Impractical Ugliness

There was a building I worked in for about five years that had a flat roof, a plain and industrial exterior, and buckets scattered about the halls and rooms. These buckets collected the rainwater that would seep through the roof of the building, which seemed to be a problem even with repairs and replacements happening almost yearly.

As I’ve written about previously, beauty is not merely subjective, and architecture provides a great demonstration of that fact. Modern buildings are often ugly, industrial, inhuman, and – as a side-effect of being ugly – impractical. A library at a nearby university has metal growths protruding from around the only windows, blocking most of the light from getting in. This was done intentionally for “stylistic” reasons. To paraphrase a quote I can’t quite remember: “The only societies which claim that beauty is subjective are those which aren’t talented enough to create beauty”.

Talent is part of it, and so is patience, and so is philosophy. If you are taught in art or architecture school that beauty is subjective, you’ll start acting like it. Things need not be true in order for students to be indoctrinated to believe them.

When you compare the typical modern industrial building with even a 19th century factory, you find that the modern buildings tend to be less sophisticated in design. Just as with much of modern art, sophisticated modern architecture looks like it required less labor, less design, less imagination, and less wisdom. This seems to be the intent, though. As ugly as modern structures usually are, architects still design them that way.

The cathedrals of the late medieval period are my favorite contradiction to modern ugliness. Every detail – large and small – has a purpose. The height, the width, the flying buttresses, the towers, the great rooms; these inspire awe and a sense of humility. The stained glass reminds us of great truths and that the truth is beautiful. The crenelations and detailed stonework show us that skilled artisans and craftsmen were at work; not mere laborers. These were men – often multiple generations of men – whose skill is on display for centuries. These cathedrals do not leak. They let enough light in during the day. They do not collapse.

Compare this to our modern industrial buildings which disappear after a few decades without anyone remembering them. Most of all, compare the fact that our cultural desire for ugliness is so strong that we want flat roofs on our buildings despite universal knowledge that it rains.

Digital Limitations

If you’ve never heard of the Art of Manliness, you need to head over and check it out. It’s one of the best sites around. Thanks to a culture that demeans masculinity more every year and devalues fathers and husbands, we really need content like the Art of Manliness provides.

The AoM Podcast (which you should subscribe to) recently featured a book by David Sax called The Revenge of the Analog. I haven’t read the book, but the interview was thorough, and I got the impression that author has a pretty good idea of the situation he is describing. The essential point he makes in the book is that, despite the benefits of digital technology, people are increasingly moving away from digital approaches to doing things that can be done by hand. A few examples he offers are:

  • A demand for vinyl records that has caused a rebirth of the record pressing and distribution industries.
  • Paper planners, calendars, and pocket notes.
  • Physical books dominating an industry that was “fated”, according to experts several years ago, to be entirely digital by now.

He made the important point during the interview that these things aren’t simply an example of hipsters wanting to differentiate themselves. Most of these things are being purchased and used by all kinds of people, and the industries making them are growing; a sign that this is a mainstream phenomenon. It’s also a phenomenon the author discovered first-hand.

David Sax relates a story during the podcast about how he and a roommate had set up a digital music system through their home to stream audio from a computer. They suddenly had access to any music they wanted at any time in any room they wanted it with a couple of clicks. Within a few weeks, the amount of music that was actually played had dropped to almost nothing. There was something about the digital approach that made listening to music lose its appeal.

The interview shifted from descriptions of the phenomenon to explanations early on, and I agree with several of the points the author made. First of all, the move away from digital products isn’t caused by a single force. There are all sorts of different reasons and they vary depending on who you talk to. Second, very few people are interested in giving up every digital luxury they have. Instead, it seems that people want a balance that doesn’t exclude physical objects, and that in many cases (but not all), physical objects are preferred.

The motivations for these preferences were described as irrational, which was about the only thing I disagreed with. It’s true that people give up some convenience and features by choosing physical objects instead of digital replacements, but I think the choice is rational. In fact, I think the choice is spiritual. This was an element that I didn’t hear in the interview, but which may be in the book.

