Queering Captain America?

The character Captain America first appeared during World War II as a patriotic nazi- fighting superhero.  After a few years hiatus, he reappeared in the 1960s and has been around ever since, recently being a key character in the enormously popular Avengers and Captain America movies.  Through it all, Captain America’s character has embodied what almost might be called the romance of classical American: courageous, committed to democracy, freedom and liberty, and above all, right over wrong.  Other superhero figures have had darker sides or uncertainties (Batman), but Captain America has consistently stood as a soldier guided by an unshakeable moral code that was explicitly the ideal of classic American virtue, but was really at heart Judeo-Christian.

This Captain America always stood up for right over wrong whatever the cost; in one place he said:

doent-matter-what-the-press-says-doesnt-matter-what-the-politicians-for-mobs-say-america-quote

(From http://www.thequotepedia.com/images/11/doent-matter-what-the-press-says-doesnt-matter-what-the-politicians-for-mobs-say-america-quote.jpg)

And elsewhere:

“…Our enemies may appear to be endless, but that doesn’t matter. Because there is no one else. Look at me. I believe in an idea, an idea that a single individual who has the right heart and the right mind that is consumed with a single purpose, that one man can win a war. Give that one man a group of soldiers with the same conviction, and you can change the world.” (1)

He was a superhero who was so reliable and so reliably virtuous,  could almost be assumed to be on the right side.  Whatever side he was on was right.  This make some recent news so interesting. It seems that a number of fans are calling for captain America to “come out” as homosexual, according to the Twitter hastag “#giveCaptainAmericaaboyfriend.”  (2).

There are at least two interesting observations to be made regarding the demand to make Captain America gay.  First, that it reflects modern society’s obsession with sex and the decline of friendship in a modern world.  Part of the reason behind the demands of the “makeCapgay” crowd is their difficulty in believing that two men could be intimate friends without having a sexual relationship.  This would have been absurd in nearly any past age which celebrated friendships like David and Jonathan, Achilles and Patroclus, Oliver and Roland, Hamlet and Horatio, and Frodo and Sam.  Yet because Captain America, a soldier has close friendships, fans (a terms more properly used  in the classical sense of fanatic) argue that he should be gay.  C.S. Lewis said of friendship that “it is one of those things that has no survival, rather, it gives value to survival,” and lamented its decline in the modern world.  That Captain America cannot be believed to have male friends without having relationship with them is another sign of that decline.

The second observation is more interesting.  In the early 16th century, King Henry VIII of England divorced his wife, married another, and declared himself the head of the Church in England.  Nearly everyone went along with him; one of the few who didn’t was Thomas More.  Yet, the one man was too much for Henry VIII.  As Robert Bolt’s play, Man for All Seasons, put it, More was a good was honest and known to be honest- and one honest man, a man of virtue and conscience, opposed to Henry was too much, a signal to everyone else that Henry was on the wrong side.  Henry needed More on his side to assure Henry and everyone else of a lie, that Henry was right in his wrong.  And this More would not do and so Henry killed him.

This is why some people want Marvel to make Captain America gay; because Captain America is a superhero known for his courage, virtue, and commitment to truth whatever the cost.  Henry wanted More’s approval in a vain attempt to assure Henry that he was in fact on the right side, which Henry knew to be false.  Today advocates of homosexuality demand not tolerance, but approval and will not tolerate those who disagree with them.  And this because, like Henry,  they want to convince themselves that they are on the right side, which they also know to be false.  What is so interesting, though is that this search for approval extends now to the fictional character Captain America.  To turn such a character would have been like Henry VIII turning Thomas More-turning a good man to the wrong side– and just as impossible.  Captain America could not turn and still remain himself, he would be a whole other figure, strong perhaps, and in a similar costume, but not Captain America.

 

(1) https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Captain_America

(2) http://observer.com/2016/05/marvel-fans-want-captain-america-to-come-out-already/

 

Modern Superstition and Trusting the Rich

Donald Trump’s candidacy has been instructive for a number of reasons, albeit regrettable for many others.  It has shown how a loud and colorful personality, promising to make Germany  America great again can quickly gain the allegiance and more, faith, of desperate crowds who will ignore any charge against him because of the faith they have placed in him.  There are books to be written on this subject, but only one small but instructive point concerns us here: the growing faith in the rich.

