Sound Thinking

4 Mar

The body’s goodness (and beyond)

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/04/16

Oliver O’Donovan on what the erotic body is for

“It is commonly said — though the generalisation has nothing to recommend it other than the charm of naiveté — that Christianity traditionally despised and ignored the body. The opposite is the truth. Belief in the Incarnation made any such attitude impossible. Even in the eighteenth century, when the temptation for enlightened souls to take wing was, perhaps, at its height, Christians would sing:

“Soul! Take no offence at this,
That the Light of spirits’ bliss,
True likeness of God’s radiance,
Makes disguise of servile stance.

“Christianity has, in fact, harped upon the body. It has harped upon the conditions of the body’s mortal existence, and it has harped upon the body’s share in the hope of the Kingdom of God. ‘No one hates his own body,’ says St Paul, ‘but nourishes and cherishes it.’ (Ephesians 5:29) And if Christianity has earned little credit for its harping, that is because its late-modern critics have their own ideas of what should be said about the body, which often begins and ends with the body's erotic powers. Talk of the body’s sickness or death is all too easily dismissed as talking the body down. Gute Nacht, o Wesen! Christians sing to their dying bodies with all due respect and seriousness. But that is not a song the late-modern eroticist wants to join in!

“To ‘cherish’ the body is to care for very much about the body besides its erotic powers. It is to care for its internal organs and their functions, for the extraordinary capacities of its hands and feet, for its processes of growth. It is to take care of its weight, its rhythms of sleeping and waking, its powers of hearing and seeing. Even if we make a sharp distinction between the created and the fallen body, so bracketing out illness and death, we can hardly attend to the body and cherish it if we fail to notice its temporality, its exposure to physical risk, or its processes of aging. Jean-Yves Lacoste has reminded us recently that the phenomenon of fatigue cannot be assimilated to illness and suffering. Yet sickness and death should not, in fact, be excluded from our view, for Christians have historically seen mortality not as an accident befalling human bodies, but as a created possibility of bodily life that never need have become an actuality. But above all these things, we have to cherish the body’s role in interpersonal communications, its essential sociality. It is through the face that one human being is known to another, and all types of relation are built up through the body's strategies of nearness and distance: its attraction and repulsion, its power to dominate and threaten and its power to charm and endear. And this entails the learning of disciplines that surround the body’s bearing of itself. We can none of us endure everybody else’s bodies intruding constantly on our own; society is enabled by sustaining spaces around bodies, by holding the body back as well as bringing it forward, by turning the eyes away from it as well as fixing our gaze upon it. Gesture, clothing, styles and patterns of movement: all contribute to form the software by which the body loads its repertoire of social arts and achievements.

“The erotic body, in fact, stands out as the exceptional moment in the repertoire. Here the body conveys a hint of eternity that beckons and calls us from beyond it; here it reaches out to point beyond itself. It was surely an irrevocable insight on Plato's part (whatever reservations we may have about the rest of his theory of love) to see in eros an implicitly philosophical reaction to the human body. It is possible, of course, to use the word ‘erotic’, as a great many of our contemporaries do, simply as a synonym for sexual desire. But that is to miss almost everything of interest that has been thought about the erotic. Eros is precisely not sexual impulse; it is an aspect of the spiritual life of mankind, though inevitably engendering bodily experiences to accompany it since we are psychosomatic beings whose every moment is a mediation of the spiritual through the bodily. Reflecting on the body, it responds with yearning for its lurking hint of beauty and truth. It responds to something beckoning through it from beyond it. Precisely that moment of reflection is the temptation, as Plato, again, understood. The familiar body, the body that we live in, object of wonder though it is, is too essentially present to us, too intimate, too enclosing — let us say, too heavy to beckon us beyond itself. But the body of the spiritual imagination is light and elusive. If we fail to carry the act of reflection through to its conclusion, if we fail to enquire what the erotic body is a medium for, then we end up investing our perfectly ordinary experiences of sexual attraction with an ontological weight that is, in fact, a borrowed transference, and in our confusion we fail to understand either ourselves or our bodies. We cannot and should not take that moment of rapture in the presence of the beautiful body quite at its face value — though we cannot and should not ignore it, either. We must interrogate it for its meaning. So Plato taught, and much Christian philosophy after him; for Christianity mostly (though not universally) found this aspect of Plato’s thought suggestive and helpful. His warning has been echoed in most Christian thought about the erotic . . . . An unwelcome warning, perhaps, to an ethical intuitionism that puts its trust in the immediacy of feeling; and since Plato, by and large, is more spoken of than read, Christianity has had to shoulder the blame for the reserve — though it never was a reserve at the body, but a reserve at the erotic image of the body. Ever since St Paul it has been the phronêma sarkos, ‘the mind caught on the flesh’, not the flesh itself, that has caused alarm.”

