Thursday, 7 June 2018

Politics, Virtue, and Beauty

I am a firm believer in the inseparability of politics and ethics from aesthetics. Virtue and virtuous living are also a matter of living beautifully, for the good and the beautiful are convertible, even if they are different aspects of the same reality. Indeed, one of the many crises of modernity is that politics has been separated from ethics: we no longer look for virtuous men, in choosing those men who will be our leaders, but for clever and cunning men, or perhaps merely assertive and aggressive men, regardless of their virtue. Our politicians glory in their vileness. But another and less noticed aspect of this crisis is that both politics and ethics have been divorced from aesthetics - virtue itself has been divorced from beauty. I believe that this actually corrupts virtue itself, and makes it into a parody of itself. 

What do I mean by this? Everywhere one looks, on the modern political battleground, there is no concern for culture. On the side of the "liberals," culture is an appendage, perhaps a pleasantry to be enjoyed, though not really understood, by the elite who have time for such frivolities, but hardly anything that is substantially relevant to the politics and ideologies to which they are primarily committed. On the side of the "conservatives," concern for finer culture is practically non-existent now; the meaning of conservatism has strangely morphed from the preservation of culture to the defense of "free speech" and a blunt resistance to liberal bullying. The political battles themselves, as has become painfully evident in recent years, have quickly devolved into an ugly contest of vile persons against each other: no longer do the guardians care for virtue, wisdom, or the visible form of these things, which is beauty. Plato would be appalled by such a politics. 

Many will accuse me and my concern for beauty of mere sentimental superficiality: I seem to care not for substance, but merely for image, the external and transitory surface beneath which lies all that really matters. How does one respond to such an accusation? I can only respond that such persons have lost all sense of the integral unity of the fabric of reality. What is political order itself, but a ray of beauty manifested as the pleasing harmony of persons, societies, and institutions? What, indeed, is virtue itself but a form of beauty inhering in the person? What is physical beauty - which these puritans would dismiss as superficial and irrelevant - but another instance of the same perfection, a sister of virtue and social harmony (peace)?

Being is said in many ways; also the Good is said in many ways. The perfection by which Being becomes Good thus manifests itself in all beings capable of goodness. The metaphysically-attuned soul will not attend only to one or two of these many senses of being; being himself about being (dasein) he is about the whole of being. Plato identifies the philosopher as he who loves the whole of wisdom - not some part of it, i.e. a particular art or science. Even ethics is only one part of wisdom; even politics is only one part, though an architectonic part. But to be architectonic, indeed, means that this one part is still relevant to and affected by all the other parts. A metaphysical soul will not be concerned only with metaphysical truths; he will also be concerned with physical truths, since these have a bearing on metaphysics itself. The philosophic soul is not concerned only with being, or only with the good, or only with the truth - he is concerned with all of these together. He is of course therefore concerned also for beauty.

Being is a plurivocal whole - it is a whole, and thus a unity, but a unity with many voices. Discard any of these voices, and one has neglected the whole. To say that everything is connected, and everything is relevant to everything, is to utter something so true that one falls quite short of the very truth expressed in such a saying. The man who sins against prudence, a virtue, since against harmony, a property of beauty, and indeed a perfection of being. Such a sinner has silenced one of the voices of being, namely prudence; but thinking he could do so and go unnoticed, he silenced also the voice of beauty and goodness. Harmony is a property of beauty, and virtue is a good. He has also offended the truth: for prudence is wisdom, and wisdom order things according to logos, the intelligible truth of being.

The political virtue is prudence, par excellence, practical wisdom - the virtue which puts things in order. Political prudence puts society in order, it is an organizing principle. The only good politician is the prudent man - just as the only virtuous man is the prudent man: the man who judges rightly concerning what it is fitting to do. In consequently doing, a man performs a human act. In doing so well, according to the direction of his prudence, a man acts virtuously; and in ordering other men to each other, as parts of society, putting them into their proper place in relation to the whole, the prudent politician leads other men to act well like him. The political leader's function is to lead others to virtue. There is nothing more obvious than this.