One of Donald Trump’s key arguments on the campaign trail is that people should trust him because he is rich.  Because he is rich, he cannot be bought and hence is more trustworthy.  Leaving aside the question of whether a person who buys influence, favors, and people is more trustworthy than a person who sells them, what is so interesting here is that we are being asked to trust the rich because they are rich.  Money (supposedly) makes a person trustworthy.  Poverty makes him unreliable.  Money equals virtue and poverty, vice.  This is not a new idea.  G.K. Chesterton wrote about it 100 years ago: “You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed” (Orthodoxy, chapter 7). It was as ridiculous then as it is now, but what is so interesting is how the idea is suddenly seen as widely convincing today just when the influence of Christianity seems to be fading- and there is more than coincidence in this.

Why should nations with proud democratic traditions and governments and nations (America at least) founded on the notion that all men are created equal suddenly appear so ripe for aristocracy?   Why should they suddenly be so ready to submit themselves to rule by the rich believing that only the rich can be trusted to rule?  In the last hours of its decay, the Roman republic did the same thing, as mobs threw power to a patrician strongman railing against corruption and promising to look out for them, but why should American be prepared to do the same?  What makes a nation with America’s history and democracy be suddenly willing to adopt and adopt loudly the position that the poor cannot be trusted, that we must throw ourselves on the rule of the rich?

For G.K Chesterton (and me), it was the decline of Christianity.  For only Christianity provided any consistent bulwark against this superstitious faith in the rich.

Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man’s environment, but in man….if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this — that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy (Ibid).

Some of the rich may be trustworthy and some may not, just as some of the poor may be trustworthy and others not, but no man is more trustworthy because he is rich or less so because he is not.  This is a pagan superstition and hence a modern one, but according to Christianity, greater danger lies in riches than in poverty.  As Chesterton remarked:

There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor  (ibid).

But this is why modern America can believe the myth that Trump’s wealth makes him reliable.  Because belief in Christianity is on the decline, such superstitions are on the rise; it can hardly be otherwise.  Man needs a savior and if he cannot have a divine one, then he must have a human one.  Whether such a savior can save anything, bring hope and change, or make America great again, is another, more doubtful question.

  1. Note: I find that Mark Shea already beat me to this passage in Chesterton and its applicationhere: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markshea/2015/07/the-prophet-chesterton-on-donald-trump.html

The Real Me and Transgenderism

The Obama administration has recently attempted to coerce schools into allowing biological boys and girls to use restrooms and locker rooms of the opposite sex if they believe themselves to be transgender.  The coercion is so sudden and taken without public comment or study that one imagines there must be overwhelming evidence that transgenderism is the next frontier in the civil rights struggle and that people believing themselves to be transgendered must be a group comparable to African Americans in the era of Jim Crow, unable to use bathrooms with everybody else.  But there is not such evidence.  Indeed, the lack of evidence has led Johns Hopkins to stop offering gender reassignment surgery (1). For their are a host of questions raised by the claim that some people are transgender.

At heart, a person who believes they are transgender believes that they are a man trapped in a woman’s body or a woman trapped in a man’s body.  The body and the mind appear to be in conflict; the biological fact is that a person’s body (to take an example) is male, but the person’s mind believes that he is really female.  If the body and the mind are at cross purposes in this way, then one of the two is in error, but how to decide which?  Transgender advocates, and the present administration, seem to have assumed that the mind must be correct and the body wrong, but why?  Why should we assume that the mind is sound and the body wrong?  Why should it not be the other way around.  Why should we not come to the opposite conclusion: that in a biological male who believes he is female, it is actually is mind that has gone wrong.  If a man believed that he was a wolf trapped in a man’s body, presumably, the assumption would be that his mind is disordered, not that he should be fed particularly raw steaks.  If a man believes that he is a woman, why should the assumption be that the body must be changed; why not consider it a mental disorder in need of correction?

