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contrary to nature

By Diogenes (articles ) | Mar 13, 2008

Several recent OTR posts touch on the inroads that aggressive secularism has made into contemporary moral life. Viewed collectively, this aggression would appear to be aimed at human nature, sometimes as a campaign to change that nature, sometimes as a denial that there is any fixed nature to change. Notre Dame's Jacques Maritain Center posts a lecture by J. Budziszewski -- whose writing has the rare quality of being gentle and muscular in equal measure -- that provides clarity about some key terms that are tactically blurred by the opposition. It's a quietly consoling essay, both in the philosophical reinforcement it gives to our wholesome moral intuitions, and in its clear-sighted view of the problems of moral decay. The question Budziszewski sets himself to answer is "Can the unnatural become natural to us?" The following paragraphs might serve as an inducement to read further:

One of the strangest and most intriguing things about human nature is its openness to what Plato and subsequent philosophers have called "second nature." We are designed in such a way that things which are not part of our design can become so habitual, so ingrained, that they seem as though they are. Another old-fashioned term for this phenomenon is "connaturality." Consider the grace of a classically trained ballerina. Human beings do not spontaneously move like that; she must learn that exquisite poise, that heartrending beauty in movement. To that end, she retrains every nerve, muscle, and reflex until clumsiness would take effort, artlessness would take art, and her very walking looks like dancing. It isn't that grace becomes effortless for her even then, although she makes it look as though it is. But her limbs have internalized the aesthetic of the dance; beautiful movement, or at least beautiful movement of that kind, has become connatural. It is second nature to her.

Can something that goes against the grain also become ingrained? Can something in conflict with nature also become second nature? In one sense, apparently, yes. Consider coffee. We naturally avoid bitter flavors, and I have never heard of anyone liking coffee at first taste. Yet it is possible to learn to enjoy that particular bitter flavor, even to savor it. For me, this happened on a cold day in Chicago in my eighteenth year, when black coffee was the only hot thing around.

In a certain sense, every acquired discipline goes against our natural inclinations. Consider the ballerina again. The young dancer persists in unpleasant practice for the sake of an end which is so fascinating, delightful, and vitalizing that the boredom, pain, and exhaustion of the means are worth enduring. That is how it is with the virtues too. Initially, it is difficult to be good, to be brave, to be true, difficult and most unpleasant. Yet if one persists in this unpleasant discipline -- as I later explain, with the help of divine grace as well -- then one can see a day coming from afar, when it will be more difficult and unpleasant not to be good, honest, and true. The actions that virtue requires become second nature.

"Every acquired discipline goes against our natural inclinations." The Greek word for acquired discipline is askesis, whence the English term asceticism. The reason why it hurts to fast is connected with the reason why it hurts more to do 40 push-ups than to stop at 30. But as Budziszewski points out, the transformations that occur when one is persistently obedient to moral discipline go far beyond those areas of existence in which the discomfort is most obvious to us. The entire person is changed:

Anyone who knows the tradition of natural law, though, will recognize something wrong with the way that I have just been speaking. I seem to have been saying that virtue is against nature -- or, to turn it around, that something contrary to nature can still be good. Not really, but it is true that I have been playing a trick. There is an ambiguity in the way we use expressions like "nature" and "natural inclination," and I have been playing on this double meaning. Each such expression has two meanings, not one, and the two meanings are nearly opposite to each other.

You can read the entire lecture here. It's worth it.

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  • Posted by: - Mar. 15, 2008 5:20 PM ET USA

    Thank you, Uncle D, for introducing this essay, this writer. He opens a door that lets in light from a new direction. It is always exciting to stumble upon such a mind. As in the case of Philip Rieff, the Jewish sociolgist, brought to our attention by the great James Hitchcock in Adoremus 9/07. They bring to mind the Greek word anagnorisis: knowledge from which there is no retreat.

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