Archive for the ‘Definitions’ Category


The Drug Of Ideology 3 – Russell Kirk

January 16, 2014
We live, then, in an insecure society, doubtful of its future, an island of comparative but temporary sanctuary in a sea of revolution; and neither the old isolation nor the old received opinions of the mass of men seem calculated to hold out unassisted against the physical force of revolutionary powers and the moral innovations of modern ideologies. This is just such a time as has required and produced, repeatedly in the course of history, a reexamination of first principles and a considered political philosophy.  Russell Kirk, 1984

We live, then, in an insecure society, doubtful of its future, an island of comparative but temporary sanctuary in a sea of revolution; and neither the old isolation nor the old received opinions of the mass of men seem calculated to hold out unassisted against the physical force of revolutionary powers and the moral innovations of modern ideologies. This is just such a time as has required and produced, repeatedly in the course of history, a reexamination of first principles and a considered political philosophy.
Russell Kirk, 1984

The final installment of Russell Kirk’s essay defining the ideologue and ideologies. Although he never lived to see the emergence of liberalism as the rudder of our secular ship of state and the crowning of Barack Obama Captain along with his European style democratic socialism and its mesmerizing entitlements, he knew of its dangers. This is from The Drug of Ideology, Enemies of the Permanent Things: Observations of Abnormity in Literature and Politics. Kirk passed in 1994.


Ideology and American Society
The American soil is not well prepared for pure ideology
. Half a century ago Santayana wrote that “it will take some hammering to drive a coddling socialism into America.”The hammering of ideology has been heard since then political religion has not yet triumphed. Though, as Aron knows, the United States has its political illusions, these are not precisely identical with the illusions of the French intellectual of the Left:

“The ‘American way of life’ is the negation of what the European intellectual means by the word ideology,” Aron remarks. Americanism does not formulate itself as a system of concepts or propositions; it knows nothing of the “collective savior,” the end of history, the determining cause of historical “becoming,” or the dogmatic negation of religion; it combines respect for the constitution, homage for individual initiative, a humanitarianism inspired by strong but vague beliefs which are fairly indifferent to the rivalries between the churches (only Catholic “totalitarianism” is considered disquieting), the worship of science and efficiency. It does not involve any detailed orthodoxy or official doctrine. It is learned at school, and society enforces it. Conformism if you like, but a conformism which is rarely felt to be tyrannical, since it does not forbid free discussion in matters of religion, economics, or politics.

Yet a hankering after ideology has existed since early times in America, though never well satisfied; and at moments, during the past forty or fifty years, it seemed as if ideology were about to capture the American mind. That ideology, if it had come to exercise an hegemony over American thought, would have borne the name of Liberalism. Communism, though it contrived to entrench itself in some high places among American intellecuals, never attracted so great a share of them as went over to Marxism in France or Germany or Italy or even Britain; while Fascism took no root hum at all.

Something called Liberalism, nevertheless, became very nearly a secular orthodoxy among American writers and (more especially) American Professors. No one was quite sure what Liberalism amounted to — which kept it from becoming a full-grown ideology. To some, Liberalism meant anti-religious opinions; to others, socialism, or a managed economy; to a different set, absolute liberty of private conduct, untrammeled by law or tradition; to a number, perpetual doubt for the sake of doubting; to one lot, old-fangled Benthamism.

This Liberal secular orthodoxy is decaying now, to the alarm of its principal champions, some of whom defend it with the zeal of genuine ideologues, although they are not quite sure just what they are defending. Nowadays these champions, confronted with the revival of conservative ideas, alternate between the argument that conservatism is getting nowhere at all, and the contention that conservatism is so dreadfully powerful as to drive persecuted liberals into holes and corners.

As a matter of fact, the precepts of Liberalism still dominate a great many American writers and professors, who sometimes are intolerant in the mime of liberal toleration; but the odds are that this Liberal orthodoxy cannot now harden into a true ideology. The fantastics of the New Left dearly would love to embrace a rigorous ideology; but they fall out so much among themselves and within themselves, that no body of secular dogmas takes form.

America needs nothing less than it needs ideology. Not abstraction but prudence, prescription, custom, tradition, and constitution have governed the American people. We have been saved from ideology by political tradition. We still subscribe, however confusedly, to the norms of politics, we still cherish the permanent things.

For nearly two centuries, the outward forms of government in this nation have altered little. Although during the past four decades, and particularly during the past ten years, the actual functioning of our political system has changed rapidly, still the facade of the political edifice looks much as it used to. Within, nevertheless, the house is being transformed — even if a few desire a radical transformation. No system of laws and institutions is immutable. Can the American Republic direct such change into actions which will reconcile with our historical experience and our prescriptive institutions that spirit of the age which now shakes the house?

Change, as Burke said, is the means of our preservation: as the human body exhausts old tissues and takes on new, so must any vigorous society. Yet rash and mindless change, striking to the heart of society, may destroy continuity which invigorates a nation. The character of change in America probably will be determined, for good or ill, within the next few years.

Whatever our civil discontents at present, we stand in little peril of a political revolution which would destroy our national foundations. The American people remain, in some ways, the most conservative in the world — though their conservatism is not so much the product of reflection as it is of habit, custom, material interests, and attachment to certain documents, notably the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Our difficulty, indeed, is not just now the clutch of ideology, but rather complacency — the smug general assumption that the civil social order, in essence, always will be for our sons what it was for our fathers.

“With conservative populations,” Brooks Adams wrote, “slaughter is nature’s remedy.” He referred to a complacent democratic conservatism of the crowd. If American order, justice, and freedom are to endure, some of us must look into the first principles of politics and apply the wisdom of our ancestors to the troubles of our time. To preserve all the benefits of American society — which may be lost not through revolution, but perhaps in a fit of absence of mind — we must turn political philosophers, as did our ancestors in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

Like the English, the Americans usually have been reluctant to embark upon abstract political speculation. Except for the period just before, during and after the revolution, and – to a lesser extent – the years before and immediately after the Civil War, we have produced little political philosophy; we have trusted instead, to constitution, custom, convention, consensus, and the wisdom of the species.

Indeed, the Declaration and the Constitution, though drawn up by men of philosophical knowledge and power, are not in themselves manuals of political philosophy. The Declaration of 1776 is simply a declaration — and a highly successful piece of immediate political propaganda; such philosophical concepts as find expression therein are so mistily expressed as to mean all things to all men, then and now. The Constitution is not a tract at all, but a practical instrument of government, molded in part by necessary practical compromises

We will not repudiate the Declaration, nor much alter the formal Constitution. Yet no society can be bound by parchment. With vertiginous speed, the character of American society is being altered. Can a people whose modes of living, economy, and diversions differ radically from those of the eighteenth century continue to live in harmony and prosperity under a political system developed in very different circumstances? Can a people of whom the immense majority now dwell in megalopolis, for instance, govern themselves on the old principles of American territorial democracy?

For my part, I do not think that we could construct a brand-new constitution better calculated to reconcile the claims of order and the claims of freedom than does our old Constitution — whatever its anomalies and difficulties today. If that is true, then we will do well to seek means for reinvigorating the Constitution and making sure it deals adequately with the conditions of the twentieth century; otherwise it may be altered out of recognition by an extravagant “judicial reinterpretation,” unsupported either by precedent or by public consensus — or, in the long run, it may be discarded altogether by an impatient Executive Force, Congress, and people.

And we must remind ourselves that beneath any formal constitution — even beneath our Constitution, the most enduringly successful of such formal documents — lies an unwritten constitution much more difficult to define, but really more powerful: the body of institutions, customs, manners, conventions, and voluntary associations which may not even be mentioned in the formal constitution, but which nevertheless form the fabric of social reality and sustain the formal constitution.

So the examination of our present discontents cannot be confined to an exercise in formal constitutional law. To discuss the future of American politics, we must confess that, vastly important though they are, the Declaration and the Constitution do not constitute the be-all and end-all of political wisdom; and that, when the file affords no precedent, we must turn fruit legal brief to political philosophy.

Recourse to political first principles is attended by risks. Scarcely anything could be more ruinous than to turn the American people into a set of half-schooled coffee-house philosophers, ideologues bent upon gaining Utopia instanter, terrible simplifiers in politics. Yet in the exigencies of our decade, a people cannot govern themselves wholly by the decisions and the rhetoric of 1776 and 1787.

The intellectual and political leaders of our age have the duty of guiding public opinion into prudent consideration of the  means for harmonizing our prescriptive politics with modern condition that require some tolerable action. I am saying that there exists real danger of our drifting mindlessly into the mass-age, unaware that order and justice and freedom are fragile; and that today, as much as in 1776 or 1787, we need to discuss questions concerning the vitality of the good civil social order.

Ever since the Civil War, political thought has languished in the United States. For important political theory almost always is developed out time of troubles, when thinking men, forced to examine their first principles, seek means to avert the imminent collapse of order, so as to restore some measure of justice and security to a wounded society. The political writings of Plato and Aristotle came out of such an age. So did Cicero’s works and Dante’s, and Hobbes’s, and Machiavelli’s, and Hooker’s, and Loc] and Burke’s, and Marx’s.

The nature of the confusion which provokes exposition of political theory may be the inadequacy of an old order, morally and administratively, as it was in the society of Calvin and of Rousseau; of confusion may be the consequence of a new order’s search for sanction, was in the society of Bodin or of Bentham. Doubt and violence are the agents of social speculation. Prescription, legal precedent, and muddling through suffice for ages or nations that experience no serious threat to things established.

Thus the political ideas of Adams, Hamilton, Madison, and Jefferson, though rooted in English and colonial experience and mightily influence the legacy of English political philosophy, took form as prudent endeavors to restore order and justice to a commonwealth distressed by revolution. Thus the ideas of John Randolph and Calhoun were expressed as a defense of established institutions in the Old South.

Once the triumph of the Union, however, had put an end to the debate between North and South, and once swelling prosperity of the United States after the Civil War combined with the nation’s comparative isolation to make any foreign menace trifling, American can political speculation sank to a lower level.

No political philosopher of remarkable stature appeared during the closing third of the nineteenth century, and the bulk of what passed for political thought in this country was simply the reflection of various English and German liberal ideas, adapted to the American climate of opinion. There seemed to be no need for reference to first principles; Things were in the saddle, and most men were content to let things ride mankind. Warning voices like those of Henry and Brooks Adams were rather despairing protests than expressions of political philosophy.

As the First World War approached, and as the economic and moral problems of the post-war era became pressing, ideas were granted some small hearing, it is true, so that Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More and George Santayana asked the right questions. Yet Things galloped on; the New Deal, fortunately perhaps, was the expression of vague humanitarian aspirations and positive grievances, not of any coherent “liberal” or “radical” system of thought. Nor was America’s participation in the Second World War governed by any body of general ideas: caused by the combination of moral indignation with fear of Germany and Japan, American intervention stood bewildered for want of first principle when the problems of the peace had to be confronted.

The genius of American politics, as Daniel Boorstin suggests, consists in an innocence of abstract doctrine and theoretic dogma; and this is quite as true of the genius of English politics. Yet possibly the immunity of these nations from the curse of ideology has resulted not so much from a deliberate contempt for theory, as from two peculiar advantages that today are much diminished: first, a comparative physical isolation from other powers that made possible the postponement of grave decisions; second, an underlying set of moral and political assumptions, common to nearly everyone in these societies, which were the products of a venerable historic experience, and which served the purpose that political dogmas serve in nations less governed by general prejudice, prescription, and custom.

Yet a time may come in the history of nations when the previous security against foreign intervention is destroyed, and when tradition and established usage are so weakened that they cannot stand unbuttressed against the assaults of ideology.

Such an era is America’s near the close of the sixties (when this piece was written). The dissolution of America’s old political and military isolation requires no comment; we survived by a single generation the end of Britain’s comparative isolation. The breaking of the cake of custom is the subject of many books, though all its intricacies have not yet been explored.

It must suffice to say here that with the triumph of modern technology, the ascendancy of general literacy and secularized schooling, the extreme mobility and fluidity of twentieth-century American society, the disappearance of many elements of authority and class, and the diffusion of positivistic ideas — why, tradition and custom in the United States, though by no means effaced, have lost much of their old power.

We live, then, in an insecure society, doubtful of its future, an island of comparative but temporary sanctuary in a sea of revolution; and neither the old isolation nor the old received opinions of the mass of men seem calculated to hold out unassisted against the physical force of revolutionary powers and the moral innovations of modern ideologies. This is just such a time as has required and produced, repeatedly in the course of history, a reexamination of first principles and a considered political philosophy.


The Drug Of Ideology 2 – Russell Kirk

January 15, 2014
In genetics, as in other sciences, the ideologue recoils from his own conclusions only when the results indubitably are ruinous -- as in the notorious affair, in Soviet Russia, of Lysenko's theories about corn, faithful to Marxism but false to nature and productive of monstrous crop-failures. The Ideologue, I am saying, is not genuinely objective and not genuinely scientific. In essence, ideology is a passionate endeavor to overthrow the spiritual and moral order, as well as the social order; and scientific doctrine is no better than a tool for the ideologue.

In genetics, as in other sciences, the ideologue recoils from his own conclusions only when the results indubitably are ruinous — as in the notorious affair, in Soviet Russia, of Lysenko’s theories about corn, faithful to Marxism but false to nature and productive of monstrous crop-failures. The Ideologue, I am saying, is not genuinely objective and not genuinely scientific. In essence, ideology is a passionate endeavor to overthrow the spiritual and moral order, as well as the social order; and scientific doctrine is no better than a tool for the ideologue.

Ideology, Objectivity, and Scientism
Ideology is existence in rebellion against God and man,” EricVoegelin writes, “It is the violation of the First and Tenth Commandments, if we want to use the language of Israelite order; it is the nosos, the disease of the spirit, if we want to use the language of Aeschylus and Plato. Philosophy is the love of being through love of divine Being as the source of its order.” For a great while, Voegelin continues, ideology has held a mortgage upon science — that is, upon systematic thought.

But the ideologue does not think of himself as a simplifier or a sloganizer. He believes that he is objective and scientific, even dispassionate. An anti-collectivist ideologue (rather a rare breed, in this century), Miss Ayn Rand, even concocts a rigorous ideology called “Objectivism.”All faithful followers of systematized ideologies believe themselves to be objective; their adversaries, to a man, are subjective.

So permit me to digress here concerning “objectivity,” a word as much abused as “ideology.”The modern devotee of objectivity prides himself upon being a realist, a man who perceives the world as it truly is, without being deluded by visions, personal interests, or irrational emotions. But no man is more un-philosophical than one who fancies that he is totally objective.

Objectivity means the property or state of being objective. The word now implies absorption in, or concern with, external objects, as opposed to “subjectivity,” or concern with self and the interior life.

Yet historically considered, the terms “objectivity” and “objective” meant to medieval and Renaissance scholars quite the contrary of their twentieth-century connotations. From about 1300 when Duns Scotus defiled the term, until late in the eighteenth century, “objectivity” and “objective” were generally understood to refer to things perceived or thought, intentional, or representative; while “subjective,” during those centuries, meant things in their own form. This earlier usage is suggested by Bishop Berkeley (1709): “Natural phenomena are only natural appearances. They are, therefore, such as we see and perceive them .Their real and objective nature are therefore the same.”

For the past two centuries, however, “objectivity” has connoted “real objects”, as opposed to “subjectivity,” or concern with the subject of cognition, the mind. In addition, “objectivity” has come to imply concentration upon external objects of thought — things or other persons — as against attention to one’s self, one’s own ways, one’s own sensations.

In this sense, the “objective” man is one who concerns himself with external facts or what he believes to be “objective” reality, rather than with his own emotions, personality, and thoughts. The rationalistic, nineteenth-century usage is exemplified by a remark of John Fiske: “The only healthful activity of the mind is an objective activity, in which there is as little brooding over self as is possible.”

Fiske is echoed by another enthusiast for this sort of objectivity, John Dewey, in Democracy and Education (1916): “The idea of perfecting an `inner’ personality is a sure sign of social division. What is called `inner’ is simply that which does not connect with others — which is not capable of free and full communication. What is termed spiritual culture has usually been futile, with something rotten about it, just because it has been conceived as a thing which a man might have internally — and therefore exclusively.”

In the “objective” paradise of Dewey and his disciples, as in Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), everybody belongs to everybody else — and not one’s body merely, but one’s mind, becomes public domain. Dewey was bent, though perhaps only half consciously, on creating an impersonal society: that is, a society in which strong personalities would be eliminated.

For there is no personality, really, except inner personality, subjective personality; if, then, its perfection is denounced as rotten, human beings are expected to efface personality altogether. They become “other-directed men.” Lacking belief, loyalty, and self-reliance, dependent upon an unattainable perfect objectivity, they are moved only by fad and foible, and are blown about by every wind of doctrine. Objectivity of this sort terminates in pusillanimity.

Many twentieth-century writers and scholars praise “objectivity” as impartial and accurate; and they disparage “subjectivity” as sliding toward illusion, partisanship, and emotional disturbance. Thus most sociologists, say, profess devotion to objectivity; while poets, concerned with personal experience, are allegedly immersed in subjectivity. It remains most doubtful, nevertheless whether any man may so wholly divest himself of prejudice, early opinions, and private experience as to manifest a thoroughgoing objectivity.

In the social studies, for instance, not a few doctors of philosophy call “objectivity” what really is their own ideology. Thus they praise to the skies a book that advocates a positivistic view of man and society; if that book expouses the cause of centralized planning, the omnicompetent state and the progressive standardizing of all aspects of life, it is “objective” – that is, the book conforms to reality, or to what should be reality. If a book takes another tack, holding by religious conceptions of man and prescriptive opinions of the free and just society — why, the authors of so disagreeable a work must be nasty subjectivists.

For in an age of strong ideological tendencies, many people who profess devotion to “objectivity” may be self-deluding victims of a curiously inverted “subjectivity,” indulging an intolerant zeal for “tolerance,” a passionate attack on passion, a bigoted denunciation of bigotry. In such circumstances objectivity” is confounded with ideological preference, and the “objective” ideologue demands conformity to his notion of reality — or of what ought to be the state of society.

In actuality, “objective” and “subjective” approaches to true perception are not inimical, but rather co-ordinate, and even symbiotic. Accurate understanding of external objects, distinct from consideration of self, is the essential method of modern science; but the knowledge gained from personal experience and meditation is necessary for the classification and ordering of phenomena. Thus poetic insight, if “subjective,” nevertheless broadens and deepens the vision; while scientific examination, if “objective,” confirms or corrects the private judgment.

To resume, nevertheless the typical ideologue thinks of himself perfectly objective. The core of his belief is that human nature and human society may be improved infinitely — nay, perfected — by the application of techniques of the physical and biological sciences to the governance of men. Nearly all nineteenth and twentieth-century radical movements drew their inspiration in considerable part from this positivistic assumption; Marxism is only one of the more systematic products of this view of life and thought.

For the convinced positivist-ideologue, traditional religion has been a nuisance and a curse, because it impedes the designs of the ideological planner. Science with a Roman S, should supplant God. The religious teacher would give way to the “scientific” manager of the new society.

This rather vague claim that society ought to be regulated on “sc principles has held an appeal for some physical and biological scientists, and the less such scientists have known of humane letters, history, and political theory, the more enthusiastic they have tended to be for a new order which would sweep away all the errors and follies of mankind by a rational application of scientific theory and method.

The high achievements of physical and biological science in the nineteenth century gave powerful reinforcement to the advocates of “scientism” in sociology and politics. Religion, moral tradition and the complex of established political institutions were irrational and unscientific and subjective, it seemed; surely the scientists must show the preachers and politicians the way to a better world. H. G. Wells was the ablest vulgarizer of scientistic ideology.

But since the middle of the twentieth century, a good many intelligent people have been taking a second look at the claims of pure science, of the “science of society,” and of religion. Fresh scientific speculation has called into question the soundness of many of the assumptions of the mechanistic physics and the Darwinian biology of the nineteenth century; while a revival of serious theology and a renewed interest in political theory have strengthened the position of people who think that they were not born yesterday. The catastrophic social events of our century, moreover, have caused some of us to inquire whether there is not something fundamentally wrong with philosophical and scientific and sociological postulates which promise us the terrestrial paradise but promptly deliver us at the gates of a terrestrial hell. Fascism, Nazism, and communism all have claimed to be scientific.

A good representative of reformed scientific opinion is Dr. Edmund W. Sinnott, dean of the graduate school of Yale University, writing in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (December 1956). After presenting very fairly and even evangelically the case for scientific positivism and objectivity, he proceeds to demolish it. With Aristotle, Sinnott recognizes final causes: he is a teleologist.