More still, it is unclear what it means to be a man trapped in a woman’s body.  It seems to imply that the body is not part of the person.  The real me is not my body and is actually entirely independent of my body; the body is just something that I, the real I happen to have, an accessory.  Hence, if the real me is a female who just happens to have a male body, then I can dismiss it and get a new accessory.  But then who is this real me?  What is this real me inside my body that is totally independent of my body?  My soul?  No Christian could believe that since Christianity requires the belief that man is a unified whole, I am neither my body nor my soul, but both.  The soul is the form of my body and the two form a united whole.  But then transgender advocates do not base their claims on Christianity anyway, so the real me must be mean something else.  Could it mean the soul in some other sense?  Maybe, but transgender advocates never say this; given their tendency to be secular, this is probably an argument that many would shy away from.  And even if this were the position of some, ie, a biological male believes that he is a female soul trapped in a man’s body, this raised a host of questions and problems: how did the female soul get there?  What is the relation between the female soul and the body?  This also turns the body into the accessory or property of the soul, which is the real me.  Hence, rape would become a mere property crime (an offence against my property, the body I happen to inhabit) and the government could extra a kidney in taxation (because it can tax my property and my body is my property).

Neither of these options are likely palatable to the transgender advocate anyway, so what else might such a person claim?  That the real him is his brain?  Ie, that he is a female brain trapped in a male’s body?  None have said so explicitly, for this is no better than the other options.  First, the brain is part of the body, so this appears plainly contradictory to say that one has a male body but a female brain.  Second, given the role of the brain is shaping the body by directing the body’s growth, release of hormones, it is not scientifically plausible that a female brain could be trapped in a male body.  Third, this view has the same drawbacks (as Alexander Pruss has pointed out on another subject), as the view that I am my soul.  If I am my brain and just possess the rest of my body, rape is still a property crime, the government could confiscate a kidney via its power to tax, and my wife has never kissed me (only my body, which is not me, only the property of me).

There is no account of how one can be a man trapped in a woman’s body that makes sense either scientifically or rationally.  There is, however, a very simple account of how a mental disorder could cause a person to believe he is a woman if he is really a man.  And to this disorder, we should respond, not by changing the body, but by treating the mind.

(1). http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2015/06/15145/ and

http://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-mchugh-transgender-surgery-isnt-the-solution-1402615120

(2). A fair question is that in spite of no plausible account of transgendering and no evidence in support of the claim that one can really be a woman trapped in a man’s body, why is it so strongly defended?  The answer is probably an implied connection to homosexuality.  If it can be a mental disorder for a man to believe that he is a woman, then this is not very far from the claim that it is a disorder for a man to be sexually attracted to other men.  But this is a subject for another post.

Moral Progress, Conscience, and Moral Decay

Recently, in both the secular and Catholic World, much talk has focused on the notion of personal “conscience.” In the secular world, the question has focused on whether religious institutions may follow their conscience by not paying for their employees contraceptives, since they see contraception as morally objectionable. More interesting though, is the current debate on conscience among Catholics themselves. Yet, from the debate, it is clear that the notion of conscience is poorly understood.

On one hand, traditional Catholic teaching holds that conscience is inviolable; that is to say, the claims of one’s conscience are absolute and may not be violated. Yet depending what is meant by conscience, this leads to absurdities. A bad man may strongly feel that his conscience is telling him to break into his neighbors’ house because his neighbor deserves it. Or a neo-nazi feel that he really is right to burn down a black Church, because it deserves it. But if conscience is inviolable, it seems we need say that these people are right to act as they do, which is absurd.

On the other hand, we clearly admire people who follow their conscience at the cost of great personal risk and loss to themselves. Robert Bolt, an agnostic playwright, could not help but admire the Catholic layman, Sir Thomas More, who stood on his own conscience when he refused to say that his king was not an adulterer for divorcing his wife and attempting to take another. When asked why he admired More so much, Bolt pointed to More’s stubborn insistence on following his conscience even against all the coercive power of the English state. He admired that More “would not place his hand on an ordinary book and tell a very ordinary lie.”

So how to reconcile the two? Clearly, to follow conscience is admirable but at the same time, moral evils cannot be justified with an appeal to conscience. It must be then, that conscience is not simply a matter of strong personal feeling. A person feels a certain way, therefore conscience is speaking. This view of conscience clearly leads to the absurdities mentioned above. In this case, conscience becomes to easy to confuse with personal desire. “My conscience tells me that I can…” comes to mean little more than “I really, really want to do x, therefore I will believe that my conscience wants me to do x.” This is clearly absurd, but if conscience is internal, how can one refute it? Are there no objective, external markers, that conscience may be measured against?