But his role is also to lead men to think rightly concerning beauty, as Plato says in the Republic. Plato is not typically concerned to make sweeping distinctions between when it is appropriate to speak of virtue and when it is appropriate to speak of beauty; or when, indeed, it is appropriate to speak of anything. Nearly all of the Platonic ruminations on questions of metaphysics occur in the context of trying to decipher the meaning of various activities, arts, and virtues - e.g. justice in the Republic, or love in the Symposium. These are also the contexts in which beauty appears as a subject of discussion. In many of these dialogues - Republic, Symposium, Phaedrus - the virtuous man, and/or the philosopher, is revealed as a kind of lover; and he is a lover of beauty itself, just as he is a lover of wisdom. The philosopher-king is concerned with perfecting the city, just as the philosopher is concerned with perfecting his soul - just as any virtuous man is concerned with perfecting the activity which is his, in accordance with the eternal archetypes of perfection which he contemplates by the philosophic act. Although there is certainly a movement of escape from mere images to the really-real, there is also in Plato a sharp movement of making the images themselves, of bringing them closer to their Forms, of making them more perfect. The philosopher is also an artist. He makes things beautiful by bringing them into communion with beauty itself.

The politicians of our day have no such concern; they do not with to make things beautiful. They wish only to make affairs convenient for the attainment of very limited and individualistic ends - ends which necessarily and arbitrarily impede the ends of other individuals. Politicians have their own ends, and they have all the power; they care only to compete with other holders of power, and to limit the power of their subjects, to manipulate the great mechanism of the State in which persons are merely cogs in the machine. Politics is not a matter of beauty, but of "equilibrium" of powers - and equilibrium that is nonetheless only ever imposed by a power that stands outside that equilibrium, being greater than all other powers. All of this is painted with the colors of "personal autonomy" - it is modern liberalism - when really it dehumanizes persons, rids them of the capacity for virtue, and rather than allowing form to shine as something beautiful in things, merely forces things into a willed order by an act of violence. The modern politician, in other words, is none other than Thrasymachus, the unbridled "spirited man" of the Republic, the Leviathan of Thomas Hobbes. The modern political landscape is dominated by this figure of Thrasymachus the Leviathan. It matters not whether one looks to the "left" or the "right" of the political spectrum: it is all the same. A politics that is neither virtuous nor beautiful, nor even attempting to aim at these - one begins to doubt whether there is anything of the true finesse of the political art to be found in these times.

Monday, 4 June 2018

A Philosophy of Mediation

Metaxology at Santissima Trinita dei Pellegrini, in Rome, Italy

In any dichotomy, or in any form of dualism, the tension of opposites is resolved, or at least released somewhat, by some form of mediation. Mediation is the ground for the possibility of harmonious differences, the transcending of the either-or option, the all-or-nothing. The subject and the object enter into relation to each other by meeting in the middle, the metaxu, which is also to enter somehow into each other: the object is internalized in the subject, and the subject turns outward to "become," somehow, the object, to take on its form. But not only the dualism of subject-object, but also that of body-mind: every level of this relationship only reaches the other through a structure of mediation. There is a middle in which matter and spirit interpenetrate each other, and into which they enter with progressive degrees of intensity. Likewise, again: immanence-transcendence is a dualism that is overcome by mediation, by passing through the middle, by seeking out with finesse those dynamisms which lie between the operations of immanence and transcendence, and into which these latter operations always seem to "stretch" themselves. 

There are many forms of dualism, just as there are, in fact, many kinds of dualities. The terms or correlatives of the various dualities are more-or-less proximate to each other, and thus require a more-or-less intensive stretching to "meet in the middle." Certainly, the more remote are the terms of such dualities, the greater is the risk of falling into dualism: the positing of things in unmediable opposition to each other. But there is always this risk in any duality. The greatest of all such dualities is that of creature and Creator, finitude and the infinite, man and God. The dualism that many have perceived in this duality is the greatest "gap" that philosophers have ever felt the need to bridge; and they have often attempted to bridge without observing the complex and many layers of mediation that would be needed to do so. They did not appreciate enough the sense of being in the middle

William Desmond explains how, not appreciating the middle, philosophers have made three generic types of mistakes, all amounting to a kind of reductionism. These three types of mistakes, though mistakes, nonetheless point to aspects of the truth which must be preserved if the middle is to be fully appreciated. The three: 1) radical univocity, 2) radical equivocity, and 3) what is called dialectic, which is the attempt to reduce equivocities to a higher level univocity. 

