Thursday, 22 March 2018

Recommended Reading and Listening - Andrew W. Jones

Dr. Andrew Willard Jones is a Catholic historian, and the director of the St. Paul Biblical Center, at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio. He has recently published a book, Before Church and State: A Study of Social Order in the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX, which has quickly become very popular among integralist-traditionalist Catholics. The book is a hefty academic monograph, almost 500 pages long, and it goes into great detail investigating the social order of 13th century France, in order to prove a controversial and decidedly anti-modern thesis concerning the relationship of "Church and State" in the Middle Ages. Modern history tends to construe the categories of "Church" and "State, or "religious" and "secular," as parallel and dualistically opposed categories that are in a necessary state of competitive tension. Not only this, but "State" and the "secular" are considered the primary and constant sphere of reality, whereas "religion" and the "Church" are something inconstant that comes and goes, occasionally trying to supplant the sovereignty of the secular sphere, but only ever simply modifying it. Religion is itself reduced to just one ideology among many ideologies which occasionally modify the secular sphere, which itself remains constant, eternal, and transcendent. Accordingly, the Middle Ages are seen as a time when the Catholic Church competed with the secular monarchies for a kind of universal and temporal sovereignty. Religion was a competitor with the secular, and one destined to fail - and fail it did. The State, of course, emerged victorious as it always does.

Dr. Jones seeks to entirely dismantle this typical modern narrative. I have not yet read the entire book, but once I finish it I may publish a longer book review. (But first, I recommend the review made by Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., over at First Things. I also recommend the writing of Pater Edmund and his colleagues at The Josias on the subject of integralism, which is the name for the central position of Before Church and State.) So far, what I have read of this book is excellent. Jones gives concrete historical evidence that, contrary to modern accounts, in the Middle Ages the secular and the religious were not considered, in either theory or practice, as separate parallel entities vying for sovereignty; rather they were two tiers of a single hierarchic order of the social reality. This single order was, simply put, the Church, or the City of God. There were no modern categories of "Church" and "State," or "religious" and "secular," as these are understood today; these categories did not exist. This is a strong claim; but I think it is fair to say that although there was a distinction between two "spheres" of reality, these spheres were hardly separate realities, but interrelated and interpenetrating spheres of a single hierarchical order. Dr. Jones stresses the sacramental character of this medieval conception: as body and soul are distinct but not separate in the single being of a man, so are the temporal and the spiritual realms certainly distinct but entirely integrated with one another, according to the authentic medieval conception of social order. Just as the body, being integrally united to the soul, is charged with spiritual meaning (symbolism), so was the temporal sphere of the "State" inherently charged with meaning and significance for the eternal and spiritual destiny of mankind. And mankind is a naturally political and religious species of animal, and these imply each other. 


But again, I will leave a longer review for later, once I finish the book. But some of the main points of interest are covered also in the following three lectures, which Dr. Jones delivered in Steubenville in 2015. Again, Jones here emphasizes the dimension of sacramentality; and he intends to publish another book in the near future that addresses the notion of the liturgical cosmos in the worldview inhabited by Pope Innocent III at the time of the IVth Latern Council. These lectures are enlightening not only for the historical information which, as Dr. Jones observes, often seems left out from common courses in medieval history or Catholic theology, but also for the inherently meaningful and liturgically oriented worldview of the medieval people. There is much material here which pertains very closely to my own long-term (hopeful) project in exploring traditional philosophical and theological approaches to religious symbolism, especially in the context of liturgical theology. Of special interest is the role played here by the four senses of scripture, which offer a framework not only for Biblical interpretation but also for a whole way of life envisioned by the Christians of the Middle Ages - a way of life which culminates in and flows from the sacramental life of the liturgy, which is thus the fount and apex of a truly Christian and political life. 

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Friday, 16 March 2018

Recovering Symbolic Realism

Theologians debating about symbolic realism.

"Merely symbolic.

Traditional and conservative Catholics are used to hearing these words as a way of watering down the Catholic belief in the sacraments and the Eucharist, and by extension the Incarnation itself. When we learn how to engage in typical Catholic apologetics of the Eucharist, and the proper interpretation of John 6, we are taught that Christ cannot mean that the bread of the Eucharist is "merely a symbol" of His body; rather, He means precisely what He says, that one must eat His actual body. It is real. Likewise, in the institution narrative, when He says "This is my body," He does not say "This is a symbol of my body." Jesus is insisting on the realism of the sacrament, a realism that metaphysically transcends all of our former conceptions of what it means for something to be real. The Protestants and the Modernists, then, are wrong to think of the Eucharist as a "mere symbol." We Catholics must respond to them that it is not a symbol, but a reality. Christ is really present in His body, blood, soul, and divinity. He is not merely symbolized. The Catholic author, Flannery O'Connor, once said of the Eucharist: "If it is a symbol, then to Hell with it."

Taking my cue largely from the work of Jean Borella, but also from certain hints in Hans Urs von Balthasar, I would like to suggest a slightly different approach. The Protestants and the Modernists are wrong, certainly; but I think something more fundamental to their error is the assumption that symbol and reality are mutually exclusive. The Catholic apologetic response to the Protestant and Modernist error about the Eucharist also rests on the same assumption. The Protestant says, The Eucharist is merely a symbol. The Catholic apologist responds, No, it is not a symbol: it is real. I, however, prefer to say: It is both. Symbolism and Realism are not mutually exclusive; indeed, I think it is philosophically necessary to maintain that symbolism and realism uphold each other, and it cannot be otherwise.

