Friday, December 13, 2013

St. Augustine on Number, Music, and Faith



God the Geometer determining measurements of the cosmos,
depicted as a crystallized geode containing earth, sun, moon, and stars.
13th Century, Anonymous




Mathematics is music for the mind;
Music is mathematics for the soul.


The history of ideas rewards its readers with the pleasure of discovering soul-mates—historical figures who affirm our convictions, clarify our thinking, encourage our resolve. In the sphere of mathematics, music, and faith, the first among my soul-mates is St. Augustine (354–430). I feel confident that he would have embraced the saying printed above, had he known it. It has long delighted me.

Augustine's particular mathematical interest was "number"—what we would call arithmetic. Number and music gave Augustine a sense of immediate, contemplative, and deeply affecting contact with reality. He believed that the patterns of number and music disclose something of the structure of creation, something of the ineffable Origin and Wisdom that determine the measurements of the cosmos.

Augustine expresses these convictions in writings dating from all phases of his career, from The Confessions (397–8) to the City of God (c.413–c.426). This repetition tells us that number, music, and faith were more than mere passing interests for him.

On the other hand, this dispersion of passages throughout Augustine's works makes it difficult for readers to gain a comprehensive survey of his thinking, especially since some of his lesser works are difficult to come by. My aim in this posting is to bring together some of Augustine's widely dispersed passages on number, music, and faith.

In his commentary on the Genesis account of God's creation of the world, Augustine repeatedly quotes a text from the Wisdom of Solomon (11:20):
You [God] have arranged all things by measure and number and weight.
In one passage of his commentary he alludes to this biblical text eight times in four pages.1 "Number" is fundamental here, being the means by which the other two quantities, measure and weight, are specified.

Augustine elaborates upon eternal Wisdom's arrangement of all things by number:
Wherever you turn, Wisdom speaks to you through the imprint it has stamped upon its works.... Look at the sky, the earth, and the sea, and at whatever in them shines from above or crawls, flies, or swims below. These have form because they have number.2
Augustine describes Wisdom and number as "somehow one and the same thing," even "identical," and asserts that "both are true, and immutably true."3

Immersed in the profound changes and uncertainties of the 5th-century Roman Empire, Augustine marvels at the universality and permanence of number:
Seven and three are ten, not only now, but forever. There has never been a time when seven and three were not ten, nor will there ever be a time when they are not ten. Therefore, I have said that the truth of number is incorruptible and common to all who think.4
He draws encouragement from his conviction that immutable number allows us trustworthy knowledge:
Whether they are considered in themselves or applied to the laws of figures, or of sound, or of some other motion, numbers have immutable rules not instituted by men but discovered.5
Augustine's language here about applying number to the laws "of sound" brings us to his appreciation for the mathematics of music. He was well acquainted with the discovery attributed to Pythagoras (6th–5th centuries BCE) that musical intervals are defined by mathematical ratios—ratios, for example, of the lengths of a musical instrument's strings.  The instrument used for demonstrating these ratios was the monochord: a device consisting of one string under constant tension, with a moveable fret and a ruler to measure the fret's placement along the pluckboard.


In this hexachord the strings are multiple and of variable tensions,
as determined by the attached weights.
From Franchino Gaffurio, Theorica musicae (Milan, 1492)



Pythagorean experimenters with the monochord discovered that the most consonant or pleasing musical intervals are those defined by the simplest mathematical ratios: the musical octave by the ratio 1:2; the musical fifth by the ratio 2:3; the musical fourth by the ratio 3:4.

Augustine expresses particular wonderment over the consonance of the octave, which he calls "the single and the double." He recognizes that the two notes of an octave are the same note, distinguished only by being higher and lower. As an illustration, we might think of a director asking a chorus of mixed voices to sing in unison; they respond by singing in octaves, the women higher, the men lower; and the director is satisfied that the unison instruction is being followed.

