Winter of the Unexamined Life

It snowed all day. We watched it from within; we walked in it, all the way to the cheerful bar. The place was loud and lively. In the cold weather we consumed calories, we of the north. Haddock from the sea, potatoes, malt vinegar and ketchup–which in mystical signification meaneth all the vegetables you could possibly require.

There is a smell to a snowy day, isn’t there? It is the smell of that which is remote having drawn near.

After dark the winter skies over the city never quite darken. The snow continues, blurring the distant trees. That is when to walk. Shapes under the sky are more definite; the world is otherwise. The trees lighten toward the top. Their shape is different with the snow: not the fullness of leaves but an amplification or exposition of structure. The pines become preponderant; their branches sag with snow. All is wonder.

I come back reluctantly from the quiet that remains after winter’s work. I chow down on wings like a barbarian. I drink tea.


Observations of the Unexamined Life

I’ve never read Sydney Ahlstrom’s book. Didn’t much know about it. It is aparently the gold standard on American church history in general, has been around since 1974, and I don’t remember once ever encountering it. How did I manage that?

It is huge, and it looks engaging, which is more than I can say about some of the English church history I’ve been doing. All my life I’ve lived with this ridiculous fear that I’d reach the end of all the good books there are and be condemned only to read bad ones. There is a tide to this feeling, and right now it is decidedly at an ebb.

I’ve read through most of the stuff I need to for comprehensive exams on the Reformation, barring primary sources. Now I am reading into Modern church. After that I only have Systematic Theology and Apologetics to read for. After that I can study for the exams. I can see this taking two whole years easily, three. Necessity is going to force me to discover the value of pragmatic approaches to this dilemma.

Plato and the Body

“If human existence sans bodies is better, could you blog about why God made us with bodies and why we will be raised with them?”

The question was posed to me on twitter. The request was to answer on my blog.

I’m happy to blog.

Have I said human existence without bodies is better? I do not remember having done so. I am looking forward to the resurrection because I’ll have a better body. Let me also say, I prefer Plato and I think he is defensible. But I’ll abandon Plato if it can be demonstrated that he is incompatible with Christianity. I defend Plato, also, because I think he is ignorantly dismissed. You can be very learned and ignorantly dismiss Plato. Plato is not easily dealt with.

The assumption, I am guessing, is that because I’m a Platonist I believe existence without bodies is better. For the pagan Platonist, the body is a prison. Even for Origen, the body was a punishment. But Origen was disciplined by Scripture, and this changed his Platonism; a punishment is not the same as a prison. I got the sense reading him that 1 Cor 15 was a very important passage for him. He believed in the resurrection very much, and thought hard about how the body of the resurrection differs from the perishable body that is sown. Just there we can see a development of Platonism, and that is an important thing to remember.

Some persons who are not sympathetic to Platonism, or ignorant of it, find it convenient to take a view that allows for no development. This is what they think Plato said (which may or may not be right), and this, then, must be what Platonism actually is. Is there more than a superficial acquaintance with the more popular and less technical of Plato’s writings? I have often not found that there is not. If Platonism is allowed to be Platonic, however, it is an idea, it is formal, it is a principle of intelligible coherence which can be grasped more clearly as we learn more about it. If you are not a Platonist, you may not believe that about Platonism. It is just a concept, you may think, that Plato invented. But a Platonist must be allowed to believe it is something independent of Plato to which we can have better access than Plato did. It can be seen more clearly, apprehended better, since it is, after all, an object of knowledge. We must be allowed to believe that Platonism is the Form of philosophy (as I suppose Hegelians believe Hegel’s is philosophy come of age).

