The Coherence of Biography and Philosophy: Hans Jonas’s Philosophical Biology in the Light of his Personal Memoirs

My senior thesis was just posted on


The topic is the relationship between a person’s biography and his or her philosophy. I studied this by reading a particular thinker’s memoirs and relating these to his philosophical writings to show the coherence between his experiences and his insights.

Feel free to take a peek, here.

Satan! Dangerous Person! Neo-Liberal!

Tonight I attended a “Catholic Media Ethics” talk at my church. This was my comment and question during Q&A:

Using abstract nouns like “society”, “community”, and “humanity” seems to disregard the important fact that, in reality, there isn’t some perfect consensus; individual persons are divided on every single political, economic, social, and moral question. Do you think there is a ‘media party’ with a consistent ideological bias because of the idea that there is (or can be) a homogenous, social consensus on things when no “shared story of collective humanity” actually exists?

The speaker (from The Catholic Register) shouted, “Satan!!!” and pointed at me while stepping back to distance himself from me. Then he said, “You are a dangerous person. You are giving us an individualistic, neo-liberal view that I don’t think is at all compatible with the Christian concept of community.”

An audience member said with outrage, “Just like Margaret Thatcher!”

The speaker then argued that the neo-liberal view is mainly an economic one and that its adherents have the wrong anthropology.

“What if the ‘neo-liberal’ anthropology is actually quite truthful and ‘Catholic’? I mused.

He said, “Try to make the case sometime.” Then he noted Father Raymond de Souza as an example of a ‘right wing’ Catholic who gets published in The Register.

Nice to have one token conservative.

Given how relevant economics and politics is to our lives, shouldn’t we be able to discuss these controversial topics in the light of faith and from a plurality of perspectives?

I think this is why Father Sirico founded the Acton Institute. And I’m thankful he did. Acton University is the first place I ever learned the term “philosophical anthropology.” Michael Matheson Miller told us that JPII had said, “The fundamental problem of socialism is anthropological in nature.” What he meant is that socialists give an incorrect account of the human person.

That experience at ActonU was one of the most illuminating and memorable moments of my life and has influenced me personally, academically, and professionally. Who we are and what it fundamentally means to be human persons is a debate that is, of course, not “settled.”

I don’t think that all my fellow Catholics and, more broadly, fellow citizens should think like me. I do hope though that we would be able to think about things together without excommunication from the conversation on the basis of different political and economic perspectives.

It’s the Creed that’s universal among a particular faith community.

Is it not some form of idolatry then to elevate policy opinions (and, dare I add, social doctrine) to the status of dogma?

Sacred Trust Abuse Scandals

My child, sit here with me. Tell me what troubles you. Only if you want to. I am Father Gregory. […]
I can’t tell you, Father.
Would you like to go to Confession?
I can’t, Father. I did terrible things.
God forgives all who repent. He sent his only Beloved Son to die for us.
I can’t, Father. I can’t.
But you could tell St. Francis, couldn’t you? […] We’ll sit here and you’ll tell him the things that trouble you. If I sit and listen it will only be a pair of ears for St. Francis and Our Lord. Won’t that help?
– from Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt

The sacrament of Confession can be, all at once, mysterious, perplexing, terrifying, humbling, and liberating. The Catchecism says that “even from a simply human point of view, frees us and facilitates our reconciliation with others. Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby
opens himself again to God and to the communion of the Church in order to make a
new future possible.”

The Catechism also says:

Given the delicacy and greatness of this ministry and the respect due to persons, the Church declares that every priest who hears confessions is bound under very severe penalties to keep absolute secrecy regarding the sins that his penitents have confessed to him. He can make no use of knowledge that confession gives him about penitents’ lives. This secret, which admits of no exceptions, is called the “sacramental seal,” because what the penitent has made known to the priest remains “sealed” by the sacrament.

The word ‘sacrament’ comes from the Latin meaning ‘sacred sign.’ The sacraments are intended to point beyond themselves to the fullness of God’s mercy and loving justice. It is the responsibility of the priest to be a servant of God’s forgiveness and to mediate between God and the penitent. The sacrament of Confession or Reconciliation is rooted in both Sacred Scripture and Tradition.