—from Oliver O’Donovan, “Creation, Redemption, and Nature

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

2 Mar

Learning to live within a hierarchy of goods

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/02/16

Richard M. Weaver on the ends of education

“It has been said countless times in this country that democracy cannot exist without education. The truth concealed in this observation is that only education can be depended on to bring men to see the hierarchy of values. That is another way of saying what has also been affirmed before, that democracy cannot exist without aristocracy. This aristocracy is a leadership which, if it is to endure, must be constantly recruited from democracy; hence it is equally true that aristocracy cannot exist without democracy. But what we have failed to provide against is the corruption of the system of recruitment by equalitarian dogma and the allurements of materialism. There is no difficulty in securing enough agreement for action on the point that education should serve the needs of the people. But all hinges on the interpretation of needs; if the primary need of man is to perfect his spiritual being and prepare for immortality, then education of the mind and the passions will take precedence over all else. The growth of materialism, however, has made this a consideration remote and even incomprehensible to the majority. Those who maintain that education should prepare one for living successfully in the world have won a practically complete victory. Now if it were possible to arrive at a sufficiently philosophical conception of success, there would still remain room for idealistic goals, and attempts have been made to do something like it by defining in philosophical language what constitutes a free man. Yet the prevailing conception is that education must be such as will enable one to acquire wealth to live on the plane of the bourgeoisie. That kind of education does not develop the aristocratic values. It neither encourages reflection nor inspires a reverence for the good.

“In other words, it is precisely because we have lost our grasp of the nature of knowledge that we have nothing to educate with for the salvation of our order. Americans certainly cannot be reproached for failing to invest adequately in the hope that education would prove a redemption. They have built numberless high schools, lavish in equipment, only to see them, under the prevailing scheme of values, turned into social centers and institutions for improving the personality, where teachers, living in fear of constituents, dare not enforce scholarship. They have built colleges on an equal scale, only to see them turned into playgrounds for grown-up children or centers of vocationalism and professionalism. Finally, they have seen pragmatists, as if in peculiar spite against the very idea of hierarchy, endeavoring to turn classes into democratic forums, where the teacher is only a moderator, and no one offends by presuming to speak with superior knowledge.

“The formula of popular education has failed democracy because democracy has rebelled at the thought of sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and material goods without which there is no training in intellectual discipline. The spoiled-child psychology, of which I shall say something later, has sought a royal road to learning. In this way, when even its institutions of learning serve primarily the ends of gross animal existence, its last recourse to order is destroyed by appetite.

“Every attempt to find a way out of these dilemmas points to a single necessity; some source of authority must be found. The only source of authority whose title is unimpeachable at all times is knowledge. But superiority in knowledge carries prerogative, which implies, of course, distinction and hierarchy. We have seen, too, that the possibility of liberty and the hope of personal improvement rest upon these, for liberty must always work in the name of right reason, which is itself a conception of the scheme of things.”

—from Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (University of Chicago Press, 1948)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.


