As Eclectic as Plotinus

For he asserted further that there could be no genuine piety towards the Lord of all in the man who despised this gift of philosophy,—a gift which man alone of all the creatures of the earth has been deemed honourable and worthy enough to possess, and one which every man whatsoever, be he wise or be he ignorant, reasonably embraces, who has not utterly lost the power of thought by some mad distraction of mind.

-Gregory Thaumaturgus. The Oration and Panegyric Addressed to Origen, VI.

The gift of philosophy! The Lord will have all of us, even our minds, as C.S. Lewis pointed out; and Gregory is here saying that Origen believed it too. Indeed, it is taken from Scripture, from our Lord’s quotation of the Great Commandment: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all . . . thy mind.

But is it true of the age as much as of the individual? That’s what depends, isn’t it? Origen, a serious man, made sure it was in his by exercising real discernment.

Thus did he deal with us, selecting and setting before us all that was useful and true in all the various philosophers, and putting aside all that was false. And this he did for us, both in other branches of man’s knowledge, and most especially in all that concerns piety. (XIV)

Scholarship on Origen

I like what Roger Scruton says about the Enlightenment being a kind of light pollution. The Enlightenment reduced appreciation for a man like Origen, and studies of Origen’s interpretation of Scripture have been on the recovery since the middle of the last century. There is a lot of interest in how Origen interpreted now, and quite a few good books. We have learned:
1. He is not irresponsible.
2. He really does mean a threefold interpretation, and hews to it.
3. One of the keys is to understand what he understood of his audience, specially in his Homilies.
4. For him Christ was at the heart of Scripture’s coherence.
5. Scripture is an incarnation of the Logos.
6. His aim was to effect in his audience spiritual transformation—this is the key to understanding his trichotomy of ways.
7. He was a Platonist in one sense or another.

Here is what is striking about scholarship though: nobody seems to say that his threefold way, body, soul and spirit, is the pattern of humanity. Everybody says he is Christocentric, the Logos is incarnate in Scripture, but they don’t seem to make the correspondence: the pattern of man is the patter of a man: Christ Jesus.

I think it has to do with Platonism. Everybody dutifully studies, reads, cites: but none of them believe it. They can tell you the tenets of Platonism, but they can’t enter that living, breathing world. They would never say, for example, that Platonism is a mood. It is like theologians scrabbling to figure out what the image of God in man is who never simply ask: what does it do? What does it give us?

What does Platonism do? It shows you the world that Scripture brings to bear. It gives you a sense of the where, if not the Whom. Origen is not subjective or objective, and that’s a big part of the problem. If it were realized that we are incarnate subjects in a world of objects, the silliness of those categories would become apparent. We have contact with other subjects through the world of objects, but our object is not the objects, rather subjects. Even in Neoplatonism the realm of Nous–the locus of objects of knowledge–also is a realm of a living being full of living beings. And in Scripture there is an incarnate Subject, according to Origen. Our way of interpretation must lead through contact in the world of objects to personal and participatory knowledge of the Subject of Scripture: the Logos who transforms  and saves us.

Of course, that’s my hypothesis. I have read enough to think it can be substantiated, but the substantiation of that is more than a paper or two, which is the pity. Still: Scruton, Lukacs, Origen, Plato. What could be better?

Origen Against Plato, by Mark J. Edwards

Origen Against Plato (Ashgate Studies in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity) (Ashgate Studies in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity) (Ashgate ... in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity)Origen Against Plato (Ashgate Studies in Philosophy & Theology in Late Antiquity) by Mark J. Edwards
The title expresses Edwards’ purpose: to demonstrate that rather than being a Platonist, Origen was quite the contrary. What he actually achieves is a good and thorough demonstration that Origen’s condemnation was unjust because it was inaccurate.

Edwards’ target is the view that by leavening Christian teaching with Platonic philosophy, Origen first and fatally traduced Orthodoxy. Liberal scholarship of yore has been partial to it. The view is outdated, which makes one wonder why Edwards feels he has to go to the trouble. As Maurice Wiles points out in his review of the book, names are never named. Wiles also deplores the rhetorical aggression Edwards exhibits and the unhelpful sesquipedalian diction, thus raising questions about chips on shoulders. He is right to do so.

If the book were simply setting out to establish that Origen was unjustly condemned, then it would be appreciated. But the book has as its object to establish that Origen was in no sense a Platonist, and that claims of Neoplatonic influence are exaggerated; and I think the strain may account for the tone.

If the question is: did Origen slavishly follow the teaching of Plato uncritically, then the answer is a clear no. Edwards can make much of this; in a world where philosophy was not just a matter of intellectual assent, but a way of life about which philosophers could be doctrinaire, Origen wanted to be known as a man of the Church, a committed follower of Christianity and not a philosopher. He is unambiguous about this, was tortured for his Christian faith. Let us also keep in mind that most of his books were destroyed because he was deemed too much a philosopher, and among the surviving ones, Contra Celsus is not exactly calculated to capitalize on Origen’s philosophical pedigree.

