Posted on: August 23rd, 2016 Reformed Theology, Stoicism, & Virtue Ethics

In my transition from Reformed evangelicalism to a more catholic tradition of Christianity, one constant source of consternation which has plagued me for years (almost two decades) has to do with the “senior Ethics” course I had at Westminister Theological Seminary. In this class, which was supposed to prepare soon-to-be-ordained pastors with a basic grasp of ethical theory, all of the emphasis was on Scripture and the Law of God. The word “virtue” did not appear on the syllabus.

Now, I don’t want to go overboard here. I do have respect for the professor of this course as well as for the author of the primary text we studied (alongside the Bible): The Ten Commandments by J. Douma (undoubtedly a brilliant Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at The Theological University in Kampen in the late 20th century).

However, what I am prepared to say, with the thought of Alasdair MacIntyre ringing in my head, is that such an approach to ethics is more Stoic than Christian. In chapter 13 of After Virtue, MacIntyre explains how the Stoic approach to moral philosophy differed starkly with that of Aristotelianism. For the latter, virtue is the rational discernment of the natural human telos (which of course for Aristotle is also thoroughly cultural), and the cultivation of human desires, habits, feelings, dispositions in such a way as to form the human being into the kind of person who acts virtuously. For Stoicism, by contrast, what matters is the individual will, and its embrace of an externally existing law.

MacIntyre  goes on to argue that here as always philosophy is rooted in a prior socio-political context: the displacement of the Greek city-state by the Macedonian regime and then the Roman imperium serves to bolster the Stoic stance, since any communal agreement and embrace of the common good for man now becomes more problematic.

So it is that Stoicism “sets a pattern for all those later European moralities that invoke the notion of law as central in such a way as to displace conceptions of the virtues” (MacIntrye, After Virtue, 2nd ed., 169).

“What about Judaism?” one might ask. Does it not make the law (the Torah of God) central, apparently in agreement with Stoicism? MacIntyre quite insightfully provides a response to this objection: one reason why Stoicism was unable to occupy an even more dominant role in Western culture is that it was “outnarrated” by an “even sterner morality of law, that of Judaism.”

With this insight I completely agree, and would only add the following conjecture. There must be something within Judaism which allows for the inculcation of the virtues (even if this amounts to a marginalization of law). Surely that “something” is its historicism (which MacIntrye’s thought correctly connects with the notion of narrative or story), which in turn allows it to be developed into Christianity (by way of tradition), which in turn had additional resources which allowed it to embrace classical thought, including that of Aristotelian moral philosophy.

So it is that I am prepared to say that my Senior ethics class at Westminster, seventeen years ago, was more Stoic than Christian. (To Westminster’s credit, it itself supplied me with at least one tool to help me realize this: in the Old Testament Department we were constantly reminded that the Torah of Yahweh is fundamentally different from western and especially modern notions of law, not least in that the former is deeply woven together with the story of Israel, and God’s faithfulness to her.)

 

 

 

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Posted on: August 4th, 2016 “Integralist Thomism” … in Aristotle

In opposition to “two-tier Thomists” (or neoThomists) who, in an effort resist the onslaught of modernity, maintain a strict separation between nature and grace, “integralist Thomists” such as John Milbank & David Bentley Hart think, following thinkers such as Henri de Lubac, that the separation between nature and grace, the natural and the supernatural, is permeable and always-already deconstructed.

In this same spirit I appeal to Aristotle, who in Nicomachean Ethics X.7 (line 1177b 25ff), writes:

[The life of contemplation] would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue [i.e., that which is characteristically human]. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life.

The Stagirite continues in this vein for several more lines, arguing that there is something divine in human beings, and so we should strive for the divine life, strive for what is “beyond us.”

So it is that, several hundred years before the advent of the Gospel, Aristotle was already striving toward the thought that grace is packed into nature, or that nature, in and through the human being, inevitably leads beyond itself to the divine.

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Posted on: July 5th, 2016 Aristotle, Nature, & Original Sin

Those who know me (in a theological or intellectual context) know that I have never been overly drawn to discussions of topics that typically excite ardent Calvinist types. Examples of such topics: predestination, “total depravity,” original sin.

The reason for my reticence: I have long suspected, ever since my time at a prominent Reformed seminary in the late 1990’s) that most folks who have straightforward and forceful views on such matters are, quite simply, full of shit. This is especially true for “evangelical types,” and I can say that my experience over the last two decades has borne this out.

One reason it is so difficult not to be full of shit on these issues is the extent to which they are historically conditioned. They are the result of centuries of intellectual development, mainly in the “Latin speaking West.”

And so it is that I have never lost much sleep getting dragged into heated debates about Original Sin. My preferred mode of engagement is simply to agree with my Reformed, Anglican, and Catholic auctores and to assume that they were right, for example, to oppose and condemn Pelagianism.

But, now, enter Aristotle. In his introduction to the Nicomachean Ethics Joe Sachs helpfully points out a basic point in the ethical system of the Stagirite. Pace those who equate virtue with habit (thanks, Hippocrates Apostle), Sachs rightly emphasizes that the point about habit (Gk. hexis) for Aristotle is that, once we acquire them through the process of habituation, their purpose is to allow us to see reality truly for what it is.

This is because, for Aristotle, the universal experience of mankind is that, initially, our vision of reality is blocked or distorted when we exit the womb. The purpose of the newly acquired habits, then, is to counteract the already existing habits of selfishness and impulsive indulgence with which every one of us is born.

Think about Edmund at the beginning of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, when he is trapped by the irresistible allure of Turkish Delight. His vision of reality is distorted. He cannot think straight. He is in bondage to his desire. Aristotle agrees with the mainstream Christian tradition in the West that, simply put, we are all like Edmund (at least initially).

Once this gnarled vision of reality is cleared up for us, the distortion having been corrected, we are free to engage our faculties to develop right desire and right reason in our quest to attain true and abiding virtue and character.

But notice what has happened. The way Aristotle thinks about the initial state of the postnatal human being is strikingly close to the description of traditional Western Christianity, as for example enshrined in Anglicanism’s Thirty-Nine Articles:

IX. Of Original or Birth-Sin.
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk;) but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contrary to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world, it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek, φρονημα σαρκος, (which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh), is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.