Naturally, this conviction of mine is rooted in a certain Platonic worldview which sees the reality of things as consisting precisely in their character as symbolic of a higher order of reality. Participation is the ground of the existence and intelligibility of things in our experience. In the classical, Neoplatonic sense, a symbol is precisely nothing other than an immanent participation in a transcendent intelligible order. The symbol reveals reality itself as the togetherness of immanence and transcendence, contingency and necessity, change and permanence, matter and form, etc.; and yet it is a togetherness in which these dual dimensions remain distinct. To speak in the terms of William Desmond, the symbol is a mode of metaxological mediation. Metaxology is a speaking of the Between; the symbol pertains to the betweenness of being, flanked by the same and the other, participating in both, jointly but distinctly. The symbol mediates between immanence and transcendence, as a mode of being between them. 

Certainly, it would be wrong to equate the sacramentality of the Incarnation or the Eucharist with the mode of symbolism that is described by Platonic participation. The man, Jesus Christ, does not merely participate in the Divine Nature; rather, He is hypostically united to it. One may point to the man, Christ, and truthfully declare that He is God, and God is a man, in a literal sense. The reality surpasses participation; whereas the is of a metaphor - "God is the rock of my salvation" - is not literal. Likewise, the Eucharist is Christ in a manner that is not metaphorical, but literal; one identifies the Eucharist as being the substance of Christ Himself. A metaphor does not designate any such identification. Yet it is not therefore unreal. The is of a metaphor designates a different reality than that of identity, to be sure; but it does designate a reality. The rock participates in God by a likeness that is ontologically grounded, and thus constitutes a real pathway of communication with the transcendence that it symbolizes; it is not merely fantastical, as an image of that transcendence. This is what the notion of symbolism is meant to communicate: the real possibility of "touching" transcendence. In this sense, the person of Christ, or the sacrament of the Eucharist, is definitely and undoubtedly a symbol, not by way of participation, but by way of identity. (Of course, one must understand this identity properly; it is hypostatic, i.e. it is not an identity of the human and divine natures, but of the Person who is both Man and God.) Christ is the symbol par excellence; He is in a sense the archetype of every symbol, that towards which all symbols tend. Participation is, in some sense, a desire for identity, though it also involves the recognition of non-identity. Yet identity is mysteriously and hypostatically achieved in Christ. 

I do understand, of course, where the typical response of Catholic apologetics - which is also the response of Pius X to the Modernists, in Pascendi Dominici Gregis - is coming from. There are perhaps two reasons that may partially justify the mindset which engenders the response, It is not a symbol: it is real. 1) A desire to avoid reducing the Eucharistic presence to a fiction, and thus something unreal; and 2) a desire to avoid reducing the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist to a mere presence by participation. The former desire rests on a misunderstanding of symbolism as something contrary to realism. The latter, however, is more justifiable, because within symbolism itself there is indeed a distinction between participation and identity (or substantial presence), even though both are quite real. Nonetheless, symbol does not mean only participation, but togetherness; and never were immanence and transcendence more together than in either the person of Christ or the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is why I think it is more proper to say that these realities are symbols in the most radical sense, par excellence. 

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Tradition and Democracy - And Chesterton

I have noticed that many traditionalist Catholics love to quote the attractive and witty words of G.K.Chesterton, from chapter 4 ("The Ethics of Elfland") of his book Orthodoxy, on the compatibility of the concepts of tradition and democracy. One has to admit that in this chapter, Chesterton seems to turn the liberal idea of an anti-traditional democracy on its head, appealing to classical notions of the common good versus the private good, and the primacy of the former, in order to put forward a defense of democracy as something essentially harmonious with tradition. There is certainly much in his argument that is very worth considering. But I have reasons to think that it does not work so well as Chesterton thinks,  and I suspect him of a very deep misunderstanding of the notion of common good. Readers should beware not to be misled by the genius of Chesterton's use of words - and it is truly undeniable that few men have ever mastered the art of persuasion as well as Chesterton. Nevertheless I think he is quite wrong about democracy, and specifically about the relationship between democracy and tradition. The famous paragraph on tradition is as follows:
But there is one thing that I have never from my youth up been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition. It is obvious that tradition is only democracy extended through time. It is trusting to a consensus of common human voices rather than to some isolated or arbitrary record. The man who quotes some German historian against the tradition of the Catholic Church, for instance, is strictly appealing to aristocracy. He is appealing to the superiority of one expert against the awful authority of a mob. It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad. Those who urge against tradition that men in the past were ignorant may go and urge it at the Carlton Club, along with the statement that voters in the slums are ignorant. It will not do for us. If we attach great importance to the opinion of ordinary men in great unanimity when we are dealing with daily matters, there is no reason why we should disregard it when we are dealing with history or fable. Tradition may be defined as an extension of the franchise. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man's opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea. We will have the dead at our councils. The ancient Greeks voted by stones; these shall vote by tombstones. It is all quite regular and official, for most tombstones, like most ballot papers, are marked with a cross.
There is, again, much in this passage that is attractive, even to me as I read it now with a critical eye.  There are many respects in which I think, practically speaking, tradition is lived on the ground, so to speak; it flourishes in the context of communities, in the villages and among the people. There is much in the process of tradition that works "from the bottom up." But I think Chesterton errs in seemingly reducing it to the opinion of the many, even the many stretched over time. Recall Socrates' great defense in the Crito of the opinion of the wise over that of the many. It is wisdom, not numbers, that is the guarantor of truth.