Augustine calls our sense of consonance in musical intervals an occulta familiaritas, a "hidden affinity."6 He considers this affinity—founded as it is in immutable number—to be God-given. He speaks again of the octave:
The harmony between the single and the double...has been naturally so implanted in us (by whom indeed, if not by Him who created us?) that not even the illiterate can remain unaware of it, whether they themselves are singing, or whether they are listening to others; for by means of it the treble and the bass voices blend together, and anyone who sounds a note that does not harmonize with it commits an offense not only against the musical art of which most people are ignorant, but against our very sense of hearing. It would require a long treatise, however, to prove this, but one familiar with the subject can demonstrate it to the ear itself on a properly adjusted monochord.7
Augustine's reflections on the mathematics of music are intrinsic to his life of faith. It is well known that he was profoundly moved not only by the mathematics of music but by sounding music as well—to such a degree, in fact, that he names the distraction of listening among his besetting temptations.8 He insists that our delight in music, auditory and numerical, should not be an end in itself but should transcend the sensual and practical. Music should direct our faith toward God's Wisdom:
And so with a determined retreat from every wanton movement where lies the fault of the soul's essence, and with a restored delight in reason's number, our whole life is turned to God....9
Augustine's love of "reason's number" in music often echoes in his theological images.  He ponders, for instance,
how the single of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ corresponds to our double [our human nature], and in what manner it harmonizes with it for our salvation.10
He speaks of musical consonance as a metaphor for a just society:
The concord of different sounds, controlled in due proportion, suggests the unity of a well-ordered city, welded together in harmonious variety.11
Sometimes Augustine's love of musical consonance goes beyond metaphor to play a more essential role in his theology. After years of struggle concerning the nature of evil, vividly chronicled in The Confessions, Augustine finally resolves his theological perplexity. He expresses his resolution in an image of evil as discord—intrinsic to creation's harmonic structure, but in unresolved tension:
For you [God] evil has no being at all, and this is true not of yourself only but of everything you have created, since apart from you there is nothing that could burst in and disrupt the order you have imposed on it. In some parts of it certain things are regarded as evil because they do not suit [or "do not accord with": non conveniunt] certain others; but these things do fit in ["do accord": conveniunt] elsewhere, and they are good there, and good in themselves.12
I give thanks for St. Augustine as a soul-mate. I do not regard his discussions of number and music as arguments for belief—still less as any kind of theological proofs. For me Augustine is a mentor and companion in questioning, defining, and enjoying faith in "God, the ineffably and invisibly great, the ineffably and invisibly beautiful."13


*****

1 The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4.3.7–4.5.12, tr. John Hammond Taylor, in Ancient Christian Writers: The Works of the Fathers in Translation, ed. Johannes Quasten (Paulist Press, 1982) No. 41, Vol. I, Books 1–6, pp.107–11.
2 On Free Choice of the Will 2.16.163–4, tr. Anna S. Benjamin and L. H. Hackstaff (Bobbs-Merrill, 1964), pp.73–4.
3 On Free Choice of the Will 2.11.125, p.64.
4 On Free Choice of the Will 2.8.83, p.54. See also The Confessions 6.4, tr. Maria Boulding (Vintage, 1997), p.102.
5 On Christian Doctrine 2.38.56, tr. D. W. Robertson, Jr. (Macmillan, 1958), p.73.
6 Confessiones 10.33, ed. W. H. D. Rouse (William Heinemann, 1968), Vol. 2, p.166.
7 The Trinity 4.2.4, tr. Stephen McKenna, in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Roy Joseph Deferrari (Catholic University of America Press, 1963), Vol. 45, p.134.
8 The Confessions 10.33, pp.229-30.
9 On Music, 6.11.33, tr. Robert C. Taliaferro; in Writings of Saint Augustine, Vol.2; in The Fathers of the Church, ed. Hermigild Dressler (Catholic University of America,1947), Vol.2, p.358. See also The Literal Meaning of Genesis 4.4.9–10, pp.109-10.
10 The Trinity 4.3.5, p.134.
11 Concerning the City of God 17.14, tr. Henry Bettenson (Penguin, 1984), p.744. See also 2.21, p.72.
12 The Confessions 7:12, p.136.
13 Concerning the City of God 11.4, p.432.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Clara Barton: Battlefield Angel, Embattled Spirit



Clara Barton (1821-1912)
Postage Stamp of 1943


What is Clara Barton known for? Yes: for that, certainly.  But what else is she known for?

A few years ago I would have had no answer to that question. Then, as a Red Cross volunteer, I was asked to prepare a presentation on Clara Barton. As I learned more and more about her life and accomplishments she moved up and up on my list of heroes.

Barton's founding of the American Red Cross resulted from a doctor's advice in 1869 that she travel to Europe to recover from fatigue so severe that her voice and vision had failed. The trip put Barton in touch with Europe's Red Cross movement, formed six years earlier. Instead of resting as her doctor had ordered, she characteristically volunteered for International Red Cross work during the Franco-Prussian war.

Barton returned to the U.S. and collapsed with what was diagnosed as "nervous prostration." For four years she was an invalid. To rouse herself she needed a new cause, and she found it in her determination to affiliate the U.S. with the International Red Cross movement. In 1881 she brought together a group of twenty-two citizens who became charter members of the American Red Cross, with Barton as President.