From a Christian perspective, I can affirm the tangible benefits of reading a physical book over a digital book, for instance (it’s easier to remember the content when you can imagine the book; books allow for note-taking; books don’t require power). But there are certain intangible benefits that I think are spiritual in nature that I think the Christian worldview can account for.

God created the physical world and He called it Good. It’s His Creation, after all. There’s something in our human natures that makes us appreciate physical objects. There’s something in the nature of men especially, I’ve found, that makes us appreciate collections of physical objects and their maintenance and organization. In a fallen world and with our human nature corrupted so that we can fall into sin by coveting what others have, by being inordinately proud of what we own, by thinking ourselves better than others for our possessions, or by thinking that physical things are ultimate. These are terrible things and we need to carefully avoid each of them. But these are sinful precisely because they corrupt something good. And what is good is human beings creatively making things like their Father before them and maintaining Creation. There’s something about physically sensing a book through sight, touch, and smell which reminds us of the creative process and which lets us maintain Creation itself in a small way. That isn’t to say that digital incarnations are somehow bad or not a result of human creativity, but that physical objects have a benefit that can’t really be transferred to digital counterparts.

I think the “revenge of the analog” is a small symptom of a larger desire that our civilization has to move back to something more concrete, universal, and objective. People have been jaded by promises that we can control everything about ourselves and our natures which aren’t true. The same movement is seen in the increased interest in liturgy in churches, in Christianity in philosophy departments, in more interest being generated for trades than graduate degrees, and even in a booming board game industry.

It seems like we’ve reached the tipping point in our world where enough people are ready to move back to more permanent things that even people not paying attention to them are starting to notice the effects. And this is a good thing.

Beauty and Difficulty

One thing I ask from the LORD, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.  – Psalm 27:4

I once overheard an artist who, while looking at a detailed and realistic painting done by someone else, remarked that it “was probably very easy to make”. The context of the comment implied that things were more beautiful – or more artistic – if they are harder to make.

There does not seem to be a real causal relationship between difficulty and beauty, though. In fact, the inverse seems to be true. This isn’t limited to art and beauty either.

As an experienced software developer, it is easy for me to write software that works, is easy to understand, and is easy to maintain. It’s objectively better software in every important way to something written by someone who is just entering the field. That makes sense; I should be getting better at what I’m doing over time, making it easier to do.

If this is the case, then the fact it is easy for me to create is not a comment about how good the product is, but how much skill and experience I have. The same seems to be true of any job you can think of. A skilled architect will have an easier time designing a house than someone who has never designed anything.

At the same time, just because the creation of a piece of art was difficult, time-consuming, or tedious, there’s no reason to think the art is beautiful. It takes a long time to write your name 500,000 times; much longer than writing it once. Is doing one rather than the other really more beautiful? It’s certainly more difficult, but I think this is an obvious example where a thing being difficult doesn’t cause it to become beautiful.

Aristotle’s description of ethics is along the same lines. He argued when you want to find a good person, you don’t look for someone who struggles to do good things and, by his will, overcomes the struggle in the end. This effort is admirable, but a good person will not struggle to do good things and avoid evil things. It will seem effortless for him. In neither case is the definition of goodness related to how easy it is for a person to do good things. In the same way, beauty is not related to how much people struggle with it.

We also don’t know how difficult it was to make a piece of art unless we know more details than the art itself gives us. If we are experienced in the technique used, we might know how hard it is to learn the technique and how much effort was applied in using the technique. But we can’t know how hard it was for the person who created the art. That would require us asking them. But it seems we can figure out whether a piece of art is beautiful even if we don’t know the artist or can’t ask him how hard it was to make. Again, beauty doesn’t seem related to how much people struggle with making beautiful art.

So what does make something beautiful?

In looking up the verse I intended to put at the beginning of the article, I found this quote on the generally good Bible Study Tools website when searching on the topic of beauty:

The saying “Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” goes to say that defining beauty can be tough. However, God’s words can lead us to discover what our individual meaning of beauty truly is and should be; that is deter from looking at physical appearance for God looks at the heart in all people and things. Use these Bible verses to find the real beauty in yourself, others, and what surrounds us.