Another point on which the Stagirite and the Christian tradition agree: the natal is not identical with the natural. In other words, this “default setting” of selfishness and impulsiveness with which a baby is born, for Aristotle as for the Bible, is not truly natural. For Aristotle “the natural” is precisely that vision alluded to above, the attainment of which is the negation of the vicious habits hardwired into us at birth. The truly natural for Aristotle, is the full flourishing, the full, active, fulfillment of what it means to be human.

A selfish person (be she Donald Trump at a political debate or a screaming two-year old, grabbing its favorite toy away from its infantile colleagues in the playgound) is not natural. A natural person–one living in accord with nature (or for Christianity, creation)–is someone who has achieved the enduring “higher pleasure” known as eudaimonia, or happiness. This is the purpose of human nature, this is the “functional concept” (Alasdair MacIntyre) of the human being. (A pox on both your houses, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.)

This is why Aristotle suggests that the achievement of virtue or character is “a second nature.” It is just as “natural” as the “first nature.” Much more so, in fact.

It is here, finally, that Christianity “one ups” Aristotle, for the Christian realizes that the “second nature” of Aristotle is really the “third nature,” and that this third instantiation is really a return to the first. Virtue and character restore us to the original nature, the original righteousness which God wove into his original, creational design.

 

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Posted on: July 4th, 2016 Tears & Laughter, Plato & Christ

At the end of Plato’s _Symposium_,

… the faithful Aristodemus … falls off into a drunken sleep, but awakens to find Agathon, Socrates, and Aristophanes having a discussion, with only Socrates fresh and in full possession of his powers (223B-D). Socrates is forcing the two poets to agree that it would be possible for a man to be both tragedian and comedian, which each resists because Agathon regards tears as highest and Aristophanes regards laughter as highest, and they are opposites. For them there is no mean between the two that is as high as the two extremes. Socrates says that philosophy is such a mean and that a mixture of laughter and tears is the way to define man. Practically, Socrates is telling them that their two arts must be combined in order to depict him. This is the formula for the Platonic dialogues and perhaps for Shakespeare’s plays. The other two nod away, and one is never sure whether Socrates could not persuade them. It is with this doubt that the dialogue ends. (Allan Bloom, “The Ladder of Love,” in Plato, _Symposium_, ed. Seth Bernardete, 170.)

Socrates defines man in terms of “a mixture of laughter and tears.” Chesterton, who said that the wise man has comedy in his head and tragedy in his heart, would surely agree.

When it comes to classical Greek philosophy, my firm conviction is that the best way to view it is as a “propaeduetic of the Gospel,” as Clement of Alexandria held. When one reads the ancients’ texts for themselves, one is struck over and over by the ways in which the themes and teachings foreshadow themes in the New Testament.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this more clear, however, than in the above quotation about tears and laughter, tragedy and comedy. Socrates says not only that they go together, but that they go together in the life of man. This is a suggestive pointer to, an intriguing foreshadowing of, the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ.

The Paschal Mystery is Good Friday (with all its pain and blackness) plus the Easter Feast (with all its luminosity and joy). It is the death of Christ, and his surprise resurrection on the third day after. It is tragedy plus comedy.

What’s more, in places like Rom 5:12-21 and I Cor 15:45-47 St. Paul argues that Christ is the “second _anthropos_ and the last _adam_.” He is the New Man, the Renewed Humanity. Socrates, then, is vindicated, for it is in the life of this most true human that we behold the Paschal Mystery. Death and life, sadness and joy, tragedy and comedy.

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Posted on: July 2nd, 2016 Conversion & Time in Plato & Aristotle

What are main differences between Plato & Aristotle? Too many to name. Certainly, if you held a gun to my head and made me answer, the difference in literary genre would be near the top of my list.
However, I’m struck by the issue of conversion. In Plato we are presented with no less that four conversions on the part of Socrates: one in the _Parmenides_, one in the _Symposium_, one in the _Apology_, and one in the _Phaedo_.
One would be hard pressed to find an emphasis on the issue of conversion in the work of Aristotle.
Perhaps this is related to another deep difference between the two: Socrates’ approach to reality is diachronic, taking place in and through time, giving rise to epiphanies, retractions, and insights. For the Stagirite, however, one can approach reality only within the frame of the system; his stance, therefore, is intractably synchronic.
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Posted on: July 1st, 2016 Diotima, Participation, & the Forms

One surprise which I have encountered over the past four years at my current institution is fairly widespread resistance, among the philosophy faculty, to regarding Plato’s forms as ontological or metaphysical realities which exist independently from the mind, to which we (or to which lovers of wisdom) have access by way not simply of knowledge by way of participation.

This has been a source of consternation to me because so many of my leading intellectual lights, among them members of a theological / philosophical movement known as Radical Orthodoxy, regard the forms in precisely this way.

I think that Diotima’s speech in the _Symposium_ is the clearest and best “prooftext” (other than perhaps the “Seventh Letter”) in Plato’s corpus for arguing that the Forms are independent metaphysical realities in which the lover of wisdom is to participate erotically and contemplatively.

Further, partly due to the non-diological character of the Symposium, it is hard (I think) to argue that Plato’s Socrates (who recites the speech) is being ironic or anything other than straightforward in this context.

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Posted on: June 3rd, 2016 Things Thomistic: Sacra Doctrina vs. Scientia Divina

In the thought of Thomas Aquinas, what is the difference between these two terms? The answer to this question, above all, is quite complicated.

First off, as Philipp Rosemann shows in his article “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” Thomas, in his commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, as well as in his de facto disavowal of the Sentences (that is, his abandonment of the Sentences as a way to do theology, which abandonment precipitated his development of a more distinctively Thomistic method which comes to expression in the Summa Theologiae) radically updates the accepted mode of doing theology to a much more scientific mode of inquiry. Indeed in his Sentences commentary, Thomas emphasizes the need for certainty in theological thought as well as that such thought be explicitly regarded as a “discipline,” the end of which is knowledge of scientia (Philipp Rosemann, “Sacra Pagina or Scientia Divina?” 60). These two emphases—certainty and disciplina—are distinctively Aristotelian notes which now come to mark Scholastic theology, thanks to Thomas.