Other accomplishments?
  • She founded the first successful free school in New Jersey, initiating the establishment of free public education in that state. (1852–54)
  • She was among the first female employees of the U.S. government, as a clerk in the Patent Office. (1854–57)
  • She pioneered impartial battlefield care of wounded soldiers during the Civil War—"between the bullet and the hospital," she said—always at her own initiative, often at her own expense, and sometimes under fire. (1862–65)
  • She traveled with the Army in its post-war reclamation of the Confederate prison camp in Andersonville, and in recognition of her services was invited to run up the flag over a completed cemetery of 30,000 graves with identifying headstones, only 400 of them inscribed "Unknown U.S. Soldier." (1865)
  • She was head of the government's Office of Missing Soldiers, upon the recommendation of President Lincoln, processing over 60,000 inquiries and accounting for 22,000 soldiers. See the images at the bottom of this posting. (1865–69)
  • She was perhaps the first woman to testify before Congress, presenting a successful petition for additional funds to support her Office of Missing Soldiers. (1866)
  • She was awarded the Iron Cross of Germany by Kaiser Wilhelm for her work among European civilians suffering from the Franco-Prussian war. (1873)
  • She waged a successful five-year crusade for Senate ratification of the Geneva Convention of 1864, overcoming the State Department's isolationist philosophy of avoiding alliances with other nations. (1877–82)
  • She served a year as Superintendent of the Massachusetts Reformatory Prison for Women, overseeing progressive policies advocated by such social pioneers as Dorothea Dix and Elizabeth Fry. (1883–84)
  • She attended the Third International Conference of the Red Cross in Geneva, the first woman to serve the U.S. as an official diplomatic representative. (1884)
  • She persuaded the International Red Cross to adopt the American Red Cross practice—which she herself had established—of extending relief work beyond battlefields into civilian disasters such as earthquakes, fires, and floods. (1884)
  • She devoted countless months—till the age of 79—to directing civilian relief on the scenes of domestic catastrophes, such as the 1889 flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, the 1893 hurricane in the Sea Islands of Georgia and South Carolina, and the 1900 hurricane and tidal wave that struck Galveston, Texas.
  • She received the Second Order of Shekafet for exceptional service to the Ottoman Empire, never before awarded to a woman. (1896)
  • She campaigned for years to achieve a congressional Charter charging the American Red Cross with three responsibilities: educating the public about the Geneva Conventions, providing family communications for military personnel, and maintaining a system of domestic and international disaster relief. (1900; expanded 1905)
  • She founded the National First Aid Association of America, introducing family supply kits and teaching the public about basic first aid and disaster preparedness. (1905)


All of this Barton did in the face of continual, glaring discrimination against women. When, for example, her free school in New Jersey proved a thriving success, the governing board built a handsome new school, then brought in a male schoolmaster (salary $600) and made Barton his "female assistant" (salary $250). Barton resigned, broken-hearted:
I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay.
Similar discrimination by a male director and staff led to her departure from the U.S. Patent Office.

Another man, however—Surgeon James Dunn of Pennsylvania, observing Barton as she tended soldiers with arms mangled, legs missing, jaws blown away—gave her an honorific that has survived the decades:
In my feeble estimation, Gen. McClellan, with all his laurels, sinks into insignificance beside her, ...the true heroine of the age, the angel of the battlefield.
"Twisted bodies, splintered bones, raw flesh, burning fevers, and fetid air...hot...am tired," Barton noted in her diary near the front at Petersburg. And to a close friend:
[Today] I have cooked ten dozen eggs, made cracker toast, corn starch, blanc mange, milk punch, arrow-root, washed faces and hands, put ice on hot heads, mustard on cold feet, written six soldiers' letters home, stood beside three death-beds—and now, at this hour, midnight, I am too sleepy and stupid to write even you a tolerable readable scrap.
After the battle of Fredericksburg, where she had found living men frozen to bare ground by their own blood, she wrote to a friend: 
I wrung the blood from the bottom of my clothing, before I could step, for the weight about my feet.
She describes her long trip back home to Washington, riding on wagons and a steamer, wading through mud from the Sixth Street wharf, climbing the long stairs to her room—"cheerless, in confusion, and alone"—where she sank down upon the floor, and wept.

This moment from Barton's experience, as reported to her friend, reflects a pattern of her life.
Barton the battlefield angel was an embattled spirit. Repeatedly, months or years of stupendous effort alternated with months or years of exhaustion, physical disability, and depression. Not depression simply from her exhaustion, I believe, but depression because she was not at her ordained posts of ameliorating civilian suffering, altering social structures, or tending those she called her "boys."

