Tuesday, 26 November 2013

'Ode On a Grecian Urn' - A Brief Analysis of Keats's Poem


The Romantic Movement came to prominence towards the end of the 18th Century; the likes of Blake, Wordsworth, and Keats reacted against the more socially committed poetry of the Augustan age, also known as the ‘Age of Reason’. They insisted that poetry ought to be personal and about one’s emotions, and indeed Wordsworth famously described poetry as ‘the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Romantic poetry was all about nature, emotions, imagination, inspiration and freedom – all of which would have made the Augustans uneasy.

‘Ode On a Grecian Urn’ is one of John Keats’ many odes, the most famous being ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. Many of Keats’ poems, particularly his odes, focus on the transience of human-life, and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is no exception. This was such a common topic of his largely because he witnessed the death of his younger brother from Tuberculosis, and also contracted the disease later on. It was as if death encompassed his life, and so the fragility of humanity became a recurring feature of his poetry. ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is in varied iambic pentameter, with ten lines per stanza. Throughout the poem the speaker, presumably Keats, is standing before and addressing a Grecian urn, questioning the pictures it displays.

Keats begins his poem with the famous lines: ‘Thou still unravished bride of quietness/ Thou foster-child of silence and slow time.’ Keats is highlighting the fact that, even though the urn is ancient and has experienced thousands of years, it exists outside time in the human sense – it does not age or die. This idea is continued by the use of the word ‘historian’, which shows Keats’ interest in the urn’s story, and also its age. We must remember that Keats was particularly interested in Greek mythology and Classical literature (due to its magical and timeless ideas), and so being presented with a Grecian urn would have fascinated him. He implies that the urn, has been around so long that it has hundreds of stories to tell. As he is detached from the time of the painting, he wonders at the pictures on the urn, which depict a group of men and women in ‘mad pursuit’. Keats employs a number of questions that he addresses to the urn, which accentuate his pure wonder and engagement with the static art form – it also highlights the silence and immutability of the urn, and its inability to tell him more. This stanza, therefore, ends rather abruptly with no reply, making his questions seem almost rhetorical and frustrated.

In the first three stanzas Keats is keen to highlight the beauty of the urn and its pictures. He describes its pattern as a ‘leaf-fringed legend’, and says that the urn ‘canst thus express/A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme…’ He explains that a silent tale is far more beautiful simply because the narrator will remain ‘unwearied’, and will be ‘forever piping songs forever new’. This idea is then repeated by Keats’ saying: ‘Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.’ He explains that the ‘ditties’ of the urn’s depiction are far sweeter than any played by pipes, even though they cannot be heard. Again this underlines the theme of transience, and he believes that a melody in one’s spirit will last forever, whereas a melody heard by a ‘sensual ear’ will not. The urn is satisfying his spirit and imagination, and not just his senses. This is a typical theme of Romantic poetry, and imagination is key to Keats’ odes; he focused on the idea of being led away from reality (which he did not particularly enjoy), and this is precisely what the urn is doing to him.

The second stanza sees the introduction and examination of a new painting: two lovers sitting beneath a tree. Again, Keats emphasizes that those in the painting are transcendent and unaffected by time, and he writes ‘nor ever can those trees be bare’. Keats is then confronted with a rather strange paradox, in that the lovers are free from time, but are also frozen in time, so that they cannot experience things, and Keats emphasizes this by writing: ‘never, never canst thou kiss’. However, on further consideration Keats comes to the conclusion that this is a good thing (‘yet, do not grieve;’), and that because they are unaffected by time the girl ‘cannot fade’ and he adds that both she and their love will forever be fair. Again Keats is focusing on the unfortunate transience of humanity, and this is possibly a reference to his lover, Fanny Brawne, whom he was forced to leave when he contracted Tuberculosis. Keats was engaged to Fanny at the time of his death, and in his love sonnet ‘Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art’ he expresses his wish to ‘live ever’ in Fanny’s ‘ripening breast’. In ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ Keats is expressing his distress that human life and love cannot be eternal, like the images on the urn.

