March 24, 2005

Quotation from Edmund Burke on the Present Trials

If we repent of our good actions, what, I pray you, is left for our
faults and follies? It is not the beneficence of the laws, it is the
unnatural temper which beneficence can fret and sour that is to be
lamented. It is this temper which, by all rational means, ought to be
sweetened and corrected. If froward men should refuse this cure, can
they vitiate anything but themselves? Does evil so react upon good, as
not only to retard its motion, but to change its nature? If it can so
operate, then good men will always be in the power of the bad; and
virtue, by a dreadful reverse of order, must lie under perpetual
subjection and bondage to vice.

Find the source here.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:07 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Selected Works of Edmund Burke

Trying to find the exact formulation of the quotation from the previous post, I did find this rather nice on-line compendium of Burke's writing. It includes Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontent, Reflections on the Revolution in France and Letters on a Regicide Peace.

Here's another listing, for those interested, including a wider variety of works.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:58 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Rootlessness of Evil

One of the interesting implications of Hannah Arendt's proposal regarding the rootlessness of evil is spelled out later in the same paper I cited yesterday. The good side of rootlessness is that it is not intrinsic. Humanity is fundamentally good and seriously flawed, but the flaw doesn't go to the root of who we are--it is a serious, potentially fatal wound--but it is not a deformation of the essence of what God originally created.

Now the down side. If evil is rootless, it cannot be radically exterminated by any human means. Something with a root can be uprooted, removed, and destroyed. However, evil is more like a fungus--rootless and vastly destructive of self and others. Ask any of a million Florida homeowners who, after the hurricanes last year had to have the mold in their houses destroyed. This is not an easy procedure.

One way to think about evil is that it is like bacteria--we can introduce an antibiotic, but some strains will survive and eventually prosper in the environment. Tolkien described evil as biding its time, shifting its shape and place, and eventually returning in a form more virulent. We compare the Sauron of The Hobbit in his Mirkwood hiding place with the Sauron of Lord of the Rings. The interesting point here is that the lapse in time is not all that great.

Okay, so we've spell out the worst of it. But what we celebrate this week is the true cure. As anyone can tell you, mold has a serious difficult time growing in the incandescent heat of direct sunlight--the hyphae might still exist "underground" but light and heat are better remedies than anything that can be done in the dark. And it is in this week that we celebrate the brightest light, the greatest heat--the Passion of the Son of God, who by His death and resurrection has set us free. Evil exists all around us, and even has hyphae within us--but if we are open to the Light, it will burn out evil. It will destroy our propensity for self-involvement. When we unite ourselves to Jesus Christ, we have the only specific against evil that can be effective. And uniting ourselves to Him means more than lip service, it means taking action. We can talk about the battle between good and evil till the cows come home. The truth of the matter is (as attributed to Edmund Burke in any one of a variety of ways) "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:48 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 23, 2005

The Danger of the "Rogue Judiciary" Concept

To start with, and to make emphatically clear, I do not condone, excuse, or offer any quarter to the judges who have made the decisions that have thus far condemned Ms. Schiavo. As Dickens says at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, "You must understand this for without it there would be no story."

However, there is a serious danger in lilmiting the blame to the individual judges. That they are morally culpable for their decisions cannot be doubted. Nevertheless, the fact that several judges now have arrived at the same conclusions leads us to a more frightening possibility. If these judges are judging fairly, on the merits, and by the rule-of-law (I don't stand capable of judging these issues), then the law by which they are guided to their decisions is seriously, indeed dangerously flawed. In this sense the actions of the Florida legislature are required immediately to remedy the flaw in the law.

I suspect part of this flaw may have to do with the medical and legal definition of life-support. As countless people have already pointed out, being forced to breathe and pump blood under the aegis of a machine constitutes extraordinary measures. Providing food, while technically life support, is hardly extraordinary. What may be happening in the law is a failure to distinguish between these two methods.

Ms. Schiavo's plight is a wake-up call for all of us. Some take it to mean that we must be explicit in our durable power-of-attorneys or living wills. I take it to mean that we must begin to redefine and truly understand what extraordinary measures are. There may be circumstances under which withholding food MIGHT be moral--I am not enough of an ethicist to understand every possibility. But when we are speaking of a living, functioning human being who happens to be operating at less than their former capacity, there is absolutely no question of the immorality of removing ordinary means of maintaining life.