Barton loved her boys on the battlefield, but she hated the war that put them there. She hated all war:

Men have worshipped war till it has cost a million times more than the whole world is worth, poured out the best blood and crushed the fairest forms the good God has ever created. Deck it as you will, war is—'Hell.' ...All through and through, thought, and act, body and soul—I hate it. Only the desire to soften some of its hardships and allay some of its miseries ever induced me, and I presume all other women who have taken similar steps, to dare its pestilence and unholy breath. 

As for her service in civilian disaster relief, perhaps two tributes will suggest Barton's degree of dedication and sacrifice. At the conclusion of her eight months of relief and rebuilding following the cataclysmic flood in Johnstown, the editor of the Johnstown Daily Tribune wrote:
Hunt the dictionaries of all languages through and you will not find the signs to express our appreciation of her and her work. Try to describe the sunshine, try to describe the starlight. Words fail.
Shortly after the lethal Sea Islands Hurricane, Joel Chandler Harris, the collector of Uncle Remus stories and an editor at the Atlanta Constitution, traveled to observe and report on Barton's work:
I went to the Sea Islands with no prejudice against the Red Cross Society, but certainly with no prepossession in its favor. I had pictured it in my mind as a sort of fussy and contentious affair, running about with a tremendous amount of chatter and flourishing a great deal of red tape.... As a matter of fact, the Red Cross Society as I saw it...is something entirely different from any other relief organization that has come under my observation. Its strongest and most admirable feature is extreme simplicity. The perfection of its machinery is shown by the apparent absence of all machinery. There is no display—no torturous cross-examination of applicants—no needless delay. And yet nothing is done blindly, or hastily, or indifferently.
After 1887 Barton enjoyed relief from her debilitating bouts of fatigue and depression, but in 1900 she found herself embattled in a new and ironic way. A prolonged internal struggle arose within the American Red Cross over her competence to continue as President. Accusations that had long shadowed her career came to the surface: negligent record keeping; exaggerated reports; dictatorial management—and now old age. She was 79. After four final years of dismaying controversy and discord, Barton resigned.

She was out, but not down. She continued vigorous in social causes into her 80s. Three months after her 90th birthday, her life now ebbing, she wrote to an old friend that she was "changing worlds." Nearing the end she spoke to her beloved doctor about a dream of being again on the battlefield amidst wounded soldiers:
I crept round once more, trying to give them a least a drink of water to cool their parched lips, and I heard them...speak of mother and wives and sweethearts, but never a murmur or complaint. Then I woke to hear myself groan because I have a stupid pain in my back, that's all. Here on a good bed, with every attention. I am ashamed that I murmur.
She died two days later,  April 12, 1912.


***

We today are fortunate to have excellent biographies of Clara Barton. I consider Elizabeth Brown Pryor's Clara Barton: Professional Angel an exemplary biography by any standard: clear and engaging, documented exhaustively but unobtrusively, its appreciative and critical perspectives finely balanced. For children of middle school age I highly recommend James Lincoln Collier's The Clara Barton You Never Knew.
***


In 1996 this name plate was discovered in a derelict building in Washington, DC, now recognized as formerly housing Barton's office. See a fascinating 5-minute video account of the discovery:




Clara Barton published newspaper advertisements such as this
soliciting information about missing soldiers,
 or appealing for clothing, supplies, and contributions for her relief projects.
She wrote thousands of letters pleading for support.





This is the complete advertisement that is detailed above.
Barton distributed 100,000 copies of her lists of missing soldiers.



*****

Friday, November 15, 2013

Coleridge on Scripture: "Heart-Awakening Utterances of Human Hearts"


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834)
Painting by Washington Allston (1814)


 "I have known many men who have done wonderful things,
but the most wonderful man I ever knew was Coleridge."
                                                          ...William Wordsworth


Upon his death in 1834, Samuel Taylor Coleridge left a manuscript that he had intended to publish under the title Letters on the Inspiration of the Scriptures. The book appeared posthumously as Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit.