The third stanza focuses on the transience and short-life of human passion. He employs the words ‘unwearied’ and ‘new’ to emphasize that the love of the images is eternal, and we infer this again from the repetition of the word ‘forever’. This contrasts with the lines about human love, which is introduced by ‘All breathing human passion far above’. This juxtaposition is used to stress the imperfection of human passion and sex, that ‘leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloyed’, and as it is so brief it leaves ‘a burning forehead, and a parching tongue’. Keats is showing his wonder and envy of those youths in the painting, who are able to have love that is ‘forever warm’ and ‘forever panting’. He is jealous that he and Fanny could not experience this same love, but in stead had to part from one another. However, he is also appreciating the beauty of the urn’s eternal life, and this is suggested by his repeated use of the word ‘happy’. Nonetheless, this is particularly overshadowed by Keats’ experience of unfulfilled desire.

The fourth stanza sees Keats examining a new image, one of a group of villagers leading a heifer to be sacrificed. The stanza begins with a question, which again implies the tone to be one of wonder and curiosity, and the employment of the word ‘mysterious’ supports this. Keats’ use of pastoral language (such as ‘sea shore’ or ‘lowing at the skies’) here is a theme very common to the Romantics, who found most of their inspiration through nature, and it gives the reader a slight sense of realism. Keats looks at the stanza as if the villagers are experiencing time, and he asks the villagers where they are coming from, and where they are going. This sees the introduction of another interesting paradox: as they are frozen in time, they are unable to return to their village, which presumably will remain empty (‘thy streets for evermore/Will silent be’). Keats then realizes that they are unable to return (‘not a soul to tell/…can e’er return’) and at this point he reaches the limit of static art, and asks no more questions. He recognises that the villagers, although free from time, are also frozen in time, and can therefore experience nothing.

In the last stanza Keats contemplates what he has seen and what he has learnt from it. He suddenly grows excited again, and indeed his repeated exclamations (‘O Attic shape! Fair attitude!’) underline his wonder, a central theme of the ode. He seems to be angry at the urn for being ‘overwrought’ (complicated) and crowded with ‘forest branches’ and ‘trodden weed’, which seem to be encompassing both the poem and the urn. He then addresses the urn saying that it is so mysterious that it ‘dost tease us out of thought’, emphasizing his wonder, and he then compares this to eternity, which is also extremely hard to understand. This juxtaposition and contrast has been set up throughout the poem, with constant references to ‘forever’.

The next exclamation ‘Cold Pastoral!’ is considered the crux of the poem, and it throws the reader completely off. Pastoral scenes are usually deemed to be warm and homely, and so to juxtapose the word with ‘Cold’ is a direct oxymoron. Keats intends to show the reader his turbulent and unsettled thoughts by employing this oxymoron. Perhaps he finds the pictures on the urn comforting and warm (‘Pastoral’) but is also envious (‘Cold’) and feels ‘teased’ – as he says before – by its distance from reality and its perfection. This could also be a rejection of the urn’s temptation, and he is perhaps realising that it is better to have experienced and then to have lost, rather than not to have experienced at all. Perhaps while writing this he is thinking fondly of his experiences with Fanny Brawne, rather than regretting them.

However, this contradicts the majority of the poem’s message, and so it seems as if Keats is more perplexed at the end than he was at the beginning. The imagery of the sacrifice in stanza four perhaps suggests that Keats understands that humanity must make a sacrifice; we must either give up our immortality, or we must give up our chance of experience, and it seems as if Keats himself has not yet come to a decision, but due to his Negative Capability, he is able to simply accept his doubt.

The urn is described by Keats as ‘a friend to man’ that will give its advice to new generations. The final two lines of Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ are two of the most complicated in the entirety of the Keats canon. Perhaps this final line is Keats’ way of saying that we don’t need to know the truth, but that beauty is the only absolutely necessary idea. It could also be a way of admitting the urn’s superiority: it tangled and teased Keats’ thoughts, making Keats unable to discover its truth. However, the urn’s beauty was enough for him, and so he accepted it.

Keats’ lexical choice, particularly regarding both his Classical (‘legend’ and ‘Attic’) and pastoral (‘flowery’ and ‘mountain-built’) language, is very typical of the Romantic style. Also, Keats’ use of archaic diction (such as ‘adieu’ and ‘lead’st’) is very common amongst the other Romantic poets because of its timelessness. Furthermore, Keats’ repeated juxtaposition and contrast of the human senses and the human spirit is characteristic of Romantic poetry, particularly because both the senses, and also the imagination, were central themes of the Romantic period.