A radical univocity addresses dualism by denying duality altogether. It does not so much solve the problem of bridging the gaps of dualism as deny that there is any gap to be bridged, any separation to be mediated. A univocal mind may thus rest confident that he may enter into relations with his God at "the flip of a switch," that he may correspond to his God in a one-to-one correlation. He needs no help; he presumes proximity to God. 

A radical sense of equivocity, on the contrary, gives in to the dualism and despairs of mediation at all; it too avoids bridging the gap, not by denying that there is a gap, but denying the possibility of bridging it. The equivocalist is rarely a theist; or if he is, he is also a deist; he is very often an agnostic, and he feels inescapably condemned to his agnosticism. 

Dialectic, as exemplified especially in Kant and Hegel (and taken to great extremes in, for example, Feuerbach), is what Desmond might call a "counterfeit double" of genuine mediation, since it seems to account for both equivocity and univocity. Yet it does this by subsuming equivocity, absorbing it, into a higher univocity. If it is mediation, it is self-mediated otherness - which is to say, the gap between the self and the other is bridged by acknowledging the other only as an equivocal version, so to speak, of oneself. Ultimately, dialectic returns to the self. In other words, dialectical mediation is one-sided, it does not fully dwell in the middle. In Feuerbach's interpretation of Hegel, this is the ultimate possibility of a kind of Christian atheism, in which "God" is not ultimately and irreducibly an other, a transcendence, but an self-othering image of man, a mere projection of the self. Dialectic is like univocity in that the self needs no other by which it comes to transcendence; but it is like equivocity in that the self becomes other to itself, only to bring the other back into itself. The self is an inherent contradiction: the dualism as dualism is internalized in the self, and thereby claimed to be "mediated."

Desmond emphasizes a fourth alternative, which tries to do justice to univocity and equivocity without either subsuming the one under the other, or reducing being to one or the other. This fourth alternative is metaxology: speaking about the middle, the between, the metaxu. Plato teaches us that man is something between: neither real nor unreal, neither knowing nor completely unknowing, neither God nor [beast? - check the Symposium]. This is why Plato is not a dualist, though he struggles with finding the right language to express the dynamic reality of the between. The best language, indeed, that Plato could conjure is precisely the ambiguous, perhaps highly metaphorical, language of betweenness itself: participation. We participate in what is real, in what is divine, in wisdom, because although we cannot say unqualifiedly that we are wise, yet we seem to have wisdom somehow in part or in a contracted way. We genuinely approach it, and we may always approach it; and yet we fall short, and we always will fall short of it. The Platonic ideal, as in the ideal city of the Republic, is not some inaccessible utopia that must be despaired of obtaining; nor is it a problem that can be neatly solved and exhausted by anything like a mathematical formula. There is no room for either optimism or pessimism in such a philosophy: there is hope and confidence, yes, for we genuinely may approach and continue to approach, approximate, or instantiate the ideal - there is real gain here; and yet we are still subject to contingency and the transitory nature of things, in which nothing lasts forever, or where in order to approximate the ideal we must inevitably struggle against forces of decomposition. There is mysticism and asceticism in such a philosophy: mysticism in the ever hopeful progression towards inexhaustible mystery; asceticism in the struggle to maintain oneself in that progression.