If one is a Christian, of course, the answer is simple. If one’s conscience contradicts the meaning of scripture, then what one believes is his conscience is certainly no more than personal desires or something worse. Certainly, not conscience at all. If one’s desire for a second marriage contradicts the plain words of Jesus, “a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery,” then clearly the claim that his conscience is telling him to contradict the words of Christ is either delusion or sophistry. If one is in addition to Christian, a Catholic, then he is also bound by the tradition of the Church.

But just as “faith must be purified by reason” (Benedict XVI), conscience too can, at least partially, be measure by reason besides revelation alone. In his book, One Body, the philosopher Alexander Pruss made some useful remarks on conscience. He referred to those who say that their conscience now permits them to use contraception. In reply, Pruss pointed out several things, I mention three:

1. Conscience, when it is really conscience speaking, tends to grow more demanding and not less. This is merely the nature of moral life. The more we try sincerely to follow conscience, the more demands conscience places on us. Conscience permits, not more than it used to, but less than it used to. Hence to say that conscience once did not allow divorce, but now it does allow it, fails to fit with the nature of conscience.

2. This is connected to the last. People say “my conscience allows…”, but conscience does not really permit. The nature of conscience is to forbid. It acts typically as a check on one’s behavior and desires. Hence, any claim “my conscience allows,” seems not to fit this measure of conscience.

3. While there is moral progress, there is also moral decay (Pruss). If there is progress or development, we should expect it to grow organically out of the Christian tradition. A man develops from a child, a dog from a puppy. Yet, the current desire for divorce and remarriage and contraception (for example) seems not to develop from Christian tradition, but from secular culture. This suggests rather than decay is slipping in, influenced by secular culture, not that moral progress is being made.

This is significant for the whole modern discussion of conscience, but also the claims of some, flowing out of the recent synod, that people can, on their own, in their own consciences, discern if their divorce and second marriage (or whatever other moral issue) is permitted by their own conscience or not.

This passes the test neither of scripture nor of reason. Conscience is inviolable, to be obeyed absolutely. But desire that contradict reason and scripture, where a person is likely led by personal wish to something they already wish to do, is not conscience. It is only desire, and to replace conscience (real conscience) with desire and still call it conscience only leads us, “on the short route to chaos.”

Care for the Poor: Who Are the Poor? Medieval and Modern Views

Pope Francis has recently gained significant acclaim with his love of the poor and of poverty. He has suggested that he wants a “poor Church for the poor and excoriated excesses of the modern economic system that turn man into an economic animal rather than a spiritual one.” His call to care for the poor has seemed to resonate with a world that also professes its own desire to care for the poor. Sometimes, this is even used by enemies of orthodox Catholicism as a tool to be set against traditional Catholic concerns like abortion– the defense of the unborn– and marriage. Forget about that nonsense, say Francis’s secular admirers, focus on the poor, who we really need to care about. Rather than be “obsessed” with controversial social issues, focus instead on the poor. And some Catholics have agreed, preferring the agreement to conflict.

Yet, who are the poor and what does it mean to be poor? In the modern world, poverty means a lack of money. This may say more about the modern world than about genuine poverty. In the Middle Ages, though, poverty had a broader meaning. Poverty, paupertas, meant not so much the lack of money, as the lack of power. Poverty meant powerlessness. The poor were the weakest members of society: this meant they often lacked money, but it was not quite the same thing. In the earlier Middle Ages the poor were monks- men who stepped away from the violence of aristocratic, feudal society and threw down their weapons to live as unarmed monks. And as the poor, they suffered helpless the attacks of other noble warriors and, even more so, the attacks of Vikings, which devastated monasteries throughout Europe. Later, poverty came to refer more to giving up money, as with St. Francis, who gave up his wealthy middle class lifestyle to become a poor vagrant. Yet, even here, the emphasis was not just on giving up of money, but of power. St. Paul had written that “in my weakness, I am strong,”- this was the point.

So, who are the poor today? The modern world, with its obsession with money, simply equates poverty with the lack of money, but possibly the Middle Ages has something to offer. If paupertas, poverty, is seen not only as lack of money, but the classic sense of lack of power, i.e. weakness, then this would force reconsideration of who the poor are today.