2 Mar

A deeply disordered love

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 03/02/16

John Lukacs on the differences between patriotism and nationalism

“Hitler . . .  more than once cited his sentence from Mein Kampf recalling his youth: ‘I was a nationalist; but I was not a patriot.’ . . .

“Nationalism, rather than patriotism. . . . We have examples of that even among the extremist groups in the United States, too, with their hatred of government — that is, of the state. We have seen that while true patriotism is defensive, nationalism is aggressive; patriotism is the love of a particular land, with its particular traditions; nationalism is the love of something less tangible, of the myth of a ‘people,’ justifying everything, a political and ideological substitute for religion; both modern and populist. . . . [N]ationalism and patriotism often overlap within the minds and hearts of many people. Yet we must be aware of their differences — because of the phenomenon of populism which, unlike old-fashioned patriotism, is inseparable from the myth of a people. Populism is folkish, patriotism is not. One can be a patriot and cosmopolitan (certainly culturally so). But a populist is inevitably a nationalist of sorts. Patriotism is less racist than is populism. A patriot will not exclude a person of another nationality from a community where they have lived side-by-side and whom he has known for many years; but a populist will always be suspicious of someone who does not seem to belong to his tribe. . . .

“Since it appeals to tribal and racial bonds, nationalism seems to be deeply and atavistically natural and human. Yet the trouble with it is not only that nationalism can be anti-humanist and often inhuman but that it also proceeds from one abstract assumption about human nature itself. The love for one’s people is natural, but it is also categorical; it is less charitable and less deeply human than the love for one’s country, a love that flows from traditions, at least akin to a love of one’s family. Nationalism is both self-centered and selfish — because human love is not the love of oneself; it is the love of another.* Patriotism is always more than merely biological — because charitable love is human and not merely ‘natural.’ Nature has, and shows, no charity.

*A convinced nationalist is suspicious not only of people he sees as aliens; he may be even more suspicious of people of his own ilk and ready to denounce them as ‘traitors’ — that is, people who disagree with his nationalist beliefs.

—from John Lukacs, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred (Yale University Press, 2005)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.

24 Feb

Is religion just moralistic therapy after all?

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/24/16

Alexander Schmemann on the secularization of religion

“[E]ven the most traditional, confessional and ‘exclusive’ churches accept the idea of a modus vivendi with other religions, of all kinds of ‘dialogues’ and ‘rapprochements.’ There exists — such is the assumption — a basic religion, some basic ‘religious’ and ‘spiritual values,’ and they must be defended against atheism, materialism and other forms of irreligion. Not only ‘liberal’ and ‘nondenominational,’ but also the most conservative Christians are ready to give up the old idea of mission as the preaching of the one, true universal religion, opposed as such to all other religions, and replace it by a common front of all religions against the enemy: secularism. Since all religions are threatened by its victorious growth, since religion and the ‘spiritual values’ are on the decline, religious men of all faiths must forget their quarrels and unite in defending these values.

“But what are these ‘basic religious values’? If one analyzes them honestly, one does not find a single one that would be ‘basically’ different from what secularism at its best also proclaims and offers to men. Ethics? Concern for truth? Human brotherhood and solidarity? Justice? Abnegation? In all honesty, there is more passionate concern for all these ‘values’ among ‘secularists’ than within the organized religious bodies which so easily accommodate themselves to ethical minimalism, intellectual indifference, superstitions, dead traditionalism. What remains is the famous ‘anxiety’ and the numberless ‘personal problems’ in which religion claims to be supremely competent. But even here is it not highly significant — and we have spoken of this already — that when dealing with these ‘problems’ religion has to borrow the whole arsenal and terminology of various secular ‘therapeutics’? Are not, for instance, the ‘values’ stressed in the manuals of marital happiness, both religious and secular, in fact identical, as are also the language, the images and the proposed techniques?

