The Tuesday

Politics & Policy

The Devil and Garry Wills

President Joe Biden departs Holy Trinity Catholic Church on the first Sunday as president in Washington, D.C., January 24, 2021. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

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What Have We Learned?

One of the great ironies of the abortion debate is that the pro-life camp, purportedly made up of religious fanatics, mostly wants to talk about biology, while the notionally secular pro-abortion faction has embraced a medieval superstition about “ensoulment” and “quickening,” as exemplified most recently by Garry Wills’s latest New York Times essay, flabbergasting in its simplemindedness, on Joe Biden and the Catholic bishops.

Wills’s column is the sort of Dark Ages hoo-haw that gives Dark Ages hoo-haw a bad name.

We shouldn’t live by prehistoric superstition when we have better alternatives, but we shouldn’t sneer at our forebears as primitive — they would recognize us, and we should recognize them and recognize ourselves in them. As James George Frazer argued in The Golden Bough, magic is the embarrassing ancestor of science, the fruit of mankind’s earliest efforts to produce a systematic explanation of the physical world and natural phenomena. Is the thunder really the Sky Father  shaking his shield? No, of course not, but put yourself in the place of those early men: Everybody you know believes that the Sky Father causes thunder, everybody you have ever known believes it, the people of the highest standing in your community attest to it, your father and your grandfather believed it and, even if you were to question it — and here’s the most important part — what’s the next-best explanation?

The elaboration and refinement of next-best explanations over centuries — and not very many centuries — took us from Jupiter and Minerva and orgiastic cereal rituals to physics and genetics and space tourism. And that happened really, really quickly: The time between the first organized human agriculture and today constitutes about 3 percent of the totality of human history. Or think of it this way: When Joe Biden was born, Nikola Tesla and Piet Mondrian were still alive — two Joe Bidens ago, Ulysses Grant was just taking charge of Union troops, and three Joe Bidens ago, they were hashing out the Constitution in Philadelphia while Mozart was swanning around Prague. We are anatomically the same animals as our caveman ancestors, but our social evolution has moved with incredible speed in the last three centuries. The number of years that passed between the first flight at Kitty Hawk and the moon landing is fewer than the number of years Oprah Winfrey has been walking the earth. We have had electric lights for about 0.04 precent of the time Homo sapiens has been around, and yet that short span has been enough time for us to go from Edison bulbs to iPhones. But for the other 99.96 percent of human history, we worked by firelight — or shivered in the darkness.

So we should not laugh too hard at the old superstitions — and, more to the point, we should not be very surprised to see many of those superstitions survive into our own time. The myth about Ronald Reagan’s refusal to say the word “AIDS” as president is the modern answer to the old belief that the touch of a king could cure scrofula, just as the American folk belief that the nation’s economic performance is a judgment on the character of the president is an echo of the ancient superstition that the king’s piety ensured good crops and fecund livestock while his impiety brought about drought or plague. (If I’ve been hitting that theme more often, it is because I am writing a book about it.) We are superstitious creatures, and magic is never far from our minds.

It is probably worth noting here that our modern attitudes toward science are in many ways like our ancestors’ attitudes toward magic or religion, which is to say, they are informed by a status game. Not one American in 10,000 has the scientific training to engage meaningfully with the science touching climate change, evolution, or vaccines, and our attitudes toward those things mostly reflect tribal identities: Team Fauci vs. Team Trump. This leads to all kinds of stupidity, from young-Earth creationism (an astonishingly common view among Americans) to anti-vaccine kookery to, in the case at hand, the denialism — human denialism — at the center of the abortion debate.

What’s rare about Wills’s essay is that he forthrightly connects his thinking to Dark Ages superstitions and expects (not without some reason) that the readers of the New York Times opinion pages, who sway in the wind like a field of rotten corn, will be satisfied with that.

Wills demands to know: If Christians of old thought abortion a serious matter, then why is Judas at the bottom of Dante’s inferno, rather than a gang of abortionists? (Seriously, that’s where he starts. Judas, of course, is not alone at the bottom of the pit — Brutus and Cassius are there with him, because Dante did not share my view that Brutus is the hero of that story and Julius Caesar the villain. But that’s for another week.) Dante’s Divine Comedy is an idiosyncratic allegorical work mainly concerned with the personalities and events of 14th-century Florence and historical figures connected to them. It is not a map of medieval moral orthodoxy and certainly not a statement of Christian religious orthodoxy, a fact that was obvious enough to the agents of the Inquisition who censored it. I admire Dante deeply, but his moral schematic is his own.

