Essays On Religion Philosophy And Ethics

In 1981 three volumes of Elizabeth Anscombe's Collected Philosophical Papers were published. At her death in 2001 she had on file a considerable number of papers, either unpublished or no longer easily accessible, a first volume of which, Human Life, Action and Ethics, appeared in 2005. The editors of that volume, Luke Gormally and Mary Geach, have now put us further in their debt with this second collection. I should at once declare my interest. I wrote in support of the application for funding that made the preparation of this new volume possible. And any bad tendencies that I may have to self-congratulation have been unfortunately strengthened by the happy outcome.

This is an excellent and unusually rewarding book. It contains twenty-twopapers which vary in length from one page to forty. The editors have helpfully included three papers from the third volume of the Collected Papers, so as to give a more adequate representation of Anscombe's thought on some of the topics with which she deals. Those already well read in her work will get from a number of these papers a fuller understanding of the relationship between Anscombe's Catholic beliefs and her philosophical enquiries. Both they and readers who are encountering Anscombe's writing for the first time will do well to begin by reading Mary Geach's 'Introduction', which conveys wonderfully well the temper of her mother's mind.

In subject matter the papers range widely. Five are concerned with Catholic teaching on contraception and chastity, one with the early embryo, one with the use of nuclear weapons, one with simony, one with usury. The longest paper is the text of the McGivney Lectures on sin. The shortest is a translation from Latin of a sermon delivered before the University of Oxford on the hatred of God. One paper answers the question of what it is to believe someone, another the closely related question of what it is to have faith. Three deal with common misconceptions of morality, one with moral education. Prophecy, miracles, paganism and superstition, the dangers of attachment to things, the immortality of the soul, transubstantiation, and what it is to be in good faith provide matter for yet other papers. The concluding essay is 'On Wisdom'. On every topic Anscombe has something important to say, characteristically something that badly needed saying both when she wrote and now. Cora Diamond said of her that she

has taken familiar and unquestioned assumptions and shown how far from obvious they are. Philosophy as she does it is fresh; her arguments take unexpected turns and make unsuspected connections, and show always how much there is that had not been seen before. (1979)

So it is too with these papers, whose peculiar interest lies in the way in which philosophical considerations are brought to bear on theological issues and theological on philosophical.

Consider just three examples of very different kinds. In the lectures on sin, after noting that not only actions are sinful, since there are also sins of negligence and omission, Anscombe begins from two definitions of sin: sins as behaviors against right reason and sins as behaviors against divine law. She then explains how these two definitions are related and opens up enquiries into how wrongdoing is possible, voluntariness, and God's causality and human action, concluding with a short theological treatment of man's redemption. There are on the way critical encounters with Hume, Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and Anselm. At each stage the theological discussion is only allowed to proceed after the relevant philosophical issues have been clarified, so that one is not only introduced to each particular problem, but is also provided with an overview of the inescapable philosophical dimensions of Catholic moral theology. Each problem is well defined, so that what is at stake in resolving it in one way rather than another becomes clear. There is of course a good deal more to be said than Anscombe was able to say within the framework of these lectures, but she always takes her readers to the point at which they are considerably better placed to pose their own further questions than they would otherwise have been.

Philosophy plays a very different part in Anscombe's discussion of the immortality of the soul. In what does the spirituality of the human soul consist? Any conception of an immortal substance "is a delusive one" (71) and the kind of immateriality that thought possesses provides no basis for ascribing spirituality to the soul, let alone immortality: "there is no reason whatever for believing in a temporal immortality of the soul, apart from the resurrection," that is, the resurrection of Christ and the promise of the resurrection of the body. Anscombe adds that "there is no 'natural immortality of the soul' that can be demonstrated by philosophy" and she takes "the Christian doctrine of immortality to be the doctrine of an unending human life, happy or unhappy, after the resurrection and not the doctrine of an immortal sort of substance." (77)

Yet this raises a problem: "it is also Christian doctrine that the soul is judged at death and then suffers or is in glory till the resurrection. Must one not have a theory of how it can exist?" Anscombe's reply is to suggest that what philosophy might achieve is a cure for the impulse to search for such a theory. Catholic teaching provides no justification for any claim that "the soul has it in it to exist apart from the body" (78), and any picture that we construct would be "an idle picture," one that did no philosophical or theological work for us.

My dissatisfaction with this line of thought may be no more then a sign that I have not yet subjected myself to the philosophical treatment that would cure my impulse to think otherwise. But I remain uncured. Anscombe's initial arguments follow Wittgenstein's closely. "Thinking is not an incorporeal process which lends life and sense to speaking" (1953). Indeed, but, as Anscombe remarks, although the concept of 'thought' is one that we all possess, it is difficult to give a satisfactory account of it and no one as yet has, although not for lack of trying. So perhaps we need to start out all over again, first rereading Plotinus and then taking encouragement from the recent plague of wrongheaded accounts of thought advanced by philosophers so anxious to make connections between thoughts and brain states in the light of recent biochemical and neurophysiological discoveries that they lose sight of thought itself.

On theological issues of course Anscombe's views were in important respects at odds with Wittgenstein's and even more so with those of some of Wittgenstein's followers, views which she criticizes at the conclusion of her paper on "Paganism, Superstition and Philosophy." Wittgenstein said to Drury -- Anscombe does not cite this -- "The ways in which people have had to express their religious beliefs differ enormously. All genuine expressions of religion are wonderful, even those of the most savage peoples" (1981). It is the spelling out of this inclusive view, which Anscombe ascribes to some of Wittgenstein's followers, that she identifies as a modern philosophical version of a belief central to ancient paganism, a paganism that bred hatred for the exclusiveness of Jews and Christians.