If paupertas is weakness, then who are the poor? Who are the weakest members of society we should care about? Seen in this light, a man from the Middle Ages would consider absurd the claim that we should forget about the unborn and focus on the poor. Or that we should forget about marriage controversies and focus on the poor. This would be a contradiction in terms. Who in society is weaker than the unborn? Who is more powerless? Who is weaker than the children who suffer most from the breakdown of marriage?

If modernity is not too proud to take some lessons from the past, then perhaps it might learn something from past views of poverty and weakness. It might learn the absurdity of claiming to care for the poor, but not the unborn, who are the poorest and weakest of all. And it might drop the ridiculous sophistry of saying that we should talk less about abortion and more about poverty. Liberals sometimes accuse anti-abortionists of only caring about children before they are born. Of course, this is nonsense. Catholic Charities is among the largest non-governmental charitable organizations in the United States. But it also misses an important point: that the need to care for the poor, also entails the need to care for the unborn.

If the modern, secular world really wishes to take some lessons from Pope Francis and his concern for the poor, then one lesson it must take is this: care for the poor will necessitate care for the unborn, on pain of hypocrisy.

Man as a god, God as Man: Medieval and Modernity

In a previous blog post, I referred to the the late nineteenth-century philosophe Frederich Nietzsche, who was something of a prophet for modern society. Nietzsche looked at the present and into the future and saw there, a world for which he hoped—a world without God. While some of his non-theistic colleagues (the “humanists”) in particular, insisted the loss of God would have little effect on human affairs, Nietzsche held them in contempt. For him, the death of God meant the advent of nihilism, the destruction of all meaning and value in life. This meant the destruction of all traditional morality.

Hence Nietzsche ridiculed the humanists who thought they could rid society of Christianity, yet keep its values. He spoke instead of the need to reconstruct all of our own moral values and the need to become gods. God was dead, he said, we would have to be our own gods now. And so we have been.

The Middle Ages, of course, saw things the other way around. To them, God was God and man was not, even if some men (typically royalty ) had the usual delusions of grandeur. God made the world meaningful and moral values—good and evil, right and wrong–to exist. God was the yardstick no man could measure up to, all fell short. Since man could not raise himself up, God bent Himself down, a divine humility to humble the pride of man. The great became small, the strong, weak, and in return man had to become like a little child. Man could not reach God, so God became man to bring the Unreachable into the grasp of humanity. And so, in the end, man could become like god. Accepting his smallness, he could become large. In the traditional formula, the Son of God became man, so that men could become sons of God.

Not so in modernity, no God-man there to humble the pride of man, only man who, in the language of Nietzsche, had to become a god. And so he has, creating his own meaning, right and wrong, and good and evil. He decides what life is, what marriage is, what humanity is. When morality is seen as only a social construction, the typical result is moral destruction. So there is nothing surprising in the recent string of undercover videos showing planned parenthood casually discussing the destruction of unborn human beings. Nothing shocking in planned parenthood discussing “less crunchy” ways of destroying them or talking about cutting across the face to procure an intact brain- all in the interest of maximizing profit. When right and wrong become social constructs, the weakest always suffer. When man has to become god, in the Nietschean sense, he really becomes a demon, preying on the weakest.

The same is true in other areas as well. This is why the thought of euthanasia, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” (as the unborn are euphemistically called “specimens”), is of such concern to advocates of the disabled. When humans decide what makes life worthwhile, it becomes too easy to say that the lives are the weak are not worthwhile- as with the unborn, so with the elderly, perhaps someday soon, so also with the disabled as well. Marriage too becomes redefined and again, the weak suffer, as children- denied a father and mother– become tools in the fulfillment of adult desires. Hence, when man becomes a god, he really becomes a demon.

When God becomes man, however, the issue is reversed. Then the Powerful becomes weak and omnipotence becomes poverty. And when the Great becomes weak, then there is cause to care for the weak. And so the early Christians ended the ancient pagan practice of infanticide and abortion (though modern pagans have again begun it) and provided care for the poor and weak, while later Christians worked to abolish slavery.

If man is a god, in the Nietzschean sense, he is not much of a god. Worse, he is not even much of a man. He is something worse, something capable of supporting the destruction of innocent human beings, their dismemberment, and their sale, sacrifices to modern man’s real god- the almighty dollar and his own ego.