A better indication of the state of public thinking about abortion in Dante’s time and place might be found, to take one obvious example, in the laws of the nearby Tuscan cities of Siena and Castiglion Aretino, which “prescribed the death penalty for anyone supplying abortifacient herbs to [a] pregnant woman causing her to abort the fetus,” according to Jurists and Jurisprudence in Medieval Italy: Texts and Contexts. Abortion was covered as a category of homicide or as a stand-alone crime in the laws of Milan, Genoa, Benevento, etc. Dante, a man of politics, must have been familiar with these statutes or similar ones. He may even have objected to them for the same reason Wills objects to similar statutes in our time.

While custom and law varied from place to place in the Christian world, and it is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between medieval law and our own (abortion was treated as something closer to a tort than a crime in much of Europe in the Middle Ages, but, then, so in many cases was murder, at least murder that was not political in character, murder of a commoner that did not touch the state or the royal household; many other acts that we would think of as serious crimes in our time were treated similarly, and that treatment does not necessarily indicate that these matters were thought of as inconsequential), it is remarkable how similar ancient disputes about abortion are to our own: For example, enforceability was a pressing issue in medieval abortion law (it was difficult to prove that an abortion was induced rather than a natural miscarriage, and sometimes difficult to prove even that there had been a pregnancy) and the matter was understood to be graver later in the pregnancy.

Dante seems to have shared the common view that the unborn progress toward humanity and that, in some point during the pregnancy, a soul is conferred by God — see Purgatorio Canto 25, where Dante puts this explanation into the mouth of the Roman poet Statius:

Open thy bosom to the truth that comes.
Know soon as in the embryo, to the brain,
Articulation is complete, then turns
The primal Mover with a smile of joy
On such great work of nature, and imbreathes
New spirit replete with virtue, that what here
Active it finds, to its own substance draws,
And forms an individual soul, that lives,
And feels, and bends reflective on itself.
And that thou less mayst marvel at the word,
Mark the sun’s heat, how that to wine doth change,
Mix’d with the moisture filter’d through the vine.

Here, Dante is writing under the influence of the classical philosophers, but his fellow Italians did not swallow the Greco-Roman view whole: The influential legal commentator Accursius, who died just before Dante was born, had suggested that the Roman punishment for abortion, banishment, was adequate only for abortions induced in the first 40 days of a pregnancy, whereafter, he thought, the penalty should be death. This line of thinking was not uncommon.

Wills sees the gradualist view in Aquinas and attributes it to the influence of Aristotle:

Aristotle told him—that it came at or near childbirth, after an earlier stage of having a nutritive soul (like plant life), which developed into an animal soul, at last receiving a rational soul. Thomas kept Aristotle’s biology, just adding that God himself infuses the soul into the body at some unspecified time during the last stage of this process.

I have no doubt that Wills is correct that Aquinas took this idea from “Aristotle’s biology.” And Aristotle’s biology was excellent — for its time. As it turns out, we have learned a few things since Aristotle was scrawling his thoughts in charcoal on animal skins by the light of a fire he started by banging rocks together. Aristotle’s biology was primitive, mistaken, and, from the point of view of our own time, preposterous. It is difficult to believe that if Aristotle had access to 21st-century science and technology he would maintain his 4th-century B.C. views, just as Dante probably would have modified his 14th-century A.D. views if he knew what we know.

There isn’t some magical thing that happens in the last three weeks of pregnancy that changes the unborn from a “sea sponge” (Dante’s description) into a human being. The ancients, believing that the soul animated matter, took detectable fetal movement as the sign of “quickening” or “ensoulment.” (Islamic law has traditionally taken the same view, prohibiting abortion only after 120 days.) We now know, for example, that fetal movement starts only a few weeks in — before many women even know they are pregnant. We now know that there is a detectable heartbeat at only five weeks in. Etc. These aren’t pro-life points: They are the simple facts of the case.

There simply isn’t some dramatic thing that happens late in the pregnancy that radically changes the organism in question — to maintain otherwise is pure superstition, but it is a popular superstition, because it buttresses the legal fiction of “personhood,” under which those who wish to permit abortions are able to define “human being” in a way that excludes the (1) individual (2) living (3) human (4) organism they wish to see put to death.

Wills must at some level understand that this is preposterous, which is why he retreats into the further preposterousness:

The religious opponents of abortion think that the human person actually antedates the Aristotelian scheme, dating it from “conception” (when the semen fertilizes the ovum). But the Catholic theologian Bernard Häring points out that at least half of the fertilized eggs fail to achieve “nidation”—adherence to the uterus—making nature and nature’s God guilty of a greater “holocaust” of unborn babies than abortion accounts for, if the fertilized ovum is a “baby.”

