Category Archives: metaphysics
We may treat of the Soul as in the body — whether it be set above it or actually within it — since the association of the two constitutes the one thing called the living organism, the Animate. Now from this relation, from the Soul using the body as an instrument, it does not follow that the Soul must share the body’s experiences: a man does not himself feel all the experiences of the tools with which he is working.
Perhaps, the good and the beautiful are the same, and must be investigated by one and the same process; and in like manner the base and the evil. And in the first rank we must place the beautiful, and consider it as the same with the good; from which immediately emanates intellect as beautiful. Next to this, we must consider the soul receiving its beauty from intellect, and every inferior beauty deriving its origin from the forming power of the soul, whether conversant in fair actions and offices, or sciences and arts. Lastly, bodies themselves participate of beauty from the soul, which, as something divine, and a portion of the beautiful itself, renders whatever it supervenes and subdues, beautiful as far as its natural capacity will admit.
Let us, therefore, re-ascend to the good itself, which every soul desires; and in which it can alone find perfect repose. For if anyone shall become acquainted with this source of beauty he will then know what I say, and after what manner he is beautiful. Indeed, whatever is desirable is a kind of good, since to this desire tends. But they alone pursue true good, who rise to intelligible beauty, and so far only tend to good itself; as far as they lay aside the deformed vestments of matter, with which they become connected in their descent. Just as those who penetrate into the holy retreats of sacred mysteries, are first purified and then divest themselves of their garments, until someone by such a process, having dismissed everything foreign from the God, by himself alone, beholds the solitary principle of the universe, sincere, simple and pure, from which all things depend, and to whose transcendent perfections the eyes of all intelligent natures are directed, as the proper cause of being, life and intelligence. With what ardent love, with what strong desire will he who enjoys this transporting vision be inflamed while vehemently affecting to become one with this supreme beauty! For this it is ordained, that he who does not yet perceive him, yet desires him as good, but he who enjoys the vision is enraptured with his beauty, and is equally filled with admiration and delight. Hence, such a one is agitated with a salutary astonishment; is affected with the highest and truest love; derides vehement affections and inferior loves, and despises the beauty which he once approved. Such, too, is the condition of those who, on perceiving the forms of gods or daemons, no longer esteem the fairest of corporeal forms. What, then, must be the condition of that being, who beholds the beautiful itself?
So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?
Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.
What is your own relationship with religion?
I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.
You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?
I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this. But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.
Would you call yourself an existentialist?
No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.
Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?
Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with. Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.
In one part of the book you ask why humans have such a need for meaning. You’re a philosopher: isn’t meaning important for you?
Well knowledge is important. But I’m not sure if finding a true meaning is. But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality. Even Epicurus said: When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. What he was getting at was that we have a different sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have the idea of our mortality then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a single coherent story.
It is now time, leaving every object of sense far behind, to contemplate, by a certain ascent, a beauty of a much higher order; a beauty not visible to the corporeal eye, but alone manifest to the brighter eye of the soul, independent of all corporeal aid. However, since, without some previous perception of beauty it is impossible to express by words the beauties of sense, but we must remain in the state of the blind, so neither can we ever speak of the beauty of offices and sciences, and whatever is allied to these, if deprived of their intimate possession. Thus we shall never be able to tell of virtue’s brightness, unless by looking inward we perceive the fair countenance of justice and temperance, and are convinced that neither the evening nor morning star are half so beautiful and bright. But it is requisite to perceive objects of this kind by that eye by which the soul beholds such real beauties. Besides it is necessary that whoever perceives this species of beauty, should be seized with much greater delight, and more vehement admiration, than any corporeal beauty can excite; as now embracing beauty real and substantial. Such affections, I say, ought to be excited about true beauty, as admiration and sweet astonishment; desire also and love and a pleasant trepidation. For all souls, as I may say, are affected in this manner about invisible objects, but those the most who have the strongest propensity to their love; as it likewise happens about corporeal beauty; for all equally perceive beautiful corporeal forms, yet all are not equally excited, but lovers in the greatest degree.
In the previous post in this series, I discussed some essays I’d come across dealing with the subject. So far, nothing that I’ve read by those defending the idea of a more or less literal Adam and Eve has made me rethink the basic thesis of this series–that is, that Christian theology must be significantly revised in light of what we know of human origins based on modern science. If anything, they’ve confirmed me in the belief that the standard theology simply is inadequate. I don’t claim to have a final answer as to the nature of sin, Original or otherwise, the Atonement, and how it all works. I don’t think anyone else has a tenable answer either as yet. I do have faith in Christ as Redeemer and Savior of mankind; this rethinking hasn’t led me to abandon Christian faith. It just means that I no longer adhere to any specific theory of how Jesus saves–just that he does so.