Metaxological mediation perseveres in the middle, between the self and the other, acknowledging their irreducible distinction and yet their integral though mediated relation. What are the forms of such mediation? The ancients and the medievals had an instinctive sense of mediation through hierarchical participation. Hierarchy was not merely the opposition of the good and the bad, but the progression from the lesser to the greater, and vice versa, and the possibility of the greater harnessing the lesser and bringing it to itself. There is not here the illusion of grandeur that seems to constitute dialectical self-mediation through self-otherness. There is the reality of grandeur, instrumentalizing and thus dignifying things with participation in itself, by a kind of sacramentality. Things in the world are not just things in the world; being in the between, they are also carried beyond the world and themselves, and carry indications within themselves of this beyond. The interplay of determinate singularity and indeterminate universality indicates something overdeterminate, something indeed too much for singularity, and too determinate for universality (taking "universal" and "singular" in an Aristotelian logical sense). A kind of oscillating and vibrating song seems to echo from this ongoing movement in things, a more and less, a back and forth, echoing more than itself, echoing also something which transcends all distinctions between the universal and the singular, from which all such distinctions flow.

This is a complex choreography, a graceful and multi-dimensional ritual, a polyphonic canticle, in which the echo and glimmer of absolute transcendence is heard and seen. All the levels of being resound harmoniously in this plurivocal between. It is a cosmic symphony. To neglect any participant in this symphony would be to compromise its integrity; and yet it is no complete system, enclosed on itself, for it always seems to leave room for the more that echoes as an overtone from an unseen place. Indeed, the reductionistic, univocalizing neglect of any part of this complex choreography might itself be the death of the inherent openness that characterizes such a hierarchy. To reduce to one dimension that which is indefinitely multi-dimensional is to close the system on itself, and to deny the need for mediation. Paradoxically, the opposite equivocalizing tendency to simply decompose the order into a random mash of unrelated parts has the similar effect of denying mediation. There is also the dialectical denial of this ritual, more complex than any simple univocalizing or equivocalizing tendency, but still reducing to the same thing: the retreat of all forms of mediation. For dialectical self-mediation is still no real mediation; it is a counterfeit and a pretense. 



I wish to make a liturgical observation stemming from all of this. What we have witnessed in the modern age of liturgical reform is a large-scale denial, or counterfeit, of metaxological mediation in the liturgy, the result of trends that were univocalizing, equivocalizing, and dialectical in the Hegelian sense. These trends were not unconnected: the dialectical way is both univocal and equivocal in a sense, inasmuch as it subsumes the sense of otherness into the self's own othering of itself. When the liturgy becomes a mode of self-affirmation, it risks the self-idolatry to which Hegel's dialectic seems to lead. The community's celebration of itself in God is one version of such self-consumed dialectic. It is an exaltation of immanence that risks making a counterfeit of genuine transcendence. 

For example, the reduction of metaxological modes of speech, which often veer into the poetic, is one instance of univocalisation. These modes of speech are, in Desmond's term, metaphorical, analogical, symbolic, and hyperbolic. Far less, with such univocity, does the liturgical voice seem to exceed itself in hyperbolic and exaggerated praise, nor depart from simple literalism into images and figures, or from monotonic verbiage into the motion of song. (Or if there is song, there are "hymn-sandwiches," played to tunes hardly uplifting but merely sentimentalizing, another form of univocity perhaps.) The liturgy takes the form less of a drama and more of a univocal discourse, an attempt to "bridge the gap" by creating a sense of immediacy with God, a sense of direct accessibility and clear conceptual recognition. This is the univocal "bridging of the gap" by way of simply denying the "gap," paying no attention to the gulf that really does separate man from God; and thus losing, along with the "gap," the hierarchical forms of mediation by which alone that duality can be integrated.