However, it is undeniable that the main theme of the poem is transience, and indeed the ‘Big Six’ often focused their poems on this concept, and often contemplated on the idea of eternity and immortality. It is also possible that Keats was greatly influenced by the philosophy of Plato, and that the notion of escaping reality either through music or art could be a direct reference to leaving the world of appearances, and entering the world of the forms. Keats, particularly displayed by his last two lines, was the most radical of the Romantics, and was considered by some as a wild-eyed liberal. Overall, Keats’ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is not only typically Romantic, but is perhaps the sum of all the Romantic concepts and contemplations, and therefore the apotheosis of Romanticism.

Monday, 25 November 2013

How Does Austen Present Harriet Smith at the Opening of 'Emma'?

As with all of Jane Austen’s novels, one can learn a lot about the themes and qualities of the plot (or indeed certain characters) in the first few chapters, so it is sensible to pay particular attention to the opening of this novel. Harriet Smith is introduced by Austen in the third chapter, and is certainly not presented as the centre of attention. We first meet Harriet in paragraph seven, and she is described as ‘a most welcome guest’ and Austen writes that Emma ‘had long felt an interest in’ her ‘on account of her beauty’. This tells the reader that Harriet is a very pretty girl, but also implies that Harriet is perceived as rather insignificant in the society of Highbury, as she is not already well-known to Emma.

Harriet is introduced properly in the eighth paragraph, which suggests that, unlike Emma, she is not self-obsessed or confident. Her name is, however, emphatically placed at the beginning of the paragraph, which tells the reader that she is an important character in the novel. Austen writes that Harriet is the ‘natural daughter of somebody’ and the word ‘somebody’ is repeated on a number of occasions, which highlights the fact that Harriet does not come from a respected family, and has few connections, unlike Emma. This begs the question of why Emma wants to be friends with Harriet, who has ‘no visible friends’. Harriet is also described as ‘a very pretty girl’. This is the second descriptive fact we learn about Harriet, whereas Emma is introduced as a ‘handsome’ girl before we learn anything else about her – this suggests Emma’s extreme vanity, and Harriet’s lack of it.

Furthermore, Austen tells us that Harriet was a scholar at Mrs Goddard’s school, which was earlier described as a place ‘where a reasonable quantity of accomplishments were sold at a reasonable price’, indicating that it is an average school. Harriet’s education will therefore be no match for Emma’s high intelligence. Again we question Emma’s motives for being Harriet’s friend, and the contrast between the two girls is emphasized. Many scholars have suggested that Harriet Smith’s name was chosen intentionally so that she is displayed as rather boring. ‘Miss Smith’, a rather dreary name, suggests that she is a rather dull character, who lacks a certain wit, intellect or humour that is so evident in Emma Woodhouse.

Harriet’s stupidity is then supported by Austen’s writing: ‘She was not struck by any thing remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation’. Again, this contrasts with Emma (who is previously described as ‘clever’) and so Austen is keen to present Harriet as particularly mediocre. In Chapter four it is then repeated that ‘Harriet certainly was not clever,’ and that she was ‘only desiring to be guided by any one she looked up to.’ Harriet is painted by Austen as oblivious and in need of guidance. Her stupidity is also emphasized by Austen’s employment of short sentences in Harriet’s speech. In Austen’s novels, characters that use short sentences (such as Miss Bates) are particularly stupid and trivial, and this is what Austen is keen to highlight.

One thing we immediately learn about Harriet is her respect for Emma. Emma befriends Harriet because she feeds her ego, and revels in Harriet’s praise. Austen shows this by writing that Harriet seemed ‘so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield’. Austen again suggests that Harriet’s role is as Emma’s protégé by using the phrases: ‘She would notice her; she would improve her.’ Emma sees Harriet as her next distraction from her uneventful life. This makes Harriet look rather stupid for entering the relationship so eagerly, oblivious of Emma’s true intentions. But despite Harriet’s flaws, Emma is still keen on befriending her, and believes Harriet’s earlier acquaintances to be ‘unworthy of her’. The reader can infer that Harriet’s intelligence could be wishful thinking on Emma’s part; she is so desperate for a new friend that sheis prepared to overlook her naivety. We see again that Harriet is nothing but a game to Emma when Jane Austen writes: ‘Harriet would be loved as one to whom she could be useful.’ Again, because Harriet does not realise this, her ignorance is highlighted.