One might respond: "But Socrates was hardly a traditionalist! He was the great innovator of his time!" But tradition has a way of being shatteringly new (how's that for a Chestertonian paradox?), especially to men of a fallen nature, who are constantly inclined to fall away from the truth of permanent things - to abandon the Oneness and Sameness of Truth for the dispersed chaos of wanton novelty and individualistic autonomy. The many as such, when left to their own devices, have no guarantee of persevering in fidelity to the permanent values; as many, they are just that: many, and not one. If then they are to be united, whence does their unity originate? There must a principle of unity. To posit a principle is already to acknowledge the necessity of hierarchy for the sake of unity-in-multiplicity. Indeed, the classical notion of the common good led St. Thomas Aquinas to argue in De Regno that commonality in society is best preserved by oneness of government; and thus, at least in principle, it is monarchy and not democracy that is the ideal form of government. Tradition is a kind of unity that can only be received, in its most fundamental sense, from above. The "process" of tradition is fundamentally a hierarchical, top-down motion. (Hence, tyranny in ancient Greece meant both the corruption of monarchy and the violation of sacred tradition; these meanings were inseparable.)

Even from a historical point of view - it seems to me at least (I suppose I can be corrected) - Chesterton's thought here is surprising, to say the least. The democratizing of Western society in the modern age was never conceived as a return to traditional values; if anything, it usually coincided with their rejection. It was always conceived in some sense as an escape from hierarchy, which was seen as the unwelcome representative of permanence and rigidity, an obstacle to the true flourishing of individual human freedom. In a sense, the liberals were right: hierarchy is part-and-parcel of the structure of tradition; although they were wrong to think that this necessarily impinges on true human freedom; they merely failed to conceive of freedom itself aright.

In the religious order, especially the supernatural order of Catholicism, one cannot fail to observe that tradition is inherently bound up with hierarchy. The Catholic religion is very little like a democracy; it is rather a monarchy, in which God Himself reigns as King, and the hierarchical ecclesiastical institution is but the emanation of His divine authority on earth. To leave religious faith in the hands of the many, apart from hierarchical tradition, would be to spell disaster for the Church; tradition is inconceivable apart from the miracle of revelation, in which the truth is literally given to us from heaven. In a derivative sense, tradition would likewise cease to be visible without the authority of its principal earthly guardians: in the Church, the Magisterium; in the State, the ruler subject to the Church.

There is much to be said, of course, for Chesterton's instinct to look for the living tradition in the lives of the people, at the ground level. This is, after all, where one hopes the tradition itself to flourish: in the worship of the faithful, in the village festivities, in the dances and songs of country-folk, in the artistic achievements of individuals among the masses, etc. Indeed, one hopes and expects the common people to be faithful to the tradition, and even to contribute to its ongoing growth and maturation. For this to work, they must receive it from others. But this is not merely a temporal reception from past generations: each generation is also responsible in its own time for the preservation of tradition, which must be given to them not only as a thing of the past, but as a thing of abiding and atemporal relevance; and thus it must be represented not merely by past generations, but also and especially by hierarchical authority and nobility. The people cannot be left on their own as the receivers of tradition; there must always be also the continuous existence or representation of the giver of tradition. God speaks through His ministers, who are the instruments of His Tradition. Theirs is a sacred ministry indeed, through which God communicates the spark of the divine impulse unto those who are faithful - or through which He likewise communicates the fire of His wrath unto those who are unfaithful.

There is much more to say about Chesterton's thoughts in this chapter, which is certainly full of his usual wit and his taste for paradoxes. But it is also here that, in appearing to be the defender of tradition, Chesterton is in fact manifesting his most liberal side (indeed, he himself admits his own liberal background in the same chapter). I am a true admirer of Chesterton, and I certainly do not wish to detract from his reputation as a great Catholic thinker; but on this particular issue I suspect him of a grave misunderstanding.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Notes on Escapism

Escaping to Valinor... painted by Alan Lee

A couple days ago, I had a very personal discussion with someone very dear to me, in which we touched on the subject of escapism. Life can be difficult, and we can be tempted to desire to escape from it. This desire for escape is pursued in many forms. But I think one of the powerful, and in a way the most fundamental, forms of escapism is an escapism of the imagination. In our discussion, I suddenly realized something about myself - and about very many people, I think; and that is that I am an escapist. I frequently wish I that were somewhere else; that the situations of my life were different; that I did not have to face the problems that might happen to afflict me in the present moment. In my case, this has always involved the act of imagining being in other scenarios. All my life, ever since I was a young child, I have loved to fantasize about being elsewhere, or being someone else, or achieving other things, or having other opportunities. I have always been a dreamer. I have concocted some of the greatest epics, adventures, fairy tales, and romances, all inside my head, and all with a great sense of longing or nostalgia - for even though none of these stories were really memories for me, they have often become so powerfully ingrained in my imagination that I treat them as memories; hence the feelings of nostalgia. But all of this was only a form of escapism, a way of distracting myself from unpleasant or mundane situations; after "waking up" from these idyllic fantasies, I always find myself confronted with the present, and its tasks and obligations.