I think this is incorrect for several reasons, and interestingly, not Biblical given the verses that follow.

The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is less than 200 years old. If beauty is difficult to define (specifically: define), and I agree that it is difficult to do so, it seems strange it would take thousands and thousands of years of human experience to arrive to this insight. In reality, the quote came at a time when beauty had been relativized, in part thanks to the same leveling forces that eventually relativized truth and goodness, too. The quote is intended to make beauty subjective. “In the eye of the beholder” means “according to the subject”. This in contrast to the object.

Biblically, God is beautiful. He is the source of beauty. This means that beauty can’t possibly be subjective – even though our experience of it necessarily is, like all experiences. The quotation from Bible Study Tools is correct in saying that our definition ought to conform to Scripture, and that we can be wrong about what beauty is (this affirms the objective nature of it). However, it is misleading to say that beauty at the physical level is superficial because God searches our hearts. He might search our hearts and know us more deeply than we know ourselves, but He also created our physical bodies and the physical world we live in and all the beauty we can see and hear. This physical world won’t last forever, but it isn’t superficial. It’s particularly misleading when people aren’t concerned with creating beautiful art or with looking as best they can. I don’t think a person can be fully trusted with getting at the inner beauty of things if they don’t even have the right idea or skill at getting to physical beauty.

If you aren’t a Christian, it is still strange to try and say that beauty is subjective. We have art schools training artists all around the world. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then are these schools just teaching popular techniques? What are the techniques for? Why does anyone need technique? As popular as postmodernism and relativism is at art schools, I think the administrators know better than to push this to it’s reasonable conclusion. If they did, the students might realize their time would be better spent not spending tens of thousands of dollars improving their technique at creating things that are totally subjective.

Similarly, it’s strange that we have art museums and art galleries if art is subjective. Why is some art worthy of hanging on the wall in an art museum? Given some of the horrible, insulting pieces I’ve seen (solid-color canvases with a single bar of another color shoddily painted on top), it doesn’t seem much thought goes into determining what should hang on an art museum wall and what should be thrown in the trash. But what really qualifies some pieces and not others? Is it a democratic process? Who says? And where do I get to vote?

As I said earlier, beauty is difficult to define. But it isn’t difficult or impossible to describe. Beautiful things have a symmetry to them. This doesn’t need to mean things are identical when split in half; it is more in terms of weight (e.g. a house could have wide room on one side and a tall room on the other). Beautiful things have emphasis on the important elements, with other elements receding into the background while they complement the foreground. Beautiful things are true; they don’t mislead or glorify evil.

With the issue of difficulty addressed, I’d like to address the issue of ugliness in modern art sometime in the future. I think modern art, in general, is intentionally ugly and insulting. It would be good to talk about it in detail, but it deserves its own post.

A Critique of Salary

Articles about business are often full of jargon, ugliness, and imprecision, but I recently discovered an article on salaries that seems to avoid egregious examples of those linguistic evils. I had been looking into the origin of the term “salary” and the bureaucratic inventions based on it: “salaried exempt” and “salaried non-exempt.”

I’m a software engineer, and like most of the people who work on software, I am paid according to the “salaried exempt” rules. This is like a normal salary (I am paid a certain amount of money over the course of the year for my work, rather than per hour), except that my company is not required to pay me if I need to work extra hours to get my job done. Not all companies don’t abuse this policy, and my own actually provides some extra money to a point for overtime. Nevertheless, I have some critical thoughts of the entire concept of salary.

I’m not writing this to just summarize my thoughts on salary, but to compare and contrast them with the article I mentioned, which is titled “4 reasons why companies can ask their employees to work for ‘free'”. Lack of capitalization aside, I already have some problems with this. I’m not interested in why a company can ask their employees to work for free. The answer is intuitively obvious: it’s legal. The author talks about the legality of salaried employees being asked to work extra hours, so at least she covers the title. However, out of her four sections, only half talk about why employers can do this. The other half talk about why they would choose to.