Breeding Like Rabbits? Procreation in the Medieval and Modern View

In the early Sixteenth Century, Henry VIII of England was a man with a very old and very normal problem: he wanted to change his woman. In the view of marriage common to the European nobility, the purpose of wives was to produce heirs and useful political alliances– not much better than the crude language of one of Thomas Kyd’s characters, “wives are made but to bed and feed.” Unfortunately, Henry’s first wife, who was really his only wife, had proved unable to produce any heirs. Since she had failed to serve her purpose, Henry tried to dismiss her and find a wife who could give him the heir he wanted. For him and his aristocratic brethren, this was the purpose of marriage: the production of children (and useful alliances). Since this was the overriding purpose of marriage, if a marriage failed to produce children, they tried to take this as sufficient reason to end the marriage.

The medieval Church, which supposedly thought the sole purpose of marriage was children might have been expected to agree with Henry and countless other similar nobles who also sought divorces for dynastic reasons. Yet, strangely, they did not, even when it was clearly in their political interest to do so. Hence, Pope Innocent III refused a divorce to King Phillip Augustus (II) of France, even thought Phillip was easily the most powerful monarch in early thirteenth-century Europe and Innocent was desperate for his support. As Henry VIII was refused his divorce, so was Phillip refused his.

This is of more than historical interest. It is often charged against the Catholic Church today that it considers the sole point of marriage to be children, hence contraception is forbidden and the Church expects people to, as the crude saying goes, “breed like rabbits.” While the modern world has moved on, the Church stays behind, convinced that the main purpose of marriage is to have as many children as possible.

Yet if this is so, it is strange that it be so. Strange that the same Church that is said to be obsessed with procreation still forbids divorce even if no children are possible. And it is strange too that the same Church forbids artificial reproductive technologies (though not natural ones), which are designed to increase the likelihood that a marriage produce children. Why should this be so, if it regards children as the sole point? Why should the medieval Church have forbidden childless couples to divorce if children were the key point of marriage?

There are two answers of course. The first is that it was never the Church that was obsessed with children, but the secular world. Pope Clement VII was not obsessed with children, but Henry VIII was: so obsessed, in fact, that he started his own church, declaring himself “supreme head of the Church in England” in order to give himself a divorce in an attempt to have the heirs he sought.

The second reason is this: the Church does not regard children as the main purpose of marriage. Rather, in the Middle Ages, as now, it saw the main purpose of marriage as the holiness of the spouses. Marriage was a sacrament, a physical sign of spiritual realities and channel of divine grace. In particular, marriage was as sign of the union between God, Jesus Christ, and His Church. Hence, while the purpose of marriage was not children, marriage was to be open to children; if either spouse was infertile, this was unfortunate, but it did not justify ending the marriage since its primary purpose, the sanctification of the spouses, remained. Hence, while a Catholic marriage will welcome children and not act actively against them, it will not be obsessed with them and may have many or few as circumstances allow.

The secular world, however, is obsessed with children either getting them (as was Henry VIII) through artificial means, or avoiding them through artificial means (whether contraception or abortion). This obsession reflects not a great love of children, but a great love of self, since the children become either tools of adult gratification or else obstacles to it. Where marriage can reflect no higher spiritual realities, people become their own gods and their own centers. If marriage cannot have a higher purpose, it must have a lower one. Fulton Sheen said that if love burns not upward in ascent, then it burns downward to destroy. The destruction falls on all society, the consequences evident in the world today.

Trans-gendering and What Makes a Human

Recently a former Olympian athlete and c-level pseudo-reality star has announced his attempt to turn himself from a man into a woman through the use of plastic surgery, copious amounts of make-up, and photo-shop. Lauded for his courage by both ESPN and the White House (who seem to have forgotten the meaning of the word), the result has been a showering of attention and adulation by most of society in general and the media in particular. Reasons to oppose the attempted transition, such as those given by John Hopkins Psychiatrist Dr. Paul McHugh, are easily ignored by simply dismissing the author as an old white guy.

courage.prinbride

Nonetheless, lost in the excitement of a man trying to turn himself into a woman has been real discussion of what it means to be a man or a woman, and how personal identity is determined. And this is largely a question of world-view. A human being is either a body and a soul, a body alone, or a soul alone. As far as I can tell, these account for all the possibilities. Which of these is true will determine how one should view trans-gendering.