This habit is something I wish to suppress in myself. It is difficult to suppress it, or even to want to suppress it; in a way, the escapist memory is something I have treasured very deeply. It is something in which I have often taken very great delight, especially when it was something like a relief from present mundanities. But the fact remains that it was always unreal, and almost useless... So I wish to suppress it. In many ways, when I reflect upon myself and my virtues and my vices (something which I can also do quite obsessively), this habit strikes me as weakness, as the fear of duty, the fear of being practical, the fear of making sacrifices, etc.


However... and perhaps this is precisely my weakness speaking... I cannot help but recall and assent entirely to the words of J.R.R. Tolkien about Escape, in his wonderful essay On Fairy Stories. There he very clearly distinguishes true escape from mere desertion, in the context of literary criticism. To cite a wonderful paragraph:
I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. In what the misusers are fond of calling Real Life, Escape is evidently as a rule very practical, and may even be heroic. In real life it is difficult to blame it, unless it fails; in criticism it would seem to be the worse the better it succeeds. Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter. Just so a Party-spokesman might have labelled departure from the misery of the Führer's or any other Reich and even criticism of it as treachery. In the same way these critics, to make confusion worse, and so to bring into contempt their opponents, stick their label of scorn not only on to Desertion, but on to real Escape, and what are often its companions, Disgust, Anger, Condemnation, and Revolt. Not only do they confound the escape of the prisoner with the flight of the deserter; but they would seem to prefer the acquiescence of the “quisling” to the resistance of the patriot. To such thinking you have only to say “the land you loved is doomed” to excuse any treachery, indeed to glorify it. (Pg. 20 in the linked copy.)
I find this very similar to my own thoughts on nostalgia generally speaking. There is a good and bad nostalgia, just as there is escapism and desertion. To engage in a virtuous escapism - especially through the ordering of one's imagination to the proper enjoyment and production of virtuous fairy stories and works of art in general - one must be able to distinguish the senses in which the present life is both real and unreal - both a haven and a prison. William Desmond (a great philosopher, and one of my teachers) might say, following Diotima, that it is something between. Love itself is something between; it is neither fully immanent, nor fully transcendent, but it is the dynamic that occurs between the here and there, what is close and what is beyond. Diotima teaches Socrates a lesson in true escapism, in the Symposium - just as Socrates likewise teaches to his interlocutors in the allegory of the cave. The soul that finds himself in the between knows both that he does not belong there - hence he is seeking to escape, as from a prison or a cave, into the sunlight of the Other world; and yet he also does belong there - hence he returns into the cave, having been enlightened by the Sun, and continues to involve himself in worldly matters with a new sense of competence. The escapism of the prisoner should not be scorned, indeed it is nothing but perfectly understandable that any man should yearn to return home to "the real world" outside the prison, outside the cave. But this life is not only a prison: it is also the city, the place of duty and offices; hence, the desertion of the citizen and the soldier, and especially the unwillingness of the rulers, may and should indeed be scorned.

Virtuous escapism is, in a sense, even necessary for Christian mindfulness. St. Augustine taught of the City of God - in essence, the heavenly Jerusalem, an idyllic paradise. It is something other than the City of Man on earth, which is its opposite: darkness, sinfulness, suffering, destined for condemnation. A man is right to be an escapist, in this sense; he is right to long for the City of God, and to escape from the prison that is the City of Man. "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept, as we remembered Sion..." And yet, Augustine teaches, the City of God is itself often found in a confused proximity with the City of Man; they often appear to be mixed with each other. The City of God is also present on earth, in the life of the present, by participation, in the visible form that is the Church (and the State when united to the Church). In this way, the present is not merely a prison; it is also the place where man finds heaven itself. The presence of the City of God in our midst - and the Platonic truth of participation - allows a man to be an escapist without having to be a deserter.