Among Coleridge's most fundamental confessions is his overwhelming indebtedness and devotion to the Bible:
A large part of the light and life, in and by which I see, love, and embrace the truths and the strengths [of faith], has been directly or indirectly derived to me from this sacred volume.... In the Bible there is more that finds me than I have experienced in all other books put together; ...the words of the Bible find me at greater depths of my being.
Because of his devotion to Scripture, Coleridge is distressed by a teaching of the Anglican Church that he calls "the Doctrine":
This Doctrine, I confess, plants the vineyard of the Word with thorns for me, and places snares in its pathways.
The teaching that affronts Coleridge is the infallibility of scripture:
The doctrine in question requires me to believe...that all that exists in the sacred volume...was dictated by an Infallible Intelligence—that the writers, each and all, were divinely informed as well as inspired.
Coleridge is particularly scornful of Anglican clergy who do not believe the doctrine of infallibility yet dare not say so, continuing to perpetuate the doctrine, or simply keeping silent about it:
I am weary of discussing a tenet which the generality of divines...have ceased to defend, and yet continue to assert or imply.
Almost two hundred years after Coleridge, many clergy continue to defend, assert, imply, or simply keep quiet about the Doctrine, and I too have grown weary of discussing scripture's infallibility. I thoroughly admire Coleridge's arguments against the Doctrine, but his arguments are not the source of my affection for his book. Rather, my love for the Confessions grows from what the book reveals about Coleridge's devotion to biblical scripture as a sourcebook of human experience and a source of human healing, and from the corresponding passion of his language.

Throughout his life Coleridge struggled with medical ailments, procrastination, opium addiction, depression, and mental disturbance. On his book's first page he introduces his theme: 
Confessions of one who is neither fair nor saintly, but who, groaning under a deep sense of infirmity and manifold imperfection, feels the want, the necessity of religious support—who cannot afford to lose the smallest buttress.

Coleridge found his religious support in the Bible—specifically, in the lives of biblical authors and other biblical men and women whose struggles with faith mirrored his own:
Need I say that I have met everywhere [in the Bible] more or less copious sources of truth, and power, and purifying impulses—that I have found words for my inmost thoughts, songs for my joy, utterances for my hidden griefs, and pleadings for my shame and my feebleness?

 Coleridge resisted the doctrine of scripture's infallibility because it robs the biblical authors—his indispensable companions in spiritual struggle—of their humanity. "Why," Coleridge asks rhetorically,
should I not believe the Scriptures throughout dictated, in word and thought, by an infallible Intelligence? Eagerly and earnestly do I answer: For every reason that makes me prize and revere these Scriptures—prize them, love them, revere them beyond all other books! Why should I not? Because the Doctrine in question petrifies at once the whole body of Holy Writ with all its harmonies and symmetrical gradations: the flexile and the rigid; the supporting hard and the soothing soft; the blood which is the life*; the intelligencing nerves, and the rudely woven, but soft and springy, cellular substance in which all are embedded and lightly bound together. This breathing organism...the Doctrine in question turns at once into a colossal Memnon's head**, a hollow passage for a voice: a voice that mocks the voices of many men, and speaks in their names, and yet is but one voice and the same—and no man uttered it, and never in a human heart was it conceived.
Among the men and women of the Bible who gave Coleridge companionship and comfort, the foremost was David—the "royal Harper," the "sweet Psalmist of Israel." David's Psalms play upon the strings of Coleridge's troubled heart with calming, saving effect. The idea that Infallible Intelligence dictated the Psalms invalidates David's human struggles, turning him instead into an automaton, as lifeless as David's harp would be without its player.

In the biblical authors, Coleridge writes,
I find a lesson of humility, a ground of humiliation, and a shaming, yet rousing, example of faith and fealty. But let me once be persuaded that all these heart-awakening utterances of human hearts—of men of like faculties and passions with myself, mourning, rejoicing, suffering, triumphing—are but as a Divina Commedia of a superhuman (Oh bear with me, if I say) Ventriloquist; [let me once be persuaded] that the royal Harper, to whom I have so often submitted myself as a many-stringed instrument for his fire-tipt fingers to traverse, while every several nerve of emotion, passion, thought, that thrids [threads] the flesh-and-blood of our common humanity, responded to the touch; [let me once be persuaded] that this sweet Psalmist of Israel was himself as mere an instrument as his harp, an automaton poet, mourner, and supplicant: [then] all is gone—all sympathy, at least, and all example. 

Readers can hardly fail to notice that Coleridge's paragraph here, after the first couple of lines, is a single sentence of manifold clauses nested within clauses. This pattern is expressive of Coleridge's mental exuberance and typical of his prose. As his spoken discourses sometimes exhausted his listeners, so Coleridge's writing often daunts his would-be readers.

Of a famous actor's performance in Othello, Coleridge wrote:
To see him act is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.
This characterization was not wholly complimentary. Context makes clear that Coleridge found the actor's style uneven, alternating between electrifying and obscure.

So it is, I find, with Coleridge's writing in the Confessions. The passages that I have quoted here are lightning flashes. Between flashes Coleridge's logic is ever keen and his expression ever exact, but much is veiled in syntactical darkness. I have known conscientious students, assigned portions of the Confessions, to throw up their hands in defeat.