What animates every organism, what constitutes its nature, is purpose: “If it be accepted, the idea of purpose, of intention, of the motive power of a goal or ideal rather than of an organic `drive,’ changes the orientation of our psychical lives.” Man, he argues, is drawn toward a goal; and that goal often cannot be perceived or apprehended through the methods of exact science. “The closest contact with reality for many people is through this unexplained, mysterious urgency in life experienced in flashes of insight, for these carry with them a great weight of authority.” So here an eminent professor of science has stood up for subjectivity, for the man of vision, for Carlyle in Leith Walk or Pascal murmuring “Fire, fire, fire!”

“The days of the evolutionary optimists are gone,” Sinnott continues, “who believed that progress is the nature of things and that man is bound to grow better almost automatically. If we are to find a way out of our troubles, we must appeal not only to the rational attitudes and methods of the scientist but also to man’s inner spiritual motivation. Love may turn out to be a more valuable resource than logic.”

For Sinnott, science cannot supplant religion; both science and religion “have indispensable contributions to make to the great task of building of a society in which men will not only be safe and wise and happy and by gain the serene confidence that their lives are in harmony with the universe itself.”

So scientism — the facile application of the teachings of natural science to the affairs of mankind — is on boggy ground today: social “objectivity,” like social Darwinism, is parting company with much present scientific theory. The representative ideologue is unaware how very old-fangled he is becoming his notion of what pure science teaches.

Yet it would be foolish optimism to mistake the speculation of some leading philosophers of science for the convictions of the whole body of teachers of science, researchers, and scientific technicians. A professed man of science still may remain as much an ideologue as any agent of the Chinese “Cultural Revolution.”

At the convention in 1956 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, for instance — meeting only a short time after Professor Sinnott wrote — there still were exhibited (together with more encouraging opinions) certain depressing examples of the influence which scientistic ideology still exerts upon American society. Consider a research-project in “intellectual potential” described to the Association by its authors, an associate professor of psychiatry and an associate professor of pediatrics at Ohio State University.

The purpose of this research-project was to discover whether heredity determines individual intelligence to any marked degree. These two professors studied the behavior of a thousand infants in Baltimore, all about forty weeks old, excluding babies with damaged brains from consideration in their general conclusions. Upon the “developmental score” employed in this study, ninety per cent of the infants scored between 90 and 120, with 100 as the norm. Race, economic status, and education of parents seemed to have no discernible effect upon the scores of particular babies. Therefore, the professors announced, one baby seems to be as intelligent as another; and undeniable variation of children at a later age must be “wholly a result of education and environment.”

“Intelligence,” an educationist said once, “is simply what our tests test.” This particular research project appears to me a tolerable example of an ideological mortgage upon the work of science. Leaving aside certain logical and statistical fallacies involved in this project, still the range between 90 and 120 indicates a very considerable difference in infant minds.

But the principal foolishness of such a survey is its claim to measure human intelligence at a stage when the human creatures concerned could not yet be called rational beings. One might as well try to determine the swiftness of a fawn by examining the creature in embryo, as to try to determine the power of the human intellect by observing the behavior of a baby a few months old. Man’s rationality is made possible by his mastery of words and his employment of his hands. A little baby knows no words, and therefore no general concepts; he can use his hands to little purpose, and therefore is not yet even a tool-using animal.

Of course all small babies seem much the same in intelligence; for none of them has, at that stage, much intelligence distinctively human; they are almost identical in their poverty. If a thousand forty-weeks old baboons or chimpanzees had been observed and tested alongside the human infants, doubtless the apes would have come out much better on the development-score, for their nature matures much more rapidly than does the human.

Therefore, one supposes, we ought to conclude that the differences between baboon baby and human baby are matters of education and environment, and baboons should be entitled to the privileges and immunities of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This latter-day tabula rasa doctrine of the psychiatrist and the teacher of pediatrics, I suspect — though I do not know the professors in question — is theologically inspired. It is “democratic,” in the Jacobin meaning of that word. All people ought to be equal, the egalitarian ideologue commences; but if persons are unequal in intelligence from a very early age, then it may be difficult to establish among them equality of condition; so the “scientific” dogma must be made to fit the ideological dogma, and Jonathan Edwards and Sam Jukes will be demonstrated, by “development-scores,” to be naturally as much alike as two peas in a pod.

Intelligence is what our tests test; and if tests reveal disconcerting individual differences — why, back to your development-scores, men. Having arrived at a tentative conclusion about certain infants by scientifically dubious means, then the ideologue hastily tacks on to his structure grand generalizations, quite unsupported even by his own evidence, concerning the native intelligence of adults. This is scientism in its worst sense: science enslaved by ideological prejudice.

In genetics, as in other sciences, the ideologue recoils from his own conclusions only when the results indubitably are ruinous — as in the notorious affair, in Soviet Russia, of Lysenko’s theories about corn, faithful to Marxism ism but false to nature and productive of monstrous crop-failures. The Ideologue, I am saying, is not genuinely objective and not genuinely scientific. In essence, ideology is a passionate endeavor to overthrow the spiritual and moral order, as well as the social order; and scientific doctrine is no better than a tool for the ideologue. Raymond Aron makes this point:

Communism developed from an economic and political doctrine at a time when the spiritual vitality and the authority of the Churches was in decline. Passions which in other times might have expressed themselves in strictly religious beliefs were channelled into political action. Socialism appeared not so much a technique applicable to the management of enterprises or to the functioning of the economy, as a means of curing once and for all the age-old misery of mankind.

The ideologies of the Right and of the Left, Fascism as well as Communism, are inspired by the modern philosophy of immanence. They are atheist, even when they do not deny the existence of God, to the extent that they conceive the human world without reference to the transcendental.

Ideology is intellectual servitude. And emancipation from ideology can be achieved only by belief in an enduring order of which the sanction, and the end, are more than objective, more than scientistic, more than human and more than natural.


The Drug Of Ideology 1– Russell Kirk

January 14, 2014
The ideologues are Burckhardt's "terrible simplifiers."They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to man possessed by devils.

The ideologues are Burckhardt’s “terrible simplifiers.”They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to man possessed by devils.

It’s not often I assign my category of definitions to an article but this one is truly deserving of what I had intended with that category: it creates a baseline for the terms ideologue and ideology which are so redolent and evocative of our times. Liberals have become our new ideologues, replacing the communists or fascists from yesteryear. Their secular ideology is at war with the Catholic Church and in many ways they are winning with a kind of subtlety that the serpent in the garden must be admiring greatly.


“We are not at an end of our struggle, nor near it. Let us not deceive ourselves; we are at the beginning of great troubles.”Burke goes on in the same prophetic passage, found in his Letters on Regicide Peace (1796), to say that”[i]t is with an armed doctrine that we are at war.”

Like Burke, Kirk never wavered in censuring the inroads of armed doctrines in the modern state. In “Thy Drug of Ideology,” he strives to help the reader to apprehend the duplicitous features of ideology, its sham abstractions and promises, its conditions of `intellectual servitude.

Here he identifies rigid forms of ideology since the last years of the eighteenth century — Jacobinism, communism, fascism, Nazism. In twentieth-century ideologists (“after the manner of Robespierre”) Kirk adduces evidence of a zealous rebellion against God and man that epitomizes abnormity in its most deformed energies and aspects.

In our age, most of the world has fallen into profound political disorder and while the United States may seem an island of tranquility (This dates the writing, doesn’t it? Must be the fifties.), comparatively speaking, in a sea of troubles, nevertheless we are not secure. In politics, as in letters, abnormity gains ground

One may discern the principal causes of social disorder. Some are the consequences of swift economic and technological change, and these cannot be examined at any length here. But also a social order begins to disintegrate — or is supplanted by a very different domination political custom and political theory are overwhelmed by ideology, when established political institutions are abandoned or permitted to decline, out of popular indifference and ignorance….

I am concerned with the desertion from political theory and tradition, and what may be done about it; with the neglect of institutions that maintain order and justice and freedom, and with the results of such dereliction. The permanent things of the commonwealth stand in peril, throughout the world. Our first necessity is understand the nature of ideology.

“Ideology” does not mean political theory or principle, even though journalists and some professors commonly employ the term in that sense. Ideology really means political fanaticism — and, more precisely, the belief that this world of ours may be converted into the Terrestrial Paradise the operation of positive law and positive planning.

The ideologue – Communist or Nazi or of whatever affiliation — maintains that human nature and may be perfected by mundane, secular means, though these means ,ordinarily involve violent social revolution. The ideologue immanentizes religious symbols and inverts religious doctrines.

What religion promises to the believer in a realm beyond time and space, ideology promises to everyone — except those who have been “liquidated” in its the process — in society. Salvation becomes collective and political. “When the intellectual feels no longer attached either to the community or the religion of his forbears,” Raymond Aron writes in The Opium of the Intellectuals (1957), “he looks to progressive ideology to fill the vacuum. The difference between the progressivism of the disciple of Harold Laski or Bertrand Russell and the Communism of the disciple of Lenin concerns not so much the content as the style of the ideologies and the allegiance they demand.

As a term of modern politics and sociology, “ideology” may be defined tentatively. It is an alleged science of politics, dogmatic and often utopian, allied with the interests of a particular social class or political sect. Several powerful ideologies or quasi-ideologies have been at work in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This word has passed through complicated changes of meaning, however, and often is misapplied.

In France, at the close of the eighteenth century, the term was employed by the disciples of Condillac, particularly Destutt deTracy, whose Les éléments d’ideologie appeared in five volumes between 1801 and 1815. The original “ideologists” or “ideologues” believed that all knowledge is derived from sensation, and that a science of ideas could be developed upon this basis, describing the history and evolution of thought, and applicable to politics, ethics, and pedagogy.

Thus originally “ideology” was a kind of climax of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, an attempt to systematize and apply knowledge obtained from sensory perception. The intellectual origins of ideology are described by a number of writers, perhaps most recently in two books by Thomas Molnar, The Decline of the Intellectual (1961) and Utopia, the Perennial Heresy (1967)

Napoleon, in 1812, looking with disfavor upon the ideological school, ruled Destutt de Tracy and his associates as “ideologists,” men of hopelessly abstract and fanciful views, unacquainted with the realities of the civil social order. From an early date, accordingly, “ideology” and “ideologist” or ideologue” became terms of derogation, implying misguided intellectuality as banefully applied to social concerns. Thus John Adams, in 1813, wrote of

Our English words, Idiocy or Idiotism, express not the force or meaning of it. It is presumed its proper definition is the science of Idiocy. And a very profound, abstruse, and mysterious science it is. You must descend deeper than the divers in the Dunciad to make any discoveries, and after all you will find no bottom. It is the bathos, the theory, the art, the skill of diving and sinking in government. It was taught in the school of folly; but alas! Franklin, Turgot, Rochefoucauld, and Condorcet, under Tom Paine, were the great masters of that academy!

The chief political thinkers of the English speaking world, at least, abjured ideology. In his Logic (1843), John Stuart Mill declares, “I would willingly have … persevered to the end in the same abstinence which I have hitherto observed from ideological discussions.” In America and Britain, long hostile toward what Burke called “the abstract metaphysician” in politics, the concept of ideology always has been unpopular — at least until quite recently.

About the middle of the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and his disciples considerably altered the meaning of “ideology.” According to Marx — particularly in his Poverty of Philosophy (1900) — ideology is a cloak for class interests, an outwardly rational instrument of propaganda, a veil of argument produced to disguise and defend an established social order.

In Marx’s phrases, “The same men who establish social relations conformably with their material productivity, produce also the principles, the ideas, the categories, conformable with their social relations.” Thus Marx attacked social theories of his own time and of earlier ages as ideologies meant maintain capitalism, feudalism, imperialism, and other systems. Marxism itself, however, rapidly developed into an ideology, or dogmatic system of politics professing to found its structure upon a “reality” ascertained by sensory perception alone.

In the present century, Karl Mannheim distinguished between the “particular” and the “total” meanings of ideology. “The former,” Mannheim wrote, “assumes that this or that interest is the cause of a given lie or deception.The latter presupposes that there is a correspondence between a given social situation and a given perspective, point of view, or apperception mass.” In general, Mannheim takes the view that ideology is irrational, and in modern times merges with utopianism.

Since the Second World War, in serious discussions, “ideology” usually has meant a dogmatic political theory which endeavors to substitute secular doctrines and goals for religious doctrines and goals — what J. L. Talmon calls “political messianism.” The ideologue promises social, rather than personal salvation; and this salvation, occurring in time, is to be achieved through a radical transformation of social institutions, involving the destruction of existing law and institutions, and probably requiring violence against the present possessors of power. On principles allegedly rational and scientific, ideology is meant to reconstruct and perfect society and human nature.

It follows that the various ideologies which have arisen since the concluding years of the eighteenth century — Jacobinism, socialism, communism, anarchism, syndicalism, fascism, Nazism, and others — all are opposed by conservatism, which is founded upon the concept that politics is the art of the possible, and the concept that the old and tried is preferable to the new and untried. In the aphorism of H. Stuart Hughes, “Conservatism is the negation of ideology.”

Yet, as I remarked earlier, today “ideology” frequently is used as if the term were synonymous with “political philosophy” or “political theory.”Tacitly, this assumption suggests that any theoretical foundation for politics or sociology must be involved either with social utopianism (often fanatical) or with veiled class interests, or with both.

This corruption of the term, produced in part by a vulgarizing of the concepts of Marx and Mannheim, makes sober examination of social first principles more difficult, particularly in a time when ideological passions and prejudices retain power throughout most of the world.

Real thinking is a painful process; and the ideologue resorts to the anesthetic of social utopianism, escaping the tragedy and grandeur of true human existence by giving his adherence to a perfect dream-world of the future. Reality he stretches or chops away to conform to his dream-pattern of human nature and society. For the concepts of salvation and damnation, he substitutes abstractly virtuous “progressives” and abstractly vicious “reactionaries.”

The twentieth-century ideologue, after the manner of Robespierre, thinks that his secular dogmas are sustained by the Goddess Reason; he prides himself inordinately upon being “scientific” and “rational”; and he is convinced that all opposition to his particular wave of the future is selfish obscurantism, when it is not direct vested interest.

One may add that ever since the modern scholar began to call himself an “intellectual,” he has tended to fall addict to the opiate of ideology; for the word “intellectual” itself, used as a noun of persons, implies an overweening confidence in Reason with a capital R, to the exclusion of faith, custom, consensus, humility, and sacred mystery.

The ideologue, in brief, is one of Orwell’s new-style men “who think in slogans and talk in bullets.” For the ideologue, humankind may be divided into two classes: the comrades of Progress, and the foes attached to reactionary interests.

All human actions may be judged in terms of ideological motive, the ideologue is convinced. An African leader who wishes to still settle for the practicable and to maintain amicable relationships with Europeans, for instance, must be a tool of “colonialists” or in the pay of a sinister capitalist cartel; it is inconceivable that such a leader should be sincere in his course of action.

On the other hand, a revolutionary, in Africa or elsewhere, always is right: just conceivably he may be over-zealous on occasion, but the purity of his motives is beyond question. The ideologues are Burckhardt’s “terrible simplifiers.”They reduce politics to catch-phrases; and because they will tolerate no stopping-place short of heaven upon earth, they deliver us up to man possessed by devils.


The So-Called Immorality of Christianity – Jeffrey Burton Russell

August 28, 2012

Giovanni BELLINI, Sacred Allegory, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The cover of the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic, asked, “Did Christianity cause the crash?” In fact, a tide of anti-Christian propaganda is holding that “Christianity caused  —————“(fill in anything you don’t like). The only good thing about it is that Christians can learn how Jews have felt for centuries. Antitheists believe that Christians who do good are either not really Christians or else do good despite their Christianity: Christians cannot do good on the basis of their beliefs, because their beliefs are bad. [Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), pp. 173-9)]

They also think Christianity is immoral: it supports war, denies rights to minorities, pits itself against science and blocks progress. The antitheists attack all religions but focus on the three most prominent Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and their prime target is Christianity. They fail to note that in Europe and America Christians originated hospitals, orphanages, schools and universities. Humanists fail to recognize that their humane values come from Judeo-Christian religion. And one may ask what Christian oppression actually exists in contemporary America: the one that controls universities? The one that controls business and finance? The one that controls the media? The one that dominates the public schools? The one that runs the government? The one that conducts foreign policy? Where is all this hateful oppression anyway?

Immorality is sometimes distinguished from amorality (the lack of any kind of morals), but a more important distinction is between immorality and illegality. Many things are illegal without being immoral — double parking, for example — and many things are immoral without being illegal — for example, paying yourself hundreds of times more than your employees. Sometimes, as in Nazi or Soviet society, it is even illegal not to be immoral: you are obliged by law to inform on your neighbor. Illegality depends on whoever is in control of the state. Immorality is quite different: it means violating a fundamental code of behavior.

Morality and religion don’t necessarily go together. In many other cultures, religion has to do with offending or placating gods who are themselves morally ambivalent. The first religion to tie morality inextricably to divine law was Israelite monotheism. An old question asks whether rape and murder are wrong because God says so or whether God condemns rape and murder because they are wrong. Judeo-Christian morality dissolves the difference: some actions are good and some evil by both natural and divine law. Even Christianity is not primarily about morality but about God’s love for humanity expressed in Jesus. A recent study of the sense of fairness in societies showed that fairness correlates significantly with participation in religion. ["Fair Play," The Economist, March 20, 2010]

To be moral or immoral requires a free choice. Bacteria, ants, pelicans and robots can be neither moral nor immoral, because they are programmed to act exactly the way they do. Most atheists think that humans, like pelicans or robots, are programmed by genetics and circumstances to do exactly what they do. Having no freedom of choice, we are incapable of either morality or immorality. Now, if there is no such thing as immorality, Christianity can’t be “immoral.” What antitheists really mean by saying that Christianity is immoral is that they believe Christianity is opposed to certain values that they think are good.

Christians believe that morality is living in harmony with the divine law found in the “two books”: the Bible and nature. In the Bible the truth is revealed in words; in nature it is revealed through mathematics and research into the universe. [Josef Zycinski makes the point that "the mind of God" in modern physics is mathematical rather than Platonic; he traces the change back to the seventeenth century: God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006)] A principle is a basic truth from which consistent ideas and behavior proceed, and Christians believe that their primary principle is the truth of the two revelations.

In contrast, atheist and humanist morality can have no principle [The latest effort to establish atheist morality is Sam Harris, Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).] Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov notes that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. If a humanist wants to do good, how does he or she know what is good? If the response is that human nature is basically good, the evidence of both biology and history is counter to the claim. Further, to assert that “man is good” requires some Good by which to measure good. If there is no perfect Good, secularists have no principle on which to base their ideas of what is good. Humanists imagine that the world, once purged of religion, would adopt their own vague, liberal morality, but why would it? Why assume that such a world would embrace compassion, equality, or freedom? [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions] Those ideas come from Christianity.

Secularists have been trying to establish secular moral codes without the principle of the Good and have repeatedly failed. Without this basis, ethics become relative, and “a simple `I disagree’ or `I refuse’ [or `I am offended'] is enough to exhaust the persuasive resources of any purely worldly ethics.” [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions] I once heard a witness in a child-rape trial say, “Who’s to say what’s right or wrong in this round world?” The effort of secularism to create a principle in the welter of relativism is like pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

The very point of relativism is that it doesn’t have a principle: everybody chooses his or her own values. Relativism therefore means that morals become a matter of fashion or else are imposed by a self-appointed authority. The atheist Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI agreed in a debate that “there had to be some value system.” [97Micklethwait and Wooldridge, God Is Back] But any value system man creates will be dissolved by man. What evidence is there of moral progress, unless by “moral progress” one means that certain things one personally admires have recently become more common? Relativism and materialism are antithetical to one another, but the two converge in denying a principle of morality based on anything other than personal or cultural preference.

This degrades the “very notion of freedom, its reduction in the cultural imagination to a fairly banal kind of liberty,” and the result is both triviality and monstrosities like eugenics. [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions] Our own will, based on nothing but itself, feels any limitation on its choices to be intolerable. Any reasonable system of belief, any principles, must be avoided because they interfere with our illusion of absolute freedom, an illusion that ironically leaves us open to infinite manipulation. “The inviolable liberty of personal volition” cannot permit any “standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end…. Choice [seems] to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.” [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]  The result is “an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills…. The original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world — and thus we are free.” [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]

Atheists argue that a coherent morality can be created out of evolutionary principles. They argue that overall the process of evolution rewards altruistic behavior over selfish behavior, breeding more and more altruism into the species. However, there seems to be more evidence against this idea than for it. Allowing it for the purpose of argument, the most it can do is account for the inclination that people have to protect their children, not the moral duty to do so. If we don’t abandon our child, fine; if we just don’t feel like protecting her, we have no moral duty to keep her. If a Nazi shoves a Jew into a gas chamber, we can say, “That makes me feel bad,” or “I find that inappropriate behavior,” or “I’m offended,” or even “That is unhelpful to evolutionary development,” but we have no basis for saying, “That behavior is immoral.” We can argue all day with the Nazi or call him all sorts of names, but we can offer no principle on which to dispute his choice.