The courts do not care about morality. They care, rightfully, about the law. That three sets of courts can find no merit in the arguments surrounding Ms. Schiavo must be our tip-off that something is seriously amiss in the legal system. Believe me, I am no friend of the judiciary--however, I think the focus must be on changing flawed laws to assure that future decisions are made in favor of sustaining life whenever there is any doubt as to the person's wishes. We cannot err by sustaining life and allowing God to make the decision as to when and where and how a person will join Him; however, when we take it upon ourselves to pretend to know this, we are in moral jeopardy, and for those who know better, in possible jeopardy of soul. A judge who knows the morality or immorality of the law is not likely to be able to hide behind the excuse of "I was just following orders" when called to account for his or her actions.

As concerned citizens, we must heed this wakeup call as we continue to pray for Ms. Schiavo. We must work quickly and in concert to move our legislatures toward laws that make sense and are compassionate and pro-life. The danger of focusing solely on the individual decisions is that we may not eradicate the root of the problem--bad law and bad legal definitions and understandings. The judges may be in the wrong morally, but the calamity is they may be in the right legally. If so, we must work as each is able to assure that such a thing as this never happens to another family.

Mr. Appleby, who neither endorsed nor approved the message above, does ask that we make everyone aware of his message with which I am in complete agreement. The immediate necessity is to pray, call and work to save Ms. Schiavo--but in the longer term, we must band together to prevent a recurrence of this nightmarish evil.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 11:14 AM | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Hannah Arendt and "the Banality of Evil"

from "Evil: The Crime against Humanity"
Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University

There are ways in which Eichmann in Jerusalem recalls the last sections of The Origins of Totalitarianism, but there are also important respects in which it differs. Arendt laid considerable emphasis on these differences in a number of letters. To Mary McCarthy she mentioned three of them. She wrote first that she no longer believed in "holes of oblivion" because "there are simply too many people in the world to make oblivion possible." Secondly, she realized that "Eichmann was much less influenced by ideology" than she would have assumed before attending the trial. What had become clear to her was that "extermination per se" did not depend on ideology. Thirdly, and this was by far the most important difference, the phrase banality of evil "stands in contrast to . . . 'radical evil.'" This last distinction is developed in more detail in a letter to Gershom Scholem (see letter to Scholem, July 24, 1963). There she wrote: "It is indeed my opinion now that evil is never 'radical,' that it is only extreme." "Thought tries to reach some depth, to go to the roots, and the moment it concerns itself with evil, it is frustrated." That there is nothing in evil for thought to latch onto is what Arendt meant by the banality of evil. Not the murderous deeds but the evildoer she faced in Jerusalem and the massiveness of the evil he inflicted on the world are banal in that sense.4 The realization that the most extreme evil has no meaning that the human mind can reveal, that it is not only senseless in its own terms but meaningless in any terms, was momentous; to say the least it afforded Arendt relief from a burden she had borne for many years.

[complete source here]

I have no great philosophical mind. I do not always understand things written in the way they are intended. But what I derive from this brief discussion is that evil has no deep roots and no intrinsic sense because it is, in a sense, utterly alien from what we are. That is, we are created good, only good can be radical because it stems from the depth of our being in God. Evil, which subverts these depths, which starts in a place outside the ground of our being, can have no depth and can ultimately make no sense.

The phrase "banality of evil" was used to descirbe Adolf Eichmann as he faced trial in Jerusalem. He was an accountant of death, dealing merely in numbers. Free from passion, simply exercising his functions within the legal system of his time.

Eichmann's example occurred to me as I considered the plight of the police officers who are standing guard over Terri Schiavo. There are still people who are willing to do evil and prevent good as a matter of course. Perhaps they do not understand the evil they do--I pray it is so. But if they are aware of it and do it anyway, they have entered the realm of senselessness. While their moral culpability may not be sinful, nevertheless, it should give us all pause to consider how we cooperate with this same evil and accept the shallow, the rootless, the invasive. And unfortunately, it seems, there is no end to the people who are willing to enter the realm of the senseless. Even if every officer present today were to quit, there would a cadre of others to replace them. This is not to say anything about police. Were the police to leave, there would be a cadre of misguided "compassionate souls" who would be willing to preside over her execution. (The same souls, I might add, who are aghast at the barbarity implicit in Scott Peterson's possible demise--after twenty to thirty years of appeals. I echo their concerns, but see the terrible compassion that leads to the gas chambers.)

The real danger of what we face here is outlined by Arendt's discovery in a trial in Jerusalem.