Edwards admits that intellectual influences are detectable. The way Edwards dismisses their significance is by noting that in Alexandria all kinds of intellectual influences abounded, not just Platonical. Besides this, the totality of Plato’s doctrines involved far more than anybody can demonstrate Origen to believe. It is the kind of argument that succeeds more by explaining away than by explaining. Everything is minimized, the scope of conclusions is reduced, all data is interpreted with the lowest possible significance in order to whittle down the overlap between Origen and Platonic thought. Is it scholarship, or an odd use of scholarly tools and methods?

For Edwards the clincher appears to be a statement found in On First Principles 2.3.6 where Origen abjures the incorporeal world of ‘ideas’ of which the Greeks speak. The selective quotation certainly seems to imply that Origen rejects Platonic metaphysics. But what does Origen go on to say? “There is no doubt, however, that something more illustrious and excellent than this present world is pointed out by the Savior, at which He incites and encourages believers to aim.” He believes it exists, but does not believe it is up to human beings to conjecture about it. He is critical of Plato’s conclusions, but for all that still inhabits the same cosmos.

Origen was not a philosopher because his concern was for the church. After Justin, none of the father’s would have called themselves philosophers: philosophers became increasingly hostile to Christianity, especially as philosophy became more and more useful to it, and it seems to me especially because it did. But the church fathers were influenced by philosophy: Stoic ethics, Platonic metaphysics and epistemology, and sound logic and rhetoric straight from the glib master of verbal smoothies: Aristotle. It may be stretching it to assign Origen a place as a neoplatonic philosopher just on the verbal and conceptual parallels; but it is wrong to imply that they amount to nothing substantial. Clearly his thinking is most in harmony with Platonism, and given that he and the most illustrious follower of Plato, Plotinus, both studied in Alexandria under one Ammonius, is it that difficult to believe they have some fundamental similarities? Edwards, by the way, posits not only the usual two Origens, one our churchman, the other a fellow student of Plotinus, but two Ammoniuses (he drolly calls them Amonii, one Saccas and one not) for like Origen, Ammonius was a common name. There seems to me too much random commonness in the late antique world of Mark Julian Edwards. Bring back Henry Chadwick, I say.


Now, of this world we have said beforehand, that the explanation was difficult; and for this reason, that there might not be afforded to any an occasion of entertaining the supposition that we maintain the existence of certain images which the Greeks call “ideas:” for it is certainly alien to our (writers) to speak of an incorporeal world existing in the imagination alone, or in the fleeting world of thoughts; and how they can assert either that the Saviour comes from thence, or that the saints will go thither, I do not see. There is no doubt, however, that something more illustrious and excellent than this present world is pointed out by the Saviour, at which He incites and encourages believers to aim. But whether that world to which He desires to allude be far separated and divided from this, either by situation, or nature, or glory; or whether it be superior in glory and quality, but confined within the limits of this world (which seems to me more probable), is nevertheless uncertain, and in my opinion an unsuitable subject for human thought.

Origen, On First Principles 2.3.6.

In the Midst of Study

I had such pleasing productive moments today that I twice rewarded myself with enjoyable reading. I read the NYT essay on Donald Trump and the Rolling Stone one. I love the snide way they hack at him. The substance of both essays was to say that this is crazy and cannot last, but we understand why it is happening. They have to know, after all, and they do it very nicely.

Trump is lasting longer than anticipated, it seems, and now becoming more than a sideshow. He’s a source of anxiety. I like what he’s doing–though I did avoid reading the New York Magazine (I think)’s take on how he’s something-ing (ruining) our democracy. Please. He’s making politicians sweat and scramble and providing excellent entertainment out of the otherwise over-prolonged drama of a presidential election nowadays. I like the drama, but a certain fatigue sets in. Trump has ingeniously added a kind of rocket-booster stage to make it work longer, it seems to me. Or course he’s gotta cave, the professional machine will overcome, and when it comes down to the conventions (a more normal, I’d say, election season) he will have a hard time. I’m avoiding the term substance because I don’t think for most of us who are voting what is usually called substance really matters as much as people who talk about it think it does. Substance is the kind of thing we want to think sways us since we are principled participants. I think the candidates we get, the ‘debates’, the televised newscycle belie our pretensions to substance, and am not altogether convinced it makes all that great of a difference who the president is. They’re not a bunch of scoundrels running for president, but they’re the next best thing.