Experience has taught me that the principal difficulty arises from Coleridge's punctuation. We today are accustomed to shorter sentences punctuated by commas, semicolons, colons, dashes. Coleridge writes protracted sentences like those of the German philosophers who were his mentors, and he sometimes punctuates an entire paragraph with nothing but dashes. In the passage about David quoted above, for example, Coleridge employs the dash eight times. But dashes grant a reader's eyes no assistance in sorting out nested clauses. And the more passionate Coleridge's prose, the more dashes he uses.

For this reason I have taken the liberty of altering his punctuation and adding brief explanatory brackets, always preserving Coleridge's language unchanged.

If we are to enjoy Coleridge's Confessions, our eyes need time to become accustomed, and this demands persistence and patience. I recommend the effort. The reward is abundant: sharing heart-awakening utterances from the human heart of this wonderful man.


*****
* "which is the life": a reference to Deuteronomy 12:23: "Only be sure that thou eat not the blood: for the blood is the life...."
** "Memnon's head": a colossal stone head said to gave forth sound at dawn. The head was moved from its original site in Egypt to the British Museum in 1816, inspiring Shelley's poem Ozymandias.



Friday, October 18, 2013

Evil Is Always ...What?




Occasionally I hear the question "What is the nature of evil?" and sometimes the question leads to worthwhile conversation. But what would we think of someone whose answer to the question began "Evil is always..."? How could anyone presume to address a question of illimitable complexity by opening with a generalization?

Yet a number of my life's formative figures have done just that, and I believe that they cast clarifying light. The figures I have in mind are Reinhold Niebuhr, Jonathan Edwards, Saint Augustine, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

The bluntest of these figures is the theologian and public commentator Reinhold Niebuhr. In 1944, with World War II raging, Niebuhr described evil using the charged word "always":
Evil is always the assertion of some self-interest without regard to the whole, whether the whole be conceived as the immediate community, or the total community of mankind, or the total order of the world. The good is, on the other hand, always the harmony of the whole on various levels. Devotion to a subordinate and premature "whole" such as the nation, may of course become evil, viewed from the perspective of a larger whole, such as the community of mankind. (The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Scribner's, 9–10)
Niebuhr's basic ethical imperative is to strive for increasing harmony among ever-broadening communities of concern.

One of Niebuhr's formative predecessors was the New England theologian and minister, Jonathan Edwards. In The Nature of True Virtue (1755) Edwards describes "all sin" as selfishness without regard to larger contexts in which things are interconnected. Edwards refers to the most comprehensive context as "the great whole of existence" or "being in general":
All sin has its source from selfishness, or from self-love not subordinate to a regard to being in general. (Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 92)
Sin's opposite is "true virtue," the subject of Edwards' book:
True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to being in general. Or perhaps, to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to being in general, which is immediately exercised in a general good will (p.3, Edwards' emphasis).
Edwards' basic ethical imperative is to strive for ever-broadening goodwill toward the great whole of existence.

The basic principles of Niebuhr and Edwards bear the imprint of Saint Augustine. In Book 7 of his Confessions (written in 397–401) Augustine chronicles his crisis in faith as he struggled with the question, What is the nature of evil? He calls out to God:
I pictured your creation filled with your infinite being, and I reflected, "Look, this is God, and these are the things God has created. God is good, and though he is far more wonderful than they in every respect, still he who is good has created them good; see too how he surrounds and pervades them. Where, then, is evil; where does it come from and how did it creep in? Or does it not exist at all? ... Either the evil we fear exists, or our fear itself is the evil. So where does it come from, if the good God made all things good? (Tr. Maria Boulding, Vintage, 125)
Augustine tells us that his years of questioning led him to a resolution that we may find startling:
Everything that is, is good. (Quaecumque sunt, bona sunt.)
What then is evil? Augustine's answer is that evil is not something different from good in kind. Evil is different in quantity. Evil is insufficient good. Evil is an absence, a lack, a deficiency, a privation (privatio). Evil is not a thing to be destroyed but a partial vacuum to be filled.

Augustine believes that our self-interest (Niebuhr) or self-love (Edwards) is in itself good, but never good enough. We become better persons to the degree that we enlarge our self-interest toward concern for the total order of the world (Niebuhr) or the great whole of existence (Edwards). Our ethical paths, says Augustine, must always "keep totality in view."

I think we can say that in Augustine's view, evil is friction among our limited self-interests at the expense of the common good, that is, at the expense of the larger communities of which we are inextricably members. This friction takes myriad forms, from highway littering and personal quarreling, to planetary despoiling and human holocaust.