Sade argued, consistently with his atheism, that without basic moral principles behavior is simply a matter of choice. If you prefer dining to raping, okay, so long as you don’t prevent him from raping. [Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986)] If you don’t like killing Jews, fine, but on what basis do you interfere with the preference of others to do so? The rights of the victim? Without a moral principle there is no basis for assigning rights to the victim — or anyone else. The idea that evolution, when defined as being without purpose and goal, can produce a basis for moral action is illogical, unfounded and frankly impossible. Under some circumstances, violent xenophobic behavior fits with evolutionary development better than altruistic behavior. The horrors of post-Christian behavior are no longer speculation but already being realized. [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]

If there is no absolute standard of morality, then there is no standard by which individual and social moralities can be judged. No standard at all. And this means, for deconstructionists and radicals, that the dominant morality will be determined by domination, power and force. The only real alternative to absolute morality is imposition of a manmade morality on a public intimidated by power and deluded into thinking that their choices are their own. The arrival, persistence and success of new elites who operate by repression and intimidation will continue.

Humanists and other secularists affirm that causing others unnecessary suffering is bad, but they cannot explain on what basis it should be considered bad. If one insists that there is no principle on which to base morality other than human preferences, then one has destroyed the possibility of moral truth and abandoned morality to either personal preference or to the dictates of power groups. Ian Markham calls this a “cozy atheism” that bases its morality on Judeo-Christian values while claiming not to. Values without principle are simply products of whoever is in power. If God goes, morality goes. Although the antitheists “are good at deciding to affirm basic moral values, it is difficult to see how the discourse is justified.” [Markham, Against Atheism] Since both Christians and atheists can be immoral, is there any distinction in their behavior? Often not, but “as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.” [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions]

In historical fact, the gentle values promoted by humanists and other secularists today are themselves based in Christianity. [Berlinski, Devil's Delusion] Where did the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity come from? Not from the Greeks or Romans. Christianity was a giant rebellion against the pure power assertions of the ancient Not from the Aztecs or the Mongols, either, but from the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment came from what preceded it: Christianity.

Christianity is the first philosophy to have enunciated and promoted these values. Christianity invented the idea of human rights. [Berlinski, Devil's Delusion]  There were no human rights in antiquity — in Egypt or Babylonia, Greece or Rome, China or India or Mesoamerica. There was only power. Christianity speaks truth to power, and it does so on the basis that there are rights inherent in every human being that are inalienable because they derive from the God who is both human and divine. Those who deny that there is truth can’t use it to speak to power. If there is no God, there are no inherent rights — only temporary artificial “rights” imposed by pressure groups. [Mark D. Linville, "The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism," in Contending With Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2009)]

This is not a question of belief but of reality. As William Lane Craig put it, belief in God is not required for morality, since many atheists behave morally. It’s much simpler: the actual Being of God is necessary for morality. [William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010)] God the Creator is the basis of moral behavior.


Profession Of Faith: Study For A Declaration Of Obligations Towards Human Beings — Simone Weil

August 9, 2011

From Écrits de Londres et derniéres lettres, Gallimard, 1957, pp. 77-84, and pp. 49-60 of Anthology Profesión de Fe at site (in pdf). Translation by Sylvia María Valls March 24, 2010.

Simone’s manifesto:


There is a reality to be found beyond this world, beyond space and time, beyond man’s mental universe, beyond every territory that human faculties are able to penetrate. To this reality corresponds, at the center of man´s heart, a quest for an absolute good that is always there and which never finds an object in this world. This reality is also revealed down here by the absurdities, the insoluble contradictions that human thought runs up against whenever it moves in this world exclusively. Just as the reality of this world is the only foundation for facts, equally so the other reality is the only foundation for the good.

It is from it and from it alone that there comes into this world all the good that is bound to exist; all the beauty, all the truth, all the justice, all the legitimacy, all the order, all subordination of human conduct to obligations. The only intermediary through which the good is able to descend from its realm to that of human beings are those, among men, who maintain their attention and their love turned towards that other reality. Even though it is beyond the reach of all human faculties, man has the power to  turn his attention and love in its direction. No one is ever to allow himself to suppose that any man, no matter who he may be, is deprived of this power.

This power down here is not real except to the extent that it is exercised. The sole condition for it to be exercised is consent. This consent may be formulated. It also may be that it is not, not even appear clearly to one’s conscience, even while it is taking place in the soul. Often it does not in fact take place even when it is expressed through language. Formulated or not, the only sufficient condition is that it in fact take place.

To whosoever consents in fact to focus his attention and love outside of this world towards the reality that is located beyond all human faculties, accessing this reality is a given. In this case, sooner or later, a good comes down into him that through him shines to all his midst.

The demand for absolute good that resides at the center of the heart, and the power, be it virtual, of turning one’s attention and love beyond this world and to receive from it a portion of that good, form a link that binds together each man without exception to the other reality. Whosoever recognizes that other reality also recognizes that link. Because of it, s/he considers any human being without exception as something sacred one must show respect for.

No other possible mobile exists for the universal respect of all human beings.  Whatever the formula of belief or disbelief one may have chosen, s/he whose heart is inclined to practice that respect recognizes in deed the other reality beyond this world. To whosoever that respect is foreign, to him the other reality also is foreign.

The reality of this world is made up of differences. Unequal objects unequally demand attention. A certain play of circumstances or a certain attraction gathers attention around the person of some human beings. Due to different circumstances and to a certain lack of attraction, others remain anonymous. They escape attention or, when attention is directed towards them, it does not distinguish anything other than the traits of a collectivity.

The attention that inhabits this world is entirely subservient to the effects of these inequalities and can avoid them even less as long as it fails to perceive them. In view of such inequalities, respect towards all beings can not be the same as long as it is not directed towards something that is identical in all. Human beings are different in all the relations that link them to the things of this world, without any exception. There is nothing identical in them other than the presence of a link with that other reality.

All human beings are identical to the extent that they may be thought of as constituted by a central demand for the good around which the psychic and carnal material is arranged. The attention directed beyond this world alone is in contact, in fact, with the essential structure of human nature. Only it has the ever-identical faculty of projecting light upon a being whosoever s/he may be. Whosoever has this faculty also has, in fact, their attention directed beyond this world, be s/he aware of it or not.

The link that ties each human being to the other reality is, like that other reality, out of the reach of all human faculties. The respect rooted in this link from the moment when it is recognized, cannot be manifested. That respect cannot find any kind of direct expression here below. If it is not expressed, it does not exist. There is a possibility of indirect expression for it.

The respect inspired by man’s link with the reality that is alien to this world is manifested to that part of the human being that is situated in this world. The reality of this world is necessity. The part of a being that is locked into it is the part that is abandoned to necessity and submerged in the misery that it provokes. Only one possibility of indirect expression exists for this respect one feels for human beings; this possibility is given to us by the needs of human beings in this world –the earthly needs of the soul and of the body.

What lies at the root of this possibility is a contact established in human nature between the need for the good, which is the essence of a human being, and sensibility. Nothing ever authorizes anyone to think of any man [or woman] that this link does not exist in him.

Thanks to this contact, when, as a result of omissions from the part of other men, the life of a human being is destroyed or mutilated by a wound or a privation either of the soul or of the body, it is not only the sensibility in him that suffers the blow but also his aspiration towards the good. Then, there has been a sacrilege committed against what in a human being is sacred.

The sensibility can, on the contrary, be the only thing affected were the person to suffer a privation or a wound due exclusively to the mechanisms of natural forces, or should he realize that those who apparently are inflicting this privation, far from wishing him any harm are merely submitting to something he himself recognizes as necessary.

The possibility of an indirect expression of respect towards a human being is the foundation for the obligation. The obligation has as its object the earthly needs of the soul and of the body of human beings whosoever these beings may be. Each need has a corresponding obligation. Each obligation responds to a need. There is no other type of obligation relative to human affairs. If one thinks that one sees other, either they are false or it is because of some error that they have not been classified under this category.

Whosoever in fact has his attention and love directed to the reality that is alien to this world recognizes, at the same time, that s/he is constrained, pending the scale of his responsibilities and considering his power, in public and in private life, by the unique and perpetual duty of remedying all the privations of the soul and of the body that are bound to destroy or to mutilate the earthly life of a human being whosoever s/he may be.

The limit established by the frontiers of power and by the level of responsibilities is not legitimate unless everything possible has been done in order to make the need of imposing that limit known to those who suffer its consequences, without any lies and in such a way that they may arrive at consenting to recognize it.

No event or circumstance ever saves anyone from this universal obligation. The circumstances that appear to excuse one in relation to a man or to a category of men only imposes it more absolutely. The thought of this obligation circulates among all men very differently and  in very uneven degrees of clarity.  Human beings are more or less prone to consent or to refuse adopting it as a rule of conduct.

Consent is more often than not mixed with falsehood. When there is no lie involved, practice is not without weaknesses. Refusal makes one fall into crime. The proportion of good and evil in a society depends, on the one hand, of the proportion of consent and the proportion of refusal, and, on the other, of the distribution of power between those who consent and those who refuse.

All power, whatever its nature, left in the hands of someone who has not given to this obligation a clear consent, totally and without lies, is wrongly placed. As pertains to a man who has chosen to refuse this obligation, the exercise of a function, be it large or small, public or private, that leaves in his hands human destinies, consititutes in itself a criminal action.  All those who, knowing his mind, authorize him to exercise such a function, are accomplices.

A state whose official doctrine constitutes a provocation to crime, has placed itself, in its entirety, within the sphere of crime. It lacks even the slightest trace of legitimacy. A system of laws is lacking in the very essence of what constitutes the law when nothing in it has been anticipated in order to prevent such a crime. A system of laws that provides measures in order to prevent some aspects of this crime, but not others, possesses only partially the character of law. A government whose members commit this crime or authorize it among those below them is a traitor to its function.

No matter what kind of collectivity, of institution, of a collective sort of life, whose normal funcitioning implies or involves the practice of such a crime, thereby suffers from a lack of legitimacy, and is subject to reform or suspension.

A man becomes an accomplice to this crime if, having a large, small or minimal part in shaping public opinon, he refrains from condemning it whenever he gets to have knowledge of it or if he sometimes refuses such knowledge in order not to see himself having to condemn it.

A country is not innocent of this crime if public opinion, being free to express itself, does not blame the existence of the practice or if — the freedom of expression having been suppressed — the opinions that circulate clandestinely do not contain this accusation.

The purpose of public life is to put the greatest amount of power possible into the hands of those who in fact consent to being bound by the obligation that ties every man to other human beings and who are knowledgeable in this respect.

The law is the sum total of permanent dispositions that are prone to have such a result. Knowledge of the obligation is two-fold. It includes knowledge of the principle and knowledge of the application. Since the realm of obligation is constituted by human needs in this world, it falls upon intelligence to conceive the notion of need and to discern, distinguish and draw the list of the earthly needs of the soul and of the body.

This study remains subject to revision.

Presentation of the obligations
In order to conceive concretely one’s obligation towards human beings and to subdivide it into several obligations, it is enough to conceive the earthly needs of the body and of the soul. Each need is the object of an obligation.

The needs of a human being are sacred. Their satisfaction cannot be subordinated to reasons of State nor to any consideration such as money, nationality, race, color, nor in relation to the moral value or to any other attribute of the person under consideration, nor to any conditioning of any kind.

The only legitimate limitation to the satisfaction of the needs of a specific human being is the one established by the needs and wants of other human beings. The limit is not legitimate unless the wants of all human beings receive the same level of attention.

The needs of the soul as are considered of the body. The soul has its needs and when they are not satisfied it finds itself in a state akin to that of a hungry and mutilated body.

The human body is above all in need of food, warmth, sleep, hygiene, rest, exercise, clean air.

The needs of the soul can in their majority be ordered into pairs that balance and complete one another.

The human soul needs equality and hierarchy.

Equality is the public recognition, wholesomely expressed in the institutions and customs, of the principle that establishes that an even level of attention is owed to the needs of all human beings. The hierarchy is the scale of responsibilities. Since attention has the tendency of directing itself and lingering at the heights, special dispositions become necessay so that equality and hierarchy become in fact compatible.

The human soul has a need for consented obedience and for freedom.

Consented obedience is that obedience given to an authority because one feels this authority to be legitimate. It is not possible through a coup d’état nor in relation to an economic power of which money is the cornerstone.  Freedom is the power to choose within the margin allowed by the direct constrictions of the power that nature sways and those of an authority accepted as legitimate.  The margin should be sufficiently wide so that freedom does not appear like some piece of fiction, but understood exclusively in relation to innocent things so that certain forms of crime will never be considered lawful. 

The human soul is in need of truth and of freedom of expression.

The need for truth demands that all have access to the culture of the mind without having to suffer either a material or a moral transplant.  It demands that no material or moral pressure be applied in the realm of thought proceeding from an intention that is alien to an exclusive preoccupation with truth –something which implies the absolute prohibition of all propaganda without exception. It demands protection against error and lies, something which turns into a reprehensible fault all material lies that can be publicly avoided. It demands for public health to be protected from poisons in the field of thought.

But, in order to exercise itself, intelligence needs to be able to express itself without any authority setting limits.  Hence, a space for independent intellectual investigation is needed left open within reach of all and where no authority will interfere.

The human soul needs, on the one hand, isolation and intimacy, on the other, social life.

The human soul needs personal and collective property.

Personal property is never made up of a sum of money but by the appropriation of concrete objects such as a house, field, furnishing, utensils, which the soul contemplates as an extension of itself and of its body. Justice demands that personal property, thus understood, be as inalienable as freedom is.

Collective property is not defined by a legal title but by a certain feeling within a human milieu that contemplates certain material objects as a prolongation or a crystallization of itself. This feeling is made possible by certain objective conditions.

The existence of a social class defined by the absence of personal and collective property is as shameful as slavery is. 

The human soul needs punishment and honor.

Every human being who, through crime, has placed him/herself outside the good needs to be reintegrated to the good through suffering.  Suffering should be inflicted with a view to directing the soul to recognizing, freely, someday, that it has been inflicted with justice. This reintegration to the good is what punishment is. Every innocent human being, or one who has finished expiating his crime, needs for his/her honor to be recognized just as everyone else’s is.

The human soul needs disciplined participation in a common task of public interest, and personal initiative in that participation.

The human soul needs security and risk.

Fear of violence, of hunger, or of any other extreme hardship, constitutes a sickness of the soul. Boredom resulting from the absence of all risk is also a sickness of the soul.

The human soul needs above all to feel rooted in various natural milieus and to communicate with the universe through them. The homeland, milieus defined by language, by culture, by a common historical past, by the profession, the locality, are examples of natural environments. Everything that results in the uprooting of a human being or which has the effect of preventing him from growing roots is criminal.

The criterion allowing one to recognize that in a certain place the needs of human beings are being satisfied is an expansion or amplification of fraternity, joy, beauty and happiness. Wherever withdrawal, sadness, ugliness prevail, there are privations awaiting to be healed.

Practical application
For this declaration to become a practical inspiration in the life of the country, the first requirement is that it be adopted with this intention by the people. The second requirement is that anyone who exercises power or wishes to exercise a power, no matter of what nature — political, administrative, spiritual or other — be required to commit himself to taking it as his practical rule of conduct.

In this case, the uniform nature of the obligation is to some extent modified by the particular responsibilities that a specific power implies. This is why the formula for assuming commitment would have to add the phrase “…paying the most special attention to those human beings who depend on me.”

The violation of such a commitment be it by word or deed, must always remain exposed to receiving punishment. But the emergence of institutions and customs that will allow for such punishment to take place in the majority of cases requires of several generations. Assenting to this declaration implies a continuous effort to bring about as soon as possible the emergence of said institutions and said customs.


The Philosophical Act II by Josef Pieper

July 21, 2010

A continuation of yesterday’s essay on the nature of the philosophical act. Written over 60 years ago, but still relevant to asking the big questions in a world where the capacity to see the laws of material being seems to make us incapable of seeing the ethical message contained in that being. Let’s remind ourselves what the philosophical act is all about…

So, then: whoever philosophizes, takes a step beyond the work-a-day world and its daily routine.

The meaning of taking such a step is determined less by where it starts from as by where it leads to. We must ask a further question: just where is the philosopher going when he transcends the world of work? Clearly, he steps over a boundary: what kind of region lies on the other side of this boundary? And what is the relationship of the place where the philosophical act happens, to the world that is transcended and left behind by this same philosophical act? Is that the “authentic” world, and the world of work the “inauthentic”? Is it the “whole” as opposed to the “part”? Is it the “true reality” as opposed to a mere shadow world of appearances?

No matter how such questions could be answered in detail, in any case, both regions, the world of work and the “other realm,” where the philosophical act takes place in its transcending of the working world — both regions belong to the world of man, which clearly has a complex structure.

Therefore, our next question is, “What is the nature of the world of man?” — a question that cannot be answered if the human being is ignored. In order to give a clear answer at this point, we must begin again, and start as it were from the very bottom.

It is in the nature of a living thing to have a world: to exist and live in the world, in “its” world. To live means to be “in” a world. But is not a stone also “in” a world? Is not everything that exists “in” a world? If we keep to the lifeless stone, is it not with and beside other things in the world? Now, “with,” “beside,” and “in” are prepositions, words of relationship; but the stone does not really have a relationship with the world “in” which it is, nor to the other things “beside” which and “with” which it lives. Relationship, in the true sense, joins the inside with the outside; relationship can only exist where there is an “inside,” a dynamic center, from which all operation has its source and to which all that is received, all that is experienced, is brought.

The “internal” (only in this qualitative sense: the “inside” of a rock would refer only to the spatial location of parts) — the “internal” is the ability to have a real relationship, a relation to the external; to have an “inside,” means ability to be related, and to enter into relationship. And “world”? A world means the same thing, but considered as a whole field of relationships. Only a being that has an ability to enter into relationships, only being with an “inside,” has a “world”; only such a being can exist in the midst of a field of relations.

There is a distinctly different kind of proximity that obtains in the relationships of pebbles, which lie together in a heap somewhere beside the roadway and are “related” in that way, and, on the other hand, in the relationship of a plant to the nutrients which it finds in the vicinity of its roots. Here we see not merely physical proximity as an objective fact, but genuine relationship (in the original, active meaning of relationship): the nutrients are integrated into the orbit of the plant’s life — by way of the real internality of the plant, through its power to be related, and to enter into relationship. And all this — all that can be taken in by the relating-power of that plant — all this makes up the field of relationships, or the world, of that plant. The plant has a world, but not the pebble.

This, then, is the first point: “world” is a field of relations. To have a world means to be in the midst of, and to be the bearer of, a field of relations. The second point is, the higher the level of the inwardness or, that is to say, the more comprehensive and penetrative the ability to enter into relations, so the wider and deeper are the dimensions of the field of relations that belongs to that being; to put it differently: the higher a being stands in the hierarchy of reality, the wider and more profound is the standing of its world.

The lowest world is that of the plant, which does not reach beyond what it touches in its own vicinity. The higher-ranking, spatially wider realm of the animal corresponds to its greater ability to enter into relationships. The relation-ability of the animal is greater, insofar as the animal has sense-perception. To perceive something is quite extraordinary, compared with what the plant can do: it is a completely new mode of entering into relationship with one’s environment.

But not everything that an animal, as such, can perceive (because it has ears to hear and eyes to see) really belongs to the world of such an animal: it is not true that all the visible things in the environment of an animal with vision are in fact seen, or even can be seen. For “environment” as such, the perceivable environment, is still not a “world.” That was the typical belief, until the environmental researches of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll; until that time, as Uexküll puts it, “it was generally held, that all eye-equipped animals could see the same things.” But Uexküll discovery was that, on the contrary, “the environments of animals are not at all the whole expanse of nature, but resemble a narrow, furnished apartment.” For example, one could well imagine that a crow could see a grasshopper (a very desirable object for a crow) whenever the grasshopper came across its path, or to be more precise, whenever in came into view of its eyes. But that is not the case! Instead, to cite Uexkull, “the crow is completely incapable of seeing a grasshopper sitting still… we would first assume that the form of a resting grasshopper would be very well known to a crow, but because of the blade of grass in the way cannot be made out as a unit, just as we have difficulty seeing an image hidden in a picture-puzzle. Only when it jumps does its form ‘release’ itself from the neighboring shapes — or so we would think. But after further investigation, it can be shown that the crow does not even recognize the form of a resting grasshopper, but is only prepared to sense moving things. This would explain the ‘playing dead’ behavior of many insects. Since their resting-form does not at all appear in the sense-world of their predators, they escape that world completely and securely simply by lying still, and cannot be found, even if they are actively sought.”

