Thursday, May 19, 2016

The Trivium and Ockham

In the 14th Century at Oxford and in Paris scholars studied first the Trivium; grammar, logic and rhetoric. For Grammar the ultimate question was; what does this word mean? Likewise for Logic; does this syllogism ring true? Finally in rhetoric: can I make an argument based upon facts using logic to convince my audience? Disputation was the forum of discussion. Namely opposing parties and inquisitors were allowed to engage the party presenting the argument in challenging the position. Debate was open.

Along comes William of Ockham and his adversary John XXII, the alleged Bishop of Rome whose intent was to remain in luxury at Avignon. Ockham challenged the Grammar and Logic of John, and the result was the beginning of what we now recognize as individualism; namely the fact that each individual is equal before God and the Law and that further it is the responsibility of the individual to act to secure their salvation. Collectivism, socialism, is the counter to Christian thought, it is not the group which seeks salvation, it is the individual.

In a speech today the current Bishop of Rome opines:

The day’s first reading, taken from the Letter of Saint James, is a forceful warning to the rich who accumulate wealth by exploiting the people. “Riches in themselves are good,” the Pope explained, but they are “relative, not absolute” goods. He criticized the so-called “theology of prosperity”— according to which “God shows you that you are just if He give you great riches,” saying those who follow it are mistaken. The problem lies in being attached to wealth, because, as the Pope recalled, “You cannot serve both God and riches.” These become “chains” that “take away the freedom to follow Jesus.” In the reading, St James writes, “Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.”

When riches are created by exploiting the people, by those rich people who exploit [others], they take advantage of the work of the people, and those poor people become slaves. We think of the here and now, the same thing happens all over the world. “I want to work.” “Good, they’ll make you a contract, from September to June.” Without a pension, without health care… Then they suspend it, and in July and August they have to eat air. And in September, they laugh at you about it. Those who do that are true bloodsuckers, and they live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labour. The exploitation of labour is a mortal sin.

Now let us begin with grammar. What do we mean by exploiting? Let us take a simple economic example in a capitalist society. Let us assume that the alleged exploiter owns a coffee shop. In order to sell coffee he must: (i) make good quality coffee, (ii) provide good service, and (iii) sell it at a competitive price. Now how does this capitalist accomplish this? Simply. First; revenue less expense equals profit. If the "profit" is negative then he goes out of business, unless of course the Bishop of Rome somehow underwrites his expenses. Now how does the Revenue get set? Well it is the market, namely the prices set by the competition. Lots of suppliers drive prices down. Lots of suppliers creates demand for labor and drives costs up. At some point the market clears. Happens all the time especially in a commodity bushiness. Thus the Expenses are dictated by the market not by the Bishop of Rome. Exploitation does not exist as an act of the owner but as a consequence of the dynamics of a market. Price settles to a level and salaries meet the level for survivable businesses. Simple. Economics 101.

Thus we return to Grammar. What does "exploitation" mean? There is no exploitation in a capitalist market, it is just the meeting of supply and demand on both the revenue and the expense side. The paragraph about the months and the contract appear confused. Must one supply pension, health care and the like, Perhaps, but that must be included in the total cost. It is not a gift, it is not charity, at least in an economically viable environment. If we were in some Marxist environment, then perhaps.

The the statement that exploitation, apparently defined as not providing a pension, is a mortal sin. Looking at the Old Testament, and then to the New, I saw nothing; perhaps this was written on the third stone Moses left on the mountain. Exploitation means no health care and no pension. But if the salary is at market then why not buy your own health care, why is it a moral imperative?

I suspect we need more Grammar, more Logic, more Rhetoric and a little disputation. Words mean something, so do the realities of the market.

Yet perhaps we should examine some recent comments by the NY Times on the Jesuits.  As they noted:

The human cargo was loaded on ships at a bustling wharf in the nation’s capital, destined for the plantations of the Deep South. Some slaves pleaded for rosaries as they were rounded up, praying for deliverance. But on this day, in the fall of 1838, no one was spared: not the 2-month-old baby and her mother, not the field hands, not the shoemaker and not Cornelius Hawkins, who was about 13 years old when he was forced onboard. Their panic and desperation would be mostly forgotten for more than a century. But this was no ordinary slave sale. The enslaved African-Americans had belonged to the nation’s most prominent Jesuit priests. And they were sold, along with scores of others, to help secure the future of the premier Catholic institution of higher learning at the time, known today as Georgetown University.

Yes the Washington based home of Presidents, Diplomats and CIA Heads was also the home of slaves and sold these slaves to preserve itself. This was done well withing the movement in the North to abolish slavery as a morally reprehensible act. Yet to these Jesuits it was a business transaction. Thus if one follows the Logic of the Bishop of Rome these people, the Jesuits, should be guilty to mortal sins, thus anathema, since clearly they were in chains and their freedom was taken away, again and again. Then perhaps we should rip these sinners from their graves on the Washington cemeteries and declare them anathema.

One should always be certain that their house is clean before complaining of others.