Amelioration comes not by inflicting destruction upon something named "evil," but by flooding deficiencies of good with more abundant goodness—as darkness is dispelled, not by obliterating something called "dark," but by flooding darkened realms with light.

From his struggles as a "vagabond soul" (animo vagabundus) Augustine knew well that a basic principle is not the end of ethical struggle but its beginning. For one thing, others will disagree with the principle. And persons who embrace the principle face unavoidable questions about how to make decisions and act upon them in the face of unforeseeable outcomes.

No one was more fully aware than Niebuhr of the difficulties, ironies, and tragedies involved in making principled decisions and acting upon them. More than most public figures, he often changed his mind about ethical issues and admitted his former errors of judgment.

In the 1940s, for example, Niebuhr favored U.S. involvement in World War II. When his nation's development of the atomic bomb became public knowledge, he approved that decision. When the U.S. dropped atomic bombs to convince Japan of its certain defeat, Niebuhr again approved, though he lamented the targeting of two cities filled with civilians instead of some unpopulated demonstration area. With the coming of the Cold War he supported the doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) as a means of preventing war that might otherwise cross the nuclear threshold.

By the time of his death in 1971, Niebuhr had voiced doubts about these earlier attitudes:
The development of the hydrogen bomb, of guided missiles and of tactical atomic weapons has made many of our conclusions otiose.
He came to believe that nuclear war would be "ultimate and suicidal holocaust"* and supported proposals for an international No First Use treaty.

The fourth and final figure in this brief survey, Martin Luther King, Jr., was also abundantly aware of the difficulties, ironies, and tragedies involved in making ethical decisions and acting upon them. This is in part because he was an admirer of Niebuhr. Recalling his years as a graduate student, King writes of Niebuhr:
I became so enamored of his social ethics that I almost fell into the trap of accepting uncritically everything he wrote. (Stride Toward Freedom, Perennial, 1964, 79)
King avoided that trap. Niebuhr believed that evil sometimes necessitates violent resistance; King resisted evil non-violently. Niebuhr rejected pacifism; King was a pacifist.

In the end Niebuhr and King agreed about the ethical imperative of avoiding nuclear war, though not about the political and diplomatic means for trying to do so. Niebuhr's dread of "ultimate and suicidal holocaust" echoes in King's language:
In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war.... If modern man continues to flirt unhesitatingly with war, he will transform his earthly habitat into an inferno such as even the mind of Dante could not imagine. (Nobel Prize Lecture, December 11, 1964)
King put his trust in the moral principle of overcoming evil with good, keeping in view the world's totality:
So we must fix our vision not merely on the negative expulsion of war, but upon the positive affirmation of peace. We must see that peace represents a sweeter music, a cosmic melody that is far superior to the discords of war. Somehow we must transform the dynamics of the world power struggle from the negative nuclear arms race which no one can win to a positive contest to harness man's creative genius for the purpose of making peace and prosperity a reality for all of the nations of the world. (Nobel Prize Lecture)
King's sermons** offer hopeful images of dispelling evil's darkness, not by violence, but by the light of goodness:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.

***** 

* Quotations from Campbell Craig, "The New Meaning of Modern War in the Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr," Journal of the History of Ideas 53.4, 694–96.
** Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, Harper, 1967, 62–3; Strength to Love, Harper, 1963, 37 .




Friday, September 27, 2013

Syrian Crisis: The Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter




Note: I am not a lawyer or an expert in international law. My only prerogative is that I received basic Red Cross training as an International Humanitarian Law Instructor, and from 2005 to 2012 taught courses for Red Cross staff and volunteers and for the public. My Instructor's certificate is now expired, and I write as a concerned citizen.

The use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria gives us a strong incentive to understand more about the Geneva Conventions and the UN Charter. The relation between the two is close, yet the Conventions and the Charter apply in quite different situations.

I think we can see this by focusing on two specific questions: (1) If the Syrian government did in fact kill its own civilians with chemical weapons, has it violated international law? (2) If the U.S. government were to launch a unilateral military attack across Syrian borders, would it violate international law?

Syria and International Law

At the time of this posting Syria has not signed either the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 or the Rome Statute of 2002 that established the International Criminal Court. Syria has signed the Geneva Conventions of 1949  (though not its three Protocols added later) and also the Geneva Gas Protocol of 1925.

The language of the Geneva Gas Protocol would seem definitive. It prohibits the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of all all analogous liquids, materials or devices." But strictly this treaty applies to wars between states, not to armed conflicts within a state—that is, not to a civil war like that in Syria. The same is true of the Geneva Conventions, which in any case do not directly address the issue of chemical weapons.