If Platonism may develop (that is, if our apprehension of a better philosophy may proceed on the assumption that Plato first discovered the broad outlines of what we hold), then pagan Platonism may be corrected by Christian Platonism, and Christian Platonism become more robust and consistent. I believe Platonism is true, and so I think the Christian appropriation leaves us with a better Platonism than Plato held. Did Aristotle get things right? Is he valuable? Of course. But Plato is fundamental in a way Aristotle can never be. Do I believe in the transmigration of the soul? I do not. I do believe I’ll transmigrate from this old body into one that is better, and therefore different. I’ll take Aquinas’ description of the resurrected body, for example. I find it eminently Platonic. That is not the same as the reincarnation which Plato believed.

Platonism and Gnosticism

Another thing to consider about the conditional above, is that unexamined views of Platonism tend to get distorted by views on Gnosticism. It is assumed that Gnosticism is Christianity ruined by Platonic thought. If you think that, then you get a debased view of Platonism. Let me counter that view with three names: Irenaeus, Origen and Plotinus.

When the church needed champions to take on Gnosticism and defeat it, who did it call on? The most obvious name is Irenaeus. According to Eric Osborne, a qualified and respected historian of the early church, Irenaeus was a Platonist. That is how Osborne characterizes Irenaeus in his monograph on the same. So who did the church call on to write a manual in tedious detail listing all the many wrong teachings of this variegated phenomenon later designated as Gnosticism? A man whose philosophy is clearly identifiable as Platonic. It was not a bad move. Irenaeus is still our main source and the main argument against Gnosticism.

The other person the church called on repeatedly was Origen. Origen traveled to debates against Gnostics, was valued for refuting them, and probably knew them very well. I say this because he lived in the epicenter of the more reputable Gnosticism, Alexandria, and even went to some of their secret meetings when he was young. Was Origen a Platonist? There is little doubt on that score. Platonism sometimes overwhelmed his Christianity. No Christian of his day would have called him a gnostic though (except for Clement who also resisted the Gnostics and called himself the true gnostic). Yet he was called on to debate Gnostics and refute them. He understood and repudiated them without, obviously, repudiating Plato.

These two are the main champions of the church against Gnosticism that I know of, and both can accurately be described as Platonists. The problem with Gnostics is not that they used Plato. It is that they got two things wrong: Plato and Christianity. Nobody orthodox will deny they fiddled and took liberties and distorted Christianity. We need to realize they were doing the same with Plato—a popularized, bowdlerized, irresponsible appropriation of some Platonic elements.

After Plato, the next greatest pagan Platonist was Plotinus. He had some Gnostic students attending his teaching sessions in Rome. The way Plotinus taught, we are told by his pupil Porphyry, was this. His students would read a portion of some philosopher (Aristotle say, or Numenius) and then discuss the philosophy. Or they would present papers about things. There would be a discussion which Plotinus would observe, mostly in silence. After a few days, when the discussion was winding down, Plotinus would pronounce himself. Porphyry encouraged him to write these pronunciations down, which Plotinus did. One of them was a treatise against Gnosticism. The Platonic Plotinus was decidedly against Gnosticism, and if his manner of teaching is accurately described by his pupil, then he no doubt had some familiarity with the Gnosticism his students embraced. He hated it.

Plotinus criticized Gnosticism on three points. (1) It was disordered in its metaphysics. For Plotinus there is the One, there is Mind, there is World Soul, and that is all. This was a reasoned and for Plotinus non-negotiable metaphysical structure. It made sense of the forms, it provided a Divine Simplicity, it mediated eternity to the world. He has whole treatises that argue cogently for his structure. The Gnostics had a chaos of inelegant and, what is worse, unreasoned emanations. Plotinus hated the lack of philosophically sophisticated dogma about the structure of reality. I think it made these students gawking adherents rather than real intellectual companions, for Plotinus. Hard to be an intellectual companion to Plotinus, but he was a serious guy and I think expected much of his pupils. (2) He also rejected Gnostic teaching on the ground that it despised the physical world, the created order. This is something people nowadays struggle with. To believe something is inferior is not to believe it is evil. I just read in an otherwise reputable history book something implying that people in the past were misogynists because they believed women were inferior. Some people in the past obviously have made the mistake people in the present make: inferior = bad. Inferior, however, can be morally neutral. A dog is inferior to me, but not therefore a mistake or somehow evil. Gnosticism believed the created order was evil, but Plotinus was shocked by such a non-Hellenic attitude. The world was good, its order was marvelous and intriguing, and it was all because this beauty was derived from, and therefore manifested, a greater transcendent order: that of the forms. That it was derived made it inferior, but not therefore bad. Everything turning toward the forms and participating in them aspired toward them, toward the Good, and this is good. (3) Plotinus also rejected the Gnostics for their irreverence: they made things up, they were incoherent, they ascribed too much to personal creativity without rigorous examination and thought. I think when it comes to defining the variegated phenomenon of Gnosticism, attitude is what really defines them, not dogma. They were the manifestation of a pagan attitude in a Christian context. Not only was Christianity at war with the pagan attitude and its irreverence, Hellenic philosophy was its other historic nemesis and one of the great causes weakening the totalitarian pagan consensus which was collapsing in late antiquity.

If that surprises you, go read his treatise and you’ll see what I say. Plotinus is tough to read, I’ll warn you. I tried and was unable to make sense of him without first reading a few very difficult introductions. But once you get what is happening, he is admirable and amazing. The rigor he expected he practiced, and he wrote his treatises all at one go without revision because of his weak eyesight. His weak physical eyesight, I should say. The mind of Plotinus is wondrous. What he writes against the Gnostics should put to rest the notion that Gnosticism made responsible use of Platonism. Neither in the church nor in philosophy did Gnosticism find acceptance. To think of Platonism through the lens of Gnosticism is to be irresponsible about a serious philosophy, and ignorant.

Which is all to say: do not assume unexamined conclusions about Platonism in order to deal with it.

What is the Body?

Now to the heart of the matter. What about Platonism and the creation of man as an embodied soul. That the body is a prison is not altogether true, but I don’t think it has for the Christian to be altogether false. Platonism is first of all an epistemology, and then it is everything that follows from that. If you do not understand that, you do not understand Plato. Plato was first concerned with certain knowledge. What can we know? Can we know this mutable world? No, you can’t know something that is always changing. So if we know, there has to be a realm of certainty, an immutable world. Is this consistent with Christian teaching? Yes it is. There is a realm of certainty; there is truth; we can know; and it is an invisible realm. The visible realm manifests it, but is not identified with it. The relation is of symbol to the meaning of a symbol.

Our body is a symbol. That is not to say it is unreal, but what it is derives what it is from something greater. I don’t know how you can be a Platonist and escape from language of levels of being. Is the created world real? Of course. Is there a higher reality? Oh yes, and one, therefore, more real. If you look for ultimate reality in the material order you will go crazy. It is beyond it. So we have material bodies, but matter only acquires anything by form. Is there a form of Body? There must be, and that is true bodiness. My body is me in a derivative way. It gets my meness from what I am essentially: my immaterial part. It is me in the mutable realm, but when I am resurrected will my body be corruptible or incorruptible? Is this a more material body? A more substantial one? (It has to be at least as substantial.) Is it made of superior matter? I am not sure. I am sure it will be incorruptible, and the Platonic epistemology leads me to conclude that this present matter is not incorruptible.

Angels do not have physical bodies, we believe. They have bodies though, just not made out of physical matter. Some might say it is a subtler substance. What is this? I am not sure how you can have subtler atoms. Do they use subatomic particles exclusively, and not in compounds that we know as atoms and molecules? I think that kind of thinking is just barking up the wrong tree. They are spiritual beings with bodies that are constituted by a higher reality, not a differently physical reality, but that is a preference making me say that. What, after all, can a higher reality be? Not sure, though I am sure it exists. C. S. Lewis suggests it two ways: one in The Great Divorce (a hardness that makes our present hardness looks like softness, or a substance that makes our present substance seem more insubstantial) and another in The Last Battle (I like this one, and not just because he acknowledges Plato as the source: all the best parts are present in greater abundance and nothing else). We can only speak of it in terms of what we presently know. We can only gesture at what we haven’t yet experienced. Just because we can’t imagine something clearly, doesn’t mean it is not within the realm of possibility.