There is also a perverse equivocity in this reformed liturgical dialectic: the otherness that is thus subsumed into the self, the making of the self into an other. The self others itself in its own self-determining autonomy; it becomes itself according to its own idea. It expresses itself in determining itself. This is where Hegel is the inheritor of Kant's concern for radical autonomy. This gives way to the seemingly endless "optionitis" (as it is called by Peter Kwasniewski) which pervades the modern celebration of the liturgy: the radical sense of freedom and spontaneity with which priests and congregations are allowed to celebrate their liturgies, the wide range of options they are given to choose from, the indeterminacy of the liturgy which they are allowed to determine for themselves at will. This is equivocity, quite literally: the Church now voices her song of praise without a unity of song, but with a multitude of often randomly self-determined voices

All of this is to observe the near-vanishing of metaxological forms of mediation from the liturgy, the vanishing of the sense of being in the between. Gone, or reduced to a minimum, is the sense of approaching heaven, being even at its doorstep, and yet being not yet there. There is either a sense of being only here, on the earth, or there is a counterfeit of being there. 

The traditional liturgy, by contrast, is full of a sense of hierarchical mediation: clear distinctions, for example, between multiple liturgical roles, which interact with each other at different levels, in different functions, and at different moments of the liturgical act. There are priestly roles: consecration, blessing, the delivery of the mysteries; there are extensions of the priestly roles - deacons and acolytes - who assist the priest in the performance of their roles; there are choral roles and congregational roles. There is likewise a clear distinction between areas of the liturgical space: a place for the congregation, a place for the choir, a place for the clergy. But there is also communication between them: the congregation approaches the sanctuary for the communion, the priest enters and exits from the nave, the congregation and choir sometimes sing together, sometimes they do not. There is interaction, yet there is no trespassing of the congregation into the choir or the sanctuary, or of the choir onto the altar, etc. 

The traditional liturgy is a ritual full of images and symbolic gestures: signs of the cross, bows and genuflections, extension of the priestly hands, positions of the priestly fingers, lighting and extinguishing candles, fire and water, bread and wine, salts and oils, bells and incense, purification of vessels, processions and choreographed motions, the use of specific spaces and orientations, etc. Images likewise populate traditional liturgical architecture and art - figures from the natural world, archetypes and histories from the biblical narrative, geometric designs of obscure symbolism, not to mention the obligatory presence of the archetypal geometric figure of the cross at the center of the church. Things which are useful in the liturgy are never merely useful; utilitarianism is a species of univocity, of the practical sort. They are poetic and symbolic; they are metaphors and analogies of God, angels, men; of being, life, wisdom; of virtue and vice, holiness and sinfulness; knowledge and ignorance. This is nothing other than the metaxological way: the acknowledgement that we are dealing with realities that, though we might be able to name them, exceed what we communicate by naming them literally. Hence we need a multiplicity of mediating forms by which we enter into the space of the between, wherein we neither presume to directly access what is out of proportion to our reach, nor despair of accessing it altogether; and neither create what is only a counterfeit double of it. The traditional liturgy provides just this space of the between; we need only enter into it, participate in it. 

Saturday, 2 June 2018

In Defense of Equivocity

There are undoubtedly bad kinds of ambiguity, potentially misleading, instruments of compromise between truth and falsity. But it is important, in seeking to avoid this ambiguity, not to thereby lose appreciation for the internal ambiguity of truth itself. This is not merely an appreciation for ambiguous statements of truth; there is an inherent ambiguity in being itself. Being is not only said in many senses; it is itself plurivocal. Or perhaps, prior to our own saying of being, being speaks itself in many voices. It sings itself in many songs, and in rich polyphony. This is a dense but ordered and harmonious ambiguity - not a chaotic and contradictory ambiguity.

It is easy to mistake an ordered ambiguity for a contradictory one. Modern philosophy has seen the rise of many forms of dualisms, predicated on a rigid either-or philosophy. The moderns saw these dualisms as problems to overcome, and many superhuman efforts were made to bridge many gaps - neglecting the possibility that order and hierarchical distinction (unity in multiplicity) does not entail opposition; either that, or the resolution to dualism was simply to accept the possibility of real and radical contradiction.  In other words, the moderns have tended either to radical univocity or incoherent equivocity, in response to the problem of dualisms: a refusal of plurivocity on the one hand, and a refusal of unity on the other hand.