The Platonist Option

For the ancient philosopher Plato, man was essentially a soul. This view was popular in the late antique world and held as well by Descartes in the Early-Modern. While, in this material world, man appeared as body and soul, the body was merely the prison of the soul, a deadly weight on the soul from which the soul hoped to escape. For Plato, the whole material world was simply a lesser copy of the more real, better, and higher world of forms and the soul hoped to escape from its prison to that world. Hence, in this world-view the real essence of the person was the soul. The body was unnecessary and, indeed, undesirable.

The Medieval Option

This may also be called the Aristotelian or the Thomistic option (from the Catholic Philosopher Thomas Aquinas). In the Medieval option, popular after the revival of Aristotle, the student of Plato, man was made up of body and soul, but this union made the complete man. Aristotle broke with his teacher; for him the body was not the mere prison of the soul or real man. Rather, the body and the soul together made the man. A corpse was not a man- that was a body without a soul; but so too a ghost is not a complete man- that would be a soul without a body. For the medievals, the soul was the form, or blueprint, of the body. The soul gave the body the form it took and the union of the two, soul and body, made for the complete person.

The Materialist Option

Also a very old option, though some historically informed moderns think this a new one, the materialist option holds that the soul does not exist and that man is simply matter. It was the position, the best I can tell, of Lucretius and the Epicureans, as well as many moderns. This holds that only the material world exists and hence man is only matter, a body with no sort of soul at all.

World-view and trans-gendering

A logically coherent account of trans-gendering is obviously impossible on the medieval view of man. The trans-gendering person is essentially claiming that he is a man trapped in a woman’s body. That regardless of what his body is, the real him, the inner him is a woman. On the medieval view of man, this is simply impossible. The soul is the form of the body and so a conflict between body and soul is impossible.

What about the materialist option, so popular today? On this view man is only a body. But if man is only matter, then this seems to make the concept of trans-gendering implausible. If man is only a body, if he is his body, then he can hardly have a real self inside. There is no inside or outside, there is only his body, which he is. For a materialist to claim that he is a woman trapped in a man’s body thus seems logically incoherent. (2)

This leaves only the Platonist view where man is a soul trapped in the prison of the body. Man is his soul and the body simply a sort of instrument that man uses. Here, a man could claim that the real him, the inner him, is actually a woman and is trapped in a male body. Hence, this view seems to the only one on which trans-gendering has the potential to succeed (3). It would require that a person accept that souls are gendered (hence a female soul trapped in a male body).  The view of souls as gendered would probably not be a problem for a Christian, but might be difficult for a modern person who typically holds gender to be a social construct. It would also require the trans-gendering advocate to explain how a female soul came to be trapped in a male body in the first place (4).

Unfortunately for the trans-gendering advocate, the Platonist view has gone well out of fashion in the modern world. This is largely because of increasing influence of materialism, but Platonic style dualism faces formidable philosophical obstacles of its own. If a person is only a soul using a body (the soul is the real him), then as Pruss points out, the government, which has the right to tax my property, could take a kidney by the power of taxation. A man has never kissed his wife (only her body, which is not the real her), and rape becomes a mere property crime (5).

Ultimately then, it seems there is really no world-view that allows for a logically coherent account of trans-gendering. The most promising possibility is platonic dualism, but that seems to face over-riding obstacles; why trans-gendering remains so popular anyway is a separate question for another time.

(1) http://cnsnews.com/news/article/michael-w-chapman/johns-hopkins-psychiatrist-transgender-mental-disorder-sex-change

(2) The only alternative for the trans-gendering materialist that I can think of is to claim that is a female brain trapped in a male body, but this doesn’t seem to work either. First, it seems to suppose a strong distinction between brain and body that isn’t possible on the materialist view. The brain is simply part of the body. Indeed, according the a standard view, the brain is the central operating system/computer of the body; given this, it is not easy to see how there could be the huge gap between brain and body required by trans-gendering proponents. Furthermore, if the brain acts on the body, and Bruce Jenner has a female brain, then his brain should be affecting the body, ie, we should see some outward signs like estrogen imbalance or other. My thanks to Erick Chastain for pointing this out to me.