In this sense, the transition which Thomas accomplishes on the heels of the Lombard may be regarded as Scientia Divina, as Rosemann shows. The stress is on “scientia” here. What kind of scientia is it? Answer: it is a divine science, a knowledge of divine things.

And yet, it is important to note that Thomas would also regard Aristotle’s own systematic thinking about God—the same kind of thinking which Aristotle displays in Book Lambda of the Metaphysics, with its treatment of the cause of being, which cause Aristotle refers to as theos—as also satisfying the requirement of scientia divina. (In fact, Thomas would likely regard this as the paradigmatic form of such thinking!) Of note here is that the former—Thomas’ revision in light of the Sentences—explicitly traffics in the language and thematic motifs of revelation, while the latter—Arisotle’s theology in the Metaphysics—does not. Nevertheless, I argue that Thomas would regard both as “scientia divina.” It’s just that one relies on revelation, and one does not.

As opposed to Thomas’ notion of scientia divina, his conception of sacra doctrina seems to be different. At the very beginning of the Summa Theologiae, he asks if, besides philosophical studies (here Thomas is thinking of Aristotelian disciplines such as the Physics and the Ethics), any further teaching (Lat. doctrina) is required. Of course, he answers the question in the affirmative, ultimately emphasizing the importance of that which lies beyond reason:

It was necessary for human salvation that there should be a teaching revealed by God, besides the philosophical studies investigated by human reason. First, because humanity is directed to God as to an end that surpasses the grasp of reason. According to Isaiah 66:4, “eye has not seen, O God, without you, what things you have prepared fro those that love you.” But the end must first be known by people who are to direct their thoughts and actions to the end. Therefore it was necessary for the well-being of humanity that certain truths that exceed human reason should be made known by divine revelation. (Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, 1.1.1, as appearing in F.C. Bauerschmidt, Holy Teaching, 32.)

Thomas, then, is arguing that a different kind of teaching, in addition to philosophical teaching, is necessary. What kind of teaching? Holy teaching: sacra doctrina.

To sum up, then. The main differences between scientia divina and sacra doctrina are:

  • the former highlights the notion of rigorous, scientific systematicity, whereas the latter does not have this emphatically in view.
  • The former may or may not rely on divine revelation, whereas the latter definitely does.
  • the latter refers to the activity of teaching (the kind of thing that happens in a classroom), where as the former not necessarily.
  • Lastly, since Aristotelian “theology” (as it appears for example in Bk. VI Lambda with the ocurrance of “theologia” at line 1026a 19 and the identification of this discipline as “first philosophy” in 1026a 31) does count as scientia divina for Thomas, one should remember that all separate substances (and not just God) fall into this category as well. In contrast to this, while sacra doctrina would of course take in within its purview the same “separated substances”—how often to the Scriptures speak of angels?—it would also treat other things in the world as well: mountains, rivers, bread, wine, land, offspring, etc. In this sense, then, sacra doctrina is much broader than scientia divina, which either brackets or “subalternates” the realm, for example, of the natural, and hence is much more specific.
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Posted on: June 1st, 2016 Notes on Nominalism: a Brief Genealogy

At the most basic level possible, there are three “moments” in the development of late medieval nominalism, which one nust appreciate in order to grasp this historical, intellectual phenomenon.

First, consider the 219 Condemnations of Bishop Etienne Tempier in 1277, the background of which is the ecstatic and extreme embrace of the newly discovered Aristotle, by members (all clergy) of the Arts Faculty at the University of Paris in the 13th century. Certain of these faculty members were so taken with Aristotelian philosophy (mediated to them by Arabic philosophy, such as Averroes) that they began to regard philosophy as a vastly superior discipline (and, indeed, way of life) to theology. Central to this stream of thought, for the purposes of our argument here, is the necessity that things in the world are the way they are. That is, for Aristotle (and indeed for Plotinus) God does not freely create; rather he serves as the First Cause of the world in a way that seems to involve a kind of necessity. The primum mobile (or for Plotinus, the first emanation) moves and exists simply because that is how things are, given the nature of god and given the nature of the world. Given the rigorous, scientific superiority of the Stagirite, such a view only made sense, or so it seemed to Siger of Brabant and his colleagues in the Arts Faculty. Other convictions held by the Arts Faculty, in addition to this one, include: the eternality of the world, the singularity of the intellect in all men, and the denial of the freedom of the will.

It is in drastic opposition to such thinking that Etienne Tempier, Bishop of Paris, drafted the Condemnations of 1277. The motivation here was to stomp out the secular rationalism of the Arts Faculty, together with the this-worldly thought of Thomas Aquinas, to the extent that he sided with them. Tempier and his supporters (many of whom were Franciscans and members of the Theology Faculty) hoped to eradicate, in the words of Etienne Gilson, the kind of “polymorphic naturalism” which Siger of Brabant and his colleagues were advocating, together with their emphasis on “the rights of pagan nature against Christian nature, of philosophy against theology, of reason against faith” (Kerr, After Aquinas, 13).

Sadly, this move to condemn and censor ended up having the very opposite effect.

But to see this, and how it leads to the intellectual movement known as late medieval nominalism, one must first appreciate the distinction between the potentia ordinata dei and the potentia absoluta dei, which did not originate with Duns Scotus, but which is definitively formulated by him and registered by him as a controlling feature of theology.[1] In his Ordinatio I.44, Scotus applies the distinction to “every agent acting intelligently and voluntarily that can act in conformity with a right law, but does not have to do so of necessity”. (Henri Veldhuis, “Ordained and Absolute Power,” 225). Scotus conceives of the the difference between potentia ordinata and potentia absoluta in terms of Heiko Oberman’s ‘canonistic interpretation’: “potentia ordinata means ‘it can act in conformity with a right law’; potentia absoluta means ‘it can act beyond or against such a right law’. (ibid.)

