Posted on: April 13th, 2020 Milbank on Theurgic Neoplatonsim

In the introduction to Gregory Shaw’s Theurgy and the Soul, John Milbank lays the foundation for his insistence—an insistence which is part and parcel of his genealogical method—on the distinction between the “Iamblichan/Proclan” stream of Neoplatonism versus that of Plotinus. I here want to rehearse his argument in my own words, and to articulate why it matters.

The Plotinian error which Milbank wants to rebuff (since orthodox Christian theology rebuffs it) is its denial that matter is able (in the terms of John of Damascus) to “work [one’s] salvation.” Milbank thinks that the ultimate source of this Plotinian error/denial is its view of (what I will call) “diminished emanation,” or the notion that as the emanations of the One exit and disperse themselves out into the material world, less and less of the divine is communicated as the series, or hierarchy, continues.

In contrast to this view of “diminished emanation,” the Iamblichan account of things sees the One as fully communicating itself to the lower level. Now, the One does this, in Milbank’s terms, “impossibly.” That is, there is something supremely paradoxical about this complete self-giving (which one can see in the Christian theological insistence that the son is ontologically equal with the Father): it assumes or implies absolutely no continuity between the first element (the Father/the One) and second (the Son/Nous). That is, it is totally discrete, totally “free.” Put it another way: the second element has no claim on the first; it (the second element) is completely “suspended” from the first. While in one sense (the level of grace?) the two elements are related by conjunction, in another sense (the level of nature?) they are related by total disjunction (contra Plotinus); they are totally discrete.

Why is this “giving” impossible? It is because of the “simple nature” of the first element. That the Father is “simple” means that it cannot share itself, “by nature.” (This is what Milbank means by “absolute reserve,” xvi.) It is, to use the neoplatonic terminology, “imparticipable.”

Yet the first element does give himself to the son, even though this giving is “impossible.” Good thing, too (the impossibility): otherwise, it would not be “the entire substance” which is communicated. In other words, if the giving is not impossible (due to simplicity), then the giving ends up being diminished. It is precisely because of this “impossible giving” that the Father is able to give himself completely to the Son.

Now, one corollary of this total discreteness, this radical disjunction (by nature) is that the second element is unable to “rebound” back to the first element. Unless. Unless it does so through a third element. It is this third element which participates (as in participans), rendering the second element participated. And yet, while this third element “rebounds” to the second, it also rebounds to the first. And since it is the whole “self” which the higher communicates to the lower, this means (to use Trinitarian language) that the Son does participate in the Father, but only through the Spirit, the gift of the Spirit.

The Father gives himself to the Son, impossibly. The Son gives himself to the Father, by giving himself to (and through) the Spirit.

The upshot of all this is that, for Milbank’s Iamblichus (and Auustine, and John Damascene) matter—the “bottom” or last of hte series—is able to “rebound”—as the Spirit does—back upward. It can, thus, work to bring about our salvation (since it, for the Damascene, “is filled with divine energy and grace”).

In sum, it is the paradox of the “impossible giving” which allows Christian theology (utterly biblical, also seen clearly in Denys) to affirm both “descent all the way down” and “participation all the way up.”

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Posted on: July 12th, 2014 Milbank on the Ethics of Plato’s _Republic_

Notes on Milbank’s Remarks at “Faith and Secularism: the Moral Resourcing of the Nation,”

held at Westminster Abbey in London, Nov. 12, 2012.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8KpRvK9UgbU

As opposed to the tradition of virtue ethics, modern ethical theories tend to reduce down to deontological (ie, Kantian) approaches or utilitarian ethics. The former privilege freedom, particularly freedom of choice, and the corresponding importance of “human rights” construed in merely negative terms. The latter sees ethical goods as fundamentally measurable, and so the evaluation of political policies and so on reduces down to units of stuff.

Virtue ethics on the other hand insists that these things don’t really make us happy, they don’t really lead to human flourishing. Instead, the virtue tradition of Plato and Aristotle says that the kinds of activities that constitute our flourishing are contemplation of the divine, participation in the political life of the city, and the enjoyment of friendship.

Another key distinction between virtue ethics on the one hand and modern approaches on the other is that the latter focus on the performance of individual acts, whereas the former focus on the kind of character produced by a life lived over time.

Utilitarianism leads to an emphasis on auditing managerial solutions to ethics, while freedom-based approaches imply that as long as something is not against the law, it is fine.

Both Milbank and Hobbs agree on all of this. Yet Milbank thinks that Hobbs’ advocacy of a return to the ethical approach of Plato is “odd,” given the fact that in a pluralistic society which has been radically shaped by a) perceived violence stemming from the so-called wars of religion, and b) the concomitant banishment of the transcendent from all public discourse there is no way to adjudicate the different perspectives advocated in society, no way to agree on the common good or what humans are for (much less the wise means to achieve that end).

Hence, Milbank is arguing, a real return to Plato is mutually exclusive with secularism. For Plato, that is, religion, or the desire for the good / the true / the beautiful which is above reason and thus “guides reason,” is inseparable from his ethics. A return the Platon, Milbank suggests, involves a return to religion.

Religion, then, for Plato, is required to bring our passions and our thumos into order. Reason alone cannot do it. Morality is not simply a matter of self-control, with reason “being on top of the passions and thumos.”[1] Indeed, if morality were simply a matter of the hegemony of reason alone, that is the moral simply is the rational, then it would be perfectly moral (since it is perfectly rational) for a person to seek to amass as much power as he can. The pursuit of power is in this case perfectly reasonable and hence perfectly rational.

Rather, contemplation of the forms allows us to develop a sense of phronesis, by which we (intuitively?) know when and how to enjoy pleasure, to insist on our own honor & respect (including self-respect), etc. “There are no rules about this,” but rather it has to do with participating in something ineffable which we can hardly grasp. On this view religion has little or nothing to do with rules.

Not only can Plato not be rightly regarded as a “secular source of morality” but actually “there are no good secular sources for morality.”



[1] These being the three components of Plato’s tripartite view of the soul.

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Posted on: March 28th, 2013 Theories of Language: Derrida on Aristotle

Warning: this is a quite theoretical article, which many of my non-academic friends might find tedious!

In the first chapter of Of Grammatology, Derrida accuses Aristotle of launching the “metaphysics of presence” by positing a theory of language which Derrida thinks is critiqued and “shown up” by Sausurre’s theory of the sign. He cites Aristotle’s articulation in On Interpretation in which he says that even though language (speech and writing) is a matter of custom, the ideas of objects which people have in their minds are universal (and thus transparent to being).

Even though something in me wants to defend Aristotle, and even though Derrida is way too simplisitic in his accusation that the entire metaphysical tradition agrees with Aristotle here (counterexamples would be Augustine and Bonaventure, who appear to hold that all thought and perhaps all reality is mediated by language), I think that Derrida is correct in his critique of Aristotle here. Christian thinkers like Augustine and Bonaventure and John Milbank would (and do) agree with him. So would Mikhail Bakhtin.

Further Derrida is correct in his description of the tradition’s privileging of speech over writing.

In his explanation for why this is the case, however, he is wrong, or overly simplistic (again). Derrida misconstrues (as Pickstock shows in After Writing) the reasons why at least some streams of the tradition privilege speech over writing. It is not the assumption that speech gets us closer to a present subject which is the locus of metaphysical presence (how could such a possibility even be thought before Descartes?); it is rather that time has a certain priority over space, since time (as Plato says in the Timeaus) is a moving image of eternity. Time evokes (and particiatpes in?) eternity more than space does. Hence speech, which is time-bound, is prior to writing, which is space-bound.

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