When [Jesus] had said this, he breathed on [the disciples] and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” – John 20:22-23 (NRSV)

Father William Saunders tells this story about the inviolability of the sacramental seal:

A beautiful story (perhaps  embellished with time) which captures the reality of this topic is the life of  St. John Nepomucene (1340-93), the vicar general to the Archbishop of Prague.  King Wenceslaus IV, described as a vicious, young man who easily succumbed to  rage and caprice, was highly suspicious of his wife, the Queen. St. John happened  to be the Queen’s confessor. Although the king himself was unfaithful, he became  incrasingly jealous and suspicious of his wife, who was irreproachable in her  conduct. Wencelaus, as king, demanded that St. John break the sacramental seal.  Although Wencelaus tortured St. John to force him to reveal the Queen’s confessions,  he would not. In the end, St. John was thrown into the River Moldau and drowned  on March 20, 1393. Similar stories abound, especially in the past century during  the awful persecution of the Church under Communism and Naziism, where priests  were tortured, imprisoned, and executed because they would not break the sacramental  seal.

Though “it is a crime for a confessor in any way to betray a penitent by word or in any other manner or for any reason” (Code of Canon Law, no. 2490), there are instances where priests have betrayed the authority and responsibility of their positions. Though the sexual abuse scandals that have occurred have been the main focus of attention by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, the sacred trust abuse scandals deserve, I think, our serious attention, especially in light of dozens of efforts by governments that threaten the inviolability of the sacrament.

Though the known cases of abuses of the sacramental seal are very few relative to the longstanding tradition of secrecy, it is wrong to underestimate these known cases and to omit from our consideration the possibility of many possible unreported cases.

The most startling example of a breach of the sacramental seal that I have learned about occured in the life of a young boy. I will excerpt his whole account of the experience from his autobiography:

An Early Traumatic Experience

You should know that I took my religion very seriously. The first serious crack in my religious belief happened when I was thirteen years old. On a Saturday morning, during the usual pushing and shoving to be the first one into the gym, I accidentally pushed a classmate down the stairs. Throughout the years, hundreds of students must have sailed down these stairs without any serious injuries. This time he was unlucky; he broke his ankle. I was punished with two hours of detention. I went to confession in the afternoon as I did every week, confessed what I did like a good boy, but I didn’t say anything about this incident at home because I didn’t want to spoil Sunday for my parents. They would learn about it soon enough in the coming week.

That evening my confessor, who was a good friend of my father, was visiting at our house. The next morning my father scolded me about the pushing incident, and I was punished because I did not report it to him right away. I was devestated, not because of the punishment, but because of this unheard of breach of confidence by my confessor. Wasn’t it always taught that the secrecy of the confessional could not be broken? Even the most serious crimes that a person tells the priest in the holy confessional cannot be reported to the police. And now this priest, whom I trusted so deeply, who was my steady confessor and knew my whole little world of sins by heart, had broken the secrecy of the confessional for such a minor incident. Only he could have told my father.

Neither my father, mother, nor anyone else from our house had been in town that day. Our telephone was out of order, and none of my classmates lived in our neighbourhood. No one had visited us except my confessor. For a long, long time, I checked all the details of this over and over because this was such a horrible thing to me. Then and even now I am firmly convinced that the priest had violated the secrecy of the confessional. My faith in the holy profession of the priesthood was smashed and doubts began to stir within me. I never went back to him for confession because I could no longer trust him. I told the priest that I was going to our religious instruction teacher in the church near my school because my father lectured me when he discovered I was no longer going to the priest. My father believed it, but I am convinced that the priest knew the real reason. He tried everything to win me back, but I just couldn’t go back to him. In fact, I went even further. I didn’t go to confession at all anymore if I could get away with it. After this incident, I could no longer trust any priest.