What becomes normative in this way of thinking about creation is God’s absolute will which is grounded or conditioned upon no prior determination whatsoever, but rather radically “free” and arbitrary. There is no basis upon which we can have any kind of rational insight into God’s actions. And while (as Pieper concedes) this emphasis on God’s freedom is a much needed corrective to the necessarianism of the Arts Faculty, it serves, at the end of the day, not to re-unite faith and reason, but to drive them even further apart. Not only did the arguments of theology (including, admittedly, Thomistic theology) fail to meet Scotus’ heightened standards of rigor (modeled on Oxford-style mathematics), thereby creating a sense of theological skepticism, but also, since God’s acts are radically “free” and arbitrary, rooted solely in the radical spontaneity of his inscrutable will, there is no way to think scientifically (or systematically) about God’s actions in history, since they could—and indeed at any moment can and might be—be wholly otherwise.

(It is interesting in this context to think of Aristotle’s rendition of the intellectual virtues in Book VI of the Ethics, with its discussion of the objects of to logistikon as those things which “admit of being otherwise.” Also note that Scotus is assuming a notion of freedom which is merely negative and nonteleological. For him to say that God is free is not to insist that God is always fully realizing his telos–and thus is absolutely “pure act”–but rather to hold that “God can do anything he wants.”)

And yet one more step is needed to grasp the full import of late medieval and early modern nominalism: the shift from Duns Scotus to William of Ockham. Compared to Ockham, Scotus is still somewhat “conservative:” for him God’s actions are still constrained by a sense of “ordinateness.” God, that is, can by definition act only in ways that are ordinate. (By the way, we must rebuke Scotus for being inconsistent here: if this is a constraint on God’s “freedom,” then why not other aspects of his nature?) William of Ockham leaves such constraints in the dustbin of irrelevance. Ockham’s God is so arbitrary that at any moment the creation could sink back into oblivion. This way of thinking leads to grave consequences for philosophy, producing and hardening what Dilthey called “the atheism of scientific thinking.” Indeed Joseph Pieper writes that Ockham’s “principle of God’s arbitrary freedom” leads to the gravest of consequences. For Ockham

[m]an cannot do anything but cling to the purely factual, which in no way must be as it is: to search for meaning and coherence is not “real,” but at most may exist in our thoughts; singular facts alone are “real”; this actual factuality, however, can neither be calculated nor investigated nor deduced, but only experienced; knowledge exists only as direct encounter with concrete reality. (Pieper 149)

And so it is that, for modern thinkers, nothing in nature (contra Aristotle; see Ethics VI) is necessarily the way that it is. That is, an oak tree can have a nature / form / essence other than that of an oak tree (and still remain fully and in every sense what it is). This is the basic assumption of Heidegger. If correct, it renders any kind of coherent knowledge of the world impossible.

All because of the Condemnation of 1277, and the Arts scholars against whom it reacted.

[1] Indeed Etienne Gilson suggests that the condemnation of 1277 serves as the historical condition of the possibility for Scotus’ thought: “we could guess that the doctrine of Duns Scotus was conceived after the condemnation of 1277.” Piper, Scholasticism, 144.
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Posted on: May 30th, 2016 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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Posted on: May 20th, 2016 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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Posted on: May 19th, 2016 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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Posted on: February 23rd, 2016 Once upon a time, there were no secularists(?)

Very interesting (and encouraging) discussion in my Intro to Philosophy course yesterday.

One admirable student objected to my statement that prior to, say, 500 years ago, all human civilizations were inherently religious, and that thus there were no secularists prior to that time, by saying: “How do you know?”

To which I responded: “I know because the conditions which are necessary for secularism to be thought were not in place, or real, or existent, until around 500 years ago.”

In an effort to give an example or an analogy, I argued that something similar could be said of “conservatives” (since prior to Edmund Burke no one had reacted to the historically particular project of the French Revolution) and homosexuals (since prior to the late 19th century “homosexual” as a “scientific” category had not yet been invented).

I realized later that another example might be “environmentalist.” I’d argue that prior to 250 years ago there were no environmentalists. The conditions which have made this movement possible–which have made it possible for environmentalism to be “a thing”–were not yet in place.

Teaching undergrads is helping me to “bone up” on my Christian historicism.

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Posted on: December 1st, 2015 Blog Update – 12/1/15

I have made a couple of changes to the “pages” section of my blog. I have deleted the obsolete page “Philosophico-theological notebook,” and replaced it with what seems to me to be a much more relevant page, “crucial vocab.” My first entry in this new page: my “definition” of “science.” I hope to use this page as a place to “point” people to so that we can “be on the same page” when using specific terms in discussion.

My blog, 8+ years after its inception, remains valuable to me. (And, based on anecdotal conversations with real people as well as the “widget” I use to monitor the traffic, people actually read it.) I turned off the comments functionality a few months ago, and this was a wise move, I think. (Folks can comment on Facebook.)

Upcoming posts this month (hopefully):

  • How prudentia or practical wisdom is like shock absorbers.
  • On “ruducing difference to the same.”
  • Pixar vs. St. Thomas on emotions.
  • Philosophy and Theology: the difference history makes (has made).
  • “Authenticity” and “hypocrisy.”
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Posted on: November 28th, 2015 Trump, Marwa Balker, & Identity Politics

In this story, CNN.com reports on an “open letter” (in the form of a Facebook post) by California college-student Muslim Marwa Balker.

Ms. Balker is responding to the recent, deplorable comments by Donald Trump on the Muslim community in the United States.

Obviously Trump is an idiot. It is, however, Ms. Balker’s comments which I think need to be examined, precisely because the ideology they display is much more insidious, as proven by the fact that CNN holds her comments up as an example of model political speech.

Addressing Mr. Trump, Balker states: “Being Muslim does not make me any less American than you are.” That this statement seems natural and noble is obvious to anyone living in Western society in the 21st century.

However, one of my leading theological / philosophical lights, Michel de Certeau (sort of the Christian version of Michel Foucault) would say that Balker is reducing the difference of another to the same, to a false identity.

She is attempting to constitute one thing (American identity, identity as a U.S. citizen) as the whole. Certainly Trump is performing a different version the same attempt; of course “radical Islam” tries to do the same; admittedly the Church historically has been guilty of the same project.

For de Certeau, however (as articulated in his article “How is Christianity Thinkable Today?”) this move, this strategy, is not authentically Christian. de Certeau would call this “a false universalism that functions as a mask.”