They are all playing the game for reasons that do not flatter any of us in our leadership. Except for Trump, that is. He’s not playing the game, and that’s what’s so fun. He’s louche, he’s unprepared, he’s cunning, unrepentant, and he is absolutely incapable of self-reflection. Self-promotion? Yes, but how unlike Jeb Bush’s boring statistical self-promotion, or the smarmy whatever it is Cruz does. But one thing Trump is not doing is playing the game. He’s neither pathetic nor prepared. He’s . . . Trump.

Don’t you think it would be great if he were sawing at the democrat end of things and not just the republican? He should switch at some point, before one of the rare democratic debates say, and do unto them what he hath been doing to the republicans. The most fun of all would be Trump vs. Biden, head on. It is so entertaining a possibility I’m almost tempted to give money or time to a political cause. Of course, our politics will no doubt disappoint us even in that, but at least for this moment, I can dream.

Dead Pine

Dead PineIn which the person involved reflects on various things: (1) the fact that the end of September is so uncharacteristically warm, (2) wishes for the  future of presuppositionalism, (3) the fact that he cannot voluntarily control outcomes.

* * *

Hey, speaking of dead pines and outcomes not entirely in the control of agents, or just of pines and the cold, did you see they’re going ahead with the Save Northland project? Steering committee with pedigree, no designated figurehead, clear call for contributions. From what I can tell, the silence has been due to what looks like some intense effort. People want to make this work. If the library is at all worthwhile, they ought to think of having a scholar’s retreat. There are advantages to silence, after all, when it comes to making things work.

With the Pope in Philadelphia

I wonder what it’s like to be the pope. At that stage in the hierarchy, do you have a say in what you can wear? What if you’d like to wear something not either black or white? Plaid, for example. Can you do it?

At least he doesn’t have to wear suits, and that I think is something. Though I haven’t had to in a long time, and haven’t had to wear a tie in over a year . . . which is great because I haven’t bought one in over ten. I hope they go out of style before I have to get some more. I’d rather buy a sweater–pay for a garment that amounts to something.

So when he comes here, they’re probably going to give him a cheesesteak. What does the pope do with a cheesesteak, specially an Argentinian? Just stare at it? Miraculously turn it into a churrasco? Meet with some miracle monk from the Bronx that can do it and second him into the entourage? What is the point of being the pope if you can’t escape the unending sandwich diet of Philadelphians for something more in keeping with Christian civilization? Maybe he can go get something to eat in Delaware with Joe Biden.

You know who makes better sandwiches? Mexicans. There’s this place in Mexico City to which nothing in this world compares. I have eaten there often and I bet the Pope has never and never will. Unless they get a Mexican pope from Mexico City one day.

That brings me to tacos in the vatican. Perhaps you could see it coming. Doesn’t seem like the thing to do, but with this new pope, maybe they already have. Did he have a hot dog in New York? I wanted to when I was there, but didn’t. I had a hot dog in Buffalo, Reykjavik and Bogotá. Bill Clinton went to Reykjavik, I understand, and stood in line to get a hot dog at a famous place.

Don’t see the pope going there or waiting in line for a hot dog. Not a man of the people like Clinton. He’s a man of the cloth, which brings me back to my original consideration. I keep seeing pictures of him wearing clothes–which is great–and wondering what it is like to go around dressed that way. The cape, the skirts, the wide looking belt, the little cap. I suppose it is good cloth and is probably bespoke for cardinals and up, but still. Does he have matching white shoes, or black? Do they have special papal socks? Since he’s an old guy, does he have a cloth handkerchief and a pocket to keep it in? Does he have any pockets?

I can’t imagine going out in public without pockets. But then, the pope probably doesn’t have to drive or pay for things. He probably doesn’t run the risk of finding himself waiting with nothing to do, requiring a book. So maybe he doesn’t need pockets to go out in public. I’ve never seen a pocket on his outfit that I can remember.

They’re shutting down whole sections of the interstate for him. The trains had a kind of lottery for the crowded conditions they offer. One Italian place had his picture on their electric billboard, and the term ‘popemania’ sprang to mind when I saw it. If things are bad on Monday, they’re going to cancel schools for the pope. Probably not Westminster, though. 10th Pres downtown is right in the midst of it all–are they going to cancel church for the pope? Now there’s a dilemma. No church, the pope is in town; do not go and see him.

And what about the old pope who stepped down, does he wish he could put on the uniform? Does he still dress up like the pope or have other clothes with pockets? The pocket pope. German, wasn’t he? And not a leftist either. Both of them from countries run by women, come to think of it, though the present pope’s country’s woman is a nut-job. Esa vieja es peor que el tuerto. Is the old one thinking he should have hung in there long enough to get a visit to the USA out of it? He missed out. I hope the one that got to come realizes how lucky he is to be in Philadelphia. Maybe he’ll get to meet John Lukacs while he’s in the area. I’d dress up like the pope and go without pockets for a month for a chance to meet John Lukacs.