This selective milieu, then, to which the animal is completely suited, but in which the animal is also enclosed (so much so that the boundary cannot be crossed — since “not even if it looks for something” — even if equipped with an excellent searching-organ, could it find something that does not correspond to the selective principle of this partial world); this selective reality, determined and bounded by the biological life-purpose of the individual or the species, is called an “environment” [Umwelt] by Uexküll (in distinction from a “surrounding” [Umgebung], and in distinction also, as we will later see, from a “world” [Welt]). The field of relations of the animal is not its “surroundings,” nor the “world,” but is its “environment,” in this special sense: a world from which something has been left out, a selected milieu, to which its dweller is at once perfectly suited — and confined.

Someone will perhaps ask at this point, what has this to do with our theme, “What is it to philosophize?” Now the connection is not as distant or indirect as it may seem. We last inquired about the world of the human being, and this was the immediate interest in Uexküll concept of environment — namely, that our human world “can in no way claim to be more real than the sense-world of the animal” (so he says); that, consequently, the human being is in principle confined to his world in the same way as the animal; that is, to a biologically selected partial environment, and that man cannot perceive anything that lies outside this environment, “not even if it was actively sought” (no more, then, than the crow could find the resting grasshopper). One might well ask how a being so enclosed in its own environment, so closed in on itself, could be able to perform scientific research on the nature of environments.

But we don’t want to engage in controversy on this point; rather, we can leave the point aside and ask another question instead, since our attention is directed to man and the human world to which he belongs: what is the relating-power of the human being? What is its nature? What power does it have? We said that the perceptive-ability of the animal, when compared with what is in plants, is a more far-reaching way of relating to things. Would not, then, the peculiarly human manner of knowing — for ages past, termed a spiritual or intellective knowing — in fact be another, further mode of putting-oneself-into-relation, a mode which transcends in principle anything which can be realized in the plant and animal worlds?

And further, would this fundamentally different kind of relating power go together with a different field of relations, i.e., a world of fundamentally different dimensions? The answer to such questions can be found in the Western philosophical tradition, which has understood and even defined spiritual knowing as the power to place oneself into relation with the sum-total of existing things. And this is not meant as only one characteristic among others, but as the very essence and definition of the power. By its nature, spirit (or intellection) is not so much distinguished by its immateriality, as by something more primary: its ability to be in relation to the totality of being.

“Spirit” means a relating power that is so far-reaching and comprehensive, that the field of relations to which it corresponds, transcends in principle the very boundaries of its surroundings. It is the nature of spirit to have as its field of relations not just “surroundings” [Umwelt] but a “world” [Welt]. It is of the nature of the spiritual being to go past the immediate surroundings and to go beyond both its “confinement” and its “close fit” to those surroundings (and of course herein is revealed both the freedom and danger to which the spiritual being is naturally heir).

In Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, the De Anima,[De Anima III, 8 (431b)] we can read the following: “Now, in order to sum up everything said up until this point about the soul, we can say again that, the soul, basically, is all that exists.” This sentence became a constant point of reference for the anthropology of the High Middle Ages: anima est quodammodo omnia [“The soul, in a certain way, is all things”. “In a certain way”: that is to say, the soul is “all” insofar as it sets itself in relation to the whole of existence through knowing (and “to know” means to become identical with the known reality -- although we cannot go into any further detail about this as yet).

As Thomas says in the treatise De Veritate (“On Truth”), the spiritual soul is essentially structured “to encounter all being” (convenire cum omni ente[Quaestiones disputatae de veritate I, 1]), to put itself into relation with everything that has being. “Every other being possesses only a partial participation in being,” whereas the being endowed with spirit “can grasp being as a whole.” [Summa contra gentiles III, 112] As long as there is spirit, “it is possible for the completeness of all being to be present in a single nature.”[Quaestiones disputatue de veritate III, 2] And this is also the position of the Western tradition: to have spirit [Geist], to be a spirit, to be spiritual — all this means to be in the middle of the sum total of reality, to be in relation with the totality of being, to be vis-à-vis de l’univers. The spirit does not live in “a” world, or in “its” world, but in the world: world in the sense of “everything seen and unseen” (omnia visibilia et invisibilia).

Spirit, or intellection, and the sum-total of reality: these are interchangeable terms, that correspond to one another. You cannot “have” the one without the other. An attempt to do just this (we mention only it in passing) — to grant the human being superiority to his surroundings, to say that man has “world” (Weld) (and not merely “environment” [Umwelt]), without speaking of man’s spiritual nature, or rather (what is more extreme), to maintain that this fact (that man has “world” and not only “environment”) has nothing whatever to do with this “other” fact, that the human being is equipped with intellection or spirit — this attempt has been made by Arnold Gehlen in a very comprehensive book which has received a great deal of attention: Man: His Nature and Place in the World.

In opposition to Uexküll, Gehlen rightly says that the human being is not closed within an environment but is free of his surroundings and open to the world; and yet, Gehlen goes on to say, this difference between the animal as environmentally limited and the human being as open to the world-as-a-whole does not depend “on the characteristic of. . . spirit.” Instead, this very power to “have the world” is spirit. Spirit by definition is ability to comprehend the world.

For the older philosophy — that is, for Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas — the connection of the two terms “spirit” (or “intellection” [Geist) and “world” (in the sense of total-relatedness) is so intimately and profoundly anchored in both directions that not only is it true to say that “spirit is relatedness to the sum total of existing beings”; for the earlier philosophers, the other truth, asserting that all things are essentially in relation to spirit, is just as valid, and in a very precise sense, which we do not dare to formulate in words as yet. For not only is it the property of the spirit that its field of relations includes the sum total of existing things; rather, it is also the property of existing things that they lie within the field of relations of the spirit. And to go further: for the older philosophy, it is all the same to say that “things have being” as to say that “things lie in the field of relations of the spirit, are related to spirit,” whereby is meant, of course, no mere “free-floating” spirituality in some abstract sense but rather personal spirit, a relating power that is well grounded, but then again, not only God, but the created, finite, human spirit as well. For the old ontology, it belonged to the nature of existing things to be within the field, within the reach of the spiritual soul; “to have being” means the same as “to lie within the field of relations of the spiritual soul”; both statements refer to one and the same situation. This and nothing else is the meaning of the old doctrine which has become so removed from us:

“All being is true” (omne ens est verum), and the other doctrine with the same meaning: “being” and “true” are convertible expressions. For what does “true” mean, in the sense of “the truth of things”? To say that something is true is to say that it is understood and intelligible, both for the absolute spirit as well as for the non-absolute spirit. I need to ask for your patience in simply accepting this for the moment, since it is not possible to justify these things in any detail at this point.

“Intelligibility” is nothing other than being related to a spirit that has understanding. So when the old philosophy states that it belongs to the nature of existing things, that they are intelligible and are understood, there could not be any being which is not known and knowable (since all being is true); when it is the said that the concepts “being” on the one hand, and “intelligibility” on the other, are convertible, so that the one could stand in the other’s place, so that it is the same for me to say that “things have existence” as to say that “things are known and intelligible”; in saying this the old philosophy also taught that it lies in the nature of things to be related to the mind (and this -- the concept of the “truth of things” -- is what matters in the context of our present inquiry). To summarize, then, what we have been saying: the world that is related to the spiritual being is the sum-total of existing things; this is so much the case that this set of relations belongs as well to the nature of spirit; the spirit is the power of comprehending the totality of being, as it belongs to the nature of existing beings themselves: “to be” means “to be related to spirit.”

What stands revealed to us, then, is a series of “worlds”: at the lowest, the world of plants, already locally limited to the surroundings they touch. Beyond this is the realm of the animals; and finally, transcending all these partial worlds, is the world related to spirit, the world as the totality of being. And to this ranking of worlds and fields-of-relations correspond, as we have seen, the ranking of the powers that relate: the more comprehensive the power, the more highly dimensioned is the corresponding field of relations, or “world.”

Now a third structural element is to be added to this twofold structure. For the stronger power of relating corresponds to a higher degree of inwardness; the power to relate is greater to the same degree as the bearer of that relation has “inwardness”; the lowest power of relating not only corresponds to the lowest form of being in the world but also to the lowest grade of “inwardness,” whereas the spirit, which directs its relating-power to the sum total of being, must likewise have a corresponding inwardness. The more comprehensive the power of relating oneself to the world of objective being, so the more deeply anchored must be the “ballast” in the inwardness of the subject. And when a distinctively different level of “world” is reached, namely, the orientation toward the whole, there too can be found the highest stage of being-established in one’s inwardness, which is proper to the spirit.

Thus both of these comprise the nature of spirit: not only the relation to the “whole” of the world and “reality,” but also the highest power of living-with-oneself, of being in oneself, of independence, of autonomy -- which is exactly what has always been the “person,” or “personality” in the Western tradition: to have a world, to be related to the totality of existing things -- that can occur only in a being that is “established in itself”: not a “what,” but a “who” -- an “I,” a person.

But now it is time to look back over the path we have taken and return to the questions from which we began. There were two questions, one more immediate, the other more remote. The first was, “What kind of world is the world of man?” and the second was, “What does it mean to philosophize?”

Before we begin again with our formal discussion, a brief remark is in order about the structure of the world that is related to the spirit. It is not, of course, by a greater spatial compass that the world that is spirit-related differs from the world that is related to the non-spiritual (a point that was not addressed when I distinguished “environment” from “world”). It is not only the sum-total of things; but it is also the “nature of the things,” with which the world related to the spirit is constituted. The reason why the animal lives in a partial world is because the nature of things is hidden from it. And it is only because the spirit is able to attain to the essence of things that it has the ability to understand the totality of things.

This connection was made by the old doctrine of being, whereby “the universe,” as well as the nature of things, is “universal.” Thomas says, “Because the intellectual [or spiritual] soul is able to grasp universals, it has a capacity for the infinite.”[Summa Theologiae L Q, 76, a. 5, ad 4um] Whoever attains to an understanding of the universal whole essence of things is thereby able to win a perspective from which the totality of being, of all existing things, are present and ascertainable; in intellectual understanding, an “outpost” is reached, or can be reached, whence the whole landscape of the universe can be taken in. We have reached a context into which we can take only a brief glimpse but which will also lead us into the very center of a philosophical understanding of being, knowing, and spirit.

But now, let us return to the questions which we set out to answer. The first step to take is to the more immediate question, “What kind of world is the world of man?” Is the world of man the world that is related to the spirit? The answer would have to be that man’s world is the whole reality, in the midst of which the human being lives, face-to-face with the entirety of existing things — vis-à-vis de 1’univers — but only insofar as man is spirit. But man is not pure spirit; he is a finite spirit so that both the nature of things and the totality of things are not given in the perfection of a total understanding, but only in “expectation” or “hope.”

But first, let us consider the fact that man is not pure spirit. This statement, of course, could be spoken in a variety of tones. Not seldom, it is said with a feeling of regret, an accentuation that is usually understood as something specifically Christian, by both Christians and non- Christians alike. The sentence can also be said in such a way as to imply that “certainly, man is not pure spirit,” but that the “true human being” is nevertheless the intellectual soul.

Now these. doctrines have no basis in the classical tradition of the West. Thomas Aquinas used a very pointed formula on this matter which is not as well known as it should be. The objection he raises is the following: “The goal of the human being is to attain complete likeness to God. But the soul when separated from the body which is immaterial would be more like God than the soul with the body. And therefore the souls will be separated from their bodies in their final state.” This is the objection, that the real human being is the soul, dressed out in all the tempting glamour of theological argumentation.

And how does Thomas reply to the objection? “The soul that is united to the body is more like God than the soul that has been separated from its body because the former more perfectly possesses its own nature.” [Quaestiones disputatae de potentia Dei 5, 10, ad 5] This is no easily digested statement, considering how it implies not only that the human being is bodily, but that the soul itself is also bodily.

If this is the case, if man essentially is “not only spirit,” if man is not in virtue of a denial, or on the basis of a departure from his authentic being, but really and in a positive sense a being in whom the various realms of plant-, animal-, and spiritual beings are bound into a unity — then man lives essentially, not exclusively, in the face of the totality of things, the whole universe of beings. Rather, his field of relations is an overlapping of “world” and “environment,” and necessarily so, in correspondence to human nature. Because man is not purely spirit, he cannot only live “under the stars,” not only vis-à-vis de l’univers; instead, he needs a roof over his head, he needs the trusted neighborhood of daily reality, the sensuously concrete world, he needs to “fit in” with his customary surroundings — in a word: a truly human life also needs to have an “environment” (Umwelt), as distinct from a “world.”

But at the same time, it pertains to the nature of body/soul being that man is, that the spirit shapes and penetrates the vegetative and sense-perceived regions in which he exists. So much so, that the act of eating by a human being is something different from that of the animal (even apart from the fact that the human realm includes the “meal,” something thoroughly spiritual!). The spiritual soul so profoundly influences all the other regions that even when the human being “vegetates,” this is only possible because of the spirit (neither the plant nor the animal “vegetates”). Consequently, this very non-human phenomenon, this self-inclusion of man in the environment (and that means, in that selective world determined solely by life’s immediate needs), even this confinement is possible only on the basis of a spiritual confinement. On the contrary, to be human is: to know things beyond the “roof” of the stars, to go beyond the trusted enclosures of the normal, customary day-to-day reality of the whole of existing things, to go beyond the “environment” to the “world” in which that environment is enclosed.

But now, we have unwittingly taken a step closer to answering our original question: What is it to philosophize? Philosophy means just this: to experience that the nearby world, determined by the immediate demands of life, can be shaken, or indeed, must be shaken, over and over again, by the unsettling call of the “world,” or by the total reality that mirrors back the eternal natures of things. To philosophize (we have already asked, What empowers the philosophical act to transcend the working-world?) — to philosophize means to take a step outside of the work-a-day world into the vis-à-vis de l’univers. It is a step which leads to a kind of “homeless”-ness: the stars are no roof over the head. It is a step, however, that constantly keeps open its own retreat, for the human being cannot live long in this way.

He who seriously intends to wander finally and definitively outside the world of the Thracian maiden is wandering outside the realm of human reality. What Thomas said about the vita contemplativa applies here also: it is really something more than human (non proprie humana, sect superhumana). [Quaestio disputata de virtutibus cardinalibus I] Of course, man himself is something more than human: man transcends man himself for the sake of the eternal, Pascal said; an easy definition does not go far enough to reach the human being.

But instead of developing these considerations, which may lead us too near to babbling nonsense, let us return to the question, “What does it mean to philosophize?” and attempt another approach to it, in more concrete fashion, and on the basis established by the foregoing. How does the philosophical question different from the non-philosophical question? To philosophize means, we said, to direct one’s view toward the totality of the world. So is that a philosophical question (and that alone) which has for its explicit and formal theme this sum-total of all existing things? No! What is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question is that it cannot be posed, considered, or answered (so far at least as an answer is possible), without “God and the World” also coming into consideration, that is, the whole of what exists.

Once again, let us speak quite concretely. The question, “What are we doing, here and now?” can clearly be intended in various ways. It can be meant philosophically. Let us attempt it, then. The question can be asked in such a way as to anticipate a technical-organizational answer. “What is happening now?” “Well, a lecture is being delivered during the Bonn Week of Higher Education.”

That is a straightforward, informative sentence, standing there in a clearly lit world — or rather, “environment.” It is an answer spoken with one’s attention directed to what is immediately at hand. But the question could also be meant in another sense so that the questioner would not be content with the answer just now given. “What are we doing right now?” One person is speaking; others are listening to what he is saying, and the listeners “understand” what is being said; approximately the same process is taking place within the minds of the many listeners: the statements are grasped, thought about, weighed, accepted, denied, or accepted with some hesitation, and then integrated with each person’s own fabric of thought. This question expects an answer coming from the special sciences; it can be meant so as to call on the psychology of sense perception, cognition, learning, mental states, and so on, and these sciences would provide the adequate answer.

An answer of this kind, then, would exist in a world of higher and deeper dimensions than the first answer, with its merely organizational interest. But the answers of the special sciences have still not reached the horizon of total reality; this answer could be given without having to speak at the same time of “God and the World.” But if the question, “What are we doing right now?” were meant as a philosophical question, such an exclusion would not be possible; for if the question is meant philosophically, then the question is about the nature of knowing, of truth, or even of the nature of teaching itself.

What, in the last analysis, is it “to teach”? Now someone will come along and say, “A man cannot really teach; just as when someone is healed from illness, it is not the doctor who has healed him, but nature, whose healing powers the doctor has, perhaps, allowed to operate.” Someone else will come up and say, “It is God who really teaches, within, on the occasion of human teaching.” Then Socrates will stand up and say that the teacher only makes it possible for the one who learns “to acquire knowledge from himself” through reminiscence; “there is no learning, only recollection.”[ Plato, Meno 85; 81] And still another one will say, “All human beings are confronted by the same reality; the teacher points it out, and the learner, or the listener, sees for himself.”

What are we doing here? What kind of phenomenon is taking place? Is it something of a socially organized nature, a part of a lecture series? Is it something that can be analyzed and researched in terms of psychological science? Is it something taking place between God and the World?

This, then, is what is peculiar and distinctive about a philosophical question, that something comes to the fore in it, touching the very nature of the soul: to “come together with every being” (convenire cum omni ente) — with everything that exists. You cannot ask and think philosophically without allowing the totality of existing things to come into play: God and the World.


Reading Selections from The Embodied Person As Gift by David L. Schindler

July 13, 2010

“We are not our own. . . Belonging to ourselves at its root is always anteriorly a belonging to God and to others, to the entire community of being.” I am always reminded of Michael Novak’s comment on those who view themselves as “atheists:”

“Gathering force over many years, one discovery has hit me with the force of a law: If you make mistakes about your own nature, you will make as many mistakes about God, and quite properly then, reject what your inquiries put before you. The god you fantasize will appear to you not very great, a delusion, a snare from which others ought to be freed. You will despise this god.”

I can think of nothing more fundamental to the understanding of who we are (from a Christian anthropological point of view) than the idea that we are Embodied Persons. When speaking with an atheist, I often try to enquire as to who they think they are, what their essential nature is. Do you have a soul?

John Paul II Theology of the Body is a remarkable vision. Schindler begins an essay by defining six characteristics of it which I have separated out and present here:

Seeing In The Body A Theology
The body in its physical structure as such bears a vision of reality: it is an anticipatory sign, and already an expression, of the order of love or gift that most deeply characterizes the meaning of the person and indeed, via an adequately conceived analogy, the meaning of all creaturely being. This is the burden of John Paul II’s seeing in the body a theology, which indeed implies an anthropology or, better, a metaphysics rooted in the personal.

An Original Memory Of The Good And True
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in his God and the World, says that

Man is constructed from within, in the image of God, to be loved and to love. In the Trinity, Love’s own essence portrays itself Man is in God’s image and thereby he is a being whose innermost dynamic is likewise directed toward the receiving and giving of love.
from “God and the World”

Elsewhere Ratzinger, referring to the scholastic understanding of conscience in terms of the two levels indicated in “synderesis” and “conscientia,” suggests that synderesis be replaced with the Platonic concept of anamnesis (recollection), which, he says, “harmonizes with the key motifs of biblical thought and the anthropology derived from it.” He says this term “should be taken to mean exactly that which Paul expressed in… his letter to the Romans” regarding the law written on the hearts of the Gentiles and on their conscience that also bears witness. Ratzinger says that the same idea is also “strikingly amplified in the great monastic rule of Saint Basil. Here we read: “The love of God is not founded on a discipline imposed on us from outside, but is constitutively established in us as the capacity and necessity of our rational nature.”

Ratzinger goes on:
This means that the first so-called ontological level of the phenomenon of conscience consists in the fact that something like an original memory of the good and true (they are identical) has been implanted in us, that there is an inner ontological tendency within man, who is created in the likeness of God, toward the divine…This anamnesis of the origin, which results from the god-like constitution of our being, is not a conceptually articulated knowing, a store of retrievable contents. It is, so to speak, an inner sense, a capacity to recall, so that the one whom it addresses, if he is not turned in on himself hears its echo from within.