In religious instruction we were told that if a person went to communion without confession, he would be severely punished by God. We were told that someone had done that and had dropped dead at the communion rail. With childish simplicity I begged God to be lenient because I could no longer confess faithfully and to forgive my sins, which I now recited directly to him. So I believed I was free of my sins. Full of doubt, I went trembling to the communion rail in strange church. And nothing happened! So I, poor earthworm, believed that God would hear my prayers and agree with what I was doing. The deep, true, childlike faith which so calmly and surely guided my soul until this time was smashed.

How sincere and contrite! Who could refuse pity and sympathy to this boy whose trust and childlike faith were so terribly betrayed? What became of this boy? The next year his father died. The boy was supposed to become a priest. With the loss of faith and the loss of his father, he became zealous to join the military, though he was just fifteen. He doubted his vocation to be a priest and explained that both the traumatic incident of betrayal and having witnessed the trade in holy relics that he had seen in the Holy Land had destroyed his faith in priests. His mother then died and the young man became more and more convinced of his desire to be a soldier.

The one of whom I speak is Rudolph Höss and I have been quoting from his autobiography Death Dealer: Memoirs of the SS Kommandant at Auschwitz. According to the back cover, “Höss (1900-1947) was history’s greatest mass murderer, personally supervising the extermination of approximately two million people, mostly Jews at Auschwitz.”

Two months before he was hanged at Auschwitz Höss ended his memoirs saying:

May the general public simply go on seeing me as the bloodthirsty beast, the cruel sadist, the murderer of millions, because the broad masses cannot conceive the Kommandant of Auschwitz in any other way. They will never be able to understand that he also had a heart and that he was not evil.

Though his memoirs are filled with alternations between truthtelling and lying, the challenges in deciphering the truth render the work all the more fascinating. And so, from this Nazi we have an extraordinary testimony on the absolutely paramount secrecy of the Seal of Confession. Though the terrible betrayal of trust (whether sexually or with respect to sacred trust) does not exonerate penitents from future sins, it does rouse heartbreaking sympathy for those who, in their vulnerability and trust, have expected to
place themselves before the mercy of God, but have instead encountered extreme human weakness, and perhaps even Satan.

But “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, NRSV), there is a need for the sacrament of Confession. It is a real, transformative event through which God imparts His loving mercy even though priests fall short of mediating (as Christ does) the perfection of the love of God the Father.

In her Letter to a Priest, Simone Weil writes: “The Church is only perfectly pure under one aspect; when considered as guardian of the sacraments. What is perfect is not the Church; it is the body and blood of Christ upon the altars.” Similarly, it could be added: What is perfect is not the confessors; it is the mercy of God poured out through the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Confession is a powerful experience. The priests through whom I have confessed my sins have been extraordinary examples of Christ’s love. They have always listened lovingly and patiently. They have often given helpful advice, encouragement, and spiritual direction. I am thankful for their ministry. It is truly amazing that there are priests all around the world listening to hours of confessions every week. They are doctors of the soul and deserve our gratitude for their selfless service. Still, we must encourage and pray for them, that each would “lead a life worthy of the calling to which [they] have been called.” (Ephesians 4:1)

“The Anonymous Passive”

This evening I attended the first annual Frank Eyck Memorial Lecture in German History at the University of Calgary. Guest lecturer Dr. Christopher Browning from the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill spoke on the topic: “Why Did They Kill? Revisiting the Holocaust Perpetrators.” From the lecture, there is one concept that stands out specifically in my mind. According to this site: “When the Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933, [the north-western German city] Bremen’s police force did not hesitate to side with them. Their decision to collaborate turned civil servants into mass murderers.” Browning told us that a reserve policeman from Bremen who served as the company photographer wrote letters to his wife that have survived and are being studied. For accuracy, I will quote from Browning’s paper on which he based his presentation:

One month later, after reporting on latest packages sent home, he [the Bremen reservist] noted explicitly: “Here all Jews are being shot. Everywhere such actions are underway. Yesterday night 150 Jews from this place were shot, men, women, children, all killed. The Jews are being totally exterminated.” He advised his wife not to think about it—”it must be”—and for the moment to “say nothing about it” to their eldest daughter. Significantly, he wrote in the “anonymous passive” voice—omitting any identification of the actors–so pervasive in postwar accounts but here employed even during the war.