Overall, we see Harriet as rather ignorant and oblivious to Emma’s real intentions, but still keen to be raised above her rank – and she will do anything to achieve this. She hopes for nothing more but to be friends with Emma, who is, unlike her, very intelligent and well educated. Austen is keen to paint Harriet as a character with a significant amount of beauty (and this is perhaps suggested by the portrait of her by Emma), but with a huge lack of intelligence. She needs everything explained for her, and has a need for knowledge of the upper class. In spite of her naivety, the reader feels a certain amount of sympathy for Harriet, because in contrast with Emma’s manipulative attitude, and along with her beauty, she is presented as a rather amiable character.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Poppy Debate

I don’t like poppies. I have a problem (or indeed a number of problems) with them, and I feel uncomfortable wearing them. I even feel uncomfortable with other people wearing them; so much so that during the weeks approaching Remembrance Day I gradually become more awkward until I succumb to what is known as ‘poppy fascism’, and am forced to wear one.

Now don’t be mistaken – I respect all those who died in the wars, and I attend Remembrance Day services every year. I also donate money to The Royal British Legion, and have no problem with doing so – in fact, I believe I donate more money than the majority of my friends. I take part in the two minute silences, and am exceedingly grateful to all those who gave their lives for us. And this is where the problem is introduced – why can’t I do all of this without a poppy? What does a little bit of red paper have to do with respect, support or gratefulness? This is my argument in a nut-shell: Do I mourn those who gave their lives? Yes. Do I want to wear a piece of red paper so that I can tell the world that I’m mourning? No, not particularly. People say that poppies are symbols of your respect, but really they are just pieces of paper – I don’t comprehend why I must wear a symbol in the first place!

I think it is wrong that people should feel obliged to wear a poppy just because everybody else is wearing one – it’s almost like peer-pressure. Famous people who don’t wear poppies are abused and told off, and in many schools it is compulsory to wear one. Despite finding it very annoying, I greatly respect The Royal British Legion for having such an intelligent business plan: pressuring people into donating money – very smart indeed. This is another problem that I have with poppies: they are outward signs of charity, and I don’t think they give off a good message in that respect. Many people only buy poppies to prove that they are ‘good people’, rather than really caring about the cause. Don’t you find it rather insincere that we are made to wear them? Also, and unbeknown to most, the wearing of poppies actually goes against central teachings of both Islam and Christianity – when one gives to charity, they ought to do it in secret.

Many British people have complained about the message of the poppy, and indeed UK Journalist Assed Baig claimed that they are ‘used as a tool to promote current wars’. If we really want to respect the dead, don’t you think we ought to stop sending more troops to die? Assed Baig pointed out that a poppy is a ‘cry for others to take up arms’, and this is illustrated by John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ which reads: ‘Take up our quarrel with the foe.’ So, is this why we wear poppies – to ‘take the torch’ from those who died? This is certainly not a good message.

In the media this week the spotlight has settled on the Peace Pledge Union, the makers of the infamous ‘White Poppy’. The white poppy, as they say on their website, stands for peace and unity. They believe that red poppies have become symbols of ‘unthinking militarism’, and that they aren’t respecting those who died at all, and I agree with them. Those who died didn’t want to go to war, they didn’t want to fight, but they had to – and for that reason I’m sure they don’t want us to fight either. The white poppy is a way of remembering those who died, and showing your gratitude, but also a way of opposing other wars, rather than supporting them. They are nothing but a ‘challenge to the continuing drive to war’.

And so, next year I am not going to wear a red poppy, but I am going to respect those who died in my own way – by wearing a white one. A white poppy isn’t disrespectful or impertinent, but, in my view, is the only way of showing true respect. Come 2014, when the centenary is commemorated, I will not be mindlessly giving money, and I hope that my friends and teachers will understand, or maybe even agree.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Natural Law Essays

Explain Natural Law Theory

St Thomas Aquinas was a 13th Century Italian Philosopher, well renowned for his seminal work Summa Theologica. A significant amount of Aquinas’ ideas, particularly his scholastic works regarding Natural Law, are still very highly regarded, predominantly in the Catholic Church.