It is necessary to affirm both the unity and the complex, though ordered, equivocity of being. In a certain sense, this is what the medieval conception of analogy, which has its roots in Plato, Aristotle, and the Neoplatonists, was meant to convey: unity in difference. Analogy allows the philosopher to use words or names of God in a way that cannot be correlated one-to-one with the application of those same names to creatures. But it goes further than this too: even among creatures, words and names cannot be used with such absolutely simplicity. Being is said in many senses, said Aristotle: substance, quality, quantity, etc. These things all are; but to say so is not to say absolutely one thing, for the very is-ness of things differs. But there is a first sense of is, which is that which applies to substance: that which exists, or subsists, self-sufficiently.

Aristotle was no merely univocal philosopher. But certainly, from him the scholastics inherited the tendency to try and distinguish equivocal (or analogical) words into their many meanings, so as to be able to decompose equivocity into a multitude of univocities. There is some use to this, but it must be seen more as an unfolding of the density of being, rather than as an analysis of it into its component parts, as if it were a mechanism. To unfold the density of being, by making distinctions, cannot be useful except ultimately so that the original unity, as a unity, may also be better comprehended also as densely rich with meaning. The scholastic makes distinctions, but ultimately so that he might draw things back into a unity, having seen their right order to each other in distinction. In this way, he approaches God's knowledge of things - I say he approaches it,  for the density of being is potentially infinite.

Of course, there is always in this process the risk of error due to the inherent ambiguity of the equivocal nature of being. This risk is heightened by the deliberate use of words to conflate and twist the order of multiple meanings that inhere in the equivocal. One may utter an ambiguous statement, and especially a series of ambiguous statements, using words whose meaning has not been clarified, attaching attributes (predicates) to them which belong to them only at a certain level of meaning, while failing to distinguish other levels of meaning at which the same might not apply. This is the abuse of equivocity. Some philosophers, whom Plato would call the sophists, glory in this twisting of words; they glory in the thought that being is something twisted and incoherent, chaotic and equivocal without rhyme or reason, inherently deceptive and unintelligible.

The point is that ambiguity as such is not something to be avoided - indeed, it is unavoidable. And to this extent, the risk of error and misunderstanding is unavoidable. The true philosopher must brave the darkness of possible error which confronts him. He can cast a light with his intellect, but there will necessarily be shadows of ignorance where the light does not fall. The equivocity of being is inherent in the fact that there are shadows covering those aspects of being which have yet to be known - they are not false, but unknown, until they are illumined in succession. But the philosopher will not be a sophist: he will not conflate the light with the shadows, or conflate the various lights which cause different shadows, or despair of the possibility of integrating his successive illuminations of the dark into one vision of knowledge.

The sophists of the modern age love to conflate light and shadow, or to conflate the shadows of different lights with each other, or to despair of light altogether. This allows them to use their words with greater potential for harmful deception. But the proper reaction to such sophistry is not to fear ambiguity as such - it is not to fear and flee from the shadows, but to continue to seek illumination, and in doing so to embrace the multiplicity of meanings in the right order to each other. Their unity will not be brought about, like that of the sophists, by tossing them into an inharmonious mixture; but by ordering them rightly to each other, according to their proximity to the Being that contains them all.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Two Images of Social Order

Although the prominence of churches throughout the city of Rome, and in most medieval or older cities, may be understood less now than in earlier times, one can still perceive a profound symbolic sense of the hierarchical superiority which the Church possesses over the temporal order, in a Christian society. In many of the traditional cities, the town centers are marked by churches; the space before the church was the place of gathering of the citizens. The church was not engulfed in the secular market; they were kept distinct, yet the Church ruled over all. The temporal order was not contravened by the spiritual, though it was harmoniously subordinated to it in a single, integral society. This was a Christian kingdom, the City of God.