[source as above]

Perhaps the most provocative aspect of Eichmann in Jerusalem is its study of human conscience. The court's refusal to consider seriously the question of Eichmann's conscience resulted in its failure to confront what Arendt called "the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century." The Israeli judges understood conscience traditionally as the voice of God or lumen naturale, speaking or shining in every human soul, telling or illuminating the difference between right and wrong, and this simply did not apply in the case of Eichmann. Eichmann had a conscience, and it seems to have "functioned in the expected way" for a few weeks after he became engaged in the transport of Jews, and then, when he heard no voice saying Thou shalt not kill but on the contrary every voice saying Thou shalt kill, "it began to function the other way around." (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 6) And this was by no means true only for Eichmann. Arendt was convinced by testimony presented at the trial that a general "moral collapse" had been experienced throughout Europe, from which even respected members of the Jewish leadership were not exempt.5 (see Eichmann in Jerusalem, chapter 7)

The systemic danger we face from this single case is far greater than we might imagine. It is the sound of the torrent that turns us from Thou shalt not to Thou shalt. Too many mistake the law for what is morally right--the reason of the law replaces the light of God and conscience. Indeed, in a society where religion is sidelined, it is possible that what is legal becomes the definition of what is moral.

Ms Schiavo's case is not over, and I pray it has a better end than seems possible now. But if it does not, I think we need to recall Donne's prescient understanding, "Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind. Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee."

Posted by Steven Riddle at 08:03 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Two Views of the Law

Aristotle wrote, "The law is reason free from passion."

Modern society accepts, "The law is agenda free from reason."

The law cannot but fail us if it is reason free from compassion, and it has once agin failed us in the defense of life. However, one can no longer argue that the unfortunate, indeed evil, result of Ms. Schiavo's case is a single person's point of view. Too many sources have reviewed and uphelf it. I do not know the law, but it appears that all who do seem to think things were conducted as they should be. This suggests that there is something malign and dangerous about the law as it presently stands. Hence, the law must change.

I also do not know where God's will lay in this matter or what, ultimately, may happen to Ms. Schiavo. What I do know, is that no matter what the outcome, legislators must continue to fashion laws that will protect the innocent and the ignorant. Casual statements cannot be taken as the source of our ultimate disposition. I am surprised that the law allows hearsay without considering hearsay on the opposite side. The law must find in favor of the spouse, but when there is serious disagreement over a person's wishes AND that person cannot be consulted, the law should be forced to decide in favor of life--particularly when the measures used to support that life are merely the provision of sustenance.

If a mother withheld food from her child until it died, the law would, at a minimum charge her with neglect and abuse. Unless a person categorically states that they would waive right to nutrition, how can we presume otherwise? How does this case differ?

Judges should be forced in such cases to witness the results of their decisions. Law may be reason free from passion, but it should not be reason free of compassion. And compassion is not cultivated in the courtroom.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:33 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

March 22, 2005

Which Apostle Betrayed Christ?

Have you ever noticed that when Jesus gives an answer that is evasive, He is directly speaking beyond His time to our own?

I thought of this yesterday listening to the Passion narrative. Jesus tells us that the one who dips into the bowl with Him will be His betrayer. Judas asks directly, "Is it I Lord?" And our Lord's answer is equally direct while being evasive, "It is you who say it."

Who is the person that was better off had he never been born? Who betrayed Christ? We are so used to the narrative that we seldom think of the huge implications of this question. Yes, we all know that Judas betrayed Christ directly. The Gospels are clear on that. What they are equally clear on, but we are less attuned to, is the question of who else may have betrayed Christ. For example, who stayed awake to pray for Him and His deliverance? For that matter how many actually went even so far as the garden? Did not Peter deny Him three times--another betrayal? Who was present at the foot of the Cross? In Mark's gospel none of the apostles were there. In Luke they were at a distance. In John it is the disciple that Jesus loved.

How many other times did these men (representing all others) betray Christ in little and big ways? Perhaps we need to read the statement that Jesus makes to Judas more broadly as being to all the Apostles as representatives of all of humankind. Woe be unto the person who betrays Christ. It is better for that person had he never been born--UNTIL such time as he or she repents of the crime and turns back to Jesus, who will forgive and forgive and forgive. I believe the one unforgivable sin is the belief that there is something so dire that God cannot forgive it, some sin so enormous that Christ's blood cannot cover it--we doubt that the Holy Spirit can move us to repentance. God is not enough. Nonsense--Christ's sacrifice covers all sin. We are given many opportunities to return to Him. But Woe unto the one who does not, it is better for him or her that he or she should never have been born.

Rather than a direct indictment of Judas (which it may also be) we need to read this as said to us here and now under the present circumstances. Woe to the person who betrays Christ without repentance, with hardened heart and countenance. It would be better had they never seen light. But joy unto the person who hears these words and knows himself for one of those betrayers, because his eyes are opened and his opportunity to return to the Father increased immeasurably. The person who thinks that they can sin against God in such a way as to defy forgiveness, need merely look upon the face of the Savior throughout this week and know that His sacrifice covered all forever. Nothing more is needed.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 10:44 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack


As I had guessed when I reviewed The Grudge some days back, Ju-On is infinitely creepier and infinitely less lucid. The conventions of Japanese Cinema, rather like the convention of the Noh play, are not familiar to the Western mind. As a result, things that may make perfect sense to a Japanese audience and may be perfectly clear, are less that clear here.