Aquinas was greatly influenced by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, who held a very teleological view, saying that ‘good is what most people pursue.’ He believed that good must exist simply because we see people doing it (this is known as Naturalistic Ethical Theory). Aristotle believed that all objects and people have a specific nature, purpose and function. He also believed that when something fulfils its purpose, it finds its ‘supreme good’. Furthermore, Aristotle regarded certain virtues (later called Cardinal Virtues) as very important in order for somebody to achieve happiness and to be a good person, such as prudence or courage. Aquinas linked this idea with the views of the Stoics (for example, Cicero) who believed that God could be seen and found in everything, including humans. And so Aquinas concluded that the supreme good, or goal, for humans was ‘eudaimonia’ (flourishing), and thus pleasing God. This is supported by his quote: ‘Our ultimate end is unrelated good, namely God, who alone can fill our will to the brim because of infinite goodness.’ Aquinas, like Aristotle, believed that this could be achieved using reason, and indeed Aristotle once said: ‘Reason is, in the highest sense, a man’s self.’

And so, upon this idea of fulfilling one’s ultimate purpose and flourishing, Aquinas based his ethical theory. He believed that an action is good if it agrees with the purpose of human beings, and promoted their eudaimonia. He also believed that God had given us reason to help us to learn the laws that lead to flourishing, even without knowing the Divine Laws (e.g. the laws outlined in the Bible, given by God). And so the laws that we discover using our own reason are known as Natural Laws. The Natural Law, however, is only a reflection of the Eternal Law, which is God’s law that only he can know and understand. What Aquinas really did was adapt the ideas of the Stoics and Aristotle, making them Christian (as Aristotle was not a Christian).

However, the belief that all humans are good, and that all people try to follow the Synderesis Law (‘to do good and avoid evil’) created a huge problem for Aquinas – what about people who did bad things, such as murder. To defeat this, Aquinas came up with the idea of apparent goods – things which may seem good, but do not, in reality, fit the perfect human ideal. However, he also believed that if a person uses their reason correctly, they are able to differentiate between a real good and an apparent good. Furthermore, Aquinas insisted that there was a difference between the act and the intended act – he said that when humans act in accordance with their true nature, they act in accordance with their final purpose, and so both the interior act (intention) and the exterior act (actual act) are important.

A big difference between Aquinas’ theory, and that of Aristotle, was that Aquinas’ beliefs were a lot more deontological, and also more absolute. Aquinas believed that acts were good or bad in themselves, and that we ought to use our reason to discover these. Therefore, he stated that there were five Primary Precepts: to preserve life, to reproduce, to educate the young, to live peacefully in a society, and to worship God. He said that they were a direct reflection of God’s Eternal Law, and that they applied to everyone in that they helped everybody achieve eudaimonia. Aquinas once said: ‘Natural Law is the sharing in the eternal law (God’s law) by intelligent creatures’. It is clear that they are all valid even in modern society (except for the one referring to God). The Primary Precepts were absolute, but Aquinas claimed that Natural Law was flexible because the Secondary Precepts were applications and adaptations of the former, and are therefore more teleological. An example of a Secondary Precept is ‘Abortion is wrong’ – this is a direct application of the Primary Precept of reproduction.

The Secondary Precepts certainly made Aquinas’ Natural Law much more flexible, but many people mistakenly think that Aquinas’ theory was wholly absolute – this is not the case. He believed his Secondary Precepts to be rather relativist, and in fact it was the Catholic Church that turned these Secondary Precepts into absolute rules. The Catholic Church states: ‘There are acts which in themselves, independent of their circumstances, are always seriously wrong by nature of their object.’ For example, ‘Abortion is wrong’ is a fixed statement in the Catholic Faith. However, many argue that Aquinas would not always think this the case – for example if having a baby would prevent somebody from flourishing in a particular situation.

However, Aquinas’ beliefs were also quite deontological – he believed that it is wrong to do a ‘bad action’ even though it produces good consequences. He stated that it was better to do a good action and produce bad consequences – this is known as ‘The Doctrine of Double Effect’ (e.g. if one produces bad consequences, they are not to blame). For example stealing would be wrong, even if it was for the poor, but saving somebodies life would be right, even if it risked the lives of others.