The Ground For Mission:
The possibility for and right to mission rest on this anamnesis of the Creator, which is identical to the ground of our existence. The gospel may, indeed must, be proclaimed to the pagans, because they themselves are yearning for it in the hidden recesses of their souls (see Isaiah 42:4)

In this sense Paul can say that the gentiles are a law to themselves — not in the sense of the modern liberal notions of autonomy, which preclude transcendence of the subject, but in the much deeper sense that nothing belongs less to me than I myself. My own “I” is the site of the profoundest surpassing of self and contact with him from whom I came and toward whom I am going.

Ratzinger says that Paul’s proclamation thus “encountered an antecedent basic knowledge of the essential components of God’s will, which came to be written down in the commandments, which can be found in all cultures, and which can be all the more clearly elucidated the less an overbearing cultural bias distorts this primordial knowledge.”

My presentation first (I-VI) shows the sense in which this love and anamnesis of God is reflected in the embodied person and implies a metaphysical anthropology of being as gift.

First principle
The soul is “the principle of unity of the human being, whereby it exists as a whole — corpore et anima minus — as a person” ( Veritatis splendor, 48). “It is in the unity of body and soul that the person is the subject of his…acts” (VS, 48). “The human person cannot be reduced to a freedom which is self-designing, but entails a particular spiritual and bodily structure” (VS. 48). 

These statements, first of all, affirm the unity of the human being as a dual, or differentiated, unity of body and soul.

But, secondly, in light of the teaching of St. Thomas (following Aristotle), this unity, rightly understood, presupposes the primacy of the soul within the mutual relation of body and soul The soul gives the body its first meaning as a body, although, given the unity of soul and body, the causal relationship between them is always mutually internal, albeit asymmetrical.

The body accordingly is never, after the manner of Descartes, simply physicalist “stuff’ that somehow has its own “organization” prior to and independent of the order provided by the sou1. Thus the body, in its very bodyliness, can participate in the imago Dei. The body in its distinctness as a body indicates a new way of being in the world, a distinct way of imaging God and love.

In sum: the soul as it were lends its spiritual meaning to the body as body, even as the body simultaneously contributes to what now becomes, in man, a distinct kind of spirit: a spirit whose nature it is to be embodied.

Second Principle
In the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church [CSDC] we read: “The likeness with God shows that the essence and existence of man are constitutively related to God in the most profound manner. This…relationship…is therefore not something that comes afterwards and is not added from the outside” (109, emphasis original; see CCC, 356, 358). And further: “The relationship between God and man is reflected in the relational and social dimension of human nature. Man . . is not a solitary being but ‘a social being . . . “ [cf. Gs, 12j (110, emphasis original).

Six Elaborations on the Second Principle

  1. Thus the social dimension of human nature, or again the communion of persons toward which each person is ordained, is a matter of constitutive order. It is an order that is first given to the creature, and enacted by the creature only and always qua [vocab: In the capacity or character of; as] anteriorly given.
    What the constitutive relatedness among human beings implies, in sum, is that I am in my original and deepest meaning as such a substantial individual who is ordered at once front and toward God and others.
  2. My being thus bears the character of gift: of a “what” that is given and received. Indeed, my reception is a response to the gift, a response that, in its very character as receptive-responsive, already participates in the generosity proper to gift-giving. I bear a constitutive order toward generosity that always-anteriorly participates in the generosity I have received and am always-already receiving — from God and other creatures in God.
    Note that this constitutive order of generosity bears a dual meaning, characterizing both what is proper to man in his being qua natural and his call to share in the Trinitarian life of God himself in Jesus Christ. The constitutive creaturely order of generosity, in other words, bears a properly natural meaning even as it also always is open, however unconsciously, to participation in God’s own generosity. Although sin weighs down and profoundly skews the constitutively generous order of being, sin can never destroy the integrity of this order as naturally given. The upshot, in sum, is that I cannot but always, in some significant sense, implicitly and from my depths, tend toward and desire generosity, and this tending is already a participation in a natural generosity that is in search of participation in God’s own generosity as revealed in Jesus Christ.
  3. It is important to see, thirdly, that constitutive relatedness does not undermine the traditional notion of the person as an individual substance of a rational nature. For it is the very relation to God, which relation always already includes relation to all other creatures, that establishes each person in. his individual substantiality.
    The crucial point, in a word, is that the relation to God, and to others in God, that establishes the individual substance in being is generous. The relation itself makes and lets me in my substantial being be. This “letting be” implies a kind of primordial, ontological “circum-incession,” or “perichoresis,” of giving and receiving between the other and myself. What I am in my original constitution as a person has always-already been given to me by God and received by me in and as my response to God’s gift to me of myself — indeed, has also, in some significant sense, been given to me by other creatures and received by me in and as my response to their gift to me.
    The substantial unity characteristic of the traditional notion of the person, therefore, while reaffirmed, is nevertheless now conceived from within the order of love. Each individual substance possesses a substantial unity (esse in) while bearing from its beginning and in its depths a dynamic reference from (esse ab) and toward (esse ad). This dynamic reference, given already with the being (ens: esse habens) of the person, indicates the ontological beginning of the receiving-giving that characterizes the primitive meaning of human action and is (thereby) meant to be realized in every human action. In the words of Cardinal Ratzinger cited above: man “is a being whose innermost dynamic is… directed toward the receiving and giving of love.”
  4. The logic of gift characteristic of creaturely being is best described as filial. My being in its substantial unity is constitutively dependent on God and on others in God. It is for this reason that Cardinal Ratzinger has stated that the child in the womb provides the basic figure for what it means to be a human being. And indeed it is important to recall in this connection what is perhaps the central emphasis in his Christology, summed up in the claim that “Son” is the highest title of Jesus Christ. Thus the basic logic of our being as creatures is disclosed in the child: the obedience, humility, and dependence characteristic of the child disclose creaturely being’s deepest and most proper symbolic nature.
    In a word, each of us as originally constituted is a sign and expression of the relation to God that is always first granted to us by God in and through the order of being: a sign and expression, in other words, of God’s relation to (in difference from) the world that is mediated through the “ontological difference” indicated in the distinction between esse and ens (essentia). What this means concretely is that I am always first granted entry into the generosity of God and of the order of being in relation to God. I am never the origin or source of generosity but always a participant in generosity: I am the origin of generosity only-always qua recipient of generosity, a generous giver but only-always qua receiver of generous giving.
    In sum: the relationality of the human person introduced by love is first the relationality characteristic of the child as the one who is absolutely from the Other — God — and from other beings in God, even as he is thereby simultaneously also for the Other, and for other beings in God. For this reason, worship and service most basically characterize the order of creaturely being, with worship of God providing the anterior form of what is meant by service, to God and to others.
  5. It is important to take note of the structure of human-creaturely being implied in the foregoing: a unity that is differentiated, a dual unity. Each substantial being at once possesses its own substantial unity and does so coincident with relationality to God and to other creaturely beings, and this constitutive relationality at once presupposes and always already “causes” a reference within each person to God and others.
    The relationality characteristic of each person in his substantial unity as a creature, in other words, signifies and expresses what is the triplex unity-in-duality of the person already, as it were, in his “original solitude,” his filiality, before God. In his original substantial “aloneness” as one, the human person bears a double reference from and toward God.
    See here the statement by John Paul II: “The account of Genesis 1 does not mention the problem of man’s original solitude: in fact, man is ‘male and female’ from the beginning. The Yahwist text of Genesis 2, by contrast, authorizes us in some way to think first only about man inasmuch as, through the body, he belongs to the visible world while going beyond it; it then lets us think about the same man, but through the duality of sex. Bodyliness and sexuality are not simply identical. Although in its normal constitution, the human body carries within itself the signs of sex and is by nature male or female, the fact that man is a ‘body’ belongs more deeply to the structure of the personal subject than the fact that in his somatic constitution he is also male or female. For this reason, the meaning of original solitude, which can be referred simply to ‘man,’ is substantially prior to the meaning of original unity; the latter is based on masculinity and femininity, which are, as it were, two different ‘incarnations,’ that is, two ways in which the same human being, created ‘in the image of God’ (Genesis 1:27), ‘is a body” (John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them, 157).
    My colleague, Father José Granados, first drew my attention to the link of original solitude, as understood by John Paul II, with the absolute priority of the whole man’s being ordered to God in a relation of prayer and adoration. It is in just this priority of the whole man as originally made for God alone that forms the priority of virginity already in the order of creation. It is important to see that this original “virginal” relation to God must he recuperated in all relations between spouses — even as the spousal relation can then deepen the meaning of virginity itself. On this ‘‘circum-incession’’ of the inner meaning of the two states of life (consecrated virginity and marriage), see David Crawford, “Christian Community and the States of Life: A Reflection on the Anthropological Significance of Virginity and Marriage,” Communio: International Catholic Review 29, no. 2 (2002):337-65.
  6. Further then, as already suggested, this substantial unity cum double dynamic reference to God is at once, albeit consequently, a substantial unity cum double reference also to other beings. As Genesis makes clear, the relationality implied in this double reference to other beings is first relationality with another being who is fully human while at once embodying a different way of being human. Thus the text cited from the CSDC [Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Catholic Church ]states that “the relationship between God and man is reflected in the relational and social dimension of human nature.” And, as Joseph Ratzinger points out in his commentary on Gaudium et spes,“the sexual differentiation of mankind into man and woman is much more than a purely biological fact for the purpose of procreation but unconnected with what is truly human in mankind. In it there is accomplished that intrinsic relation of the human being to a Thou, which inherently constitutes him or her as human. . . The likeness to God in sexuality is prior to sexuality, not identical with it. It is because the human being is capable of the absolute Thou that he is an I who can become a Thou for another I. The capacity for the absolute Thou is the ground of the possibility and necessity of the human partner. Here too, therefore, it is most important to pay attention to the difference between content [inhalt] and consequence [Folge]“The point is that the content of the doctrine of the imago Dei is, in the first place, that man is capax Dei [vocab: a yearning for that which human nature cannot by itself attain]: it is the relation to God that originally constitutes each person, and this relation immediately expresses itself in and as relation also to others, which is realized in a privileged way through relation to another who is the same kind of being as myself, differently: through the relation of two beings who share a common humanity in the different ways termed male/masculine and female/feminine.
    Thus there is in the structure of the human person a second dual unity latent within the person as he stands in his original “solitary” unity before God, and that is the one expressed in the ordering of each person toward a unity between persons, between a one and an other. In the substantial (differentiated-)unity of my own person, I am ordered simultaneously toward unity with an other, toward what may be called a communion of persons. I am ordered toward a unity of two — a dual unity. But a unity of two implies transcendence into a “we” that is more than simply the sum of parts; this differentiated unity indicates in some significant sense a new “third” beyond myself and the other. This unity of two that transcends itself into a “third” is, according to Genesis and the text from Ratzinger cited above, expressed in the spousal relation that presupposes the common filial relation of the partners to God and that is fruitful, most concretely in the procreation of the child.

Third principle
The constitutive order of human being as gift or love, according to John Paul II, is signified and expressed in the body. “Human nature and the body [are not merely] presuppositions or preambles, materially necessary for freedom to make its choice, yet extrinsic to the person, the subject and the human act. [On the contrary,] their functions . . . constitute reference points for moral decisions, because the finalities of these inclinations [are not] merely ‘physical’ goods, called by some pre-moral” (VS. 48). The body bears “the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator” (VS, 48). It exhibits a “primordial sacrament[ality] … understood as a sign that efficaciously transmits in the visible world the invisible mystery hidden in God from eternity.” The body, always-already informed by soul or spirit and actualized by esse, thus exhibits an order of love. But what is crucial to see here is that this sign of the creature’s constitutive relation to God and others takes a new form qua body. The body, in other words, indicates a distinctive way of imaging God and love, in its very order as a body, as personal — creaturely flesh.

Fourth principle
As the CSDC says, “the fact that God created human beings as man and woman is significant” (110). “Man and woman have the same dignity and are of equal value, not only because they are both, in their differences, created in the image of God, but even more profoundly because the dynamic of reciprocity that gives life to the ‘we’ in the human couple is an image of God” (111). The human body, marked with the sign of masculinity or femininity, “contains ‘from the beginning’ the ‘spousal’ attribute, that is, the power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and — through this gift — fulfills the very meaning of his being and his existence. In this, its own distinctive character, the body is the expression of the spirit…“Sexuality characterizes man and woman not only on the physical level, but also on the psychological and spiritual, making its mark on each of their expressions.”

By the nuptial or spousal attribute of the body, then, John Paul II refers to the body’s capacity for expressing love, as realized especially in the body’s sexual difference.

But let me emphasize: the importance accorded by John Paul II to the sexual-gender difference, and thus to what he terms the “nuptial” or “spousal” body, does not overturn the traditional emphasis on the human spirit as the primary locus of the image of God in the human being. The human person is, qua embodied, a new image of what it means to be a person conceived in terms of God’s creational love: an image which, as at once new and of the person, enriches and deepens in its very difference as a body what is in some significant sense already, and indeed more basically and properly analogically, inherent in the reality of person-spirit as such.

John Paul II’s theology of the body, in a word, is about God and being as love, and about the body and the sexual difference insofar as these are a sign and expression of this theologically ontologically-anthropologically prior love, even as the body precisely in its sexual difference provides a new and just so far enriched and deepened understanding of this prior love.

Aptness for fatherhood and motherhood thus are not “accidental” to the human person conceived as a substantial unity constitutively related to others. On the contrary, fatherhood and motherhood specify in a unique way the aptness for receiving and giving characteristic of the human, embodied person’s relationality; they are a realization in the flesh of the imago Dei that originates and abides in the person’s filial relation to God.

Fifth Principle
It is important to note that man and woman each contain the whole meaning of the person, but in a different order. It is from within the substantial wholeness of each as human that the man and woman bear differently a dual reference from and toward others that is ordered differently in each. Needless to say, even with its rejection of a fragmentary understanding of the sexual-gender difference, the unified polarity of man and woman indicated here, along with the filial meaning of both indicated earlier, meet with strong resistance in the current cultural situation. It is important to take note of the assumptions that drive this resistance. These seem to me above all three, involving, first, the role of the biological in interpreting the meaning of the personal; second, the nature of unity and distinction and hence equality and difference; and, third, the idea of receptivity, with its related ideas of obedience and dependence.

(1)  Following John Paul II, I have proposed that the physical-sexual difference, precisely in and as physical-sexual, symbolizes an ontological-spiritual and also psychological difference. The language of giving and receiving and fruitfulness, for example, in their physical meaning as applied to the body — in the consummatum, conception, and the like — signify and express qua body what is characteristic of a spiritual act or activity in its most basic meaning as an order of love. This language, in other words, symbolizes in bodily form what is termed the giving and receiving, and indeed just so far what may be termed the “transcendence” and “immanence,” necessary for personal love in its full and proper meaning. A common contemporary objection is that this use of terms characteristic of the sexual-physical weights the latter with a human-spiritual and indeed ontological significance all out of proportion to what is typically today viewed as simply biological. It suffices here simply to note that this objection presupposes, however unwittingly, a Cartesian idea of the body.

(2)  Regarding the second: using language that indicates a unity within difference creates difficulties because the dominant culture is accustomed, again, to making distinctions in an unwittingly Cartesian manner: if x is truly distinct from y, x must just so far share nothing in common with y.

It seems to me difficult to exaggerate the significance of this modern-“Enlightened” idea of unity and distinctness. Such an idea precludes a priori any unity between x and y that is inclusive, precisely qua unity, of real difference between x and y, and hence of any asymmetry in the mutual relation of x and y. And it precludes any difference between x and y that is inclusive, precisely qua difference, of any real unity hence equality between x and y. In a word: insofar as x andy are equal, they are necessarily the same; and insofar as they are different, they are necessarily unequal, lacking the unity that would render them equal.

(3)  Regarding the third assumption: human agency as typically conceived in modern culture, after the manner, say, of Francis Bacon (and Descartes), is characterized by a primacy of originary power. This idea of human agency, in other words, precludes the possibility of any kind of power in which the agent is essentially a participant, and thus is anteriorly receptive and dependent and indeed obedient, in his original power. On this dominant post- Enlightenment understanding, an original receptivity in the agent would indicate a passivity that is eo ipso defective.

The understanding of the human person-body developed in this article in the light of creation and the “ontological distinction” demands receptivity and dependence for its integrity. A person who is constitutively from God is “rich” in the very “poverty” of the receptiveness that enables his full and substantial being as a creature; and his obedient dependence is itself always already a creaturely participation in God’s generosity and thus at once an image of that generosity. Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI deepens the point here in Christological terms, stressing repeatedly in his work that Christ’s unconditionally obedient fidelity to the will of God is an integral sign and expression of his being united with God — his being Son of God. Obedience and receptivity at their root are thus “perfections” of what it means to be human, indeed of what it means to be in a filial sense. And unity and equality, while affirmed, are nevertheless now differentiated into an order of service and just so far “subordination” to an other. This “subordination” is not dehumanizing, but on the contrary humanizing in the fullest sense, given the constitutive reality of human being as created in love and for love. In a word, unity on a Christian understanding is never the mono-unity required by Descartes’s logic of the machine, but always the dual unity (which, as fruitful, is in fact a tri-unity) required by the constitutively creaturely logic of love.

The errors carried in above “Enlightened”-liberal assumptions can be given names: for example,

  • gnosticism, which fails to recognize the giftedness proper to creation and its penetration down through the order of the body, such that the body is good already qua ens (being) (intrinsically good) and not only quia factum (qua being [re-]made by humans) (good qua instrument of humans), and that the body thus participates in the “transcendental” meaning of being as at once true, good, and beautiful.
  • Deism and Pelagianism, both of which fail to recuperate divine-fatherly origin as an immanent presence informing the original-constitutive meaning of human being and acting.
  • Nominalism, which denies the singular being, in its very singularity, any inherent symbolic reference to another; or again which permits no complex or differentiated unity and thereby reduces the singular always and everywhere to a “mono-unity” exclusive of a dual unity that is fruitful. And so on.

Such errors, again, entail denial of the distinctly ontological meaning of the human being as a creature. Having abstracted from the concrete, filial-spousal, order of love established by God in the act of creation, the dominant “Enlightened” vision of reality eliminates adoration and service as the fundamental order of man’s being — an order that is inclusive of his body — even as it tends of its inner logic to reduce the body to a merely “empirical” reality, freedom to a purely formal exercise of choice, sexual-gender difference to a more or less inconsequential physical difference, and receptivity and obedience to dehumanizing passivity. It is important, in light of the foregoing argument, to see that, though the fullness of what is meant by adoration and service as the fundamental order of man’s being can be understood finally only in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, this order is manifest in principle, in some significant sense, in the creature already in his being as a thing of “nature,” and is just so far accessible in principle to reason (anamnesis).

Sixth Principle
My argument, in sum, is that being, viewed at once in light of creation and of the “ontological,” or “real,” distinction between esse and ens (essentia) that gives creation its first and basic “natural” meaning is gift, and that this giftedness is signified and expressed in a uniquely privileged way in the body: in the filial and spousal fruitful relations that constitute marriage and family. The suggestion that being is gift or love does not indicate the invention of a new “transcendental” called love, in addition to unity, truth, goodness, and beauty. On the contrary, it affirms these latter anew, understanding them now analogically (analogatum princeps) in terms of the filial-spousal-fruitful relationality constitutive of human persons vis-à-vis God and others. It is the love proper to persons in this sense, in other words, that properly realizes the depth and breadth of being as such in its “transcendental” truth and goodness: realizes fully, in a truly analogical way, what it means for cosmic entities to be and to act and indeed to interact. In a word, it is in persons so understood that meta-physics takes its proper form as at once meta- anthropology.

What all this implies for our cultural-“worldly” task can be put in terms of Maximus the Confessor’s understanding of the order of creaturely being as a “cosmic liturgy” — which we might amplify, in light of our argument, as a cosmic liturgy unfolding at once into “cosmic service.” Every creaturely being is a gift from and toward God and other creatures in God, a gift that is as such ordered constitutively to worship and service of God, and service of others. Every cosmic entity is a gift that participates, via its creaturely receptivity and each in its own (analogical) way, in the gift-giving of God and in the generosity of being itself. According to Maximus, the human being is the mid-point, as it were, of the order of creation. In the human being, physics and biology become personalized, even as the person takes the shape of a body. Thus the human person — after Christ and in Christ — becomes the mediator (analogatum princeps) for the whole of creation. In and through the human being, the cosmos itself properly realizes its destined participation in worship of God and fruitful service to God and others.