The most significant defect in many of the authors I’ve read over the course of writing this series is a dogged insistence on adherence to dogma–be it the Bible or Papal documents–above all else. It’s like the famous saying by St. Ignatius Loyola (one of the most ignominious and least respectable points of one of my favorite saints), “That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” This is the exact attitude that led to increasingly complex and desperate attempts to preserve the geocentric model of the cosmos as more and more information made it appear steadily more untenable, and ultimately to the sentencing of Galileo to house imprisonment for life. When I read authors such as Feser parse Papal documents down to the nth degree (or his Protestant counterparts do the same for the Bible), it drives me nuts. They are basically saying, “Well, as long as I can interpret Encyclical X in such a way and making enough intellectual contortions as to indicate that white isn’t necessarily in so many words to be held as being black, then it’s probably OK to call it white.” As if I need Papal (or Biblical) permission to say that white is white!
At least I can respect the late Pope John Paul II’s acknowledgement that there is indeed a problem here for traditional theology and the Church at large for keeping its mouth shut. Really, it needs to do a lot more in terms of bringing the issue up front and center, and revising the theology; but I suspect that there are a lot of recalcitrant prelates who’d be unwilling to open the door to polygenism and re-thinking Original Sin and the Fall. Thus, better for the Church to stay silent than to shoot itself in the foot again à la the Galileo debacle.
I think the best approach to the whole thing is exemplified by Einstein (stay with me here!). For decades, the idea of the luminiferous ether–the invisible, intangible, and generally undetectable medium through which light supposedly moved–was regnant. When Michelson and Morley’s famous (and clever) experiment failed to find evidence of the ether, the physics world was thrown into turmoil, with ever more complex, more elaborate, and more ad hoc theories being proposed to save the idea of the ether. Finally, the young patent clerk Albert Einstein took the obvious but at the time startling step of cutting the Gordian knot and saying, “There is no ether.” Simple as that; and from there, everything fell into place with his Theories of Relativity.
This is why I respect Peter Enns, whom I discussed last time. He has pretty much done in theology what Einstein did in physics. Rather than going to heroic lengths to save a more or less literal version of Genesis and the origin of mankind, he pretty much says, “Look, that’s the wrong way to look at it. This is not what Genesis meant, and Paul was using the tools he had to discuss the Atonement. Thus, let’s just toss out the traditional view of Adam and Eve as the First Parents whose Fall condemns us all, and look at it from a different angle.” In short, he tosses out the ether of an untenable theology rather than doing mental gymnastics to save it. If I read him correctly, he does not (at least not in this book) come up with an overarching theory to replace the old one, though he does seem to point out some possible avenues. Still, the first step of coming up with a new system–in theology or anywhere else–is often having the courage and integrity to jettison the old one.
This is where I’m moving. It seems almost certain that a view of a discrete, specific moment of Original Sin, passed down to future humans, whether by a Primal Couple or a Primal Group, is incorrect. In effect, there was no Eden. Better, perhaps, Eden might be a metaphysical reality–the world as God intended it to be–but never a historic one actually instantiated in the cosmos that actually exists. This leans me a bit more towards Evagrian theology, but at this point I don’t claim to have a systematic view as to the exact nature of the Fall, sin, and Atonement. These are still issues on which I need to think. I’ll probably be posting on this topic a little more frequently than I have been; but it’s still going to be a long haul, and I’m beginning to see “Legends of the Fall” as much more open-ended than I’d previously thought. In any case, we’ll see where it all leads!
Once again, a sub-thread within my “Legends of the Fall” series has taken on a life of its own, to the extent of meriting its own index. I don’t know how many more will end up here, but there are probably lots to come, either within “Legends of the Fall” or in this series outright. Have a hell (or heaven, or none of the above) time reading these posts!
Tags: afterlife, Catholicism, Christianity, damnation, ethics, God, heaven, Hell, index, index page, metaphysics, morality, nature of God, philosophy, salvation, series indices, theodicy, theology, universal salvation, universalism
The greatest philosopher of the early Middle Ages, John Scottus Eriugena, was interestingly, a universalist. I’m not going to talk much about him myself in this post. Rather, I want to quote extensively from this excellent essay on Eriugena at the website of professor of philosophy Leonard O’Brian. I will refer back to this in developing some ideas in the next couple of posts on heaven, hell, and universalism. The emphasis in the following quotes is mine.