A leaked Urban Outfitters memo from 2015 was the motivation for the article, itself written two years ago. It begins (emphasis mine):

The leaked Urban Outfitters memo asking salaried employees to volunteer one or more weekend shifts at an Urban Outfitters fulfillment center to pick, pack and ship merchandise is really no story at all, despite Internet shaming and sensational claims that Urban Outfitters is making management employees work for “free.”  The request of Urban Outfitters is not unusual; it is just unusual that the request was leaked to the media.  Employers regularly require exempt employees to go over and above a 40-hour work week without additional pay, and this approach is appropriate under wage-hour laws.

My disagreement with the article begins with the first paragraph. We’ll come back to the use of the word “free”, used to describe the hours worked by many salaried employees beyond the contractual obligation they have, and focus for now on the line “this approach is appropriate”. Why is it appropriate? Because it is legal. This is the theme of the article. The salary system in place is legitimate because it is legal, which is almost a tautology. The fact is, I don’t think there are many good reasons to have this system, and I think a lot of people realize that and appeal to the legality of it as justification.

And, while some media commentators have dubbed this as “working for free,” the reality is that the employees are not working for free.  They have agreed to work all required hours in exchange for a certain salary.

This is true, but the “required hours” amount to forty hours every week. What value is an agreement to work forty hours a week if this number is merely a suggestion?

After all, remember that there are salary requirements for exempt employees, so those who are being asked to “volunteer” are being compensated at a higher pay grade, at or above a salary set by our federal and state governments pursuant to public policy considerations.  Therefore, it is in fact “fair” to ask exempt employees for the extra work…

“Fair” in the context of this government means “legal”. It is constantly the reference point for fairness and appropriateness. I think it’s a bad standard though; why is the law written as it is written? The real question is what objectively determines fairness. The author tries to answer this by saying the quantity of money being paid justifies overtime. The salary for exempt employees exceeds an arbitrary government limit in the Fair Labor Standards Act, and is thus “fair”. After another reference to the law, she goes on again to give more rationale:

 The increased responsibility and salary levels of exempt employees also means they likely have more bargaining power in the marketplace and freedom to leave an oppressive employer, so government is less concerned about extra “unpaid” work in their case.

I don’t care what the government is concerned with. I don’t care what the government permits under law. I think it is wrong to require employees to work more hours than they are contractually obligated to work, and I’m convinced the entire concept of “salaried exempt” is absurd. The fact I have “more bargaining power” doesn’t offset this, and it turns out that many salaried exempt positions require such specialized skills that this bargaining is done by more people for fewer jobs anyway.

 1. Employees who are exempt can work over 40 hours without additional compensation.

Her first argument is a restating of the law. Of course employees can be required to work over forty hours without additional pay. We’ve already established this. But the interesting question is why this ought to be the case. Yet another attempt to rationalize this is provided:

Exempt employees take customers to dinner after hours without additional compensation.  They answer after-hour calls and emails without additional compensation.  This happens all the time.  And, it’s legal.

Employees often do things after work hours for which they are not paid and it is legal, so therefore companies can ask employees to work more than forty hours a week. It’s not really an argument, but a restating.

2. Volunteering for additional work does not change the employee’s primary duty.

Exempt employees who “volunteer” for  production type duties (e.g. pick, pack, and ship merchandise) do not have their jobs transformed into hourly non-exempt jobs as long as their primary duty remains exempt.

Again, another restating of the fact that companies can do what we’ve already established they can legally do. It gets a little more interesting after this:

3. Production work doubles as leadership training for exempt workers.

…Rolling up their sleeves to help might provide a real eye-opening education for how hard the hourly employees work and how decisions by exempt  personnel affect those hourly workers.  This could be valuable training for managers, administrators and professionals.  Also, isn’t rolling up your sleeves to perform “undesirable” tasks one definition of leadership?  Leaders should not be above any task, no matter how “menial.”

It isn’t doing undesirable tasks that repulses people from the concept of “salaried exempt”. It’s doing those tasks without getting paid for the extra hours worked. This rationale doesn’t even enter into the discussion when the jobs in question are in world of engineering, since there often isn’t any sort of “leadership” in the sense described here going on.

The fact is, we are no closer to answer as to why this is a good practice than we were when we started. One final reason is given:

4. ‘Volunteer’ work can reduce overtime.