Which is to say: I affirm the resurrection of the body. I conceive of it in Platonic terms in so far as I can. I do refuse to think of it as a slightly enhanced but essentially similar state to the present condition. I’d like more. I realize that is what makes me weird, but the alternative to me is to be flat-footed, uninteresting, plodding and dingy of both mind and heart. Still, if Platonism can be demonstrated to deny that (which an intelligent Platonism to date has not been demonstrated to require), then cheerio to Platonism. I’m doubtful, having understood Christian history to be full of Christian Platonists who were powerful, consistent, penetrating thinkers, that my Christian Platonism is under any real threat. I have found that even attacks from learned people are based on ignorance.

So Why the Body to Begin with?

We are lower beings than angels. Inferior, but not therefore evil. Good, after our kind, like dogs are good after their kind. One day, however, we shall judge the angels, and I think that is because we will be greater than them. We will transcend their order of being because unlike them we have been made to grow. Growth, mutability, change—do these belong to all finite beings or to some? You can be made to occupy your place forever: not bored, not weary, perfectly capable for you responsibility and endlessly satisfied with it. I do not think that is how we are. I think we are made to grow, and this requires the material where all is change. So we must begin there, become conscious there, almost like animals, as we are when we are young. If Angels grow, we do not know about it, but I think to grow you have to start out how we do, in matter which is the most mutable. But we do not remain there. And we will have incorruptible bodies.

John Eriugena was the greatest Christian Platonist ever. In his book on the divisions of nature he begins with the division that gives us nature: God on the one hand, and everything that is not God on the other. Everything that is not God is nature. What is the principle of coherence of nature? That which is not God is image of God. And what is the image of God? Man. Man is like Plotinus’ Nous in Eriugena’s scheme. Is that not grand? I think it is. Do you know how much room to grow that provides creatures who begin in the epitome that is practically an infinity of finiteness?



August of the Unexamined Life

Cool weather is a fine thing. Cooler weather is even finer. I conclude with the observation that I consider cold weather the finest thing of all.

The bugs are loud in this brave, new August. The windows are open again, you see. I conclude again that cold weather is a great enhancement since that is when the bugs all proceed to their reward. Whatever that reward may be, mine is the ensuing silence.

* * *

Compendia of Western Civilization, you say? I now have them both. I ordered The Anathemata because I found it available at last (a recent run was made by Faber & Faber, the old interior but a new exterior not designed by the author and priced at twenty quid). Also, I went to a book sale and found Finnegan’s Wake. Now I wait for the moment to undertake them, to pore in patience. That will be my subsequent reward.

* * *

I have a constant urge to disparage the writing skills of church historians. It probably has to do with how much I must spend reading them. Some do not write well at all, some well yet frivolously, and there are those who ought to go to school for it. Owen Chadwick is an exception, a great exception, and I’m reading him as if the cold had come. If you want a curious and worthwhile tome on the reformation get The Early Reformation on the Continent. It is one of those books which Oxford University Press has failed to spoil, somehow. The binding is good, the font is not obnoxious, the layout is not crowded, nor are the pages smeared. It is respectable in every way. It boasts a series of essays in which the magister historiae ranges about the topic flexibly and surely, lobbing anecdotes with great precision. It is the kind of book one can easily read twice.

The kind of book none can easily read twice is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. It is well told, and that is the chief virtue of the book. You try telling a three-thousand-year story all well told. The offence that MacCulloch presents is a skepticism that is too often, specially in the earlier portions, snide. It is off-putting. But what really prevents repeated reading it is that the thing is enormously drawn out. Of course, he has three thousand years to cover. You did not know Christianity had been around for three thousand years? By the time you reach the end it will.

