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Caramuel’s Metametrica and the Probability of Law

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Richly tessellated fields, icons of altars and Doric columns, glyphs of all-seeing eyes, sun-gods and the man in the moon – Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz’s engravings were meant to be at once mysterious and explanatory, a window for the initiated into a world of speculative arcana. Twenty-five of Caramuel’s engravings displaying an array of anagrams, pattern poems, rebuses and enigmas were published in his 1663 work, Metametrica, a copy of which can be found in the rare book collection of the Law Library of Congress.

Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz (1606-1682) was a Cistercian priest and a prominent figure in the Spanish Golden Age. He was a master of all the areas of knowledge that were available to a man of his century. A gifted linguist, he perfected his Latin, Greek and Hebrew at such a young age that he went on to learn Chinese and Arabic just to occupy his mind. He attained the degree of Doctor of Theology at the University of Louvain, but in the meantime learned law, rabbinics, architecture and mathematics. His intellectual range and virtuosity are preserved in the approximately two hundred and sixty literary works he published in his lifetime.

And yet he is very little remembered. Caramuel’s mathematical achievements, mostly in the field of combinatorics, were over-shadowed by work done by his contemporaries, Blaise Pascal and Pierre de Fermat. His ecclesiastical career, though a moderate success, was marked by abrupt transitions. He was a sometime abbot of monasteries decimated by the Reformation, a vicar general for outreach and the re-conversion of Protestants in Prague and a scientific examiner for the verification of supposed miracles in Rome. He was Bishop of Könniggrätz, Archbishop of Otranto and later Bishop of Vigevano. None of the positions lasted long. Caramuel was never appointed to the university post which he long hoped for.

For this as well as for his other misfortunes, Caramuel may have had himself to blame. Throughout his career, he repeatedly made moral and political arguments in his published works that embarrassed his patrons, a habit which naturally led to his estrangement from people of influence. His indiscretion, however, was an integral part of his intellectual style. Caramuel always preferred to defend unconventional ideas, typically phrasing them in a way that was meant to shock. He used humor and overstatement in his work. He loved to employ an obscure style, riddled with apparent contradictions and ambiguities. His later works seemed to overturn positions he defended in earlier works, while simultaneously quoting from them as authoritative sources. He wrote no introductory works, nor textbooks of broad appeal which might have stood as a lasting legacy.

When Caramuel is remembered, it is as a footnote in the history of Catholic Moral Theology, where his name comes down to us linked to a discredited ethical theory and a witty putdown from which his reputation never recovered. Caramuel was a defender of a theory that the Catholic tradition calls probabilism. The gist of probabilism is this: a) people frequently find themselves in situations in which they must act, but in which they do not have enough information available to them to be certain about which course of actions is lawful; b) but conscience demands that one not deliberately commit a sin, from which we can infer that acting deliberately in a way that may be unlawful can compromise your conscience; c) so how can you act in a way that satisfies your conscience, when you do not know enough to identify the lawful course of actions? Probabilism presents rules of thumb and a calculus for identifying “probable” opinions about the lawfulness of a course of actions, so that your conscience can be guaranteed at least a certain minimal acceptable level of moral rectitude. Two things made probabilism unique: first, its contention that as long as a single doctor of the law holds a given opinion, that opinion merits the designation “probable” and therefore there may be morally acceptable grounds for adopting it; and second, that an opinion can be probable – and therefore one can adopt it – even if other opinions are known to have firmer support in reason or among authorities.

It did not take long for critics, such as Blaise Pascal and Prospero Fagnani, to conclude that under this model, one could find justification for taking minority positions on any topic of significant disagreement that has ever been debated in the history of the Church, and in so doing, one might cobble together a version of the Catholic faith that incorporated every morally lax position ever uttered by a doctor of the law or of the Church.

Nevertheless the theory enjoyed some popularity for over a hundred years. Versions of probabilism were debated from the time the doctrine was first formulated by Bartolome de Medina in 1577 well beyond Caramuel’s death in 1682. The theory was finally refined out of existence by a truly great Catholic ethicist, Alphonsus Liguori, in the mid-eighteenth century. It was Liguori who gave Caramuel, perhaps unfairly, the memorable epithet “the prince of Laxists,” which has stuck with him over the centuries. Caramuel spent his later years pursuing a mathematic calculus for balancing the claims of differing moral authorities, elaborating number games, and searching for the precise form of a universal language. The engravings represented here are at once a tool, a game and an experiment in mathematical logic concerning the bounds of representation.

Comments (2)

  1. At it again amigo! Good job as always!

  2. As always, Nathan presents a very interesting selection, and is highly informative in the subject matter.

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