Robert Browning and the Irony of Humility

July 6, 2010


Robert Browning


Anthony Esolen uses Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book here to demonstrate how the richest irony presupposes truth and order. In his book Ironies of Faith he also shows how irony is used by Shakespeare, Herbert, Dickens and Gerard Manley Hopkins to reveal the mysteries of Christian faith.


Before I define what irony is, let us examine what habits of mind are necessary for understanding so subtle a feature of language. Those habits are all the more necessary as the language of Christendom grows more distant and the culture more foreign.

Cleverness is not the answer. I would like to illustrate why by turning to a masterpiece of Christian poetry. Robert Browning wrote his longest and most difficult work, The Ring and the Book, precisely to show human beings failing to interpret correctly the actions and motives of one another. They fail not because they are dim-witted, but because their moral compromises limit their vision. Pride — and its concomitant assumption that everyone must be just like oneself, only not quite so intelligent or strong-willed — is the problem.

Browning derives his plot from the account of a notorious series of trials in late-seventeenth-century Rome. Violante, a childless wife, finds a woman of the streets who has recently given birth to a girl. She pays her for the baby and passes it off to her husband Pietro as their own. They christen her Pompilia , and together they live well enough for people with no hereditary title. ‘Worried that the secret of the birth will come out, Violante seeks to marry Pompilia away as soon as she can to someone with the title they lack. She finds one Guido, an Aretine and hanger-on at the cardinal’s court, no priest but enough of a cleric to claim ecclesiastical privilege. He is a short, middle-aged, cowardly, ugly, embittered, and poverty-stricken aristocrat. The marriage is a hugger-mugger affair, Pietro not even present. Guido expects a large dowry; Pietro imagines the wealth of Guido’s ancestral home. When that castle in Arezzo proves dilapidated and cold, and when Guido treats the parents with brute tyranny, they flee to their old home in Rome, leaving Pompilia behind.

There she bides, patient and unhappy, subjected to Guido’s tyrannical whims and to the obscenity of his brother, a canon of the church. When the parents suddenly turn about and attack their attacker, testifying that Pompilia was not their daughter (and that therefore Guido was not entitled to her dowry), Guido counters by attempting to tar her as an adulteress. Fic uses maids and “friends” to try to press Pompilia into compromising herself with a local priest, the dashing Giuseppe Caponsacchi. He goes so far as to compel her to “write” letters at his instruction: he holds her hand and forces the pen along, as she can neither read nor write, nor does she know the content of what he has her compose. Caponsacchi, however, who has never spoken with or met Pompilia but only looked upon her sad, strange beauty once and from afar, sees through the ruse and resists.

Pompilia entreats first the governor of Arezzo, then the archbishop, while weeping like a child, pleading to he rescued from the evil that threatens her, body and soul. But they are worldly men and cronies of her husband. They know better. They wink at the wickedness and tell her to go home. They have no ears to hear.

At that, Pompilia turns to her last hope. She has never spoken to Caponsacchi. By all rights she should know nothing about him. But she does know. She has looked into his eyes once and seen — her knight.

Browning dares the reader to play the archbishop or the governor, to smile and shake his head and say that such “knowledge” is for fairy tales and not for real life (whatever that is). But a true man is what Pompilia sees. She manages to send him a plea to come take her away. After some days of hesitation, for he knows that no one will understand, and that he is about to destroy the churchly career his superiors have chiseled out for him, Caponsacchi submits to the promptings of a holy love. He sweeps her away to Rome. Just before they arrive, they are overtaken by Guido and his henchmen — Pompilia sleeping in a bedroom in a wayside inn, the priest watching over her.

 So incriminating are the appearances that Guido might have slain her on the spot and been pardoned. But he is a coward; the priest raises a sword to defend Pompilia, and when the henchmen pinion his arms, the girl herself seizes a sword and raises it against Guido. At this point he retreats and decides to take legal action. The trial of charge and countercharge ends in stalemate: Guido is allowed to keep the dowry, Caponsacchi is removed to a retreat house, and Pompilia is committed to a convent outside Rome. When, a few weeks later, she is found pregnant, the court mercifully remands her to the home of her mother and father, under provision that she not leave. There she gives birth to a son, whom she names Cactano, after a recently canonized saint, for as she sees it, Guido has no part in this son — only heaven.

Infuriated by the perceived insult to his honor, Guido steals to Rome during Christmastide and knocks at the door where the family dwells. When they ask who is there, he utters the magic word, “Caponsacchi.” When Violante opens, he slashes her in the face. He and his fellows cut her mother and father to pieces, and give Pompilia what should have been a dozen death-stabs. But Pompilia does not die, not yet. Guido is discovered fleeing back to Arezzo and is brought to Rome to stand trial. Pompilia gives her full testimony from the bed where she will soon die — the testimony of a young woman in love, chaste love, with her champion, the gallant Caponsacchi The priest and Guido testify and Browning provides us with the “opinions” of the half of Rome that is for Guido, and of the half of Rome that is for Pompilia, and also of what he calls “Tertium Quid,” the sophisticates who see more keenly, so they think, than does either side of the rabble. We are likewise presented with the trial preparations of the prosecutor (the grandly titled Fisc) and the defense attorney — worldly men, not exactly had and not exactly good, full of themselves, and cutting a partly comic figure in their pretending to know everything.

When Guido is convicted and sentenced to death, he appeals to the pope, Innocent XII, himself old and dying. The pope responds that while, everyone might have expected Guido to long outlive him, as it is, in all his weakness the pope will live another day, while Guido shall not see the sun set again.

What Browning shows us in this tangle of purity and wickedness, and half-virtue and shadowy half-vice, is not only how difficult it is for us to “read.” That is what critics of Browning put forth: he is the poet, they say, of multiple points of view, himself coolly distant from judgment. We are granted the irony of seeing that the same events might he viewed in a variety of ways, with all kinds of arguments to justify them.

But the irony Browning relishes is deeper than that. The spokesman for “Tertium Quid,” a cool aristocratic skeptic, dismisses Pompilia’s claim of innocence as incredible and dismisses Guido as a coward who in part got what he deserved. And he expects the pope to do the “reasonable” thing, to commute the sentence. Tertium might well be a modern trader in literary criticism. He is well-heeled, smiling at outrageous claims either to surpassing virtue or to surpassing wickedness. He pretends to a careful examination of evidence, hut actually he works for self-advancement, whispering into the ear of his lordly master just what his lordly master is to believe of all the brouhaha. Yet the irony cuts against him and against all skeptics: for Browning reveals that Pompilia was not only innocent but miraculously pure. We who cannot believe are the ultimate objects of his admonition.

Pompilia is also the most acute “critic” in the poem — she, barely seventeen, who can neither read nor write, and who was married, as she says, “hardly knowing what a husband meant” (7.410). What makes her wise? Browning identifies it unhesitatingly. Pompilia’s humility enables her to move outside herself, to imagine what it might be like to be someone else. So she is the only one in the poem, aside from the similarly humble pope, to excuse the whore who sold her away:

Well, since she had to hear this brand  — let me!
The rather do I understand her now, —  
From my experience of what hate calls love, –
Much love might be in what their love called hate. (874-77)

So too she reads the virtue in Caponsacchi, though he — trained for worldly expectations, and having priested it so far among the gentry — struggles honestly and abashedly to find the same. And, ironically, she knows that others will “know” better:

So we are made, such difference in minds,
Such difference too in eyes that see the minds!
That man, yon misinterpret and misprise –
The glory of his nature, I had thought,
Shot itself out in white light, blazed the truth
Through every atom of his act with me:
Yet where I point you, through the crystal shine,
Purity in quintessence, one clew-drop,
You all descry a spider in the midst.

One says, “The head of it is plain to see,”
And one, “They are the Feet by which I judge,”
All say, those Films were spun by nothing else.” (7.918-29)

We judge by what we see, and unless we love deeply, we see ourselves. So will a cheat watch the fingers of everyone else at the card table.

What do the Romans make of the evidence? Most often, Browning shows, evidence is a motley’ thing, patched up with fads, haff—heard news, clichés, smug assumptions about how all people must be, self—satisfaction, and, in the case of the, professional Fisc and his hilariously slick—talking opponent Lord Hyacinth of the Archangels, the false alleys provided by a little learning and a heap of rhetorical trash. Pompilia, Caponsacchi, and the pope also have to weigh evidence; but humility opens their hearts to insight. Here is Pompilia, trying to express a joy in bearing a child who xviii never know his mother, but who will probably hear the lies:

Who is it makes the soft gold hair turn black,
And sets the tongue, might lie so long at rest,
Trying to talk? Let us leave God alone!
Why should I doubt tie will explain in time
What I feel non’, but fail to find the words? (7.1756—61)

Her words profess incapacity — and speak to the heart. God, who unties the tongue of the infant, will reveal to Gaetano the truth. An innocent child will hear when all the world is deaf.

The pope hears and understands. We meet him in his chambers, pondering the mystery of evil, knowing he is not long for this world, and wondering what fruit of all his shepherding he will have to show in the end. The world regards him as powerful, but the world is wrong. Consider with what humility and love he regards Pompilia:

I see in the world the intellect of man,
That sword, the energy his subtle spear,
The knowledge which defends him like a shield— Everywhere; hut they make not up, I think,
‘the marvel of a soul like thine, earth’s flower
She holds up to the softened gaze of God!
It was not given Pompilia to know much,
Speak much, to write a book, to move mankind,
Be memorized by who records my time.
Yet if in purity and patience, if
In faith held fast despite the plucking fiend,
Safe like the signet-stone with the new name
‘That saints are known by, — if in right returned
For wrong, most pardon for worst injury,
If there be any virtue, any praise,–
Then will this woman—child have proved — who knows? –
Just the one prize vouchsafed unworthy me. (10.1019-29)

No one sees what is really going on, says the pope; no one can read the narrative of the world from God’s point of view. Yet he sees, humbly enough, that the finest harvest from his priesthood may be just this one poor soul, the illiterate Pompilia, a “woman-child,” of whose virtue and sanctity Innocent considers himself unworthy. She never wrote a book, or even her own name. The papal historian will not remember her. But the Recording Angel will. Does that assertion strike the reader as credulous sentiment? Beware. The problem with skeptics and cynics is not only the faith they lose, but the faith they gain. It is what the pope identifies as Guido’s telltale mark, “That he believes in just the vile of life” (10511). On the night before his execution Guido can “see through,” with what he thinks is ironical acuity, the façade of the pope’s goodness:

The Pope moreover, this old Innocent,
Being so meek and mild and merciful,
So fond o’ the poor and so fatigued of earth,
So . . . fifty thousand plagues in deepest hell (11.55-58)

So the spokesman for “Half-Rome” can also “know” what a curly-haired young priest is all about, “Apollos turned Apollo” (2.794)1 He’ll not “prejudge the case” (68o), he insists, yet so far does prejudge it that he pieces events out with his own sly imagination, picturing the contretemps between Pompilia and Caponsacchi, things that never happened at all: “Now he pressed close till his foot touched her gown; / His hand touched hers” (803-4).

If we must he blind, would it not he better to be dazzled by a piercing light? In this way Pompilia is blind, and therefore she sees — and it is actually there — the virtue of a man, Caponsacchi, who is yet to become the man she imagines. If she is blind to the faults of a less-than-chastely spent youth, it is because she is dazzled by the greater light. These are her dying words, spoken as if even now Caponsacchi were her saving knight, and not she his saving damsel.:

So, let him wait Gods instant men call years
Meantime hold hard by truth and his great soul,
Do out the duty! Through such souls alone
God stooping shows sufficient of His light
For us i’ the dark to rise by. And I rise (7.1841-45)

Criticism and Gossip
THE RING AND THE BOOK is a storm of irony, currents and crosscurrents of knowledge and ignorance surefire plans foiled, certitudes that wither awry, and un-possibilities come to pass. To understand the irony we must adopt the stance of Socrates, who in humility, perhaps in mock humility, insisted that he was the only man in Athens who did not know anything. For irony, as we shall see, has to do with what people think they know, or what they think they can expect. All criticism that does not begin in the humility of wonder must end up as the one or the other half of Rome: when correct, correct by happenstance; pretending to analyze, yet studying nothing with that patience that invites us to learn from what is beyond us; mired in gossip, and often gossip with a clear incentive in money or prestige.

From gossip we learn nothing new. If Mrs. Jones flirts with the delivery man, we may find it shameless; but we know nothing more from our self-pleasing gossip than that she has done what we would not (usually, let it be noted, because we happen not to be tempted that way). But of what it might he like to be Mrs. Jones, or the poor workman, nothing. Gossip preempts, then deadens, our half-hearted attempts to enter imaginatively into the life of another. If we could glimpse the world for a moment through something distantly like Mrs. Jones’s eyes, our understanding of her action might be very different. We might then be ready to invite her to tea, or to lock her up. There is no logical reason to suppose that our imaginative entry into her world must make us think the better of her; the pope saw into Guido, and found the lizards of our lower nature. Consider how uncomfortable you would feel if your admirers could enter your thoughts for the twinkling of an eye.

But perhaps I have miscast the action. Most of us are not endowed with what Keats called “negative capability,” the imaginative power whereby we empty ourselves and assume the minds and souls of others. If we are to work our imaginations, we must love or hate. If we hate, we will, from our position of moral superiority, see our own vices smiling back at us, as Browning’s Romans do, the vices we would possess if we were like the people we judge; but, thanks he to almighty God or to a sound education, we are not like them. He whom I imagine is no better than I am. So the Fisc, to win his case for Pompilia, will not concede that she had any love affair with the priest, nor that she committed adultery (unless the priest took his importunate way with her while she slept). Fine; but see how his “defense” patronizes her supposed weakness of character and turns her into a common flirt:

And what is beauty’s sore concomitant,
Nay intimate essential character,
But melting wiles, deliciousest deceits,
The whole redoubted armoury of love? (9.229-32)

No beauty that reflects the grandeur of God, this. The Fisc’s vision is imaginative indeed, drearily so, and many “truths” of the petty and misleading variety can be derived from such a thing. We can happily note the small wickedness of others, and miss the darkness that is our own.

The truly educative act of imagination is spurred by love: that turn of the mind towards the fellow sufferer on his way to the grave. It may he tinged with pity; it need not be, and may be better if not. I turn towards him because he means something to me — he is as I am. Such an act of imagination begins in humility. I am no better than is he whom I imagine. I may be worse. In any case, I will be more apt to aspire to assume his virtues than to assign to him my vices. My understanding of him will thus be far subtler and far richer, far more fulfilling than if were moved by hate. For virtue is to vice as manliness is to machismo, as womanliness is to effeminacy, as any full-blooded reality is to its caricature. In this vision, by an act of humble imagination, I recast my inner world in the image of someone else.

Unfortunately, much of what passes for criticism is little better than idle gossip. Its initial spur is often not honor for the work of genius at hand, but the desire to say something clever. That is not fertile ground for love; thus, neither for the imagination. Yet the result can be impressive in a perverse way. Milton’s Satan, hating Eve, saw his own vices potentially in her, and thus could squat like a toad at her ear, imaginatively entering her and attempting to pollute her. Nor could Nietzsche have misunderstood the Bible so well had he not hated it so thoroughly.

With far less of fallen glory the same can be said of many a critic of Shakespeare, Chaucer, or Milton. Their words all but confess that they dislike the deepest beliefs these men either possessed or struggled vainly not to possess. Having delivered beauty, sex, love, sport, religion, education, youth, age family life, and even the care of newborns to an obsession with politics, the modem critic sees his own political face everywhere. Lorenzo and Jessica in the Merchant of Venice sing their rallying love-hymn to the night; the critic sees tiresome struggle for power. The traitor Macbeth is beheaded; the critic snickers and says that Malcolm will probably prove worse.

Emptying Ourselves of What We Think We Know
Is it possible to come to wrong conclusions on every important point? If our criticism were subject to random chance, we would be bound to get many things right. But the more intelligent we are, the more consistent our conclusions will be, and if we start from false principles, the more consistently wrong they will be. Take for example a young critic of medieval and Renaissance English poetry. Suppose that he is thoroughly conversant with the language of those old texts. Suppose also that he knows the history of England — and not just the wool trade or the tin mines or other now fashionable niches of economic history. Grant that he knows it well enough to place the poetry in its historic context, the better to understand what the words on the page mean. Grant him the rare knack for catching the well-turned phrase or the well-hewn line. Such a critic must still fail if he does not also understand what it might he like to believe in the Christianity which was the shared faith of Chaucer, Spenser. Donne, Shakespeare, Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, and Milton.

Can such an understanding he attained? If not, why read books? I am a great lover of the poet Lucretius, though he is a materialist and, for all practical purposes, an atheist, while I am not. When I read Lucretius, the skeptic, the satirist, and the scientist in me can relish his attack upon superstition. So could the ancient Christian polemicist Lactantius, who enjoyed the poetry and then used it as a sabre against paganism. But Lactantius could hardly have done so had he not entered into the spirit of Lucretius.

For the sake of understanding materialist poetry, then, I become provisionally and temporarily a materialist. As C. S. Lewis says, what the critic requires is not so often a suspension of disbelief as a suspension of belief. It is too easy to respond that such self-transformation is an illusion. Of course we cannot leave our minds behind. The point is that our minds possess myriads of possibilities, usually dormant, inactive, unrealized. Good reading sets them in motion. For the sake of Lucretius’ great poetry I allow the materialist in me to take the stage and declaim. That Lucretius’ voice is still bound up with my own does not matter. It could not he otherwise; nor do I require it. All I require is that humbling release of what I am and what I believe now, surrendering to what I might have been or to what I might have believed had I been more like Lucretius. I say with Alyosha Karamazov, who tries to understand his brother Ivan, “I want to suffer too” (The Brothers Karamazov, 287). I surrender in imaginative love.

Now there is a catch to this surrender. The farther you are from the faith of the author you are reading, the more readily you will acknowledge the need to surrender yourself, but the more difficult it will be. The closer you are to the author’s faith, the easier the surrender would be, could you ever he prevailed upon to see the need. In the case of Christianity, it is as Chestcrton puts it. You had better be in the faith completely or out of it completely. The worst position, if you want to understand it, is to be partly in and partly out, or to have a passing, culturally based familiarity with its surface. You are neither so familiar with it as to probe its depths, nor is it so strange that you are moved to approach it with care. You take the attitude of Petronius, or of “Tertium Quid,” You’ve seen it all before.

Apply a two-dimensional Christianity to the mature allegories of Spenser and Milton, and at once you will discover discrepancies and incoherence. Why don’t Spenser’s Guyon and the Palmer kill the witch Acrasia? Are they still tempted by her Bower of Bliss? Why do the devils in hell discourse on philosophy? Has Milton rejected his classical education? Are faith and reason to part forever? Many such false dilemmas arise because the critic has failed to understand the subtleties of the Christian faith.

And Christianity is the subtlest of faiths, yet of a wondrous simplicity “I thank thee,” Jesus observes with biting irony, “O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them unto babes” (Matthew 1:25) The kernel of the faith can he grasped by a child. We are sinners. The Lord who created us not to sin sent his obedient Son to die for us. That Son rose from the dead to sit at the right hand of the Father. We may join him in heaven if we have faith.

Christianity is the opposite of a mystery religion: the creed is short and openly professed. Yet its simple tenets belie unfathomable depth. “Matter is a form of energy.” We all know this Einsteinian truth — a child could be taught it, and, to the limits of his capacity, really believe it. But what does it imply? What does it mean? “There are three persons in one God. Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Again, a child could learn the formula, but what does the Trinity imply? The wise and prudent are struck dumb. A religious anthropologist may chatter about the symbolism of three, and how all cultures attach a mystical importance to it, and on and learnedly on. But to the clean of heart it may reveal the mystery of existence itself. So Dante implies in his invocation to God:

O Light that dwell within thyself alone,
who alone know thyself, are known, and smile
with Love upon the Knowing and the Known.
(Paradise, 33.124-26)

Merely to exist, to be a knowable object, is to have been made by the God of knowledge who knows and is known, whose being is love, and who has loved into being all things that have been, are, and are to come.

Pride is blinding; the moral problem becomes epistemological.  Suppose we assume that the lanky fellow across the table is a dullard. When he remarks of someone else’s immorality, “For them as likes that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they likes,” we will find our prejudice confirmed. The statement is tautological arid evasive. But if we knew that the man was Lincoln, we might see the wry condemnation hiding beneath the hayseed humor. We will know, when he assumes the self-deprecatory air, not to take him at his word. When we later discover the same man condemning that behavior, we will know that it is not he who is inconsistent, but we who underestimated him.