Reducing overtime of hourly workers by asking exempt employees to pitch in, as long as the company does it legally, is a perfectly legitimate business decision.

Some people – who don’t get paid extra for working extra hours – can work in place of those who do get paid extra for working extra hours, which if done legally, is a legitimate business decision. Because, as we’ve already seen many times, it is the legality of the practice that makes it fair, legitimate, and appropriate. Overtime doesn’t reduce overtime, even if it means the business isn’t required to pay as much if they shift the employees working overtime around.

My response to all of this is pretty straightforward. An employee who agrees to a contract to work forty hours each week and then proceeds to do just that for $50,000 a year is making $50,000 / (52 * 40) ≈ $24 dollars an hour. Another employee who agrees to the same contract but who is asked to work evenings and weekends, averaging 50 hours of work a week is making $50,000 / (52 * 50) ≈ $19 an hour. This makes sense; 25% more hours worked for the same amount of money means a corresponding decrease in hourly pay.

A government or business can come along and say “we’re paying you for a certain amount of work, not a certain number of hours”, but this isn’t entirely accurate. If it were, an employee could leave the office after getting their work done. This rarely happens for “salary exempt” employees. It’s more accurate to say that “salary exempt” means working a minimum of forty hours a week and a maximum of whatever the managers of the company ask them to work.

While I don’t think the law is wrong to permit what it does, I think people should be a bit wiser than merely repeating what the law says to justify the behavior of companies. I understand that overtime is sometimes required. Companies can’t anticipate everything that might get in the way of an important deadline, and sometimes there isn’t time to hire and teach new employees (who would need to be laid off once the deadline is achieved anyway). This is fine and even fair as an emergency tactic, but it is a terrible policy for normal work.

I’ve often seen companies require employees to work extra hours to avoid hiring new employees, even though the employees working overtime were hired under the pretense of working forty hours a week. It might be legal, but it isn’t fair. I don’t think the government should come and sue the companies doing this sort of thing, but the employees working the mandatory overtime should probably look for jobs elsewhere. The market has already begun correcting this abuse, and companies are even advertising their commitment to a forty hour workweek as a perk.

Medieval peasants worked fewer hours than we wealthy Americans do, and it’s probably part of the cause of our moral decay as a civilization that we give so little time to genuine rest. Companies expect their employees to give up anything to get their jobs done when it turns out that many of the things employees give up are more valuable than the work.

Consent is Weak

How do you tell if an act is moral? If you ask a typical college student or any of their professors, they’ll have the answer for you right away: If everyone involved in the act consents, it is moral. If anyone does not consent, it is immoral. We’ll call people like this Consent Theorists. It sounds more elaborate than it really deserves.

Consent is a pretty basic concept. As part of one’s moral framework, it has a number of uses, from dealing with contracts and promises to preventing people from forcing people to do things against their will or conscience. However, as basis for moral acts – as it is often presented in the academic and pop culture worlds – it is a miserable failure.

Consent Theory breaks down immediately when you consider criminal law. Criminals don’t consent to being imprisoned or fined for their actions. A Consent Theorist may squirm enough to find a crack and suggest that by committing a crime, a person forfeits their right to demand for consent. This isn’t so much an escape from the problem as an admission that things are even weaker than we thought. Now, consent must obey a higher law. It fails outright at being the basis for morality.

There are other problems with consent as a basis for one’s ethical views. Consent is easily manipulated. You can get someone to consent to anything with the right threats or lies. A Consent Theorist may suggest that such things are wrong; that consent proper requires that someone makes it free of threats and with all of the relevant facts presented to them. This, like criminal law, leads to the problem of a higher law being in place. If consent determines whether acts are moral or immoral, what standard do we have to determine whether one form of consent is better than another?

Aside from these and many other cases where consent quickly gets superseded by some higher moral imperative, it turns out that even if we ignored all of them, consent can only address questions of whether we can do something morally. It fails utterly at compelling us to do things we ought to do. If you see someone drowning, should you throw them a life preserver? Consent says nothing. Sure, both you and the drowning victim could consent to the arrangement, but if you don’t consent yourself, the guy in the water is out of luck. Now, we’re left with the fact that consent is too weak to deal with the real world and too amoral to deal with acts we know are morally required of us in the same axiomatic sense that we know the real world exists.

