Athanasius & Difference

One area of thought in which I am perpetually trying to make progress is what you might call the philosophy of the body. Not only is this theme related to the gender politics of our contemporary cultural moment, but it also sheds light on the difference between the basic assumptions held by analytic philosophers (rooted historically in British Empiricism) and continental philosophers (owing a strong debt to Hegel & German idealism through Nietzsche and Heidegger).

Various texts which have shaped my thinking over the years include Judith Butler, _Bodies that Matter_ and Peter Brown, _The Body in Society_ (especially his chapter on Origen). It is much to my chagrin, therefore, that, only very recently have I followed CS Lewis’ advice to focus especially on “old books” and finally turned by attention to St. Athanasius’ _On the Incarnation_.

I am surprised to find that Athanasius’ emphasis is actually not on the body as such, at least not in the way I had hoped. Some quick lessons I’ve learned:

  • Athanasius, time and time again, quotes Holy Scripture to ground his positions.
  • He sees the Incarnation almost totally within the context of the sacrificial death of Christ. (He is very “Reformed” in that way.)
  • By “body of Christ” he means not just the soma typicon which walked the dusty streets of Palestine, ran the lathe over the wood, and was nailed to a cross, but also the corpus verum, or the body of Christ, post-Pentecost, the body of believers who trust in Christ. (He also speaks of the cosmos as a body in section 41.)

What interests me for the purposes of this little piece, however, is something he says in the first section after the Prologue. Speaking in the context of creation, Athanasius contrasts his own Christian view with that of pagan philosophers. Before dealing with the thought of Plato, he mentions in particular “the Epicureans:”

Some say that all things have come into being spontaneously and as by chance, such as the Epicureans who, according to themselves, fantasize that there is no providence over the universe, speaking in the face of the clear and apparent facts. For if all things came into being spontaneously and without providence, as they claim, all things would necessarily have simply come into being and be identical without difference. Everything would have been as a single body, sun or moon….

So in opposition to the view of the atomists (Leucippus, Democritus, and Epicurus, who taught that the only things that really exists are atoms and void, and that the emergence of “the appearances” in the world is due to the random, chance-driven activity of the swerve), Athanasius argues that if this were the case, then all that exists would be: one thing. Channeling the spirit of Parmenides Athanasius, I take it, is arguing that if the principle of the world as we experience it is random and “spontaneously generated,” then all that would exist is something like what William James called a “blooming, buzzing confusion,” and of course there would be no rational mind to be confused by it. “Everything,” he writes, “would have been a single body.”

What is interesting here is that Athanasius thinks that it is the divine logos, pre-existent in a disembodied way, that accounts for the differences in the world. Only the divine logos, for him, accounts for intelligible order in the world.

I wish I could interview Athanasius and ask him why he thinks this. In my imaginary interview with him, he connects language to concepts (by way of definition), and he argues that without concepts human beings would discern no intelligible difference in the world. So the issue becomes “whence concepts?” and Athanasius’ answer is the divine logos.

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Boethius for our Time

What an encouraging article by Anthony Esolen (scholar of Dante and of Lucretius, and of much else besides). Thanks, Theresa Kenney!

First, in addition to much helpful background and commentary, there is this Boethian wisdom (for anyone struggling with “why bad things happen to good people”):

But virtuous men are tried by God, for their good.  God protects some who are weak by giving them only good fortune.  He gives to some virtuous men the most terrible trials, that they may emerge victorious and shine as exemplars for their fellow men.  He gives an easy life to some vicious men, that penury may not prompt them to crimes even worse; or he may, as severe punishment, withhold from them the reversals that might prompt them to repent.  We do not know and cannot know what God may intend in his special providence for any individual.

Then there is this:

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.  Yet I think that the Consolation may be meant for us now in a special way.  The barbarians are back.  Humane learning is forgotten or despised.  The Church is buffeted, while the gargoyles of the age caper and make mouths and laugh.  I imagine that the Gothic keepers of the jail cracked their jokes too.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kept faith to the end.  No one honors or even remembers his accusers; but the Catholics of Lombardy honored and remembered him straightaway: Saint Severinus.  His bones rest in the cathedral of Pavia, where the bones of Saint Augustine also lie.

