Thursday, April 09, 2009

Note to self: learn Latin

It turns out that teaching medieval political [and legal] thought is a lot of fun. This is a ride I'll be happy to ride again.

Next year: more Vitoria; more Marsilius if it can be managed. Possibly some Gentili-- that stretches the timeframe, but I have it on good authority that the next course in the sequence begins early modernity with Hobbes. Integrate the Digest and the Institutes through the whole term, instead of assigning excerpts from them at the beginning of the term along with other ancient texts, then reading Bartolus and Accursius separately later on. Maybe more generally, spread the ancient works through the course.

Longer term: do some excerpting from the Ordinary Gloss for the class, to choose topics continuous with course themes. NB: This is almost sure to require doing some translations of my own, which in turn requires learning medieval law Latin, which therefore moves several steps up my to-do list.

What to drop in order to make room for these cool things? Hmm... that annoying Florentine is taking up a lot of classes at the end...

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Galston on Rawls on religion

here. A sample:
Still, one has to wonder whether the residuum of religious belief helped Rawls affirm the basics of his philosophy with more confidence than he otherwise could have mustered. Otherwise (and more bluntly) put: Rawls's religious background may account for the aspects of his political philosophy that I and many others find oddly other-worldly.

Let me give an example. Rawls famously, and controversially, rejected merit as a basis for distribution. Not only are our natural endowments unearned and beyond our control; so too is their development and use: "Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent on happy family and social circumstances." Cohen and Nagel find a theological version of this thought in the senior thesis. "There is no merit before God," Rawls wrote, "Nor should there be merit before him. True community does not count the merits of its members. Merit is a concept rooted in sin, and well disposed of." And more: "The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit."

Now it is possible to argue that we are all equally meritless sinners in the eyes of God (although it is hardly the case that all religions and theologies concur on this point). But does moral equality before God imply equality of merit before our fellow men? Should a God's-eye point of view structure human relations here on earth? In the world as we experience it, some people work harder to develop and exercise their gifts than others, some people are more responsible than others, and some people contribute more to the general welfare than others. If we think of ourselves as contributing nothing to these results, for good or ill, then the core of human liberty and personhood vanishes. To live human lives, we must assume that we are more than dependent variables, more than the passive outcome of external forces, whether material, social, or divine.

Highly recommended; read the whole thing. And, yes, I find this so interesting that it makes me a lot more hesitant about my initial reaction to the publication of Rawls' senior thesis.

Update: As is evident in comments, my immediate enthusiasm for Galston's essay has not been widely shared. Paul Gowder has been expressing his disapproval at some length on his own blog as well as in comments; he also points to hilzoy's critique.