When I say that I am a Christian first, a Texan second, and an American third, this is the sort of issue I am trying to allude to.

Ms. Balker is plainly an American first and a Muslim second. My stance, on the contrary, is that the only possible universalism is that of the “concrete universal” (Heidegger), in which difference is not eclipsed but lived with and engaged. Authentic Christianity, that is, life within the Body of Christ, really does make such an approach possible. The Christian church is the only (possible) concrete universal I know of.

As de Certeau points out, the existence of the four Gospels demonstrates the founding importance of admitting intractable difference: the Gospel of Mark is not saying the same thing as the Gospel of John.

Theology, as Milbank says, is (or can be) the “discourse of nonmastery.”

Modern liberal political philosophy, of the kind that Ms. Balker has swallowed uncritically, cannot make this claim; nor does it want to.

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Posted on: November 10th, 2015 Dog Collar in the Classroom

This morning is a typical morning for me. For three and a half years now I have been rising from my cozy bed (which I share with a snuggly friend) at around 5:00 AM, gathering up my strength and heading westward down I-20 for Dallas. As I sit in the Starbucks in Terrell at 6AM this morning, I wonder what Tylerites I might run into. About half the time—I’m here every Tuesday and Thursday, without fail—I will see a friend from the Rose City in this highly caffeinated place.

And when they see me they are sometimes taken back. “Father Matt,” they say, “I almost did not recognize you: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you without the collar.”

Ah, the collar; usually we clergy call it the “dog collar.” It is one of the true joys of serving as an ordained minister in this Church. As I Presbyterian minister (which I was for almost a decade) I rarely if ever wore one. A few people have asked me over the years “What does it mean?” to which I reply that it is an ancient symbol that reminds us of our slavery to Christ, that we wear the yoke of this slavery daily on our bodies.

And yet, I almost never wear my collar in Big D. (when I pose as a scholar every Tuesday and Thursday). Why not? Several reasons: first, I am not in my “parish:” there are tons of other Episcopal priests in Dallas, and I am content to let them bear that visible burden. Second, though, I use this time to “roll incognito,” to take a break of being a public, institutional servant of Christ, instead choosing to withdraw into a more anonymous mode. I cannot lie: these windows when I am “off duty” as a priest have been a real gift these past three and a half years. Day in and day out (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) I study and read and write for hours on end in solitude, knowing that the exigencies of pastoral ministry lie dozens of miles away to the east, just over the Smith County line. (It is an oft forgotten fact that even smart phones are equipped with “off” buttons.)

In terms of my doctoral coursework, however, I am beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, for, incredibly, my degree audit form indicates that my class requirements are almost complete, which is one reason I have begun to focus on that other requirement (though less formal) for the PhD student in the humanities: teaching college courses. Thanks be to God, I learned yesterday that I will be teaching 20 – 40 freshmen at the University of Texas at Tyler in an introduction to philosophy class this coming spring semester.

Should I wear my dog collar in the classroom? Even though I can make an argument in both directions, I do intend to do so. (I asked the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences if that would be OK, and he said he has no opinion, and there are no official policies concerning this.) Why? For the inverse reasons why I do not wear it in Dallas. At UT Tyler I will be in the parish. There are no other Episcopal churches or ministers who can lay claim to that mission field called UT Tyler any more than I can. And since I will be in Tyler, I will be “on duty.”

Last but not least, I will channel the power of that symbol as I stand before those wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, for I remember what it’s like to sit where they sit. I remember what it is like to be at the big university, away from mom & dad, wondering what in the world is true, what is worth believing in, what is worth living for. And how in the world could I know? Was it even possible to know anything? My philosophy professors at that other U.T. in that other fair Texas city were not pastorally helpful to me, to say the least. Their goal, it seemed, was to dismantle my faith by any means necessary.

I do not intend to proselytize these students as I give them their first gourmet sampling of the philosophical spread next semester; that would be irresponsible and inauthentic. Instead, I will let this ancient symbol of Christ speak for itself.

 

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Posted on: September 11th, 2015 Nietzsche & “Family Values”

When was the last time you heard a pastor or a conservative politician in America invoke the notion of “traditional family values”? Examples of this kind of rhetoric abound, and one quick example is this.

Question: if 19th century atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche could hear someone (a pastor, a politician, a “think tank”) invoke this rhetorical phrase, what would he say? I’m pretty sure he’d say: “I won!”

In his editorial introduction to Nietzsche’s _Beyond Good and Evil_, Rolf Peter Hortsmann provides the following summary of three Nietzschean bedrock convictions as expressed in this book (pp xvi – xvii):

  1. “Life is best conceived of as a chaotic dynamic process w/o any stability or direction.”
  2. We have no reason whatsoever to believe in any such thing as the “sense” or “value” of life, insofar as these terms imply the idea of an “objective” or “natural” purpose of life.
  3. Human life is “value-oriented” in its very essence – that is, w/o adherence to some set of values or other, human life would be virtually impossible.

Commenting on this summary, Hortsmann continues: “Where the first conviction is supposed to state an ontological fact, the second is meant to be an application of the ontological point to the normative aspects of human life in particular. The third conviction, though somewhat at odds with the first two, is taken by Nietzsche to reveal a psychological necessity.”

Values, then, are for Nietzsche a way of coping with the senselessness of life.

Now, as Allan Bloom states in this lecture, no-one in the United States talked about “values” before Nietzsche; he introduced this language and rhetoric into our culture. Why, then, do conservative, evangelical Christians adopt a category which has as its foundation atheistic nihilism? Why do they speak of “values,” as in “traditional, family values”?

The answer to that question is complicated, but for me the most penetrating analysis would have to deal with the fact that evangelicalism, in addition to its frequent historical ignorance, long ago jettisoned the Church’s traditional language of the objective Good which is mediated by and embodied in the formation of virtue. It has become a thinly-veiled secularism.

If you lose the language and tradition of virtue (and by the way “virtue” was totally absent from my senior-year ethics class at a prominent Evangelical seminary in the year 2000; instead we focused entirely on “what the Bible teaches”), then you lose any objective basis for morality. And if you lose that, then right-and-wrong devolve into something like preference.