Over the years since these treaties of 1925 and 1949, however, laws of armed conflict have evolved. Calls for intervention in situations of humanitarian atrocity are increasingly based upon what is called "customary international law": rules that are practiced as law across an extensive and representative range of nations. Customary law now exists alongside treaty law, and together they constitute international law.




In 2005 the International Committee of the Red Cross published Customary International Humanitarian Law, Vol. 1 (a second volume interpreting the first is in preparation). It is a sweeping review of national laws and practices, national military manuals, international treaties, UN resolutions, pronouncements by national and international courts, and more. The result is the ICRC's distillation of 161 rules of customary law, accompanied by elaborations and profuse documentation.

Here is the volume's rule of customary law concerning chemical weapons, together with a summary sentence:
Rule 74. The use of chemical weapons is prohibited.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
Though monumental, the ICRC study is not authoritative. It has been widely welcomed, but amidst vigorous discussions, reservations, and objections. (See Perspectives on the ICRC Study on Customary International Humanitarian Law, Cambridge, 2007.) In any case, the Geneva Gas Protocol itself has come to be regarded as customary international law, and therefore it applies to armed conflicts of all kinds, including civil war in Syria.

It seems to me that neither the Syrian government nor Syrian insurgent forces, if accused of using chemical weapons, could be convincingly charged with violating international law as established in formal treaties and conventions alone. But I believe that they could be charged with violating customary international law.

Then a court would have to decide. It could be a Syrian court, a court of another nation, or an international court, such as the International Criminal Court. First, of course, someone would have to file charges.

The U.S. and International Law

If the U.S. government were to launch a unilateral missile attack across Syrian borders, would it violate international law?

This question takes us beyond the Geneva Conventions and the ICRC. These seek to limit the ways armed conflicts can be conducted; they do not address the question of whether or not an armed conflict is justified under international law.

For the question of whether an armed conflict is legally justified, the fundamental document is the UN Charter and the principal administrative body is the UN Security Council.

President Barack Obama chairing the UN Security Council discussion of nuclear nonproliferation
September 24, 2009

The UN Charter (1945) functions as an international treaty, and all UN member states are legally bound by its articles. The thirteen Articles of Chapter VII establish rules that govern the use of armed force in response to "any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression." Specifically, the rules prohibit one country from attacking another unless (1) acting in self-defence if "an armed attack occurs," or (2) acting with approval from the UN Security Council.

In his remarks to the nation on September 10, President Obama called Syrian use of chemical weapons "a danger to our society." He spoke of the threat that Syria's chemical weapons would "over time" proliferate and threaten U.S. troops and civilians. He concluded his argument with these words:
This is not a world we should accept. This is what's at stake. And that is why, after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike. The purpose of this strike would be to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them, and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use.
In his next paragraph the President acknowledges that Syria's threat to the U.S. is not direct or imminent:
So even though I possess the authority to order military strikes, I believed it was right, in the absence of a direct or imminent threat to our security, to take this debate to Congress [emphasis added].
I find President Obama's argument problematic. The UN Charter specifies that military self-defense is legal if "an armed attack occurs." The legal precedent behind that phrase includes also a threat of armed attack, but the threat must be "instant, overwhelming, leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation." (The Caroline Case, 1842)

Thank goodness we currently have a "moment of deliberation" in which diplomacy offers the possibility of an alternative to military action. I applaud President Obama for choosing to explore this diplomatic possibility, for it seems to me that a U.S. military strike across Syria's borders without Security Council approval would violate international law.

The only justification of a unilateral armed strike might be what some experts are calling an action that is "illegal but legitimate"—that is, illegal under international law, but legitimate for compelling humanitarian reasons. (See Legality and Legitimacy in Global Affairs, Oxford, 2012.) The ICRC study of customary law addresses the possibility of such "belligerent reprisals":
Rule 145. Where not prohibited by international law, belligerent reprisals are subject to stringent conditions.
But if a military strike across Syria's boundaries in the absence of a direct or imminent threat is "prohibited by international law," as I believe it is, then illegal but legitimate reprisal would seem to become a moot issue. Again, a charge would have to be filed, and a court would have to decide.

President Obama concluded his remarks of September 10 with a claim that the U.S. is exceptional:
I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional.
I believe that the best grounds for calling the U.S. exceptional is not military action. Rather, if diplomacy should fail, my government ought to acknowledge, openly and honestly, the questionable legality of a belligerent reprisal, and make its case for military action, "subject to stringent conditions," on the basis of compelling, international humanitarian imperative.

Such openness, honesty, and restraint might indeed set an exceptional example among the nations of the world.


*****