Irony and Knowledge
WHAT DOES THIS HAVE to do with irony and faith? Much, if we consider what irony is. Until fairly recently, most writers on irony have defined it as speech that means something other than (or opposite to) what is literally said. The problem with this definition is that it is at once too narrow, too broad, and beside the point. Liars mean other than what they say, but the lie is not in itself ironic; and you may, with irony, mean exactly what you say, but in a way that your audience (or perhaps a putative audience, more foolish than those who are actually listening to you) will not understand. The definition is beside the point, since moments of dramatic irony, or what some have called “irony of event,” may not involve speech at all, but only strange turns of fate.

Contemporary literary theorists have attempted to distill the essence of irony, that which underlies both the winking assertions of ignorance made by Socrates, and concatenations of events that seem (but only seem) to suggest design, or that demolish any sense of design. Irony, they assert, is a universal solvent: no theology or epistemology can contain it. It dissolves— — “deconstructs” every assertion of absolute truth

The trouble with this view of irony now prevalent in the academy is that it enshrines one sort of ironic statement or event and ignores the rest. Worse, the kind of irony it enshrines is destructive, and the first thing it destroys is irony. If there is no objective truth — if irony must undermine and destabilize — then, once we have noticed the fact, there is no more point for irony, just as it makes no sense for the skeptic to embark on a quest for knowledge, when there is no knowledge to be had. How, after all, does one then proceed. by irony, to undermine the “truth” that every truth can be undermined? If all speech is inherently slippery, why trouble oneself with the subtleties of irony? Why pour oil on a sheet of ice?

But in fact, irony commonly is used to exalt rather than undermine. It can stun us with wonder and raise our eyes to behold a truth we had missed. All kinds of unsuspected truths, particularly those combined in paradoxes await our attention, but we are too dulled by habit to notice. Then irony — verbal or dramatic — awakes us. Consider:

1. A bystander watches as a professor, holding forth to his suffering companion on the epistemological subtleties of irony, steps dangerously near a banana peel.

2. In King Lear, Gloucester tries to refuse the help of his son Edgar, whom he cannot see and does not know: “I have no way and therefore want no eyes; / I stumbled When I saw,” (4.1. 18-19)

3. In II Henry IV (and apparently in real life, too) the usurper King Henry, who had wanted to atone for his sin by fighting in the Crusades, removes to die in a room called “Jerusalem,” noting that it had been foretold to him that he would die in Jerusalem. (4.5 236-40)

4. St. Paul sings a hymn of Christ’s Atonement:

Let this mind be in you, which Was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that even tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father
(Philemon 2:5-11)

5. In Moliere’s comedy Tartuffe, the jealous husband Orgon squirms under the table where his wife Elmire has put him, listening as his protégé Tartuffe, the one man he is amazingly not suspicious of attempts to seduce her. (4.5)

What do the cases have in common? The first verges upon slapstick; the second involves a lesson learned in an unusual way; the third hinges upon a play on words; the fourth is a theological reversal of expectations; the fifth is a piece of staged ignorance. Each involves a problem of knowing. The irony lies in a stark clash between what a character thinks he knows and what he really knows. This clash is staged to let the reader or the audience in on the secret. We are, then, not merely watching ignorance, but ignorance unaware of itself and about to learn better, or at least about to teach by way of its own incorrigibility. The irony reveals, with a kind of electric shock, order where randomness was expected, or complexity and subtlety where simplicity was expected.

Each case involves a staged clash of incompatible levels of knowledge:

1.  The professor thinks he knows a lot about the subtlest things, but misses the humble and material banana at his feet. The bystander probably knows a great deal less about irony, but he does see the hazard and, if he possesses either a profound moral sensibility or none at all, will stand back to enjoy the tumble. The apparent intellectual hierarchy belies a richer order: the great intellect is not so wise. He “deserves” to slip, falling victim to the very thing, irony, about which he declaims so proudly. Had he known less about it, he might have looked to the sidewalk in time.

2.  Only after Gloucester loses his eyes does he ‘see” how rashly and unjustly lie has treated his son Edgar. The irony, a reversal of expectations accompanied by a deepening knowledge, is richly theological as well. For there is an order at work, bringing about Gloucester’s sight through blindness, and his reconciliation with his son through suffering. The man before him is that wronged son, whom he has seen in disguise and taken for one Tom-a-Bedlam, the “poor, bare, forked animal” that “un-accommodated man” is (King Lear, 3.4. 105-106). Now it is the wronged Gloucester reduced to misery who requires assistance from Mad Tom. Gloucester does not yet understand what his “way” is, why he has been blinded and what he must suffer still. He says he has no way, yet his meeting with Edgar shows that a way has been designed for him nonetheless. He will walk towards a final, terrible resignation to his punishment and reconciliation with his son. And Edgar wii1 he his eyes — his spiritual guide — along this way.

3.  We “know” that Henry might have died in any room or might have died falling from a horse on a holiday hunt. He had hoped to die in the Holy Land, and when he learns the name of the room, he finally sees the design and resigns himself to its justice. For us, that death feels right–better than if he had died a-crusading, better than if he had been hanged at the Tower of London. The usurper should not be granted a matyr’s death; better that he should he disappointed by his hope to expiate the crime. The place of his death reveals a more subtle order than either he or we had expected.

4.  The chasm between human expectations and divine will has never been sung more powerfully. The prophet cries, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord” (Isaiah: 55:8), but here Saint Paul fleshes out that cry with specifics that seem impossible to hold simultaneously. If Christ is equal with God, why should He, or how can He, empty himself, making himself of no reputation?  How can God become obedient to God, obedient unto the shameful death on a cross? How can submission exalt? For Christ is not exalted despite his humility but in it and through it. For the believer, then, Paul’s hymn reveals complexities in the notions of equality and hierarchy: because Christ was the Son of God, He set aside that equality, and in his obedience He is set above all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth. He is equal to the Father because he obeys.

5. This brilliant stage business shows dramatic irony at its purest. Of this double-plot no one, not even the audience, can see everything. Elmire knows she is chaste, but as she leads ‘Tartuffe on, to prove to her husband under the table what a fool he has been to trust the charlatan, she must worry lest her trick backfire and Tartuffe ravish her before Orgon manages to get out from under there. For she cannot see him, and cannot be sure that he will come to his senses even when he hears Tartuffe making love to her. Meanwhile Organ can only fry in imagination: he hears but cannot see the couple, and must restrain his wrath and jealousy long enough to let Tartuffe hang himself for certain. The audience, too, can see Tartuffe and Elmire, and so they know’ what Orgon must learn; but they cannot see Orgon, and must guess, from his awkward and frantic movements under the table, what must be going through his mind. Finally, there is Tartuffe, master trickster, steeped in ignorance, believing himself so clever yet missing so obvious a trick — for I do not think Orgon can remain as still as a chuchmouse!

It is, then, not the unexpectedness of a thing that produces irony—a violin flung at a man’s head is unexpected, but not ironic — nor is it ignorance that produces irony — after all, if he saw the violin he would duck. Irony arises, rather, from the ignorance of unseen or unexpected order (or, as it may happen, disorder), from the failure to note subtleties, or from seeing subtleties that are not there, especially when the ignorance and the failure are highlighted before observers are in a better position to see the truth. That is the sort of thing we feel as ironic. A violin flung at a man’s head is not ironic. A man missing a sharp as he tries to hum the Kreutzer sonata is not ironic. The same man botching Beethoven as the violin sails his way — now that is ironic.


Contradiction, Mystery, and The Use of Words in Simone Weil – ERIC O. SPRINGSTED

June 9, 2010

Rene Magritte (1898-1967), Les deux mystres (The two mysteries) 1966, oil on canvas, 60 80 cm, private collection, London. With his incredible skill at painting realistic objects and figures Magritte decided to make each of his painting a visual poem. He said: “My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?'. It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” This is not a pipe, but which one?

I can still recall my first encounter with Christian mystery. Finally being able to express a long-held doubt or spiritual confusion in a question: How does God’s sacrifice on the Cross come to mean my redemption? And then watching my Christian mentor pause, reflect and answer: “That’s all part of the paschal mystery…” Always the “mystery.” Look, I wanted to say, if you have no answers but only “mysteries” how does this come to mean religion. No, no, I don’t want to hear that answer.

Anyways as one who embraced the notion of mystery, the following is as near to an answer I have ever encountered – once again I am indebted to this little French girl a few generations back who seems to be able to speak to me and others. Sometimes just a line in one of her notebooks, but my God, such lines. Everything about her is endlessly fascinating to me. Even my favorite poet, Wallace Stevens, seemed to be held in thrall by her.

Here Dr. Springsted reflecting on Simone Weil’s understanding of “mystery:”


When St. Paul employs the term “mystery” in his writings he generally does so in order to discuss what is revealed in Christ. Common parlance, however, often inverts Paul’s sense of the term by making the mystery refer to what is opaque and yet to be revealed and understood. The twentieth century, though, has seen important work designed to recapture the original religious sense of mystery. Rudolf Otto, for example, in The Idea of the Holy, has argued that mysterium is “the wholly other, that which is quite beyond the sphere of the usual, the intelligible and the familiar… filling the mind with blank wonder and astonishment.” (Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy, London: Oxford University Press, 1970 p.26) It is thus an essential part of religion and not something to be eradicated by additional light at some later date.

Gabriel Marcel has further noted that a mystery needs to be distinguished from a problem. Problems, he says, are “subject to an appropriate technique…whereas a mystery by definition transcends every conceivable technique.” Mysteries are not an obstacle to thought, but are apprehended by “an essentially positive act of the mind.” (Gabriel Marcel, The Mystery of Being South Bend: Gateway, 1978 p. 211)

Finally, Karl Rahner has also noted that mystery is not a lack of knowledge that will be solved in the beatific vision, but “rather [is] one of the positive attributes of such intuitive knowledge [of God].” (G.A. McCool, ed., A Rahner Reader, New York: Seabury, 1975 p.118) Mystery thus for all these writers is not a blank unknown, nor a puzzle to be solved, but is an enlightening and essential part of our knowledge of God.

Simone Weil is another writer who was also concerned with mystery and who refused to understand it as something unclear and problematic. Like these writers, she saw mystery as essential to religion. Weil’s contributions toward understanding the religious use of mystery, however, have not been noticed. This is largely because most of her references to mystery are buried in her notebooks. Yet if one searches these notebooks carefully, one will discover a well-defined sense of mystery. I will argue that once we uncover what mystery means for Weil we will see not only an additional contributor to the recovery of mystery, but will also be better able to understand Weil’s own use of mystery in her writing and her ideas on its application.


In order to come to an understanding of Weil’s notion of mystery we must begin by considering her use of the more common philosophical term “contradiction.” Now what philosophers mean by contradiction is rather straightforward; they mean that any statement that can be put in the form “s is p & not-p” is a contradiction. Any statement that can be put thus is meaningless for it asserts at the same time two opposite predicates of one subject. Although Weil uses the term “contradiction” in this way, as we all do, she never spends time discussing it, with the exception of this comment in The Lectures on Philosophy: “At bottom, the principle of non-contradiction is a principle of grammar” (Weil, Lectures on Philosophy, 78).

Since Weil did not believe that grammar is an infallible guide to reality, she clearly puts this philosophical use of “contradiction” to one side as something that will not provide any ultimate clue to reality. We, of course, wish at this point that she would explain exactly why contradiction does not provide this clue, but unfortunately she does not. Instead we find her using the term in such ways that it includes virtually any sort of opposition between two thoughts. In this regard “contradiction” for Weil signals not only our inability to think that “s is p” and “s is not-p” at the same time when “s” must logically be one or the other; it also includes opposing thoughts that are only a matter of being contraries, or incommensurates, or finally the elements of religious mystery such as the belief that God is One yet Three.

At first this use of terms seems careless. We are struck, nevertheless, by the frequency with which Weil uses “contradiction” and in ways that are equivalent with other terms such as “contrary,” “incommensurate,” and “mystery.” The insistence seems to token some more ultimate point. In fact it does, for we can discern three basic ways in which thoughts for Weil can be in opposition to each other. These are as paradox, as incommensuration, and finally as mystery.

Weil’s first sense of contradiction is a simple one. it is an opposition between perceptions, thoughts, ideas or the predication of terms that we need to solve in order to contemplate their truth. It is with this sense in mind that Weil says “every truth contains a contradiction” (Weil, Lectures on Philosophy, 410). The formulation is clearly intended to be paradoxical but it is not nonsense. Rather what Weil means here is that “contradiction” occurs whenever our intellect comes up against an unforeseen obstacle that forces us to recast our thoughts in order to accommodate it. In this sense, “contradiction” is the sort of thing we set in front of our students’ minds in order to get them to think on their own by considering problems they have not previously seen.

Weil’s use of “contradiction” in this sense is revealed by her remark:

“Method of investigation: as soon as we have thought something, try to see in what way the contrary is true” (Weil, Lectures on Philosophy, 93). The fact that this is a method of investigation for Weil is at least helpful in explaining why she deliberately wrote in such a paradoxical style. “Contradiction” is therefore for her a valuable heuristic device for “emerging from the point of view” (Weil, Lectures on Philosophy, 46). In light of this understanding of contradiction we can also see that Weil intends “contradiction” as a means to a more inclusive and insightful way of conceiving our existence and its conditions. Contradiction can also be, in this special sense, a sign of our having met reality, for as Weil puts it in the Lectures on Philosophy, reality “is what method does not allow us to foresee” (Weil, Lectures on Philosophy, 73).

We can order the world to our size, but we only understand its existence as independent of our thoughts when we find that it somehow manages to go its own way, despite our expectations. The mind that can accommodate shocks to its self-imposed order is therefore one that has emerged from a solipsistic dream and has begun to think in truth. Noting the opposition of “contradiction” between our mental order of the world and the way the world goes on its own can therefore be a gateway to a fuller encounter with reality.

In the final analysis, however, this sense of contradiction, no matter how helpful pedagogically, means no more by itself than “paradox” or “problem.” By itself it perhaps embodies no more than a truism or a philosophical triviality. The sorts of opposition that Weil intends by “contradiction” do not stop here, however; instead there are two increasingly stronger meanings, namely, incommensuration and mystery.

In Weil’s writings the philosophical meat of “contradiction” is essentially what we would normally call “incommensuration,” that is to say, the comparison of two things that have no common intellectual measure. In fact, that Weil usually means incommensuration when she speaks of contradiction is seen in that she often uses the two terms interchangeably. Here it is important to see the difference between incommensuration and apparent contradictions, for apparent contradictions can be resolved by analysis and proper predication of the opposing terms involved, whereas in incommensuration the terms cannot be so resolved.

For example, there is an apparent contradiction between our perceptions of the earth’s place in space and a heliocentric theory of the earth’s movement. That contradiction is resolved, however, by the heliocentric theory’s ability to explain both the anomalies of planetary motion presented by a theory developed solely in accordance with our perceptions and why we would have those perceptions in the first place. In incommensuration, however, the two incommensurate elements are both adequately conceived and understood. There simply appears to be no way to compare them, as we say of apples and oranges. Now we can do one of three things when faced with incommensurates: we can leave them uncompared; we can in a confused way try to compare them and then beg philosophy to help us, in Wittgenstein’s phrase, to show the fly the way out of the bottle and revert to the first option; or we can try to find some real unity to the set.

If we choose the last option, however, Weil points out, what we need to do is to discover the unity of the set on a “higher plane” than the one on which the elements are incommensurate. This can, in fact, be done and can be seen by help from an illustration from mathematics, one that Weil herself found enlightening. In early Greek mathematics, when numbers were represented by lines, each line could be expressed as a natural number by virtue of the ratio (logos) it has to another line when both have a common measure, no matter how small. This expressible logos was in fact for the Greeks the very definition of number and its applicability embraces all the natural numbers. However, it was discovered that not all lines do have a common measure, such as the sides of an isosceles right triangle and its hypotenuse. They therefore have no logos. These lines are incommensurate (alogos) and no amount of manipulating can discover a logos in the prescribed sense.

The consequence of having no logos threatens the rationality of the most rational science. But Eudoxus found that by extending the sense of logos to cover the relative magnitude of lines one could include the natural numbers and the irrationals in the one real number system. A logos/alogos (a ratio involving incommensurates) is not definitely expressible as we can see when we try to write the exact value of, say, the square root of two, but it is a perfectly rigorous relation between incommensurate numbers. The new theory of numbers does not in the least change the incommensuration between two numbers having no common measure, for they still have no common measure. What it does do, however, is transcend the limitations of the natural and irrational numbers by conceiving an order of numbers that incorporates both, but is not reducible to the definitions of either.

The applicability of this way of reasoning goes further than just the proportion between lines. It can also be extended to other incommensurate elements such as weight, time, and distance to yield important formulas in physics. Weight, time, and distance are all distinct things, but once we introduce an overriding concept of number they can be combined to yield equations in physics. Weil understood this, and introduced it as a principle of reasoning in many realms:

The system of Eudoxus, by which a ratio between weights can be equaled to a ratio between times, etc. — How is it we allow ourselves not to refer to it in education? If it is a case of rational ratios — 3 hours are to 2 hours as are 3 kilos to 2 kilos — at bottom the notion is the same but concealed by the numbers. . . . Since it is possible in this way to equalize the notions in the case of two completely different pairs of magnitudes one could hope to be able also to apply the notion of ratio to psychological and spiritual matters.
(The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 162)

When incommensurates are reconciled their unity can be a witness to aspects and dimensions of our existence of which we may not have been previously aware, or at least were confused about. We regard all sorts of entities as real, not because we see them but because they give a solution to problems we cannot solve otherwise. Weil believed this sort of understanding was also possible in psychological and spiritual matters wherein surd (vocab: A surd is a number or quantity that cannot be expressed as the ratio of two integers.) elements of our experience could bespeak a need for unity on a higher plane, a need that, if met, could give us a clearer understanding of our lives and thus a firmer grasp on them. It was on the basis of reasoning such as this, I believe, that Weil found incommensuration such a valuable tool. It led her to assert: “All veritable good involves contradictory conditions, and is therefore impossible. He who keeps his attention really and truly fixed on this impossibility, and acts accordingly, will carry out good” (The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 410).

There is a further sense of incommensuration that cannot be covered by the Eudoxean system and that is where two incommensurates are not only not of the same kind and are not possibly describable as being of the same kind. (Time and distance are obviously not of the same kind, but both can be described numerically, which for purposes of the equation does make them of the same kind.) This sort of incommensuration Weil thought can only be unified in infinity. Weil does not specifically note this kind of incommensuration, but indicates something of the sort when she says: “What is contradictory to natural reason is not so for supernatural reason, but the latter can only use the language of the former” (First and Last Notebooks, 109). Here is where Weil brings in the notion of mystery as the most absolute sense of what she means by contradiction. Mystery involves this final sense of incommensuration. It is not a notion, Weil thinks, that can be used for any and every opposition the mind encounters in thinking; instead, it is to be used only for incommensurates that seem inextricably linked, yet without our being able to comprehend that in which their unity lies.

Weil has definite criteria for legitimate and illegitimate uses of mystery. The use of mystery is legitimate when it involves three things:

  1. when there are two clearly conceived terms that are in contradiction (incommensuration) with each other and are not resolvable into a unified system by the finite intelligence;
  2. when suppression of either of these terms renders the other meaningless;
  3. when suppression of the mystery that arises from taking the two terms together results in a loss of light shed upon the intelligence. The first criterion is essentially negative and defines mystery as something that is not merely another attempt of the intelligence to find unity. The last two criteria are more positive, for they indicate that the opposition in thought we encounter in mysteries is essential to the mystery.

Further, despite their opposition, those things we find opposed we are also obliged to hold as unified since the meaning of each element seems to depend on the other, as “contradictory” as the two may seem to each other. It is only together that the opposing elements give light. The apprehension of the supernatural is thus essentially a mystery, not its dissolution. Weil writes:

The notion of mystery is legitimate when the most logical and rigorous use of the intelligence leads to an impasse, to a contradiction which is inescapable in this sense: that the suppression of one term makes the other meaningless and that to pose one term necessarily involves posing the other. Then, like a lever, the notion of mystery carries thought beyond the impasse, to the other side of the un-openable door, beyond the domain of intelligence and above it. But to arrive beyond the domain of the intelligence one must have travelled all through it, to the end, and by a path traced with unimpeachable rigor…Another criterion is that when the mind has nourished itself with mystery, by a long and loving contemplation, it finds that by suppressing and denying the mystery it is at the same time depriving the intelligence of treasures which are comprehensible to it, which dwell in its domain and which belong to it.
 (First and Last Notebooks, 181)

An important example of how Weil applies this notion of mystery is her treatment of the “problem” of evil. The philosophical problem of evil concentrates on the supposed contradiction between asserting that evil exists and asserting that an omnipotent and wholly good God creates the world. Logically it appears that a good and omnipotent God either would not allow evil to exist in his creation, or would suppress it immediately should it arise. The fact that evil exists therefore calls into question either God’s goodness or omnipotence or both. We could deny that evil exists, of course, but that is strongly contrary to our intuitions. Thus there is a contradiction.