Romano Guardini writes, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, of a sort of liturgical escapism, which is like the escapism of art - both of which he compares to the play of children, who love to pretend they are in a different world:
As life progresses, conflicts ensue, and it appears to grow ugly and discordant. Man sets before himself what he wants to do and what he should do, and tries to realize this in his life. But in the course of these endeavors he learns that many obstacles stand in his way, and he perceives that it is very seldom that he can attain his ideal. 
It is in a different order, in the imaginary sphere of representation, that man tries to reconcile the contradiction between that which he wishes to be and that which he is. In art he tries to harmonize the ideal and actuality, that which he ought to be and that which he is, the soul within and nature without, the body and the soul. Such are the visions of art. It has no didactic aims, then; it is not intended to inculcate certain truths and virtues. A true artist has never had such an end in view. In art, he desires to do nothing but to overcome the discord to which we have referred, and to express in the sphere of representation the higher life of which he stands in need, and to which in actuality he has only approximately attained. The artist merely wants to give life to his being and its longings, to give external form to the inner truth. And people who contemplate a work of art should not expect anything of it but that they should be able to linger before it, moving freely, becoming conscious of their own better nature, and sensing the fulfillment of their most intimate longings. But they should not reason and chop logic, or look for instruction and good advice from it. 
The liturgy offers something higher. In it man, with the aid of grace, is given the opportunity of realizing his fundamental essence, of really becoming that which according to his divine destiny he should be and longs to be, a child of God. In the liturgy he is to go "unto God, Who giveth joy to his youth." All this is, of course, on the supernatural plane, but at the same time it corresponds to the same degree to the inner needs of man's nature. Because the life of the liturgy is higher than that to which customary reality gives both the opportunity and form of expression, it adopts suitable forms and methods from that sphere in which alone they are to be found, that is to say, from art. It speaks measuredly and melodiously; it employs formal, rhythmic gestures; it is clothed in colors and garments foreign to everyday life; it is carried out in places and at hours which have been coordinated and systematized according to sublimer laws than ours. It is in the highest sense the life of a child, in which everything is picture, melody and song. (Chapter 5)
Indeed, the liturgy is the place where the Christian lives out his citizenship of the City of God. The liturgy is where the Christian escapes into eternity, which is where he belongs in the truest sense. The liturgy is heaven made incarnate - or earth itself being brought above its own earthliness, brought into communion with its own eschatological destiny. In liturgical worship, where sacraments and symbols and sublime art - not to mention grace and the Eucharistic presence - transform the visible atmosphere into a living revelation, we enter the House of God, and there partake of His inner life. Entering into the life of God, which is like an eternal ritual of love and self-gift, we enter into a whole new world - quite literally, indeed more than literally. God is more than world; being in God, we are in a Universe which infinitely transcends all universes, and transcends the fantasies that our imaginations might concoct; a universe whose inner motions of loving contemplation far surpass the cosmic motions of our own infinitesimal universe. Ours might seem to be a kingdom of infinite space, but in fact we are merely bounded in a nutshell; a prison. In the liturgy, we glimpse through the pores of our prison-cell-shell the true kingdom, and for a moment we linger there like dreamy escapists. One day our nutshell will crack open - or to employ another ancient image, we will hatch forth as from an egg, being born into Eternity...

There are hosts of poetic symbols one might employ for the escape into Eternity. Cave, grave, tomb, womb, egg/nutshell, prison-cell, earth, birth... These are ancient symbols, found in all the traditional religions, and far from absent in Christianity. They reveal escapism as something fundamental to religion itself. 

It seems, then, that the cultivation of true mindfulness and virtue requires us to cultivate a true escapism - which is not desertion. In an individual soul, especially of the melancholic type, these two attitudes might perhaps be confused and mixed. Mindfulness will distinguish them and separate them. Training for mindfulness might involve the cultivation of an appreciation for art, poetry, mythology, fairy stories, music, and above all, liturgical worship and the sacraments.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018

The Relevance of Philosophy

I sometimes have to remind myself of the relevance of my studies in philosophy. This does not mean, as it so often does for progressives, adapting philosophy itself to the tastes, concerns, and ideologies of the times. Certainly, specific times contribute specific points of view, unique perspectives, distinct emphases, to the ongoing and perennial philosophical conversation; but the perennial ideas and truths of philosophy remain the same, they are timeless and eternal. (Recall the metaphysics of tradition, here and here... I will hopefully write something soon on the advantages of the history of philosophy, as immersion in tradition.) Naturally, then, speech about the historical relevance of philosophy is necessarily somewhat limited. Progressivists seek to make philosophy relevant by the rejection of everything traditional as "old" and "outdated" as irrelevant - or of interest only to the curious. We live in new times; therefore we must have new ideas. Thought becomes subsequent and consequent to will and appetite, rather than the other way around; culture is no longer the expression of ideas, but ideas are the product of an arbitrarily "progressing" culture.

This has two results: 1) Philosophy as a discipline becomes no more than a job, a research project, the collection of the museum-pieces of the history of philosophy; it is a shallow and self-deceived effort to make philosophy into a money-making business of thought-museum curation. Need I mention that one ought to despair of making philosophy into a very money-making business of any sort? 2) Philosophy becomes no more than the sophisticated formulation of extremely ideologically motivated forms of extremist activism, the slave of "movements" in identity-politics. I have noticed that this second  perversion of philosophy is a strong motivation among many students of philosophy in my own generation, although it is not lacking among the refined liberals of older generations. Feminists, gender-activists, millennial Marxists, and radical anti-Trumpists (don't get me wrong, I am not a fan of Trump either... I just don't care as much...) love to use philosophy merely as the support of their ideological agendas and ulterior motives. There is no more concern for philosophy as an end in itself.

In an earlier age, philosophy was not the slave, but the ruler, of all other concerns, political, economic, or otherwise. Philosophy was good for its own sake; the philosophic act of contemplation, for Aristotle, is the noblest human activity, the end and goal of all other forms of human activity. Politics and ethics, for example, could only be worthily discussed with this end in view. Modern politics is not motivated by the contemplative teleology of traditional politics, but by unjustified agendas, in which each partisan-group's will determines the end; thought, i.e. philosophy, is nothing but a slave of the will, and thus a slave of activism. That is the only possible "relevance" of philosophy; otherwise, it is the historical-historicist study of irrelevancies.