Nothing that I have been able to say in this review adequately conveys the richness of these essays. They need to be read.


Diamond, Cora (1979), 'Preface' in Intentionand Intentionality: Essays in Honor of G.E.M. Anscombe, Cora Diamond and Jenny Teichman (eds.), Brighton: Harvester Press, xiii-xiv.

Drury, M. O'C (1981), 'Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein' in Recollections of Wittgenstein, Rush Rhees (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 76-96.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1953), Philosophical Investigations, tr. G.E.M. Anscombe, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 339.

Animation:  Is this a modern medium of philosophical thought? Within Plato’s Symposium, Apollodorus expresses that philosophy is the only enjoyable subject; is this so the case, that even within children’s entertainment there is this requirement for philosophy to encroach?

Children’s film and literature (I’m sure most mediums) are filled with extremely powerful messages and moral guidelines. The lists are endless from Dr Seuss raising questions about the theory and nature of knowledge to Jacqueline Wilson embedding deep moral issues and guidance. Even big friendly authors such as Roald Dahl are at it!  But to return to film, DreamWorks, Pixar and Disney all fill their movies with powerful thoughts; Look at Wall-e as an example, a robot who’s function it is to clean up the planet due to human consumptionproviding huge topical environmental issues regarding the destruction we are causing to this planet, thus allowing insight to the instability and the fragility of our world. Not to mention the connection and empathy that is created within the robot, leading to such questions as what is it to be human and what sets this robot apart from humankind.

These large film industries are providing deep philosophical questions to become digested, disguised under comical scripts and loveable characters. Entertainment aimed at children provides vital education. This returns me to Apollodorus’ immense delight in philosophic discourse and his belief that other sorts of talk, especially that of wealth and "money-bag friends", not only annoys him but creates a sense of sorrow within him because others believe that this type of talk is of value. I have to agree with him, and so does the entertainment industry. Within morality, a base guideline can be seen throughout history. Look at religious texts as a whole.  Does it not provide guidelines to a prosperous way of life - if not in this one, then in ones to follow? To tie this together, evidence of this thirst for moral codes can be seen throughout all children’s literature over the years from Grimms' nursery tales to Aesop’s fables.  This thirst provides evidence that morality is needed within society and human nature as we always are striving towards it. Without it the world would become pure anarchy, and society as we know it will break down, thus the importance of teaching children basic principles from a young age is important.

As titled, this is a review of Megamind, so I will look into the philosophical nature of the film, thus contextualising the idea that the industry provides deep thought and insight into what could be argued as higher thought into a relatable medium. So let’s start with the beginning…the very beginning:

The opening scene is of two planets at the brink of destruction, when baby Megamind and MetroMan are seen flying to earth. MetroMan begins his life in luxury and Megamind finds himself in prison. The two main characters grow up together, yet despite MegaMind’s efforts to fit in, he only gets more secluded, until he ‘learned a very hard lesson: good receives all the praise and adulation while evil is sent to quiet time in the corner. So fitting in wasn't really an option.

The comical nature of the film allows for the depth to be the underbelly of the scene. What is, on first glance, portraying comedy and a base for the story line, actually in fact is asking and providing a springboard to deep abstract thought. The above quote is part of the opening spiel and provides an introduction of the two leading roles of the film. But what is so powerful is that it is playing on the notion of destiny. It sets forward the question of whether we can choose the lives that we lead, and if this choice can be changed or whether such matters are predestined. The film continues to look upon this paradigm of destiny, yet always relates it to the juxtaposition of good and evil. Other issues are raised within the film, such as the notion of what happens to the balance when evil beats good. Megamind (Will Ferrell) in this instance becomes bored. Could we take this notion to a present reality away from the abstract of animation as a thought process; what would it be like if good conquered evil? Looking briefly at Christianity, with heaven described as a place of eternal bliss and happiness, void of evil, would this be as Megamind describes…boring? Another issue that I find problematic when trying to identify what is evil, is that if there is no such thing as evil than surely there can be no concept of good. Existence would just become existence and therefore extremely mundane with potentially no purpose. Megamind brings light to this issue by showing that from the super hero to the super villain there is a mixture of characteristics showing that no one is wholly good or evil.

The notion of good and evil that I find particularly problematic is defining what it actually means to be evil. If arguing it is people’s actions, surely this is subjective; not only just within opinion yet also culture and time have a great impact. Throughout the film, Metro Man (Brad Pitt) plays the super ‘hero’.  Within the eyes of the citizens, he is a treasure; the man of the city.  But when looking through the introduction of the film and watching the two characters grow up together, he can be seen to be supressing Megamind and forcing him to become evil. Can it not be interpreted that Megamind was just trying to gain the same respect that the arrogant Metro Man was receiving.  Therefore could it not be that through Metro Man’s actions of always trying to one up and revel in his own glory that he forced Megamind to become evil? So even from the onset of the film it provides insight that ‘good’ has the capacity to create evil. The playing on the ideas of good and evil throughout the film show the lack of clarity and contrast defining what it is to be good. It shows that perhaps one cannot just be evil, only certain actions or perhaps characteristics can be. There is a real emphasis on the problematic idea of labelling something either way. 

Alex Griffiths is a second-year History and RPE student. He has his own blog at:

Plato. Plato in Twelve Volumes, Symposium 173c, Vol. 9 translated by Harold N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1925

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