Presumably, if God wanted a world in which there were no mass murders or genocides, then He, being omnipotent, could do something about that. He doesn’t. It does not follow that we are directed to be indifferent to mass murders and genocides and other great evils that are the product of human volition. God also permits plagues and disasters, and we work on vaccines and countermeasures. The fact that many pregnancies fail to take does not tell us anything at all about the moral standing of intentional abortion, any more than the fact that everybody dies tells us anything about the morality of murder or war. This is shockingly immature stuff from Wills, who is too old for this schoolboy theodicy. He should be embarrassed to write such things. But it gets worse:

The opponents of abortion who call themselves “pro-life” make any form of human life, even pre-nidation ova, sacred. But my clipped fingernails or trimmed hairs are human life.

This is either the dumbest thing published in the New York Times since the last time Paul Krugman wrote or it is willfully misleading, a bad-faith argument. Because, as you may have noticed, you can give your children a haircut or trim their nails without controversy — this does not mean that you can kill them if they get in the way of your social life or cost too much money. Likewise, you can tattoo or pierce yourself all you like, but tattooing or piercing a stranger without his permission is a crime. The morally relevant level of organization here is organism, not tissue. An unborn child is an (1) individual (2) living (3) human (4) organism, not a part of another organism. It is an individual in the sense of being biologically distinct from its parents, living in the sense of being composed of tissue that is living rather than tissue that is dead, human as opposed to rutabaga or salamander, and an organism as opposed to a pile of toenail clippings, a tumor, or a pint of donated blood. These are not interpretations or religious revelations. These are facts as well-attested as any biology has to offer. “Ensoulment” and similar superstitions are simply ways of changing the subject: moral cowardice and intellectual cowardice.

Dante had the excuse of not knowing these facts. Garry Wills does not.

The rest of this tedious nonsense you will have heard before in other generally adolescent contexts. Neither Jesus nor the Bible explicitly condemns abortion, Wills notes. Maybe “Thou shalt not kill” isn’t clear enough for everybody, but, setting that aside, do we really want this to be our guide? Jesus is mum on the questions of cannibalism and child pornography, while the Bible takes a pretty tolerant view of slavery. In Dante’s time, the deans of European law accepted that an eight-year-old girl could consent to marriage, that heresy should be a capital crime, and that witches were a thing. (In fact, some legal scholars believe that at least some witchcraft prosecutions were de facto abortion prosecutions.) They also didn’t know about germs, lots of them thought the earth was the stationary center of the universe (well . . .), and did not — let’s remember — really know where babies come from on anything but the more superficial physiological level. The first mammalian ovum wasn’t even observed until 1827.

Maybe we should build on that knowledge, no?

But the true believers in the religion of man-as-meat require a metaphysics, inasmuch as the biology is against them.

Next, they’ll be telling us how many angels can dance on the head of an infrastructure bill.

Words About Words

From the Nope Desk: “Why Young Adults Are Among the Biggest Barriers to Mass Immunity,” the New York Times reports, adding, illiterately: “Many are foregoing Covid-19 vaccines for a complex mix of reasons. Health officials are racing to find ways to change their minds.” Foregoing is going before, forgoing is doing without.

Also: Jupiter, mentioned above, is the Roman sky-father, whose name is derived from the Greek root for sky or heavenly (zeu, as in Zeus) and the familiar pater. So, literally, sky-father. These are very old roots and widespread enough that you’ll see similar words in Sanskrit. And, as Indiana Jones learned the hard way about the Latin name of another Heavenly Father, the Romans spelled it with an I: Iuppiter.

Rampant Prescriptivism

A reader demands to know why I write Côte d’Ivoire instead of Ivory Coast. After all, I don’t write Italia, España, or Bhārata. Fair point. I think of the Most Interesting Man in the World in that Dos Equis commercial, who advises: “Unless we are going to conduct the entire conversation in Spanish, it is best not to begin with ¡Hola!” But Côte d’Ivoire is just a lot more fun to write, and, so, I’m sticking with it. Jay Nordlinger tells of a reader who once wrote a letter to Bill Buckley saying that he was going to cancel his National Review subscription because there was “too much untranslated French.” But not everything has to be for everybody. “You are not for all markets!”

Send your language questions to TheTuesday@NationalReview.Com

Home and Away

You can buy my latest book, Big White Ghetto: Dead Broke, Stone-Cold Stupid, and High on Rage in the Dank Wooly Wilds of the ‘Real America,’ here. More thoughts on man-as-meat.

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In Other News . . .

We have been having some work done around the house. The supervisors are at work:

(Kevin Williamson)

But some supervisors are more dedicated than others:

(Kevin Williamson)

And then there’s the union-mandated break:

(Kevin Williamson)


An enjoyable read: Cultish, the Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell. Also: Michael E. Ginsburg has written a thriller about one of my favorite terrors: Debt Bomb. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks like a hoot.

In Closing

Abortion is a very difficult subject — to think about, to write about, to disagree about. In that conversation, honesty and charity are desirable — but intelligence is critical. We simply cannot afford very much more stupidity on either side.

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