The phrase “the anonymous passive” and Browning’s explanation of it using this example struck me as quite relevant to my recent reflection on the tendency of international relations theorists and international political economists especially to personify non-persons and to dehumanize actual persons so that action is carelessly assigned to non-actors and moral responsibility cannot be properly designated.  “Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons ‘actors’, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.”

Browning’s student Patrick Tobin elaborates on this point in his Master’s Thesis on the second largest Nazi crimes trials after the Nuremberg Trials. He says:

Those interviewed by and large played a difficult balancing game, trying to come across as helpful and open, while reluctant to provide any self-incriminating statements. When confronted with the information about the massacre in Garsden, most acknowledged that this occurred, but made self-exculpatory statements along the lines of “I did not see these things with my own eyes.” Similarly, they tended to speak of the shooting in what Christopher Browning has termed the “anonymous passive,” noting the crimes but omitting the criminals: “After the first group had been shot, the next ten people were led to the grave… In the end, they themselves were shot just as their predecessors.”

Dehumanization is often cited as one of the key tactics of genocidaires. (By the way, this French word for ‘those who commit genocide’ was coined after the genocide in Rwanda and I think we ought to have an English equivalent that is more precise than ‘perpetrator.’) Dehumanization is defined by Browning as the “ability to construct a world in which those whom the perpetrators had killed were not within community of human obligation, but rather totally devalued.”

Using theories, models, paradigms, abstractions, and other “constructs” distract from “the community of human obligation.” Valuing human persons requires a personalist and human action approach to politics. Also, international politics is about more than necessity. Constructing a system of the world according to what is possible rather than according to what is responsible leads to immoral consequences.

What are the Foundations of International Political Economy?

Here are some initial thoughts I have for a paper I am writing in a class called Politics of the International and Economic Order.

I would like to argue that among political scientists, there is a tendency to personify non-persons, while, at the same time, dehumanizing actual persons. This is an especially common temptation for international relations theorists. Though they are often called “actors”, states, governments, international organizations, agencies, departments, programs, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, non-governmental organizations, corporations, etc. do not act. Only human persons act. Action is important because it denotes intellect and will. Only upon recognizing that actions are what human persons (and only human persons) do, can we assign moral responsibility to the persons acting within these larger organizations. Otherwise, individual persons are shielded from responsibility within a bureaucracy and among the masses within a system.

Possible titles include:
Toward a Praxeological Approach to International Political Economy OR,
A Return to International Relations Rooted in Natural Law OR,
A Deconstruction of International Relations

My professor warned me to make sure that it is an International Political Economy paper. The below post is an attempt to understand a bit about the nature and foundations of the sub-discipline.

Dr. James Keeley also advises his students to remember the adage: before you study something, understand it thoroughly. This reminds me of a quotation attributed to Francis Bacon: “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.” Sir James Steuart references this quotation in his 1767 work An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy in which he says:

I have read many authors on the subject of political oeconomy; and I have endeavoured to draw from them all the instruction I could. I have travelled, for many years, through different countries, and have examined them, constantly, with an eye to my own subject. I have attempted to draw information from every one with whom I have been acquainted: this, however, I found to be very difficult until I had attained to some previous knowledge of my subject. Such difficulties confirmed to me the justness of Lord Bacon’s remark, that he who can draw information by forming proper questions, must be already possessed of half the science.

In his preface to the Inquiry, Steuart discusses the “complicated interests of society”, the habit of running into “systems [that] are mere conceits”, and the imperfection of language insofar as “the signs of our ideas take the place of the images which they were intended to represent.” It is with these prefatory comments that Steuart anticipates, at the outset, the underlying problems that continue to exist for any person endeavoring to give an account of political economy, whether of the domestic or international variety.