‘Natural Law is not the best approach to morality.’ Discuss.

Aquinas’ Natural Moral Law is not the best approach to moral questions, simply because it has a significant number of flaws.

Natural Law completely relies upon the premise that humans are morally good, and that they all try to comply with the Synderesis Law (‘Do good and avoid evil’). Aquinas had a great amount of trust in the goodness of human nature. However, this is a huge weakness – Aquinas doesn’t know whether human nature is good or not, and if he is wrong, then the whole of his theory is wrong. Many theologians, particularly John Calvin, the 16th Century French pastor, as well as Augustine, would have criticised Aquinas’ argument, claiming that human nature is one of greed and selfishness, rather than goodness. Calvin once said that if man were to listen to his own mind he would ‘forsake God and forge some idol in his own brain’.

However, many would argue against this, saying that Natural Law is flexible and relative. Natural Law focuses on human character and its potential for goodness and eudaimonia (flourishing) and its trust in the morality of humanity, rather than focusing on the rightness or wrongness of particular acts. Therefore it is flexible, and a good approach to any moral situation. This is because it can be applied in many different ways, and can be made subjective.

Nonetheless, because Natural Law claims that there is one single human nature, it is clearly flawed. Kai Neilsen, a Canadian philosopher, pointed out that because of cultural differences and the natures of different people (e.g. homosexuality), it is very hard to apply Natural Law, and that it is now very out-dated. With the rise of Cultural Relativism, the idea of a common natural law is challenged.

Another significant flaw in Natural Law is that its values can conflict. The five primary precepts can often contradict each other, and as they are not in order of importance, it is sometimes hard to know what is better to do, or what is right or wrong in any given situation. For example, if one was to believe the five Primary Precepts they would automatically assume that rape is more acceptable than masturbation. This is because rape is a method of reproduction, whereas masturbation goes against this precept – however, this is clearly not true, and could also lead to very unsatisfactory outcomes. Overall, Natural Law finds it difficult to relate complex decisions to basic principles in practice.

However, it is a clear strength that Natural Law is based on reason and uses reason to make moral decisions. The five Primary Precepts are very instinctive, and are very hard to question (unless you do not believe in God). This is a strength because Natural Law does not simply dictate what is right or wrong, but allows people to use their reason and logic to come to conclusions, again making it flexible. Aquinas supported this by saying: ‘The human mind may perceive truth only through thinking.’ He is saying that we will know what is right by using our reason.

Some would say that this is a good thing, and that Natural Law gives us a lot of autonomy – however, philosopher Karl Barth would say otherwise. Barth believed that Natural Law trusted too much in the reason of human beings, which is often flawed and unsatisfactory when making moral decisions. This is apparent when we see people committing immoral acts, such as murder. He also believed, along with Calvin, that human nature was too corrupted, and that we ought to rely more upon the grace of God and revelation in the Bible. Barth even went so far as to say: ‘Men have never been good, they are not good and they never will be good.’

Many scholars (such as Charles Darwin) have also pointed out that nature does not have ethical teleology. Aquinas states that humans, as well as nature, have a specific function, or purpose. However, Darwin insists that the Laws of Nature show no intention of moving towards a particular purpose, and he believes that God has no involvement. Nature is just simply the way things are, and he even said: ‘What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering…work of nature.’ He argues that Natural Law is based on the assumption that Nature has a purpose, which he thinks is false.

However, Aquinas, as a Christian, would argue that nature performs well, and does have a purpose – to help humans to flourish. He would also argue that, for example, our bodies helps us to achieve eudaimonia. They show specific purposes (e.g. to live or to procreate) and upon this he based the Primary Precepts.

But Aquinas’ five Primary Precepts sometimes contradict nature, and this is a definite flaw in Aquinas’ theory of Natural Law. There are many times when the purpose of nature leads to bad results. For example, although contraception is not ‘natural’, it does preserve life (one of the precepts), as it prevents the spread of diseases such as HIV. This is another example of when the rules contradict, and can lead to immoral outcomes.