Being a traditionalist, I must constantly remind myself of the true relevance of philosophy: that it is the end of all other activity. I cannot fall into the habit which most academic philosophers embrace, that of treating my studies as mere historical research - the curation of irrelevancies. It is rather a matter of truth; and the truth is the goal and object of the most human of human faculties. All men desire to know; and all men, indeed, desire to know philosophically, in some way and in some degree. My current studies concern the relationship of Aristotle to Plato - a rather historical question, to be sure. But it is also important in itself, because the ideas of which these two great men spoke are central to the formation of my own understanding of the world as the immanence of the transcendent; and this understanding is important for me as a human being, ordained among all creatures to the contemplation and worship of transcendent being. It is crucial to the human destiny that such questions not be reduced to mere history; yet it is important to study these questions historically, because they are not only relevant, indeed, for me; truth is a common good, after all, and it is common not only here and now, but through time. This is another reason why true tradition is important: not because it is the past - that is the error of historicism, which really cares nothing for tradition, but only for history - but because it is the truth, which is timeless; because it is always and to everyone relevant in the extreme.  

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Metaphysics of Tradition (2)

The reflections on traditionalist nostalgia in the previous post were partially inspired by a passage in philosopher William Desmond's work, Philosophy and Its Others, in which he describes the virtues of a healthy nostalgia for the mindfulness of festive being (an ancient religious attitude). There he did not explicitly mention tradition, but he opposed this virtuous nostalgia - the memory of a fullness of being incarnated in a past now gone - to the attitude of certain "avant-garde intellectuals," for whom the nostalgic philosopher is one not to be taken seriously. Desmond makes a metaphysical case for the seriousness of true nostalgia, from which I concluded that tradition is not merely monotony, and not merely a return to the past; rather, it is the perpetuation in time of something that in itself transcends the categories of time. 

Another author, whom I have mentioned in connection to symbolism, is the Catholic "traditionalist" Jean Borella - whom I am coming to consider the philosophical defender par excellence of the ideas of symbol and tradition (not to mention the idea of true Christian gnosis, of which I shall have something to say some day). As far as I can tell, there is much affinity between the thoughts of Borella and Desmond, though Borella is the more explicit defender of tradition. In his own book, The Sense of the Supernatural, Borella includes a chapter on "Spirit and Resistance," in which he puts forward a remarkable defense of the notion of tradition (and even, in a sense, "traditionalism"), with a properly philosophical rigor - while also maintaining a balanced and insightful criticism of the abuses of "traditionalism" that one does in fact find in the modern Catholic Church. (A version of this essay can be found here, in French - though Google Translate actually renders it quite intelligible.)

Borella argues that true tradition is rooted in the resistance of spirit in the realm of culture - in a manner analogous to, though distinct from, the resistance of form in the realm of nature. Form and spirit are the principles of nature and culture which are resistant to change - not that therefore change does not take place, but that it is limited and checked by the influence of form or spirit. In nature, form is the abiding permanence of things, whereas matter is the indeterminate and fluctuating condition in which form makes itself manifest. Form manifests itself in a variety of ways - so it allows itself to appear in change and variety; but this variety is in turn resisted enough by form to be unified by it, and thus made intelligible. Likewise, in the realm of culture, it is spirit - e.g. ideas, themes, intentions, meanings, etc. - which resists the change and fluctuation of forms which it is able to assume by the mediation of human free will. Thus, political, ritual, and artistic forms, etc., are the many determinations of the spirit, by which it expresses its unity and eternity in a variety of ways. Change in culture is unified and limited - resisted - by the original spirit of which cultural forms are the external manifestations.

Although we speak of the spirit as if it were a resisting agent, Borella is quick to clarify that, in the realm of culture, this resistance is in fact almost entirely dependent upon human free will: the maintenance of spirit throughout the successive actualization of its various possibilities is only due to a human attitude of fidelity to the spirit in the first place, a fidelity which every person - and indeed, a whole society - may either choose or reject. It is this fidelity - really nothing other than a gift of self unto the transcendent - which ensures the factual permanence of the spirit in its particular cultural instantiations. Accordingly, precisely in virtue of man's metaphysical ordination to transcendence, tradition is a moral obligation incumbent upon the human being. 

Now, resistance to change does not immediately imply that change is something undesirable per se; rather, what is undesirable, from the primordial viewpoint of the spirit, is a change or variation that departs from the scope of expressive possibilities contained within that spirit itself, as the archetype of its possible instantiations. The spirit resists change so as to protect itself from such a departure, exercising a kind of friction and restraint upon the changing forms, so that they may not be allowed to "go too far." But as long as they remain within the scope of expressive possibilities, they are not only permitted, but indeed they are good and necessary, being so many signs or symbols of the intense richness of the spirit itself.

But when there is a movement to introduce a change that does in fact depart from the boundaries set by the spirit, a certain aggression of spiritual resistance becomes manifest, insofar as the new change is indeed metaphysically opposed to the spirit as an errant novelty. There is a certain antagonism in the very nature of the relation between the abiding original spirit, and any errant novelty which sets itself up against the spirit. Tradition is a historical thing, to be sure; one observes in history that the expression of the primordial spirit gradually takes a shape much like that of a great tree, which grows from a seedling into a magnificent and harmonious unity of parts, in continuity with itself. One observes change, development, variety - but in uniformity and continuity. Throughout the succession of variations that take place in the process of growth, there is yet a single principle, a single essence, a single form, that is "handed down" from each stage of generation to the next. The tree is unity of multiplicity, a multi-faceted and multi-branched incarnation of a single principle. Borella notes that tradition is like the tree of history. There has been change, and there is great variety, a multiplicity of vines and branches, each with its own character - yet there is a continuity, a unity of principle, a commonality of the spirit in all of its individual incarnations. A change that departs from this unity is something foreign, something that does not belong, something that does not share the same principle. Or worse, a change that effectively seeks, by revolution, to fell the great tree of history, is nothing but an act of violence towards the incarnations of transcendence. As every living nature abhors its own destruction, so does tradition abhor novelty - and so should the traditionalist, ever faithful to the transcendent spirit, abhor everything that threatens its expressive unity-in-variety.

