance, though I tried for a long time to ignore his Christianity. They are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages. And that brings me to yet another reason for reading them. The divisions of Christendom are undeniable and are by some of these writers most fiercely expressed. But if any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that “Christianity” is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages “mere Christianity” turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognise, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and [Samuel] Johnson; there again, with a mild, frightening, Paradisial flavour, in [Henry] Vaughan and [Jacob] Boehme and Traherne. In the urban sobriety of the eighteenth century one was not safe—Law and Butler were two lions in the path. The supposed “Paganism” of the Elizabethans could not keep it out; it lay in wait where a man might have supposed himself safest, in the very centre of [Spenser’s] The Faerie Queene and [Sidney’s] the Arcadia. It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognisable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:

an air that kills
From yon far country blows.

We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity. I know, for I saw it; and well our enemies know it. That unity any of us can find by going out of his own age. It is not enough, but it is more than you had thought till then. Once you are well soaked in it, if you then venture to speak, you will have an amusing experience. You will be thought a Papistwhen you are actually reproducing Bunyan, a Pantheist when you are quoting Aquinas, and so forth. For you have now got on to the great level viaduct which crosses the ages and which looks so high from the valleys, so low from the mountains, so narrow compared with the swamps, and so broad compared with the sheep-tracks.

The present book is something of an experiment. The translation is intended for the world at large, not only for theological students. If it succeeds, other translations of other great Christian books will presumably follow. In one sense, of course, it is not the first in the field. Translations of the Theologia Germanica, the Imitation [of Christ], the Scale of Perfection, and the Revelations of Lady Julian of Norwich, are already on the market, and are very valuable, though some of them are not very scholarly. But it will be noticed that these are all books of devotion rather than of doctrine. Now the layman or amateur needs to be instructed as well as to be exhorted. In this age his need for knowledge is particularly pressing. Nor would I admit any sharp division between the two kinds of book. For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others. I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.

This is a good translation of a very great book. St. Athanasius has suffered in popular estimation from a certain sentence in the “Athanasian Creed.” I will not labour the point that that work is not exactly a creed and was not by St. Athanasius, for I think it is a very fine piece of writing. The words “Which Faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly” are the offence. They are commonly misunderstood. The operative word is keep; not acquire, or even believe, but keep. The author, in fact, is not talking about unbelievers, but about deserters, not about those who have never heard of Christ, nor even those who have misunderstood and refused to accept Him, but of those who having really understood and really believed, then allow themselves, under the sway of sloth or of fashion or any other invited confusion to be drawn away into sub-Christian modes of thought. They are a warning against the curious modern assumption that all changes of belief, however brought about, are necessarily exempt from blame. But this is not my immediate concern. I mention “the creed (commonly called)of St. Athanasius” only to get out of the reader’s way what may have been a bogey and to put the true Athanasius in its place. His epitaph is Athanasiuscontra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did thesame. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.

When I first opened his De Incarnatione I soon discovered by a very simple test that I was reading a masterpiece. I knew very little Christian Greek except that of the New Testament and I had expected difficulties. To my astonishment I found it almost as easy as Xenophon; and only a master mind could, in the fourth century, have written so deeply on such a subject with such classical simplicity. Every page I read confirmed this impression. His approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” The whole book, indeed, is a picture of the Tree of Life—a sappy and golden book, full of buoyancy and confidence. We cannot, I admit, appropriate all its confidence today. We cannot point to the high virtue of Christian living and the gay, almost mocking courage of Christian martyrdom, as a proof of our doctrines with quite that assurance which Athanasius takes as a matter of course. But whoever may be to blame for that it is not Athanasius.

The translator knows so much more Christian Greek than I that it would be out of place for me to praise her version. But it seems to me to be in the right tradition of English translation. I do not think the reader will find here any of that sawdusty quality which is so common in modern renderings from the ancient languages. That is as much as the English reader will notice; those who compare the version with the original will be able to estimate how much wit and talent is presupposed in such a choice, for example, as “these wiseacres” on the very first page.

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