“My tribe’s ‘preference’ over yours:” this is not far from today’s culture wars. That the partisans in this struggle often resort to bullying and might-makes-right tactics (on both sides, including the “Christian Right”) is yet another symptom of the underlying source of the illness: that modern American evangelicalism has “given away the farm” to secularism.

 

 

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Posted on: September 10th, 2015 A Certain Distinction in Nietzsche

To introduce a certain way of thinking about Friedrich Nietzsche, one could consider, by way of analogy, the term “pluralism.” Pluralism can refer to either a cultural state of affairs (ie, that which is the case in a given culture) or to an ideology, or, for the purposes of this discussion, a philosophical doctrine.

Now, I want to raise the specter that something like this distinction b/t a state of affairs and a philosophical doctrine may well be operative in N’s thought. At the very least I’d argue that if one is not at least tempted at some point in his reading of N to entertain this possibility, then one is missing a crucial aspect of N.

In fact, I’d argue that something like this is the case for N’s notion of the “death of God.” I’d definitely argue that what is going on in this discourse of Nietzshe’s is more akin to a state of affairs than it is to a philosophical doctrine. To be clear, I don’t think that N is actually saying that God has died. He is saying that the philosophical and cultural currency of the reality of God (and all that it entails) is what has dies.

Further, this is a more radical reading of N than simply to hold that he is merely apsousing atheism. Why? Because is allows one to co-opt N for a very “Nietzschean” project: the critique of various reigning ideologies in our late capitalist culture which, while functionally “atheist,” are a least as bourgeois as form of “Christianity” which held sway in N’s day.

Now, I do think that N’s “God is dead” describes a certain state of affairs rather than an actual doctrine which N holds (a proposition dramatically strengthened if one holds that philosophical doctrines are by definition off-limits for N); however I do not necessarily think this is the case for his teaching on “values” as we find it in his genealogical works, and in particular Beyond Good and Evil.

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Posted on: September 8th, 2015 Husserl & the Ideological Hegemony of “Science”

A friend recently pointed me to an article delivered by one Grant Franks at St. John’s College in the late 1990’s, which deals with the relationship between ancient thought and modern thought.

In the article, Franks discusses Edmund Husserl’s appraisal of the origins of modern science: “In the Crisis of the European Sciences, Husserl argues that Descartes and Galileo—or more accurately, the scientific enterprise they launched—are responsible for the “most portentous upheavels” of twentieth century European civilization. Franks continues:

This lamentable situation has come about because of a dual expansion and contraction of the domain of scientific knowledge. The realm of science has grown insofar as the new methodical natural science claims to be a mathesis universalis, encompassing all possible knowledge. On the other hand, since the scientific demand for rigor cannot be imposed on all fields of human interest, whole regions of thought and inquiry—specifically all metaphysics and ethics—have been jettisoned and regarded as being unknowable, unscientific, and consequently uninteresting.

I’d argue that this denigration of metaphysics results in part from the novelty of one aspect of Descartes’ method of study as opposed to that of Aristotle. For the ancient Stagirite, the recommended approach to knowledge is to begin with what is most knowable to the human thinker, and to proceed from there to what is most knowable in itself. In this manner Aristotle advocates beginning with realities that the human mind can lay hold of, even if those objects of study (physical objects, concepts, texts, syllogisms, whatever) are somewhat hazy and vague. Try to grasp hold of the object, Aristotle advocates, and see if you can make progress with it, see if you can gain some sort of clearer insight.

For Descartes, however, this approach already gets off on the wrong foot. For him, human reason cannot even countenance an object unless it is clear and distinct, unless it is amenable to “clear and distinct ideas.” What could possibly be more clear and distinct that the numbers and objects of mathematics, now (by the 16th century) stripped down to their bare, instrumental “essentials”? (By “instrumental” I mean a notion of number stripped of all premodern numerological theory as advocated by such diverse parties as the Pythagoreans, Plato, neoplatonists such as Boethius, and Renaissance thinkers of various stripes. Now, for Descartes, numbers have absolutely no concrete content on their own; they are mere instruments which serve the purpose of conducting operations on nature. They are mere tools.)

Husserl advocates a return, for the purposes of this specific discussion, to Aristotle’s method of mathesis. In so doing he proves himself an ally to anyone interested in undermining the ideological hegemony of the modern “science” of the (post)modern West in our time.

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Posted on: August 18th, 2015 Time Travel & Onto-theology

If time travel were possible then a conversation like this, between my 40-year old self and my 30-year old self, would also be possible.

40-yr-old Matt: “I like Hegel. He rescued metaphysics from horrid Kant.”

30-yr-old Matt: “I don’t believe in metaphysics.”

40-yr-old Matt: “Then you don’t believe in God.”

30-yr-old Matt: “I don’t believe in ‘the god of the philosophers.'”

40-yr-old Matt: “Then you don’t believe in the “god” of, say, the Cappadocian Fathers, and so you don’t believe in the Trinity.”

30-year-old Matt: “Well … hmmm … let me think about that.”

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Posted on: July 18th, 2015 Peregrination, Friendship, & Subjectivity

Warning: this post is intended only for philosophy geeks, or those who’d like to become philosophy geeks.

A dear friend, with whom I have been traveling the Christian journey of faith seeking understanding for two decades, asked me to explain how I understand what Kierkegaard means when he says that the human subject is infinitely negative. So here goes:

Hegel writes, “[t]his Substance is, as Subject, pure, simple negativity.” (Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, § 18)

Twenty years ago in a course on Kierkegaard and Derrida, I was deeply struck by the phrase, in connection with Kierkegaard, “infinite, negative subjectivity.” Turns out, however, I had no idea, metaphysically speaking, what it actually meant.

But I think I’m getting it now.

It is helpful for me to start with a Parmenidean insight. Parmenides, in absolute denial of the meaningfulness or the value of sense experience, states that being must necessarily be one, since nonbeing is not able to be countenanced. That is, it is not the case that multiple object exists, since in this case a kind of nonbeing would obtain: the A is not B. The horse is not the giraffe, and so on.