“It sounds like a paradox, but the basic religion that is being preached and accepted as the only means of overcoming secularism is in reality a surrender to secularism. This surrender can take place — and actually does — in all Christian confessions, although it is differently ‘colored’ in a nondenominational suburban ‘community church’ and in a traditional, hierarchical, confessional and liturgical parish. For the surrender consists not in giving up creeds, traditions, symbols and customs (of all this the secular man, tired of his functional office, is sometimes extremely fond), but in accepting the very function of religion in terms of promoting the secular value of help, be it help in character building, peace of mind, or assurance of eternal salvation. It is in this ‘key’ that religion is preached to, and accepted by, millions and millions of average believers today. And it is really amazing how little difference exists in the religious self-consciousness of members of confessions whose dogmas seem to stand in radical opposition to one another. For even if a man changes religion, it is usually because he finds the one he accepts as offering him ‘more help’ — not more truth. While religious leaders are discussing ecumenicity at the top, there exists already at the grass roots a real ecumenicity in this ‘basic religion.’ It is here, in this ‘key’ that we find the source of the apparent success of religions in some parts of the world, such as America, where the religious ‘boom’ is due primarily to the secularization of religion. It is also the source of the decline of religion in those parts of the world where man has not time enough yet for constant analysis of his anxieties and where ‘secularism’ still holds out the great promise of bread and freedom.

“But if this is religion, its decline will continue, whether it takes the form of a direct abandonment of religion or that of the understanding of religion as an appendix to a world which has long ago ceased to refer itself and all its activity to God. And in this general religious decline, the non-Christian ‘great religions’ have an even greater chance of survival. For it may be asked whether certain non-Christian ‘spiritual traditions’ are not really of ‘greater help’ from the standpoint of what men today expect from religion. Islam and Buddhism offer excellent religious ‘satisfaction’ and ‘help’ not only to primitive man, but to the most sophisticated intellectual as well. . . . And the spiritual preoccupations of [various] esoteric groups are, in the last analysis, not very different from those of the most emphatically Christ-centered preachers of personal salvation and ‘assurance of life eternal.’ In both instances what is offered is a ‘spiritual dimension’ of life which leaves intact and unaltered the ‘material dimension’ — that is, the world itself — and leaves it intact without any bad conscience. It is a very serious question, indeed, whether under its seemingly traditional cover certain forms of contemporary Christian mission do not in reality pave the way for a ‘world religion’ that will have very little in common with the faith that once overcame the world.”

—from Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1973)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.


10 Feb

Shedding epistemic modesty

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 02/10/16

Peter Harrison on the rise of confidence in scientific progress

In the seventeenth century, “Adam was thought to have possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world that was now lost as a consequence of original sin. While fragments of this knowledge have been passed on to his posterity, a complete reconstruction was thought to be impossible in the present postlapsarian estate. As the Protestant Reformers pointed out, Aristotle was ignorant of this event and as a consequence his optimistic philosophy had been constructed upon a false foundation. Subsequently, Aquinas had mistakenly assumed that key elements of this philosophical system could be indifferent to this central element of Christian anthropology, and (for his early modern critics) his enthusiasm for Aristotle had unintentionally introduced pagan presuppositions into medieval Christian thought. The early modern scientific project, then, was an attempt at a partial restoration of Adamic knowledge. . . . Many of those who sought to reconstruct a properly Christianized natural philosophy in the early modern period rejected the sanguine commonsense philosophy of Aristotle, and relinquished his aspirations to a demonstrative science. Natural history and experimental natural philosophy were regarded as fragmented and makeshift enterprises, their fragile status being understood as an inevitable consequence of the cosmic fall that had rendered the operations of nature opaque and compromised human cognitive capacities. As John Locke remarked, in our present condition we have at best ‘dull and weak’ faculties. Accordingly he concluded, ‘it appears not, that God intended we should have a perfect, clear, and adequate knowledge.’ The diffidence of seventeenth-century naturalists was lost in the nineteenth century, when the original reasons for their epistemic modesty were forgotten and the idea of progress became firmly embedded into the West’s self understanding.”

—from Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Click here to subscribe to the Addenda RSS feed.