However, the story in the Japanese version is much, much less straightforward, and much more indirect. In fact, it seems without the structure offered by the American version to be an absolute muddle of a film. We don't know why what is happening is happening. There are subtle hints given about midway through the film, but no explicit treatment as there is in the American film. In a sense this increases greatly the disturbing influence and undercurrents of the film. That what is happening is obscure--that people meet terrible fates for no discernable reason, gives a deeper sense of chaos and darkness to the world-view.

Ju-On is instructive in that it lets us into the extremes of the modern mindset. This is nihilism spelled out. Life is meaningless and ruled by powers and influences that we don't even begin to understand and there is no hope. Those are the disturbing and pervasive elements of Ju-On and The Grudge. The good of this is that it lays bare the pernicious lie that is the subtext of so much that happens in our society--from the pathetic tragedy and blindness that surround the Terri Schiavo case, to our constant desire for longer life distilled from death. A film like this one, while no masterpiece, makes clear what we live out, and the wise amongst us fight against, in our modern absurdist/nihilist world.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:56 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Present Reading--The Plot Against America

My small book group has taken up for its next read (the last was St. Dale) Philip Roth's The Plot Against America. I am by no means a fan of Roth's writing--there is something in it I find tremendously off-putting most of the time. But this book may crack that open and allow me to investigate Roth's works more extensively.

The Plot Against America is about an alternative USA in which Lindbergh wins the 1940 election and signs a concordat of understanding with Hitler. (I had not realized how very anti-Semitic some of what Lindbergh said and did was.) The story is the tale of a Jewish family in the aftermath of that election and what happens to them. I've only read about 100 pages (about 1/3) but I find the prose compelling, and while I don't particularly like some of the characters, I find their plight appalling.

I guess part of what drives this home for me is that I had not realized how very strongly anti-Semitic some groups within the Catholic Church are. All the while denying their anti-Semitism, I have read in several place on St. Blogs the lies and the filth that through the ages have weighed down our Jewish brothers and sisters with the onus of Christian hatred. The modern world has changed that a lot. But it should come as no surprise when Jewish people are hesitant to believe that, especially when we have the likes of the writing of some extreme elements.

During Holy Week, we do well to keep in mind that the Jewish people did not kill Christ. While some of the leaders of the Sanhedrin (we must be very cautious about how we say this remembering both Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea) were complicit in the events that led to Christ's death--they were merely the instruments--we, all of us, today and throughout time, are the cause. The question is less, "Who killed Christ" than it is "For whom did Christ die?" As He said in the passion of St. Matthew, "Do you not think at this very moment I could give the word and more than 12 legions of angels would come to my aid? Nevertheless, how would it be fulfilled according to the scriptures?" As it is said, Christ went to His death for us. We arranged it, and we were responsible for it, but He took it up and bore it. Questions as to who was responsible miss the point entirely. As in any murder mystery, the most likely culprit is the one who benefits most.

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:47 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Some Final Words on Helena

I finished the book some days ago and have held off writing about it for a number of reasons. But now it is time.

The book, as I said before, is wonderful and distinctly different from the other works of Evelyn Waugh. There is still the biting observations of the foibles of men--as for example what Constantine decides to do with the nails brought back from Helena's search for the cross. In addition, his skewering of Fausta and her pet Bishop Eusebius are both highly pointed and entertaining.

The book has one minor flaw, which actually redounds to its credit is odd ways. To understand the title of the last chapter, one must read Waugh's introduction to the book. "Ellen's Invention of the Cross" makes no sense from the narrative point of view. But when you read the genesis of the tale, rather like Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic you'll see what it is all about.

Get and read this book. It should take only a couple of days (if that). It will serve as an introduction to some of the finest prose of the 20th century and perhaps those who have been Waugh-shy to take up some of the other 15 or so novels. The oeuvre, like that of Walker Percy and Flannery O'Connor, is not dauntingly large (unlike that of Graham Greene). A normal person can hope to have read the entire works in a year or two, interspersing them with other things to leaven out the bitterness. But Helena is a sweet start--yes, the curmudgeon is there, mostly hidden, but occasionally popping out to tweak us; however, the work as a whole is a magnificent tribute to the wonders of faith in general and the truth of Catholicism in particular.

Not merely recommended--required! Test on Thursday next.

(Later: My thanks to those who made the typos evident--sorry.)

Posted by Steven Riddle at 07:32 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack