Erga Mortuos, Nihil Nisi Caritas

What better image of sassing the dead than the Cadaver Synod?

Chris Hallquist is asking whether there’s any reason to read the works of the dead charitably.  When it comes to the living, he can see the following advantages:

  • Charity helps avoid flame wars
  • It’s good to be careful not to unjustifiably damage someone’s reputation
  • From a Machiavellian point of view, it’s nice to close off responses of the form, “what I meant was…”

But he doesn’t think any of them carry over when the author is dead.

I’ve got a couple objections, so let me list them along a spectrum from most pragmatic to most highfalutin’ philosophical.

First of all, you can get into flame wars with disciples of the dead thinker you’re disparaging, and you’d like to be able to make sure you’re not attacking a straw man version of their idol for the same practical reasons that Hallquist lays out.

Second, it’s pretty hard to set up two modes in your head, one for reading dead people, one for the living.  I don’t pay that much attention to bylines or publication dates.  Before I peek at Wikipedia, I have no idea whether Alistair MacIntyre is still alive.  (It turns out that he is alive and also that his first name is actually Alasdair).

Since this data is something I need to consciously recall or even look-up, I don’t really want to use it as a switch for my charity toward others ideas.  Hallquist has posited some good consequences of reading living authors charitably, and no major ill effects of reading dead ones charitable, so why would I pick a sorting criteria that gives me false positives for “Is it ok to read this person uncharitably?”

Third, my default reading approach sucks for learning.  Reading antagonistically tends to limit your ability to be surprised and interested in new data.  If I’m trying to learn from these authors, even if only to be able to beat up on their disciples more effectively, I need to be able to understand how they think.  If you think like your opponent, you might be able to build a path from her actual starting point toward the belief you’re trying to pitch.  If you just keep thinking like you, all you’ve got is a reason to not move off your peak in the space of all possible philosophies.

Third-and-a-half: it really sucks with regard to the dead.  Look, the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.  So,when you read the works of dead people (especially the very dead) you need to remember you’re reading them in a language that you’re not fluent in.  If I have a conversation with a native speaker in my not quite passable French (I have a tendency to default all my verbs to third person singular present), I’m relying on them to bridge the gap by listening charitably.  If you don’t do that when reading authors from a different age, whose English words (substance, cause, etc) may not mean what your used to in a modern context, you’ll end up leading yourself astray and fighting with a counterfactual.

Fourth, I am what I do.  When I read or argue with anyone uncharitably, I am training uncharity in myself.  It doesn’t matter if the thinker is dead (or even fictional!).  It doesn’t matter if the ideas really are too dumb to engage (why am I reading them anyway in this case?).  What matters is that I’ve just worn the rut that leads me to be unkind, prideful, etc a little deeper.  I’m going to have to wrench that much harder next time I sit down to read in order to pull myself out and be good.

Look, I’m really really lazy.  I don’t trust my future self to make a good choice under that level of strain.  I want my present actions to build up virtuous habits, so I can get to the right answer with less strain next time around.


Thanks to the classical scholars of facebook, who offered the title as a way to tweak “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” so I could say “Towards the dead, nothing if not charity”

UPDATE: the hivemind has revised its translation advice.  The original title was Erga Mortuis, Nihil Nisi Caritas, but I’ve been advised to switch it to either Erga Mortuos, Nihil Nisi Caritas or just plain Mortuis nihil nisi caritas (because the person translating it the unspoken verb was donatum est.

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  • Well said. It goes back to the point of reading/conversing. If you just read to affirm yourself, enjoy your solitude/echo chamber. If you read/converse to learn and convince (or be convinced) then charity is critical.

  • Jared

    [Those scholars didn’t get it quite right: “erga” takes the accusative. Should be mortuos, not mortuis.]

  • “If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents’ arguments. But if you’re interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents’ arguments for them. To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse.”
    — Black Belt Bayesian

    • …on rereading this, I’m not sure if the “from its corpse” metaphor is especially appropriate or especially inappropriate in context o_O;;

      • deiseach

        Catholicism: come for the Scholastic theology, stay for the Cadaver Synods!

        (Or vice versa).


    • “When I disagree with a rational man, I let reality be our final arbiter. If I am right, he will learn; if I am wrong, I will; one of us will win, but both will profit.” (Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged)

      • On this one I think the Black Belt Bayesian’s version is superior. The thing is that for Randians “a rational man” is pretty much defined as a Randian, which makes the whole thing a lot less impressive. Yudkowskyans too are parochial enough to define a “rationalist” as a Yudkowskyan, but note how the steel-manning obligation is not limited to rationalists.

        • for Randians “a rational man” is pretty much defined as a Randian

          Maybe, but I take it literally, so that “rational” simply means someone who looks at facts, not the way they wish things were. It works pretty well.

  • As GK Chesterton said, “Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Or the handy “de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est”

  • He claims “people say absurd things often enough.” I just don’t agree with that. If you think that then you are probably not understanding other people very well. People do not say things that are absurd from their point of view. They might be absurd from yours but if you don’t understand why it is not from theirs then you are wasting your time reading. This is especially true of the dead because most absurd things written a long time ago are lost in obscurity. The things that have been preserved are preserved for a reason. Normally because somebody values them.

  • Just curious: how would a non-virtue ethics approach deal with Leah’s Fourth reason. I can imagine a Utilitarian reading “I am what I do” and replying, “No you aren’t!” or a Kantian replying “That’s right: a lawbreaker or a lawkeeper,” or a Nietschean crying out “Yes! So do something powerful! Don’t worry about what anyone else wants.”

    (Yes, I know those are oversimplified to the point of parody; but I really do wonder how others read that paragraph.)

    • Ray

      It’s odd you say that a Utilitarian would reject the fourth point, because to my reading it is a utilitarian argument; She thinks reading non-charitably now is bad, because it will have bad consequences in the future. Now this rests upon the psychological claim that in addition to the direct consequences of reading dead philosophers uncharitably, which may be fairly innocuous, there is an indirect consequence, which is that the future Leah will read live philosophers uncharitably, resulting in much worse consequences down the road. But as far as I know, utilitarianism, as such, makes no psychological claims whatsoever, so this shouldn’t create a problem.

      What would really kill her argument would be a belief in Libertarian free will, which would most likely deny the possibility that her present choices could prevent her from making different choices in the future.

    • Ryan,

      Historically utilitarians and Kantians have also often had virtue theories (both Mill and Kant, for instance, have a very important place for virtues) — what distinguishes them from virtue ethics is not that they don’t think virtues are important but how they determine what counts as genuinely virtuous, and the derivative role virtue plays in their moral theory.

      Nietzsche, of course, is a different matter entirely. But Nietzsche’s approach to history is very nuanced and difficult to summarize at all.

      • Sorry, that should be ‘Robert King’; the problem with reading more than one thing at a time is that you start mixing them.

  • Ted Seeber

    I for one am really bad at this, which is why I get into so many flame wars.

    What really brought it home for me was realizing the demographic bubble of clergy sex abuse. Once I figured out that it was roughly (very roughly, after all, Fr. Angel Perez was just arrested a few weeks ago in my home state for an abuse act that had happened so quickly that the Archdiocese didn’t even know about it until they read the police report in the newspaper) the same time frame as the Sexual Revolution, it made it a lot easier to treat both the accused and the accusers with charity (because if your parents have just divorced, you don’t know if you are attracted to girls yet, and a priest who is incredibly sexually confused himself wants to spend time with you, you might just mistake an abusive relationship for a substitute father figure).



  • I am thoroughly confused about why one would ever read something uncharitably, if by uncharitably we mean that we assume before putting substantial cognitive effort that they are saying something absurd. I know that I have done that sort of thing before, and will likely do it again, but when that action is called to my attention I will admit it was an error. What defense for reading uncharitably could a person mount? Holquist does not give one, I see; he only dismantles the arguments for reading charitably that he knows, without giving a reason for doing the alternative. I should check his comments and see what is happen there.

    • Ray

      I suppose one could be equally confused about why someone would ever read something CHARITABLY, if by charitably we mean that we assume, before putting in substantial cognitive effort, that they are NOT saying something absurd, especially in cases where a cursory reading suggests the are.

      What Hallquist seems to be saying is that putting a favorable interpretation that doesn’t really fit on a philosopher you like is at least as common a mistake as putting an unfavorable interpretation that doesn’t really fit on a philosopher you don’t like. If the goal is to figure out what the philosopher meant by his words, rather than to affirm his greatness, then an uncharitable reading is sometimes warranted, and if Hallquist is right, it is warranted more often than modern philosophers generally assume.

      • OK, yes. I see that. I suppose that I am replacing what he means with “charitably” with what I mean by that same word: do not assume that they are absurd when they mightn’t be. But charitably was defined as “assume it’s NOT absurd,” which is also a problem. It would probably be better to make no assumptions until you’ve put some work in.

  • deiseach

    Fifth, you’ll be dead yourself some day. Now, maybe you don’t expect your works to be so important as to survive to be matters of debate or used as evidence and/or weapons in such debates after your death, but you never know – after all, did the people who dumped their rubbish at Oxyrhynchus expect that, 1,400 years later, scholars would be eagerly digging through the scraps?

    So if you want to be understood as saying what you intended to say, you should extend the same courtesy to your forebears. If you’re reading your own polemics backwards into the past, why do you think the future will do any different by you? And if you don’t want to be used as support for “21st century Americans thought Lady Gaga was original!”, then don’t say “Dark Age Europeans thought the earth was flat, until Columbus re-discovered Classical science!”

  • Charitable, uncharitable…
    What about looking for truth or falseness and not attributing to someone intentions other than what can be read from the discourse or action?

    Any real philosopher is indifferent to his theories being approved or contradicted if the approver as well as the contradictor argue their case correctly. Plato in the otherworld certainly applauded Aristotle’s corrections, and most of all St. Thomas’ corrections, that gave his idealistic system a perfect fit in the angelic world.

  • Charitable, uncharitable…
    What about looking for truth or falseness and not attributing to someone intentions other than what can be read from the discourse or action?

    +1 to that. I’m not seeing how “charity” has anything to do with the question of reading somebody. Is it like Wikipedia’s principle of “Assume good faith”? If so, isn’t that just logic, not charity?

    • Assume good faith: I think it is an appeal to honest and informed people to work on Wikipedia and a polite way to tell the others they are not welcome. But man being what he is, good faith is utterly insufficient in most matters. You absolutely need to cross-reference on everything as there are so many people who talk and write nonsense, sometimes dangerous nonsense, in all good faith. Logic also is insufficient. Love of truth — implying of course belief in absolute truth, as well as in absolute good on which all the rest is measured — is essential to learn discernment.

      • Alan

        Love of truth need not imply absolute truth or absolute good – one can recognize that truth can be contextual and still love seeking it.

        But you are certainly right there are so many people who talk and write nonsense, sometimes dangerous nonsense, in all good faith – and many people who you may take as reflecting absolute truth are probably among them.

        • So then what does all this have to do with charity? Still puzzled on that.

          • Ted Seeber

            I think what you are puzzled on is the Catholic version of the word charity vs the materialist version. They are related- but the Catholic version is far more expansive, and covers such things as assuming people are trying to be good even when they are at their most evil, comforting the person merely in psychological pain who has all of their material needs already provided for, and even mere moral support.

        • If there is truth, there is necessarily an absolute truth. To pretend the contrary is illogical. How can you measure anything, specially a relative truth, if not against a reliable standard? An arbitrary man-made standard is not stable by definition, but only as long as men agree it is so.

          Of course, love of truth exists even amidst error, because our intellect is made for truth and for nothing else. But it can very well mistake error for truth in all good faith, thanks to unrestrained emotions and passions messing the will and obscuring the intellect. This logically happens all the time in a worldview where there is no absolute and objective truth and good measuring all things.