It is better for us to wait with that man in his cell, than to enjoy all of the vast earth among men gone mad, quite mad.  God give us the courage to do so!

Perhaps what I love most about all this is that it allows a Christian (Esolen might argue “a Catholic”) to “keep calm” in the midst of the “culture wars,” even while admitting that western culture is crumbling. (I am likely more willing than Esolen, more in line with Radical Orthodoxy, to admit the “upside” to such crumbling, but it is still quite sad, possibly even tragic.)

As CS Lewis well understood (see his Discarded Image) we need Boethius today more than ever.

 

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The Tyranny of the Exception

I suppose that working on a PhD at a (somewhat) traditionalist Roman Catholic university has made me more “conservative.” But the deeper reason beneath that development, it seems clear to me, is simply that I have learned so much more (than I had known as one reared in secular and evangelical institutions), particularly historically.

In this blog post (which has been simmering for about a half decade or more) I hope to highlight a basic difference (a difference, perhaps, in disposition or orientation) between the premodern mind and the modern, western mind. It has to do with the role that exceptions (or exceptions to the rule) play in our thinking.

First, consider a basic, very elemental, structure or “pattern” laid down by Aristotle. Aristotle, to put it very simply, would say that it is the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. (He talks this way in the Metaphysics and the Physics.) The “purpose” or “end” (Greek telos), that is, of the acorn is the fully developed oak tree. The oak tree is the “fully active” version of the acorn. The acorn, in turn, is a “potential oak tree.” (This way of thinking relies on the Aristotelian metaphysical distinction between potency and act.)

Now, Aristotle perfectly realized that not all acorns successfully develop into fully formed oak trees. As did St. Thomas, who follows Aristotles’s reasoning here without exception. But it would never have occurred to either of them to conclude, on the basis of the failure of some acorns to develop into oak trees, that it is not the nature of an acorn to develop into an oak tree. Rather, they understood that this accomplishment occurs “for the most part,” that is, not 100% of the time. They understood that nature (or natural philosophy) is “messy” and does not comply with our rational, scientific systems in the same way that, say, mathematics does. (As an example of Aristotle’s thinking about things that are true “for the most part,” see Nicomachean Ethics I.3, together with his word of caution that accompanies them.)

The modern mind is quite different. To cite an example of the “default tendency” of the modern mind which I am trying to diagnose in this article, consider the (admittedly, ecclesiastically “intramural”) issue of infant baptism. I could not begin to count the number of times people have registered their opposition to the catholic practice of infant baptism in the church to me on the basis of the exception. “Richard Dawkins,” a good friend of mine likes to say, “was baptized as an infant in the Church of England, and just look at him,” implying that Dawkins disproves that the “nature” of baptism is to bring baptizands into a life of Christian faith. We know that infant baptism is not a valid or true doctrine, so this reasoning goes, because it does not always “work.” This way of thinking, I’d argue, is analogous to the point about the acorn not successfully growing into an oak tree: the exception does not undermine the “nature” of the thing in question.

Exhibit B: sex and the presence in nature of hermaphrodites, or biologically ambiguous genitalia in infants, children, and adults. Yes, the Scriptures speak of “male and female” (Gen. 1:27). (They also speak, in the same context, of a binary division between “land animals” and “sea creatures,” but one would be on shaky ground to hold on this basis that they intend to reject the existence of amphibians.) I am certain that the ancient Hebrews were aware of ambiguous genitalia. But, again, nature is messy and “for the most part.”

Does the exception here refute the rule or the “nature” of the thing, that “male” and “female” are valid ways of describing what we find in nature, or what actually is in nature? No more than the stunted acorn does.

(Does my position here make me an “essentialist?” No, because of this, and also because when a Christian speaks of “nature,” she will in the next breath speak of “creation.” But that is a topic for a later blog post.)

 

 

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