(3) http://direct.catholicnewsagency.com/column.php?n=3225

Much of the idea for these remarks came from Fr. Robert Baron, here, who pointed out the Gnostic implications of the standard trans-gender advocate.

(4) Which could only lead to further absurdities like the idea of divine error or pre-existence of souls floating around and erroneously entering the wrong body.

(5) Some of these given by Pruss here: http://uffl.org/vol12/pruss12.pdf

Suicide in History and the Question of Dignity

As an undergraduate, I once attended a lecture by a visiting classicist who made the interesting remark that he considered classical antiquity to be the first modern age and the period from roughly 1700 to present as the second modern age. Over the course of my own studies of the Middle Ages, I have come to find his suggestion more and more plausible. On too many issues modernity and antiquity agree, while the Middle Ages differ with both. One wonders how modernists would feel to be told that they are even more backward than the Middle Ages on matters of religion, reason, homosexuality, abortion, birth control, and suicide.

The last of these concerns us here as the push for normalizing suicide, euphemistically called “death with dignity,” continues to gain traction in the modern world. In classical antiquity, suicide as a dignified death was accepted as a given. Often it was seen as the only dignified or honorable response to personal failure or tragedy. Hence Nero committed suicide (though he needed help) when the proximity of his overthrow became clear. Socrates committed suicide rather than flee or accept a lesser sentence when he was found guilty. Suicide for no reason at all was typically looked down on but, in general, suicide was seen as a noble and dignified response when the occasion called for it.

The Middle Ages rejected this. That backward writer Dante placed suicides in the 6th circle of his Inferno, a sin more serious than heresy and violence against others, bordering (literally) on blasphemy, but less serious than the sins of deception (since they involved greater malice). Suicide rates were far lower in the Middle Ages than today (1) (antiquity being difficult to measure). The reasons for this probably vary and are many, but several possibilities stand out.

First, suicide typically implies a negative view of the word. In pagan Antiquity most world-views tended to be fairly pessimistic. To Plato, the material world was a lesser shadow of the better, truer world of forms, and the body the mere prison of the soul. Philosophies like Epicureanism or Skepticism rested on the view that life was painful; at best, one could get by either by minimizing discomfort or taking no strong position on anything.Suicide itself rests on a strong hatred of the world. In the end, it is the refusal to see anything in the world worth living for, a refusal to love anything in the world enough to live for its sake. In a pessimistic world-view like pagan antiquity this was possible; in the Middle Ages, much less so.

Second, suicide differed in the pagan and medieval world because of how those societies dealt with suffering. In the ancient world the best to hope for was to get by minimizing pain, but nothing more. In the Middle Ages, the world was a meaningful place, the product of a divine mindand more, a place where that divine mind had actually shared in human suffering.Hence the explanation of one Franciscan preacher that this was why images of Christ were placed in Churches: that as people saw how their Captain and Lord had suffered for them, they would not hesitate to suffer for him as well. In the ancient world, no one would have thought of Zeus as having loved mankind enough to suffer for them.

Finally, the medieval world was convinced of the intrinsic moral worth of the human individual, made in the image and likeness of God. To say that his worth was intrinsic was to say that a man’s moral worth was not dependent on accidentals like his station in life, wealth, political success or failure. Hence, if he failed, he need not kill himself to maintain his dignity, nor would this be expected of him. His dignity was his not by his own merits, but by gift of his nature. Maybe this was why Dante put suicides as bordering on blasphemy– it was the ultimate denial of the goodness of the world, the command to love self and neighbor, and the rejection of the intrinsic dignity and value of human life.

In a pagan world, whether ancient or modern, when dignity depends on a human action, when a person must invent their own meaning in an objectively meaningless life, and especially when one has no basis for finding meaning in the midst of suffering, then suicide begins to look like a realistic option. And so suicide is increasingly looked at today not only as a realistic option, but even one to celebrate. It could scarce be otherwise to a modern world that cannot find meaning in the world or in suffering and that rejects the intrinsic dignity of every human being. In this sense, at least, the modern world is even more backward than the medieval.

(1) For a more strictly scholarly look on suicide in the Middle Ages, Alexander Murray has written extensively on the subject. For a brief article by him see, http://psychiatry.queensu.ca/assets/synergyfall12.pdf