The cup on my desk is not the same as the pen on my desk. As cup, it is not pen. That is to say, with respect to the (essence of the) pen, the cup is not. It is “negative” with respect to the pen.

But as Dr. Wood said in class recently, it is not of the cup’s essence that it be “negative” with respect to every other object. (That is, the cup has a definite, individuated determination.) However, for “human awareness” (Dr. Wood’s words), this negativity is of its essence. That is, subjective consciousness has no essence other than it is not this or that or the pen or the cup or Socrates. (Unlike the cup, it has no definite, individuated determination.) It has no essence in this sense. It is empty. And yet, we deny that it does not exist. It does exist, also that it has no essence other than infinite negation.

One last note: this is (the logical outworking of) Cartesian subjectivity; it is the subjectivity which Foucault (along with Nietzsche) rejects.

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Posted on: July 9th, 2015 Bonaventure, Philosophy, & Theology

What is theology, and what is faith? We in the 21st century West live in an emotivistic culture which is worse than clueless about these things.

For most people in our culture, faith has to do with feelings or private, emotional preferences. “I believe in a God that would never get angry;” “I feel like I don’t really need to go to church;” etc.

But for our premodern forbears in the West, faith is a means to knowledge which compliments and is complemented by reason. Faith is what accepts and grasps the content of revelation, and thus serves as the basis for theology, which applies the tools of rational thought and discourse to the content of revelation, for example, the idea that God is three distinct Persons in one unified substance (or the doctrine of the Trinity).

For a premodern thinker such as St. Bonaventure, there is no sharp dichotomy between faith and reason as there is for us moderns who have ripped and rent the two apart. A good “case study” in this arena is the way Bonaventure allows theology to undermine the neoplatonist theory of divine emanation.

Now a good premodern neoplatonist would follow Plotinus in his view that the world is a necessary emanation from God. Only problem is, this view flies in the face of Christian orthodoxy which asserts an ontological distinction between God and God’s creation. Orthodox Christians are not pantheists, and yet pantheism is where neoplatonic emanationism straightaway leads.

As Peter Spotswood Dillard shows in his helpful _A Way into Scholasticism_, however, Bonaventure does not simply dismiss the idea of divine emanation. He is a good neoplatonist, and he thinks that the idea that God, as Being Itself and the Superexcellent Good, necessarily emanates his being, that God’s being and goodness are superabundantly effusive, is a tenant of proper reason.

And yet Bonaventure holds not only that the world’s being lacks goodness in comparison to God (a non sequitur for standard neoplatonic emanationism), but also that the existence of the world is not necessary. In light of his neoplatonist commitments, what, for the Seraphic Doctor, gives?

Not his commitment to divine emanation, but rather his determination of that in which the emanations consist. For they consist not first and foremost in the creation / world / universe, but rather in the in extra emanations of the Son and the Spirit:

Therefore, unless there were eternally in the highest good a production which is actual and consubstantial, and a hypothesis as noble as the producer–and this is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit–unless these were present, [God] would by no means be the highest good because [God] would not diffuse [God’s self] to the highest degree.

Lots of neoplatonist assumptions packed into that dense statement, but the upshot is that, if God does not produce an emanation which contains the fullness of being just as God does, then God is not the highest good … then God is not God. Hence, for Bonaventure, God must produce an emanation which is maximally existent (if I can use that word).

The upshot for my argument, then, is that what we are witnessing here is theology / revelation / faith “messing with” or altering or qualifying or positioning philosophy / universally-valid-premises / reason. Not only does the orthodox repudiation of pantheism motivate Bonaventure to deny the world as a necessary emanation of God’s very being, but so does the revelation of the Holy Trinity. Since the Father “necessarily” emanates the Son (i.e., the Father’s nature is to do this), we don’t need to regard the world as a necessary, divine emanation in order to honor what Bonaventure regards as the rational truths of neoplatonism.

Faith and reason, theology and philosophy, are here working in tandem. Both are subjected to rational discourse and rational procedures. Both work together in us to produce in us the fullness of knowledge.

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Posted on: July 9th, 2015 Bonaventure & “Affective Experience”

In Bonaventure’s _The Soul’s Journey into God_, the Seraphic Doctor offers a regimen for how the soul can come to mirror God, a suggested path for what this might look like.

In this context he says that such an achievement “is more a matter of affective experience [of the inner senses] than rational consideration.”

What might this affective experience of the inner senses mean? What is “inner sense,” anyway?

Without getting too bogged down in pre-modern faculty theory, recall that Aristotle and his medieval followers believed in a faculty of the soul called the “common sense.” This faculty or power is what allows a person to coordinate various sensory input. For example, consider an ice cube. If one holds the ice cube in her hand, she perceives by the sense of touch that it is cold, but she _also_ perceives by vision that it is grey in color, and cubical in shape. But how does she know that the cold thing and the cubical thing are one and the same thing? She knows this, thanks to the work of the inner sense power called the common sense.

Now, although for some early modern thinkers such as Descartes the common sense receives its input prior to the work of the memory and the imagination, for scholastic thinkers such as Thomas and Bonaventure, the common sense is situated _after_ the memory and the imagination. What this means is that the work of his faculty is not limited to the coordination of various sense stimuli, coming from diverse organs of the outer sense (e.g. eyes and skin). Rather, the common sense also imbues the object of thought with qualities supplied by memory and imagination. Surely it is here, in the memory and the imagination, where the “affections” which Bonaventure stresses, originate.

I thought of an example. Suppose you had a bit too much to drink last night. Suppose you drank a bit too much vodka, and you are a bit hung over. Suppose, further, that you just finished a 7 mile morning run, and you are very thirsty. You look up and you see two bottles, both containing clear liquid. For the purpose of this analogy assume that neither bottle has a label on it. You know that one bottle contains vodka, and the other one water.

Notice that the sensory input coming from you eyes as they gaze upon the different bottles is identical. That is, the eyes perceive no difference between the liquid contained in the two bottles: in both cases it is clear and colorless. Yet when you focus on the bottle of vodka you are repulsed, and when you focus on the bottle of water, you are so attracted to it that your mouth waters, impelling you finally to pick up the bottle, open the lid, and gulp down its contents.