Eriugena’s metaphysics of emanation produces an optimistic understanding of human nature. In Christian thought usually, the fall requires the resurrection whereby Christ cleanses us of our sins. Christianity generally teaches that (1) God created humankind in His image; that (2) this integrity between Imager and imagee—between God and humankind—did not preclude that the imagee might disobey the Imager; (3) that the imagee did freely choose disobedience; (4) that this act initiated a universal falling of man and woman from their Imager; (5) and that man and woman were thereby weakened, so that only the gracious action of God can save the imagee from sinful inclinations. Incarnation and resurrection constitute this gracious action. Christianity is pessimistic about human nature since regeneration depends essentially on its external source.
In contrast with the usual Christian conceptualization, Eriugena draws on Neo-Platonism. He thus creates a tension. He wishes to develop a fully Christian philosophy. Compared to much of Christianity, however, Neo-Platonists are optimistic about human nature.
From the Neo-Platonic perspective, while the objects of human knowledge—the objectively real ideas, ultimately, the Good or the One—transcend the physical world, we human beings have the potential, through reason, to transcend the physical world ourselves.
How would Eriugena, both Neo-Platonic and Christian, resolve the tension between optimism and pessimism? In his view, the fall and resurrection consist of cosmic processes of differentiation and return to unity. While he conceptualizes the cosmology in four parts or phases, the parts are really one: God, the uncaused, causing the Word or Christ; wherein the primordial principles emanate into the realm of stones, plants, animals, angels, and human beings; these last, the human beings, contributing the further differentiation of gender through the fall; whereupon the Word, Christ, returns to God, unifying man and woman into genderless humankind; and, through humankind, the entirety of creation, returns to unity in the undifferentiated One. In the end, all will be saved, saints and sinners. Read the rest of this entry →
If God created the Body, and the Body is dirty, then the fault lies with the Manufacturer.–Lenny Bruce: Swear to tell the truth 1998, courtesy of Wikiquote.
My second year in high school (34 years past, alas!) the Burt Reynolds movie The End came out. It is a dark comedy about a relatively shallow and moderately successful man (Reynolds) who is diagnosed with terminal cancer. He tries to come to grips with this, and tries to mend fences with those he’s hurt in the past. Failing this, he decides to die on his own terms rather than dying slowly of cancer, and resolves to commit suicide. Over the course of the movie he makes several attempts (all either ineffective or thwarted), is institutionalized, meets a fellow inmate who is a complete nutcase (played by Dom DeLuise) , and breaks out along with the nutcase, who has vowed to help him.
After many misadventures, the Burt Reynolds character decides to take decisive action. He goes to the beach and swims hundreds of yards out to sea, where he resolves to sink and drown. As he starts to do this, he realizes he doesn’t want to die, and would rather cling to whatever life is left to him. He begins doggedly swimming back to shore, unsure he can make it, and beings bargaining with God (the clip above). He makes grandiose promises of all the ways he’ll reform his life; but as he gets closer and closer to shore, realizing that he’ll make it, he starts cutting back on the promises. He goes from promising to give 50% of his income to charity to 10%; and he similarly whittles away at the other promises. Realizing what he’d doing, he exclaims, “I know You saved me, Lord; but it was also You who made me sick!” Read the rest of this entry →
Unfortunately, all too many people–not all of them official members of any church–view God much this way; that is, as a great big white-bearded white guy in the sky who goes about doing things–such as creating snakes–in much the same manner we do.
That so many in the 21st Century in a First World country still hold such literalistic beliefs is astonishing. I say “literalistic” and not “primitive”, since they are not necessarily hallmarks of pre-modern thought. The oldest creation account in Egyptian mythology, for example, far from the literalism and anthropomorphism of God rolling clay to form a world or the thing in it, has the craftsman god Ptah creating the other gods and the cosmos from his heart and his word (from here):
The gods who came into being in Ptah:
Ptah-Nun, the father who [made] Atum.
Ptah-Naunet, the mother who bore Atum.
Ptah-the-Great is heart and tongue of the Nine [Gods].
[Ptah] —— who bore the gods.
[Ptah] —— who bore the gods.
[Ptah] —— Nefertem at the nose of Re every day.
There took shape in the heart, there took shape on the tongue the form of Atum. For the very great one is Ptah, who gave [life] to all the gods and their kas through this heart and through this tongue, in which Horus had taken shape as Ptah, in which Thoth had taken shape as Ptah.