Why should we even obey the rule of consent in the first place, though? Consent Theory has nothing to say about this. If we ought to seek consent before an act is made moral, why? A Consent Theorist could say that if we consent to Consent Theory, we are compelled to follow it, but this does nothing to those who refuse to do so. It’s a moral outlook that can’t compel anyone to follow it in the first place.

Moral duties and values, however, are strong enough to ground a moral framework, and the fact that Consent Theory must appeal to them proves they precede it. We are compelled to act morally and to abstain from acting immorally. Consent is merely a part of this process; when we engage in acts with others which are morally neutral on their face, consent makes sure we don’t force people to do things they don’t want to do. On the other hand, consent doesn’t make immoral acts moral; it can say nothing of whether engaging in same-sex relations, engaging in pre-marital sexual relations, or assisted suicide are moral or immoral. If those acts are immoral, consent can’t justify them.

Consent isn’t in the business of making immoral acts into moral acts. In its rightful place, it is a servant of moral values and duties. When university professors and media personalities skip over moral values and duties – and their origin – and focus instead of consent, all they do is hide the really interesting and important things. I suppose you’d want to do this if you had a sense what you were doing was wrong. Best not to shine a light on darkness if you love the dark.

American Vices

They say you can tell a lot about a person by seeing what he loves. I think you can tell a lot by what a person hates, too. And not the sort of obvious denunciation-laden hatred that you see at Westboro Baptist “Church” protests. The hatred I’m speaking of is a silent contempt so ingrained in the people who hold it that they don’t consciously think about it.

For instance, American Christians often hold contempt for ritual and tradition. Sometimes this is expressed outwardly, but often it can be seen more clearly in other ways. For example, churches often consider it “progress” to substitute hymns for more modern forms of music, regardless of the quality of content or form that the music takes. While you might overhear people whisper their contempt for those curmudgeons who stand in the way of progress, you’ll often just see it in the shallow theology of the members. Hymns are a very efficient way of sowing theological truths into congregants, and this is lost when they are replaced.

One particular example comes to mind above all others though: wearing formal clothing to church. Putting aside the obviously contemptible reasons to wear a suit and tie when going to church (to appear better than others, to show off, to imagine oneself as more spiritual for doing so), there aren’t too many good reasons to avoid dressing one’s best when attending church.

It is good to dress and look one’s best when attending a funeral, a wedding, or a job interview. You want to give a good impression, but you also have some reverence of the event (at least in the first two scenarios). You know in the back of your mind that these are important things, and you should act importantly, no matter what you feel. But Americans love what the deem authenticity – that situation where you do or say whatever you like without reservation. So when it comes to church, many American Christians think it is actually wrong to dress well. They won’t often say this verbatim (although I’ve heard it). Instead, they’ll treat it as a spiritual accomplishment to no longer be concerned with their own appearance.

For instance, you might hear something like: “I learned it didn’t matter if I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans or a suit. It’s not about the outward appearance, but about the heart.”

On the face of it, who could argue? Of course the clothing we wear doesn’t have a salutary effect on us. Of course the health of our souls is not dictated by our clothing selection. But there is a silent contempt here veiled in spiritual language. For instance, consider this: “I learned it didn’t matter if I told my children that I loved them or not. It’s not about the outward appearance, but about the heart”.

“Aha”, I hear you say. “That’s different. If you love your children, you’ll tell them. The inward has an effect on the outward.” To which I can only agree, and by agreeing, prove my own point. The clothing we wear reflects the seriousness of organized worship.

Someone told me – and I think he was serious – that it was impossible to really know what was meant by “dressing one’s best”. What qualified as “best”? The Sun King of France had something very different in mind than Charles Spurgeon, for instance. But the fact of the matter is that everyone has an idea of what is best in their particular context, else we couldn’t even talk about it. What is “best” might have some subjective variability, but what is “best” is still a superlative, and we can’t make any comparisons without it. If it is better to wear a suit and tie (if you have the means) than to wear underwear alone, the existence of the superlative is already implied.