What accounts for the difference between your different perceptions of the two bottles of clear, colorless liquid? It is not your vision or any other external sense power. The difference is “affective:” your perception is altered by the “inner sense power,” the “faculty” of “common sense,” which combines features of the two liquids, supplied by the memory and the imagination, with your visual perception of them.

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Posted on: April 16th, 2015 Sex, Desire, & Bodies

I am currently in a graduate “reading group” on Michel Foucault, and it is in that context that I have been thinking much about sexuality, desire, and bodies.

In addition I just watched a fascinating (and deeply convicting and encouraging) documentary put out by (an organization within) the Catholic Church on which makes the point that for the Christian tradition human desire is something which is disordered but able to be transformed. (To put this in the language of Reformed theology, human desire is good, fallen, and redeemed / redeemable in Christ.)

I heartily agree.

With these matters rumbling around in my head, a personal definition of “sexuality” occurred to me on my morning run today. What is sexuality? It is the human desire for human bodies.

We can speak (without falling into Cartesian dualism) in terms of the subject of this desire and the object of this desire.

The subject is the human being, which is necessarily embodied. It is necessarily embodied because the definition of “human” is “rational animal,” and following Boethius in his ordering of the sciences contained in his De Trinitate, an animal (falling under the rubric of natura or in Greek physis) is “inseparable from [its] material [body], either in thought or in reality. “In thought” means that the definition of something (in this case an animal) necessarily includes the notion of embodiedness or materiality. Here “animal” stands in opposition to other beings such as triangles (which as geometric objects are separable from material in thought) and “intelligences” or angels, or the soul, or God (which are separable in both thought and reality).

So, the subject of sexual desire and sexual activity is a human being, an animal, necessarily embodied.

What, then, is the object? While the subject of the desire is a human being, the object of the desire is the body of a human being.

Why the body and not something else, such as the soul or the mind or the attention of a human being? Because there are other names for each of these desires, for example, companionship, love, kononia, friendship, and the like.

How does this definition of sexuality relate to the traditional notion of eros? I do not know, but perhaps I will turn to that question in the near future.

 

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Posted on: March 9th, 2015 Zizek & Newman: “Believing at a Distance”

In his (admittedly highly eccentric) would-be defense of Christian orthodoxy, Slavoj Zizek chides us moderns for the chronological snobbery which strangely betrays our naive ignorance:

Was there … at any time in the past, an era when people directly ‘really believed?’ As Robert Pfaller demonstrated in Illusionen der Anderen, the direct belief in a truth that is subjectively fully assumed (“Here I stand!”) is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-through-distance, like politeness or rituals. Premodern societies did not believe directly, but through distance, and this explains, for instance, why Enlightenment critics misread ‘primative’ myths–they first took the notion that a tribe originated from a fish or a bird as literal direct belief, then rejected it as stupid, “fetishist,” naive. They thereby imposed their own notion of belief on the “primitivized” Other.

Now consider (Jaroslav Pelikan on) Newman:

By contrast with … the eagerness to be explicit about everything possible (in Lewis Carroll’s phrase, ‘to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast’), the tradition of orthodoxy, in Newman’s reading, had always observed a reverent restraint.

Pelikan goes on to point out that for Newman (or Newman’s reading of Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus), in its precreedal history “the content of the apostolic tradition had remained secret” in important ways.

Here Zizek resonates with Pelikan’s Newman in their common indictment of the (post)modern tendency–on the part both of believers who embrace it and their cultured despisers who reject it but project it onto ancient people of faith–to posit direct, literal, irreverent and unrestrained belief.

Nobody ever, Zizek is arguing, believed like that. Hence his claim that “we believe today more than ever.”

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Posted on: January 2nd, 2015 Foucault’s Quest for Pure Nature

The following quotation, from James Miller’s 1993 biography The Passion of Michel Foucault, confirms my suspicion that, after all is said and done, Foucault is still a kind of essentialist with respect to human nature.

Foucault suggests that behind the ‘deceptive surfaces’ of modern society lurks a human ‘nature metamorphosized in depth by the powers of a counter-nature.’ Containing, as it does, ‘the passage from life to death,’ the ‘great interior labyrinth,’ like Sade’s Castle of Murders, organizes a space proper to ‘modern perversity.’ ‘A cage,’ the labyrinth ‘makes of man a beast of desire’; a tomb,’ it ‘weaves beneath states a counter-city’; a diabolically clever invention, it is designed to unleash ‘all the volcanos of madness,’—threatening to destroy ‘the oldest laws and pacts.’

– James Miller, The Passion of Michel Foucault, 146-47 (The quotations within the quotation are mainly from Foucault’s [1962] article “Un si cruel savoir.)

Foucault is committed to the task, that is, of “peeling back” all cultural (humanly produced, whether intentional or not) influences, definitions, “historical aprioris,” etc. so as to arrive at the authentically human, at the authentic self. The procedure for such self transformation is connected to his talk of transgressing all limits and hence the necessity of cultivating for oneself various kinds of “limit experiences” (alcohol, fainting, exhaustion, heady literary effects of certain kinds of fiction, torture a la the Marquis de Sade, and–Foucault’s personal favorite–sado-massochism).

Once these limits are transgressed–and this is especially true for the absolute self-imposed limit experience of suicide–then one is finally free of all cultural constraints and is in touch with one’s “true self.”

Now, granted, this is not an example of traditional essentialism, where one identifies an object as a fixed instance of some genus or type of thing, hence having a fixed definition and classification. Nevertheless, there is a distinctively modern drive in Foucault to arrive at a final destination, a purely natural Ur reality, untrammeled by human culture, where one is free to be what one “truly is” (even if one is dead). (Note: it is clear to me in this context that the overall project of Derrida, who would never jump on Foucault’s metaphysical bandwagon here, is superior to Foucault’s.)

Contrast this zeal for pure nature with orthodox Christian theology, for which there is not brute nature and no brute human nature. For Scripture and tradition man is always-already conditioned and constrained by logos / language / culture / habit / politics,  by relationship with a logos-uttering God who is himself a community of persons.

For Christian theology there is no need to “peel back” all linguistic shaping, for there is no possibility of doing so.

 

 

 

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