This is the basis for Borella's critique of the liturgical novelties following the Second Vatican Council (though I would extend this critique to some of the reforms before then, as well). These novelties are not condemned merely because they are changes; there are resisted because they represent a certain degree of infidelity to the original principle, the original spirit of the liturgy, which is incarnated in the great tree of history. The novelties of the 20th century involved the attempt to cut down that tree; the historical continuity and the great accumulative unity of the liturgical tradition was threatened with extinction, as the reformers quite relentlessly applied themselves to root-and-branch reform - a revolution. It was clear to everyone at the time - younger generations today have no personal memory of it - that the changes were an utter novelty; Pope Paul VI openly admitted to the world that what once seemed untouchable and settled was now being replaced with something completely new. On the grounds of simple historical evidence, there is much to be feared, suspected, and indeed resisted in such a novelty - simply by the very nature of tradition itself. These suspicions are indeed confirmed by an examination of the content of the new liturgy, in comparison to the rich and various body of symbolic and ritual content of the traditional rites. If the ordination to transcendence is directive of human action, the jettisoning of tradition is, to state it mildly, a most regrettable loss; and resistance is even, in some form, a duty. A true sense of transcendence - a sense of the sacred - rightly mourns the loss of the tradition of the spirit, and rightly seeks to recover it. "What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful.  It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place." (Pope Benedict XVI.)

But there is a danger for traditionalists - a danger which one sees exemplified by many modern traditionalists. It is a danger rooted in the inherent risk bound up with the opposition of tradition and novelty. Borella calls this danger "fortress-resistance," by which the traditionalist isolates himself and locks himself away from the world, thinking that he is thereby protecting the tradition from novelty - when in fact he is engaging in "prison-resistance," locking the spirit within, preventing the tree of tradition from growing as a tree naturally does, effectively freezing the natural potential of the spirit for a rich multiplicity of expression. The temptation of "traditionalists" is to view the last incarnation of the spirit as its sole and only permissible incarnation - as if the last stage, before revolution, were itself what constituted tradition. Borella insightfully observes that this makes a corpse out of the tree of history - not a tradition, which is a dynamic, growing, and organic being. Thus, he asks rhetorically: "Is the true monarchy that of Louis XIV or St Louis; the true eucharistic liturgy that of 1962, St Ambrose or St Hippolytus?" In other words, tradition as such cannot be identified with any one of the concrete forms which it assumes at any particular point in history; thus, for example, to freeze the development of the liturgy in the books of 1962, as took place within "traditionalist" circles after the Second Vatican Council, is not tradition, but paranoia. A true traditionalism rather remains open to the ways in which the spirit may naturally continue to express itself in new ways, ever in continuity with itself. Certainly, there is sometimes necessity for a prudential pause in the motion of reform and development - one could argue that such a pause rightly took place by the directive of Pope Pius V, in his promulgation of the Tridentine missal; but certain brands of "traditionalism" have wrongly exalted this prudence to the status of a dogma or a principle. (See this post, at my former blog.)

I think it is important for modern Catholics - traditionalists and progressives alike - to recover a philosophical grounding for traditionalism. Without such a grounding, novelty and paranoia are the easiest of temptations. 

Friday, 9 February 2018

A Metaphysics of Tradition

The Elevation of the Host, by Jean Béraud

Change would mean chaos and unintelligibility if there were no unity and sameness underlying it all - or transcending it all. In the cosmic hierarchy, creatures are more or less spiritual, and thus more or less do they desire and need the stability and changelessness that is beyond mere matter and contingency. The more enmeshed in matter things are, the more, likewise, they are enmeshed in change; but they participate in sameness to the degree that spirit holds its influence over them. The more spiritual things are, and the more do they approach the angelic, the more are they able to escape from change - or rather, the more they are able to bestow a character of sameness and the unchanging upon change itself. Creatures desire eternity; and all the more do creatures of intellect desire eternity. They tend towards a mode of activity that is one, simple - not merely static and inert, but dynamic in a way that is infinitely concentrated in a single unending moment. Divine activity is motionless in a sense - but also the archetype of motion inasmuch as it not merely a lack, but the fullness of everything that motion is, present all at once without succession, as if infinite space were to be contained in a single partless point. 

Creatures cannot, of course, reach the point; they merely tend towards it. Tending towards the changelessness of eternity, and in that measure tending to escape from change, they nonetheless cannot escape change and contingency in any absolute sense. Their lot is participation; it is given them, therefore, to participate as secondary causes in the eternal causality of perfect, changeless activity, in bestowing determination upon the indeterminate, unity upon the various, even sameness upon that which moves and changes. The temporal is elevated by such activity to a greater participation by likeness to eternity itself.