Overall, Aquinas’ theory of Natural Law is significantly flawed because of the contradictions in the Primary Precepts, and also Aquinas’ faith in human morality and reasoning, which are not necessarily perfect.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Cosmological Argument for God's Existence

a.) Explain Aquinas’ First 3 ways

St Thomas Aquinas, a 13th Century Italian philosopher, is to philosophy what Gerard Manley Hopkins is to poetry; well renowned for his scholastic works, a significant amount of modern theology is a development of Aquinas’ ideas. His Cosmological Argument is taken from the first three of ‘The Five Ways’ in his major (although unfinished) work, Summa Theologica. The philosopher William Lane Craig supported Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument, saying: ‘Transcending the entire universe there exists a cause which brought the universe into being…’ Aquinas’ argument is empirical (looking at the world), and uses the a posteriori method (using experience to come to a conclusion). It is also an example of natural theology, rather than revealed theology, as it uses logic and reason to study God.

Ancient philosophy (Cicero and Aristotle particularly) had a huge amount of influence of Aquinas’ ideas, and indeed many of Aquinas’ philosophies are synonymous with those of Aristotle. For example, the idea of ‘The Unmoved Mover’, and the idea of ‘motion’ (movement from potentiality to actuality), can be directly associated with Aristotle’s ‘Prime Mover’.

The First Way, The Argument of the Unmoved Mover (‘ex motu’), or The Argument of Motion, tries to explain that God is the cause of all motion in the universe. It states that ‘some things are in motion’ according to our senses and what we see in the natural world. Aquinas then goes on to explain that everything that is in motion has been moved by something else (‘whatever is in motion is put in motion by another’), and that nothing can move itself. According to our senses, this is all true – in our world, all motion has a mover. However, this idea creates a problem for Aquinas – if everything has a mover, then this system would go on infinitely, as nothing can move itself. Aquinas then states that ‘this cannot go on to infinity, as then there would be no first mover, and, consequently, no other mover.’ He is saying that without a first mover there would be no movement whatsoever and so the world would not exist. He then concludes that there must be something that caused itself, which he calls the ‘first mover’, whom he then claims is God. By using empirical knowledge, and by ruling out the possibility of infinite regress, Aquinas is able to come to the logical conclusion that there must have been a beginning for all movement – the First Mover.

The Second Way is known as The Argument of the First Cause (‘ex causa’), and is the shortest of the three ways – it is also rather similar to the first way. Aquinas explains that all efficient causes go in an order – the first being the cause of the intermediate cause, and the intermediate cause (or causes) being the cause of the ultimate cause (i.e. the final cause of an object). Again, in this argument Aquinas uses empirical evidence, and in fact he begins by saying: ‘In a world of sense…’

In his Second Way, Aquinas is trying to prove that God is the creator of our Universe. Aquinas starts by stating that everything that happens is caused by an efficient cause, and that nothing can cause itself (‘There is no case known… in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself;’) Again, he then states that infinite regress (the idea that cause and effect goes on for infinity) is not possible because this would mean that there is no ‘first cause among efficient causes’ – if so, there would also be no ultimate or intermediate causes, which we know is not true (‘all of which is plainly false’). He then says that there must be a first cause, which he says caused itself, and is therefore God.

Finally, The Third Way, also known as The Argument from Contingency (‘ex contingentia’), is rather different from the first two ways, in that it does not put as much emphasis on the idea of cause and effect. Instead, it focuses more on contingent things (things subject to cause and effect) and necessary things (things that cannot not exist). Aquinas begins by stating that our universe is full of contingent  things, but that it is impossible for everything to be contingent, because then at one point nothing would have existed (‘then at one time there could have been nothing in existence.’) This is impossible because ‘creatio ex nihilo’ is impossible, unless (as Aquinas states clearly) there is a necessary being, which has always existed, which created or caused all of these other, contingent beings. He then says: ‘This all men speak of as God.’ What Aquinas is saying is that there must be a necessary being (or a supernatural being) that created something, because otherwise nothing at all would be here. Without the necessary being, we question where the first contingent thing came from? He argues that a supernatural God is consistent with empirical evidence of the laws of nature i.e. that nothing comes from nothing.

The Five Ways were not intended by Aquinas to prove God’s existence, but rather to teach us more about the nature of God.

b.) ‘Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument provides a strong argument for the existence of God.’ Discuss

Aquinas’ Cosmological Argument, consisting of three different parts (from his work Summa Theologica), is not a strong argument for the existence of God.