At the end of the day, it is wiser to dress your best than to argue that it doesn’t matter what you wear. And it is wiser to know what you secretly despise than to find out by having it challenged by someone who doesn’t make the same assumptions about the world as you.

This could easily dovetail into the objective nature of beauty, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

The Four Causes

A Little History

Despite attending multiple colleges and universities and obtaining two degrees, I did not encounter Aristotle’s “four causes” until several years after I had graduated. The few philosophy courses I took spent brief moments discussing Plato before moving 2400 years into the future to spend the rest of the time talking about modernism and postmodernism (one class in particular focused on the professor’s own written material).

I’ve since learned how much of a waste those classes were. The real meat of philosophy is in the ancient, medieval, and early modern world. There have been few philosophers since who have contributed anything of the magnitude that their ancestors did, and often their contributions led to errors repeated for generations. If you want to study good philosophy – and to paraphrase CS Lewis, you should want to study good philosophy if only to answer bad philosophy – you should start at the beginning. Not everything Plato or Aristotle or their successors said was correct, but you can learn a lot even in disagreement.

What Are the Four Causes?

Aristotle in particular had a conception of how to explain the nature of anything and everything, called traditionally the “four causes”: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause.

Consider the human eye for a moment. The material cause of something is the matter of which it is composed, so the material cause of an eye is the various molecular components which make it up. The formal cause of something is the shape or form it has. For the human eye, this includes the overall eye itself as well as the parts which make it up, from the iris, pupil, and lens to the retina.

An efficient cause is like the history of how a thing came to be. A human eye begins to grow early during pregnancy. The whole story of how the eye came to be where it is at the moment you consider it is part of this efficient cause. Finally and fittingly, there is the final cause. This is the telos or “end” of an object; it’s purpose. The purpose of the human eye is to see.

These four causes constitute a comprehensive explanation for anything you can think of, and virtually anything you can know about an object will fall into one of the categories. While this might seem esoteric, consider a very practical use of this information for a human eye.

In medicine (at least medicine traditionally understood and not the postmodern “choose your own adventure” style we increasingly see in mental health and now even in physical health), the goal is to first “do no harm”, but ultimately to mend things that are not working. A human eye can have any number of defects. To know what constitutes a defect, you first need to consider what the final cause of an object is; in our case, sight. So an eye that cannot see well or is blind to color or blind to everything is unhealthy, for it is not capable of realizing its end. Medicine which corrects these problems and enhances vision (be it surgery or contact lenses; even sunglasses depending on the situation) may be “unnatural” in the sense that it is developed by human beings – being artificial (from Latin artificium; a thing people make) – but it is not “unnatural” in the more important sense of going against the nature of the object in question. Medicine which restores sight to a blind person or which corrects nearsightedness restores natural function, because it enables the final cause of the object to be realized. In this sense, good medicine is eminently natural. Obviously, a good knowledge of the formal, material, and efficient causation of an eye is required to develop medicine as well.

An Interesting Discovery

In his book “Summa Philosophica”, Peter Kreeft answers the question “Whether there are four causes?” in his section on cosmology. He answers in the affirmative, but one of the notes he made helped me realize that even if today we don’t discuss the four causes in the language I used above, we still talk about them in language very similar to it. He proposes this objection to the idea that the four causes exist:

We no longer use the word “cause” to refer to the two internal elements or dimensions that Aristotle called “formal” and “material” causes.

He responds, in part:

We still use the word “because” for all four causes, even though we no longer use the word “cause” for the first two. E.g. we say that an enclosed plane figure is a triangle “because” it has three angles (formal causality), or that paper towels mop up liquid “because” of their capillary structure (material causality).

My entire life, and likely yours as well, you’ve used the language of the four Aristotelian causes and have never even noticed.

A triangle is a triangle because it has three sides. (formal causality)

A bullet pierces because it is made of metal. (material causality

A car is in your garage because you drove it there. (efficient causality)

An eye is healthy because it sees. (final causality)