Weil, however, rather than trying to solve this as a problem, instead thinks the truth can only be found by accepting both God’s goodness and the existence of evil. In her analysis of affliction, for example, she uncovers an ultimate form of evil in which any thought or even dream of being ennobled by the experience is precluded. She refuses to assume that this counts against God’s existence, however, and instead seeks to see how an understanding of God’s love can help us to understand what affliction is and how an understanding of affliction can lead us to understand God’s goodness better.

Now if contradiction were taken in its formal logical sense, affliction would be sound evidence for God’s nonexistence. If, however, mystery is invoked, although the tension between God’s goodness and affliction is not weakened, the two may co-enlighten each other, as Weil thought they do on the cross, even if the finite intelligence cannot in fact or principle bridge the gap. Not to hold the mystery may therefore cause one either to deny the evil of affliction, which is real, or to deny God, in which case the evil of affliction is a permanent and unredeemable matter.


When we have examined Weil’s various uses of “contradiction” we can see that her use of the term is not careless and equivocal but signals an important element in her thought. Contradiction in the way Weil uses it is important for at least three reasons.

  1. First, insofar as it stands for something opposed to the way we would tailor the world to our size, it signals to us that there is, indeed, much more of the world we need to take into account,
  2. Second, it beckons us to seek a higher and more complete unity to our understanding of the world.
  3. Finally, it leads us to understand that the ultimate unity of all things in God is a mystery, not in the sense that the unity is opaque and obscure, but in the sense that that unity transcends our thoughts.

Weil’s understanding of contradiction and mystery is interesting enough on its own and is important as a further contribution to investigations into the concept of mystery. The context of Weil’s discussion of contradiction and mystery, however, indicates that she intended her ideas to be much more than a conceptual analysis. Instead of simply providing such, an analysis, she clearly wants to press these ideas into the service of spirituality in such a way that they can be understood as effective tools for our coming to understand the world and to apprehend the mystery which is its source. In this regard contradiction is an important device within spirituality, and, as she suggests when she notes that a method of investigation ought to discover contradiction, should be used in presenting any idea to our minds.

The application of such a method can quite clearly be far-ranging, for it can include our perceptions, thoughts, ideas and especially the way we use words to think. Weil herself does not shrink from such applications and, in fact, uses this method in an original way to describe what we would call the role of the imagination in both religion and literature. But before we reach that point it is necessary to consider a related idea that is a crucial bridge. The notion is that of “reading” (lecture).

Reading for Weil is in the first instance similar to what we mean when we use a phrase such as “How do you read it?” Reading is thus essentially an interpretation of what our senses present to us; we not only perceive but see. It is a phenomenon entirely natural to every thinking being. Weil, however, does not think that this reading is entirely arbitrary, nor is it casual. Instead, what we read is something suggested to us not only by our perceptions, but also by our conditioning. Further, for her, reading is a total interpretation engaging the whole person, and usually includes an impetus for action. As an example of reading, Weil cites the instance of a defeated king being led through the streets of Rome by the conquering Romans. His followers read in the sight their king; the Romans, a conquered man. Each reading, we understand, causes one to react in a different way to the sight, but it is clearly not arbitrary how each reading comes about (cf The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 39).

Despite the fact that readings are suggested by sensations and conditioning, they nevertheless can be more or less inclusive of reality, less or more self-centered and therefore better or worse. Throughout her notebooks when she is discussing reading, Weil constantly ponders the problem of how to avoid a false reading since there is a good deal of choice in our readings. Ultimately she sees that we need to read God’s hand behind all existence and also sees that this reading must include in a hierarchy all other good readings, even if they are limited. As she writes: “Superposed readings: To read necessity behind sensations, to read order behind necessity, to read God behind order” (Gravity and Grace 123). The questions that need to be answered, however, are how one transcends a limited reading and how one escapes a false reading. The answer for Weil lies in the process by which we come to understand that we are in fact reading, and then alter our readings.

At first we do not understand that we are reading. The Roman captives and the Roman conquerors hardly need to be supposed to be thinking they are “reading” the procession as anything — they are simply seeing it as it is, or so it seems to them. Yet the situation has also spawned two quite different readings; one group sees a king, the other sees a slave. There does not seem to be any meeting ground. Yet Weil suggests that a joint effort can allow both groups to arrive at a third reading that is the same for all. Clearly this third reading is one that is more inclusive than either of the two earlier readings and allows us to see the situation most clearly.

In her essay on the Iliad Weil praises Homer for being able to write with this sort of clear vision. It is a vision that allows him to side neither with the Greeks nor with the Trojans. Rather what he sees in that war is what is most pitiable in any war, the human soul subjugated by a blind and impartial force. In order to arrive at such a third reading, however, one must be able to take seriously somebody else’s reading. It is clear that Weil’s first two senses of contradiction are important for being able to do this, for somebody else’s reading is often in opposition to our own. But it is also clear from the Notebooks that Weil does not think it a bare intellectual exercise to take into consideration another person’s reading in order to arrive at a new one. Simply to entertain another perspective is rarely to give up your own, and unless one gives up one’s own limited reading, one cannot arrive at the unifying third reading.

It is often true that we believe we have arrived at a unifying third reading because we have considered other viewpoints and have synthesized them with our own. But such a synthesis can be flawed and a mere expansion of our own perspective. For example, it is relatively easy for an anthropologist to go into the field to observe a “primitive” tribe and even live with it closely and yet return to write a report that does little more than supply “data” that support the dominant intellectual view of the anthropologist. Such is not a good reading.

For Weil, a good reading occurs only when we realize that we are reading and when we realize the limited nature of our reading. In this sense the truth of a third reading comes about just as much by giving up our grasp on an earlier reading as it does by our arriving at a synthetic unity of opposed readings. As one commentator has put it: “The unity of several readings is not a juxtaposition of readings, it is a non-reading which transcends particular reading… It is the non-reading in which the particulars of the reading subject are denied.” (Farron-Landry, “Lecture et non-lecture chez Simone Weil,” csw 17/2 (Dec. 1980): 230.) In this sense, the unity of several readings cannot be forced or invented, but must be an apprehension of their own unity.

It is in apprehending the unity of several readings that Weil’s notion of mystery is most appropriate. Just as mystery involves two or more incommensurate thoughts that cannot be unified by the finite intellect, but cannot be separated either without losing an important light shed on the spirit, so too the ultimate reading cannot reduce what it reads to only a part of what is read. But mystery in its fullest theological sense is also appropriate here for another reason. The ultimate reading, which eschews reduction to limited readings, is in the final analysis, Weil thinks, a gift of grace essential to faith itself, for it is universal yet incarnate in a person.

The faith Weil is considering here, however, is not simple belief, but discernment in the spiritual realm, which she says is analogous to taste in the aesthetic realm. This faith is an ability to read not from one’s self-perspective, but from a universal perspective that encompasses even one’s own self-perspective and the reason for it. It is the mystery of love and being just and caring for all creation equally and without prejudice. It is “to read God in every manifestation, without exception, but according to the true manifestation relationship [sic] proper to each appearance. To know in what way each appearance is not God. Faith is a gift of reading” (The Notebooks of Simone Weil, 220).


There are two important results when we connect the notions of contradiction, mystery, and reading as Weil uses them. The first is a confirmation of Weil’s metaphysical doctrines wherein she sees a manifold diversity to the world that is unified and harmonized in the transcendent and divine. Rather than being a metaphysical dualist as some commentators have claimed, Weil instead holds to a “monistic mystery.” Mystery here stands as the locus of the harmony of the world and is an appropriate term to use for that harmony that must transcend any finite conception of it. It must transcend any and all finite conceptions for the simple reason that every finite conception is included in it.( This topic is treated more fully in my Christus Mediator: Platonic Mediation in the Thought of Simone Weil (Chico: Scholars Press, 1983).

The second result is that we must also see the connection of these notions as issuing in a method of spiritual development that faithfully reflects Weil’s metaphysical understandings. Contradiction is thus not only a sign of reality, it is also useful “for emerging from the point of view” and thus reading better. Ultimately, this method leads to a best reading that proceeds from apprehending the mysterious unity of all created being. The mystery encompasses the very density of life; the method is designed to discover

It is readily apparent that this method is something to which Weil adheres closely, especially when she is at her paradoxical and oracular best. But she is trying to be something other than clever when she does so, for she honestly thinks that this method does bring us closer to an apprehension of the mystery that holds the world together. Here we can give two major examples of how she thought this method could be applied. The first is one noted above, whereby Weil looks at the difficulties we encounter in thinking of affliction as being in any way connected to God’s love. There we suggested she finds the two to be co-enlightening of each other and rooted in the mystery of redemption. The second example is perhaps less grandiose, but is equally instructive because it shows the various levels at which Weil thought the method of contradiction could be applied. This is the example of Zen koans, to which Weil returns numerous times in the Notebooks and by which she was obviously fascinated.

Strictly speaking, koans do not conform to the definition Weil has of mysteries, i.e., two strictly conceived but finitely irreconcilable lines of thought. The koan of “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”, for example, does not conform since it is not the result of two opposed lines of thought; rather it is an incoherent question — clapping means two hands. Yet to force the koan into this strict form is to misunderstand both the koan and Weil’s ultimate point. The koan is useful for freeing us from a limited reading. In a certain sense, if it is not the clash of two opposed lines of analytic thought, it is nevertheless something that represents the clash of how we conceive the world to move and how it might be conceived on another plane. This is essentially a spiritual point and indicates how Weil’s ideas on contradiction, mystery, and reading cannot be reduced to solving an intellectual problem, though they do have intellectual ramifications in forcing us to see and reconstruct intellectual problems in a larger perspective.

There is also a certain value to understanding koans this way beyond exemplifying Weil’s method. They also illustrate the larger need to escape from a limited reading, and show our means of escape, namely, by revealing how we can be forced to entertain what seems to be impossible to our normal ways of thinking. Further, the light gained from pondering them and the contradictory form of questioning they employ together also reflect our ultimate goal, i.e., a mystery. But there is also a certain problem here: though koans might appear useful as a practical application of the method of contradiction, they remain embedded within the culture of the East. As such it is not really possible to think seriously that they could be imported — and Well did not think they could be. The shallow appreciation of Eastern religions in which the counterculture of the 1960s was awash is evidence of this difficulty. The problem is then whether we can find anything in Western culture that lends itself to this sort of spiritual use of words.

There are, in fact, two prime areas that might. The first is philosophy and theology. Insofar as they have a distinct spiritual element to them and deal with a unique object, God, they have always had an element of mystery to them. The second, however, is an area that is far more immediate in its import, and that is literature. Literature, as should be readily obvious, is not simply entertaining stories; it is at least an invitation to entertain possibilities and worlds we might never have envisioned had literature not enticed us into doing so. In this regard, it is often literature and not theology that first allows us to believe in a truly spiritual sense As John Coulson writes, following Newman’s Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent, “Religious belief originates in that activity we call imagination, and its verification thus depends now, as in the past, upon its first being made credible to imagination” [John Coulson, Religion and Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981) 46].

Put in Weil’s terms, this is to say we do not simply decide to move to another reading — how could we, since the decision is the fruit of an earlier reading? — but embrace it because in some sense it has captured us. Religiously, however, what first captures our imagination is rarely analytic clarity; rather it is a mystery that Newman himself defines as “a statement uniting incompatible notions.” Thus Newman writes: “It is a property of depth to lead a writer into verbal contradiction; and it is a property of simplicity not to care to avoid them.” [John Coulson, Religion and Imagination (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981) 46].

It is not difficult to find examples of how this sense of mystery can penetrate literature in metaphors that are striking, enticing, and reflective of the mystery that is their focus. T. S. Eliot provides a major example, as when he writes in “East Coker”:

The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
Beneath the bleeding hands we feel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart.

Eliot continues this further by similar “contradictory” metaphors designed to awaken us and to show us the depth of the healing of redemption:

The whole earth is our hospital
Endowed by the ruined millionaire,
Wherein, if we do well, we shall
Die of the absolute paternal care
That will not leave us, but prevents us everywhere.
[T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (New York: Harcourt, 1963) l87-88]

It may be too much to say that what Eliot has done is to give the imagination the literary equivalent of a koan. What he has done, however, seen in the light of Weil’s understanding of contradiction and mystery, is to focus our attention on the mysterious quality of the redemption by painting it in “contradictory” terms that show its depth and uniqueness. And, as Coulson argues, he has done this not simply by preaching theological platitudes in a “worn-out poetical fashion,” but has actually engaged the imagination that it may entertain what it otherwise might not even consider. One can also see in prose similar metaphors of contradiction designed to awaken us, as when Flannery O’Connor uses violence to portray grace.

It is undoubtedly the recognition of the link between the religious imagination and the literary imagination that has led to the flourishing of a new field of studies relating religion and literature. With writers such as Eliot, O’Connor, and others, it would be remiss not to study these relations. But one must also be aware of a problem as well. The time is long past when, as Eliot noted of the Metaphysical poets, religious and literary sensibilities fit together in a “constant amalgamation of disparate experience.” Indeed, as he notes, “we have tacitly assumed for some centuries past, that there is no relation between literature and theology.”[T.S. Eliot, Selected Essays of T S Eliot (New York: Harcourt, 1950) 343] If this is true then we cannot assume automatically either that any and every bit of literary imagination opens onto a mystery. This was a problem of which Weil herself was well aware. Her comments are useful as a further specification of exactly how she thought contradiction and mystery ought to be applied.


It may seem surprising to suggest that Weil would have linked the appropriation of mysteries with the literary imagination. In numerous places she not only vehemently attacks literary figures as diverse as Wilde, Hugo, Gide, and the Surrealists for being “in bondage to public taste” and thus keeping souls in the cave rather than freeing them, but she also inveighs heavily against “imagination” itself In her early philosophical works, she usually refers to the imagination as the “folle imagination” and in later works indicates that it leads us to live a “waking dream peopled by our fictions” (On Science, Necessity and the Love of God, 162). She even goes so far as to connect knowledge of our limited and contingent nature in relation to nature as a whole.

Despite this problem with fiction, however, Weil nevertheless sees that literature can awaken us to reality. Rather than calling such fiction imaginative, however, she thinks it is the fruit of having paid attention to the world. Attention for her is a sacrificial suspension of the ego that allows us to see the world as it is and not as we would like to see it. Good art is therefore something that reproduces this vision. Weil writes:

There is something else which has the power to awaken us to the truth. It is the works of writers of genius, or at least those with genius of the very first order and when it has reached its full maturity. They are outside the realm of fiction and they release us from it. They give us, in the guise of fiction, something equivalent to the actual density of the real, that density which life offers us every day but which we are unable to grasp because we are amusing ourselves with lies (On Science, Necessity and the Love of God, 162).

Literature of a certain kind, therefore, can open us to reality. It may be only a matter of terminological preference whether we call good literature the result of the literary imagination or of attention. However, in order for literature to open us to reality and to the mystery that creates and redeems, it is not a matter of preference what we mean by the literary imagination. We can mean only that rare power to give us not a partial and incomplete “reading,” but the fullness of reality itself


Weil’s understanding of contradiction and mystery is capable of far-reaching application, for it is not only the result of her religious metaphysics, it is also a way of apprehending mystery. In this sense, understanding the proper use of mystery for Weil is not simply a bit of philosophical arcana; rather, it is a living option that Well bids us to act upon in thinking of either the world or God. This is well illustrated in some of her otherwise cryptic remarks in the essay “Human Personality” about the use of words in common parlance.

Weil argues in that essay that to use legitimately words such as “God,” “justice,” “love,” and “good,” “one must avoid referring them to anything humanly conceivable” (Selected Essays 33). This, she claims, is because “the proper use of these words involves not trying to make them fit any conception, [for] it is in the words themselves, as words, that the power to enlighten and draw upward resides” (Selected Essays 1933-34, 33). Weil does not naively assume here that such words have this power “ex opere operato.” Rather, they only have this power because they refer to the foci of mysteries that transcend our thought, and for them to have this power for us, we must maintain the sense of mystery that lies behind them.

It is not the words that save, but the mystery to which they refer. In this case, then, the illegitimate use of these words consists in the attempt to make them fit us when in reality love, justice, and goodness transcend us. It is fiction in the negative sense when we reduce them to our size. But does this mean we are not to have any conception of such words? Weil does not think so, and points out that if such words do not have some conception attached to them, “everyone quickly recognizes them for lies.” Indeed, we are “to associate with them ideas and actions which are derived solely and directly from the light which they shed” (Selected Essays 1933-34, 33).

What she means is that we learn to read mysteries by learning to read the mysterious qualities such as good with which we are actually confronted in the world. Just as Jesus tells the Pharisees to “call no one good except the Father,” so he also tells them: “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:37-38). Mysteries are not obscure; rather, when they are incarnate they show us reality. It is here that Weil gives a spiritual program for grasping mysteries by the use of words — they are to be attached to the good we do understand and are to open us to the good we do not understand.


Contingency, Necessary Truths, Existence, Non-Existence And Ens Per Se

May 21, 2010

David Bentley Hart

In a response to a David Bentley Hart piece in FirstThings, a reader quotes Dr. Hart first:

The scientists fare almost as poorly. Among these, Victor Stenger is the most recklessly self-confident, but his inability to differentiate the physical distinction between something and nothing (in the sense of “not anything as such”) from the logical distinction between existence and nonexistence renders his argument empty.

And then writes:

I must admit, I don’t know the difference between “the physical distinction between something and nothing (in the sense of “not anything as such”) from the logical distinction between existence and nonexistence” either….

Still, I’d be grateful if someone could explain to me the difference between “the physical distinction between something and nothing (in the sense of “not anything as such”) from the logical distinction between existence and nonexistence”.

A reply was forthcoming, which I have elaborated on here and there:

The physical distinction between something and nothing (in the sense of “not anything as such”) differs from the metaphysical distinction between existence and nonexistence in the following, familiar way. It is only Hart’s erudition, otherwise so lovely, that obscures a point which everyone, except apparently the New Atheists, already implictly understands.

If I open up the refrigerator door and exclaim, “Hey, there’s no beer in the fridge!” I am making the purely physical claim that there is not anything such as beer in the refrigerator. The statement can be understood entirely in physical terms, as can other statements like “There is not anything such as tarragon in my omelette,” “There is not anything such as an elephant in my garage,” and so on. Examples could be multiplied endlessly. These statements seem to imply the modal claim that there “could” be an elephant in my garage, etc. Nothing we know about the world precludes the possibility; I am just making the matter-of-fact observation that, as it so happens, there is not.

The New Atheists are making a category mistake when they hold the statement “there is not anything such as God in the Universe” to be understood in the same sense as the examples given above, viz. a physical object (God) in a physical location (the Universe). We’ll get back to that in minute; but first let’s examine the metaphysical distinction between existence and nonexistence.

There is quite a lot of fine-grained philosophy that could be articulated here, but roughly speaking, to say in the metaphysical mood that “something exists” is just to say that that something is an “ens per se” (a being through itself), a necessary truth. The existence of these necessary truths is entailed by the fact of existence itself (which nobody can dispute). The technical sense of the term “being through itself” was intended to capture the fact that human beings do not require any other creature but only God’s concurrence to exist. Accordingly, a being through itself, or ens per se, is a substance. Since all physical beings are contingent, necessary truths can never be physical beings. So there is no sense in which any particular physical state of affairs implies anything about the existence or nonexistence of God.

In philosophy and logic, contingency is the status of propositions that are neither true under every possible valuation (i.e. tautologies) nor false under every possible valuation (i.e. contradictions). A contingent proposition is neither necessarily true nor necessarily false. Propositions that are contingent may be so because they contain logical connectives which, along with the truth value of any of its atomic parts, determine the truth value of the proposition. This is to say that the truth value of the proposition is contingent upon the truth values of the sentences which comprise it. Contingent propositions depend on the facts, whereas analytic propositions are true without regard to any facts about which they speak.

When a New Atheist conceives of God as a physical being occupying the physical universe, and then goes on to declare that since there is “not any such thing” (physical mood) as this God, then “God does not exist” (metaphysical mood), he is simply making a catagory mistake that no philosopher with even a modicum of respectability is entitled to make. This is just plain sophistry, as Hart rightly points out.

I think I can say, very slowly and carefully, that I may have learned something here.

A short video  introduction to Dr Hart here.


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