Many claim that one of the flaws of Aquinas’ argument is his use of inductive reasoning. Although this strongly appeals to us, it is not necessarily right, and is based primarily on probability, and also his own assumptions. Hume argues that Aquinas presents his statements as deductive or analytic statements (e.g. ‘Whatever is in motion is put in motion by another’ is in the form of a fact), when in fact they are synthetic statements (statements which must be proven, and are not true in themselves). This is a huge flaw because Aquinas doesn’t prove these synthetic statements, but instead just insists that they are true.

However, Aquinas’ argument is very compelling, simply because it is completely logical. It uses empirical knowledge and reason, along with the a posteriori method, therefore appealing to our senses and experience – this means that it is natural to us and agrees with what we know and see in our world.

But this is not always a positive – just because we experience something in our own world, this does not necessarily mean that it is true of the entire universe. Criticising Ways 1 and 2, David Hume and Bertram Russell both argued that we do not know that the universe itself is contingent (and therefore needs to be created), and that it could in fact be necessary, and therefore eternal. They claim that we do not know that the universe needs a cause, saying that Aquinas is only making the assumption that it does. This is known as ‘The Fallacy of Composition’, and Bertram Russell is famously quoted: ‘Obviously the human race hasn’t a mother.’ He said that just because all people have a mother, this doesn’t mean the universe also has one.

Another flaw of the Cosmological argument, which Hume pointed out, is that we do not know that the principle of causation is true (i.e. we do not know that every effect has a cause), although it is human nature to assume it. One can use the example of an alien on earth seeing somebody put their hand out for a bus, and the bus stopping. This alien would assume that the direct cause of the bus stopping was the hand, although this is clearly false. Hume once said: ‘We shall find upon examination, that every demonstration which has been produced for the necessity of a cause, is fallacious and sophistical.’ Hume argued that because we can imagine (in our minds) something coming into existence without a cause (‘It is easy for us to conceive of any object to be non-existent this moment, and existent the next, without conjoining to it the distinct idea of a cause…’), then it is perfectly possible.

However, many would argue that everything in the universe does have a cause, and although it is impossible to prove, it is a completely sensible conclusion to come to. From the experience (and this is what Aquinas’ argument was based on) of our natural world, we understand that every effect has a cause, and this is one of the most common maxims in philosophy - it is indeed very brave of Hume to reject it.

Nonetheless, it is an undeniable flaw of Aquinas’ argument, and Hume then expands on it by saying that a self-causing cause is illogical. He claims that Aquinas is being ridiculous by saying that everything needs a cause, but then claiming that God doesn’t need one – this would ‘exclude the thing itself’.

J.M Mackie argued that Aquinas’ Argument from Contingency doesn’t fully explain the need for a necessary being (i.e. God). Both Kant and Mackie said that just because we can imagine God as an ideal, this does not make him a particular. To say that existence is a predicate of God, because existence is a characteristic of perfection, is a synthetic statement, and without any proof, is unsatisfactory. Mackie expanded this argument by saying that, even if there is need for a necessary being, then there could just be a necessary ‘stock of matter whose essence did not involve existence from anything else.’ He strongly criticises Aquinas for making an ‘inductive leap’ (Hume) and concluding that any necessary being must be God.

However, it is true that many people at the time of Aquinas would have been Christian, and would have believed in God, and so for them this would have presented itself as a strong argument. Also, as science was particularly primitive in that period, any sort of empirical arguments would have been extremely convincing. Furthermore, this argument is strong in the context of the modern day too, simply because it can link with the Big Bang, the most common creation belief.

Nonetheless, it is a clear flaw that Aquinas does not attempt to prove that this necessary being must be God. It is also a weak argument because he does not look at any other possibility of creation, but because he is a Christian, he just assumes that God is real, making the argument weak for atheists. He also doesn’t necessarily explain why infinite regress is impossible, and this is another example of Aquinas’ inductive leaps.

Overall, I think Aquinas’ argument is weak, because he does not prove all of the things that he says, and it is hard to believe from the perspective of an atheist simply because it is constructed with a biased point of view. Aquinas’ overuse of synthetic statements and assumptions, along with the strength of ‘The Fallacy of Composition’, show the argument to be particularly flawed.