* * *

Skepticism, MacCulloch’s doctoral advisor one remarked, is the special province of historians. I have found the insight consonant with my apprehension of the chore. MacCulloch abuses skepticism from time to time, but for the most part he does not: he puts it to good use and in a work of that size it will probably be shown he does not use it enough. History is what skepticism is for. The skepticism that gave us critical thought and the critical attitude of the last five hundred years, the age of the book, arose not long before historical consciousness did.

Skepticism is that cool weather which discourages the speculative, bogus accretion of the summer’s insects, sending these to eternal damnation so that the pure in memory may inherit a still and silent world.

Philosophies & Theologies of the Unexamined Life

I have often felt, living as I do in a moment of Platonic minority, that my position resembles that of Augustine in Numidia. He was surrounded by a Donatist majority, but scorned them as so many frogs on the edge of their marsh croaking that they were the true Christians. He could afford to be scornful, he knew the company he kept. In the same way, there is for me a deep and inescapable affinity of Christianity and Platonism, one that transcends the peculiarities and distortions of time and space. The genius of Aquinas, and Albert before him, lay in discovering what Aristotle was good for, a project with no inconsiderable scope and achievement. It is perhaps, of all the minor movements within Christianity, the greatest yet. But it is not co-extensive with Christianity, and has yet to prove as lasting as the Platonic moment which lasted over one thousand years, and lives on still, and pervades and suffuses, Plato’s philosophy being the more perennial. The present materialism of our society will no doubt pass, and with it perhaps the appeal of Thomism will diminish, his insights be consolidated and platonized, and the project of Christian Platonism may resume with its greater wonder, more robust confidence in reason, more soaring metaphysics, and far more intelligible epistemology.

I can hope so.

Here is an observation you may find more interesting. My teacher for the class at Villanova is a committed Thomist. We have been studying Rahner, and there is an interesting thing I read going on between the lines. It is tacit, it is suggested, but I sense it, and this is what I sense: That there is a feeling that Rahner is an Aquinas wannabe. Aquinas, living in a Platonic world, actually manages successfully to accommodate Christian theology to something new: the coming of the dominant Aristotelian approach: theology as a science, rather than simply as a philosophy, with a corresponding method, rather than just the discipline of a life. These modern guys are wannabes in that they want to accommodate theology to Kant and Hegel, and there is a bit of a Thomist amusement buried away deep lest it be seen as an outright sneer.

I have little sympathy for 20th century theologians of any eminence, and as a result almost no interest. So you must take my observations with a grain of salt. Besides, I’m not a theologian, reading theology is not something I do for the sake of knowing theology; it does not interest me as literature or history do. Anything that is science falls below my threshold of wonder (modern philosophy, for example). But I have to be exposed to them in what I’m doing, and I think they are as difficult and laborious, that people debate what they mean because they are incoherent. They are incoherent because what they’re trying to do, their project of reconciling Christian theology to modern assumptions is impossible, it strains the Christian meaning they’re trying to retain to distortion. Hence Rahner, when he tries to bring the Trinity into interfaith dialogue with Islam and Judaism, ends up sounding like a modalist. I assume that if you bring Christian theology into dialogue with polytheists, you’ll end up sounding tritheist. They’re trying to replicate Aquinas’ achievement, but the span this time, instead of being a river, is the sea, and they must always fall short.

Morning & Evening of the Unexamined Life

I had a morning’s walk in the rain, and so did not get all my reading done, though some was. Spring is doing, and that is worth it. Who needs activism in the academy? I need contemplation.

I also need a job. What will it be this time? I do a lot of work these days, but the only one paying for it is my wife. And my problem is that I’ll prioritize an activity in which I can learn high over earning money. At one point will I know enough for anybody to want to pay me? I doubt it. I have too long to go for that. I should go for the money, but I do enjoy learning, however gradually.

I had an evening’s walk in the sun. These are days to be enjoyed here, before the brutalities of summer come. It is a harsh and indelicate country that engages yearly in the summers here indulged. For now there is humane and pleasant weather for the last month of classes.