Before analyzing the meaning of “international”, it is worthwhile to first consider the meanings of the terms “politics” and “economics.” The etymologies of these words reveal the oxymoronic quality of such phrases as “International Political Economy” and “International Relations”. Politics is derived from the Greek word politika which Aristotle used to denote “the affairs of the polis[1]“. Economics is derived from the Greek word oikonomia which refers to that which is “practised in the management of a household or family.”[2] Xenophon wrote a treatise titled “Oeconomicus”, or “The Economistin which Socrates and Critobulus dialogue on the science of the household. And so, the origins of the terms politics and economics seem to involve accounts from the perspective of the soul [or the individual] as the city writ small rather than from the perspective of the city as the soul [or individual] writ large.[3]

The preposition ‘inter’ meaning ‘between’ or ‘among’, is derived from Latin and appears in such Latin phrases as: “inter alios, amongst others, other persons”; “inter nos, between ourselves”; “inter partes (Law), of an action: relevant only to the two parties in a particular case”; inter se, between or among themselves”; and “inter vivos, between living persons”.[4] The noun ‘nation’ shares a root with nāscī, meaning to be born and “nation” came into origin in order to describe ‘a people united by common language and culture’, and ‘family, lineage’.[5] Both ‘inter’ and ‘nation’ are etymologically rooted in defining the nature of local phenomena, that is, persons, families, and communities.

From appeals to justice in Thucydides’ History of the Pelopponesian War, to arguments for legitimacy in Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry the Fifth, to the rules outlined in the Geneva Conventions, international relations in its current expression should be understood within the order of history. Providing context serves elucidate that, though a relatively new sub-discipline within political science, international relations is not actually new. Persons perpetually debate about power, authority, legitimacy, duty, stewardship, human dignity, law, nature, and morality.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Iberian scholastics now referred to as ‘the School of Salamanca’ were foundational in laying the intellectual groundwork for contemporary international law and international relations. According to Alves and Moreira:

The origins of (what we now call) international law go back to the Roman law concept of ius gentium [law of nations], a set of principles and rules that are derived from natural reason (and not from national legislators), and are common to all peoples, and apply equally to all mankind. […] Vitoria, Soto, Molina, and Suarez all agreed that the ius gentium was common to all mankind and that it could be recognized by reason even though it was not created through the will of an assembly or human legislator.[6]

In order to rescue international relations from its capture by Machiavellians[7] and men of system[8], political scientists should rekindle the relationship of international relations to international law and the relationship of international law to natural law. A return to understanding international relations as one aspect that is but an extension of natural law would lead to a restoration of moral judgment in this domain of politics. Where moral judgment is the primary aim, individual persons, their acts, and their motives will be returned to the centre of the study of politics. A personalist approach is preferable to a systematic, institutional, statist, or any other approach based upon abstractions. Theorists’ use of abstractions, often involving calling non-persons “actors”, leads to a deflection of responsibility. The problem is that you and I are not sure where to direct our moral judgment… either praise or blame.

As Steuart says: “Man we find acting uniformly in all age, in all countries, and in all climates, from the principles of self-interest, expediency, duty, or passion. In this he is alike, in nothing else.”[9] It is through studying the human person and by offering a humble effort at striking at some truth of human nature and the human condition that international political economy can be helpful to understanding what is local. Claiming to account for the mystery of what is macro is most often a conceit of knowledge and the impetuous for planners to lead communities into “the highest degree of disorder.”[10]

Please leave comments and recommended reading for me in the comments section below.

[1] Polis. Greek “city state” with a certain population and connected to the concept of citizenship based on birthplace.

[2] Oxford English Dictionary.

[3] With reference to Plato’s discussion in The Republic.

[4] Inter, preposition, OED. “inter, prep.”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[5] “nation, n.1”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press.

[6] Major Conservative and Libertarian Thinkers. The Salamanca School. Andre Alves and Jose Moreira, 59.

[7] Steuart discusses the Machiavellian tendency to “approv[e] the sacrifice of private concerns in favour of a general plan”.

[8] Smith discusses ‘men of system’ who are “so enamoured with the supposed beauty of their own ideal plan of government that they cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

[9] An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy by Steuart.

[10] Smith’s warning about the ‘men of system’.