Ascending the scale of beings, creatures are more and more creatures of habit. At the bottom of the scale, there is no habit: there is either inertia or a motion that is induced by purely exterior causes, and thus the possibility of chance. Creatures are more and more capable of self-motion - always capable of motion, but this motion is more and more from within, as one ascends the ladder of beings. The more interior is the source of motion, the more does the motion itself tend away from mere chance, and more towards the determination of meaning and intellect. Only in man, in whom intellect is finally reached, does this tendency towards habit actually terminate in what is proper habitual, and thus either virtuous or vicious. In man, there is a proper participation in intelligibility; human activity - change or self-motion - is naturally and properly capable of a spiritual unity. This is not inborn in man, necessarily, though spirit is itself inborn in man; there is unitive potential from the beginning. But there must necessarily be progress in virtue, growth, training, which takes time. Man begins dispersed and easily induced to motion by external stimulants; the spiritual life is a process of gathering himself together into a unity, bringing all his variations under one ratio, so to speak - inducing an order amidst all his activities to his final end. The end itself is always best reflected by a unity of life-activity.

The modern exaltation of progress overlooks the tendency to sameness or unity. Modernistic progress is merely a cult of novelty: we progress only because what is old belongs to yesterday, and it has no bearing whatsoever on today, except for the merely curious or the merely nostalgic. One thing is necessary: revolution always, changing the world. On the individual level, this takes the form of disdain for virtue: the monotony of a life lived with a single, unified, and determinate purpose besides oneself. Hedonism produces a constant thirst for the novelty of bizarre experiences. Of course, this only results in making the hedonist into a lesser kind of being, static and inert like a stone, utterly passive and induced to motion only by things outside himself. He is in this way far from free - a slave. On the cultural level, it takes the form of disdain for tradition, which is likewise considered monotonous and also primitive. The traditional man has condemned himself, says the modernist, to an age that could belong only to men who had not evolved. Evolution produces ever new desires and needs for each era of history; we must be progressive, and seek no more than to meet these new desires and needs as they appear. There is no sameness even of human desire; there are no timeless values. 

Traditionalism, on the contrary, is precisely the affirmation of timeless values, which transcend historical evolution, but also transform it. True traditionalism does not neglect the motion of history - as might a blind and indiscriminate conservatism, which desires no more than a return to the past. Traditionalism upholds the changeless unity of meaning which is incarnated in changing, moving things, such that the latter begin to move according to an order, a rule, indeed a form, for the sake of an end. Traditionalism affirms the inexhaustible applicability of timeless values, of the rich intelligible meanings which are directly accessible only to the spirit, and indirectly to those things governed by the spirit. The apprehension of the value of such timeless and spiritual things is what induces in the traditionalist a desire for constancy of activity. Tradition is the only way to secure true fidelity in time to what is in itself timeless, a reflection of eternity. It is no wonder that it is also the traditionalists who, in opposition to progressive hedonism, affirm the value of human virtue, the constancy of individual human behavior ordered to a final good. Tradition is to the human race as virtue is to the human individual. 

The nostalgia of the traditionalist differs, accordingly, from that of the mere sentimentalist. There are times when the present moment fails to offer a view of timeless things, because whatever circumstances one might find oneself in might not adequately appear as incarnations of meaning. Moments of chaos are moments of meaninglessness; there is a hollow emptiness induced by a human failure to actualize the intelligible, the universal, the timeless, within the particular. Indeed, oftentimes one finds oneself face to face, not merely with a failure of meaning, but a straightforward rejection of meaning - a rejection of truth. In such moments, a fuller encounter with timeless truth cannot be simply conjured up from within; it is perhaps remembered, from a time past when things were different. But the encounter is not relived unless there is a renewal of things lost - which does, perhaps, have the appearance of a return to the past; but to see only this is to be superficial. Traditionalism does not blindly return to the past; it merely affirms that certain things - and not all things -  once held meaningful and, indeed, sacred, retain their relevance even in the present. Things of meaning - symbolism, ritual, art, music, ideas, etc. - do not lose their meaning with every new era. Such things are the instantiations, incarnations, of truth; not mere conventions. Even this latter category becomes difficult to define; not all conventions are merely that. If there is an element of humanity in convention, there may also be an element of spirituality, and thus of timelessness. Traditionalism essentially looks for this quality; it does not look merely for the past. The traditional mind recognizes that, lacking a fulfillment of truth in the present moment, it is not at home; it can only be at home with truth. Hence, the nostalgia of the traditionalist.

True traditionalism, understood in this way, is a certain metaphysical attunement of the soul to reality, a sense of reverence for permanent things. To the traditionalist, changing and contingent things are capable of a unity and order, even a sameness and determinacy, which is bestowed upon them by intellect - by human intellect, yes, but especially by an intellect that is receptive to the promptings of divine illumination. Everything is participation; and human activity, at its best, is a more perfect participation of God - and thus it is even capable, as an instrument of God, of bestowing a more perfect participation of God upon things beneath it - or after it. Tradition itself is fundamentally the reception and bestowal of the Divine. This is the vertical tradition that is necessary in order to uphold the horizontal march of human time, in continuity with itself. One generation receives something of value from a previous generation, and in turn passes it on to subsequent generations, because all recognize the value itself as having been received from a source which transcends time itself. This fidelity to the concretion of value in time is the sign and effect of fidelity to the universal value that is timeless.