Fr. Francis Duffy
By contrast, in Times Square, there is a single statue of a cross, almost invisible, engulfed by the looming, sky-scraping symbols of consumerism and secularism (towers of Babel?). This cross is actually the back-side of a monument to Father Francis Duffy, whose image is sculpted on the other side. Father Duffy was a Catholic priest and chaplain in the military, and the highly decorated military cleric in U.S. history. Incidentally, he was also the ghost-author of a letter by Alfred Smith, a Catholic who was running for President in 1927. In this letter, Duffy (in the voice of Smith) pays high tribute to the notion of religious liberty, in defense of Smith's campaign, assuring his reader that "I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign." (Source

These are two images of social order: one, the integralist, in which the spiritual reigns over the temporal order, and they work together in hierarchic harmony towards the salvation of men, the "business of the peace and the faith"; another, the liberal, in which the spiritual is demoted to the status of merely one among many individualistic options, swamped in an ocean of pickers-and-choosers - mere private consumers - all at the mercy of the sovereign State.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Incarnational Ecclesiology

If I remember correctly, it was Fr. Aidan Kavanagh, OSB, in his book On Liturgical Theology, who observed that most of St. Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of the institution of the Church appears in the context of his discussion of the Sacraments. What is manifested here is an understanding of the Church as being a principally liturgical or sacramental institution. While subsequent developments in ecclesiology after Aquinas stressed the magisterial, juridical, and otherwise "pastoral" roles of the Church, as a teacher of doctrine and right discipline, the medieval stress exemplified by Aquinas is on the sacramental function. This is not to say that the other functions are unimportant: they are certainly important, and not even Aquinas' doctrine of the Sacraments would make sense without these other functions. Nonetheless, it is the sacramental character of the Church that really distinguishes her from her pre-Christian mode of existence in the Old Testament. Martin Mosebach points out (in chapter 3 of The Heresy of Formlessness) that doctrine and morals did not change when God became Man, in the person of Jesus Christ. What did change was the nature of sacramentality itself. In St. Thomas' teaching, following of course the Apostolic teaching of St. Paul, the fundamental difference between the sacraments of the Old and the New Laws is that while the former referred to Christ as future, as not yet come, the sacraments of the New Law refer to Christ, not merely as past, but also as present - that is, as being here among us now. The Old Law was the pre-figurement of Christ; the New Law is Christ Himself. If there is a reason to speak of the Church as Christ's "Mystical Body" it is this: the emphasis on His presence among us.

In the Gospels, just as much - if not more - as teaching, we witness Christ doing: working miracles, healing the sick, casting out demons, riding a donkey, purifying the temple, eating and drinking - but above all, suffering and dying and resurrecting. The Gospel is as much a catalog of the concrete and historical reality of Christ - I would say myth entering into history - as it is a catalog of his teaching and example. More primordially than being taught by Christ, or being given an example of how to act in our own lives (i.e. morally), we are simply being given the opportunity to see Christ, to touch Him, to encounter Him. This is why the apostles were saddened when He told them that He would be leaving them - first by dying, then by ascending to heaven. They knew that what He had given them, before and beyond His teaching and example, was first and foremost Himself in the flesh. When he promised them that He would still be with them after His ascension, until the end of time, working through the Holy Spirit, He was in effect providing them with the sacramental and liturgical assurance of their faith. He was assuring his disciples that they would not be deprived of the consolation of His real presence among them, though He was ascending to heaven. Accordingly, (and as another author, Laurence Paul Hemming, writes in Worship as Revelation) the meaning of the Ascension is thus to establish the reality and realism of liturgical signification itself: the actuality of His continuing presence in the sacraments of His institution, the Church. The fundamental role of the Church is precisely this continuation of His presence, even before the function of teacher and lawgiver. The crucial message of the Gospels is not primarily the doctrine and example of Christ, but simply the concrete and tangible presence of God to those of faith. The presence is not merely a tool for effective teaching, either speculative or moral, or a model of pastoral work; the presence itself is its own raison d'etre, a Good worthy to be contemplated for its own self-sufficient sweetness. This presence of Christ in the Church is the liturgy, especially the sacrament of the Eucharist. Or to say it again differently: the Church is the presence of Christ; the Church is liturgy; the Church is sacrament - not an "eighth sacrament," to anticipate a traditionalist objection; rather, the Church is her sacraments themselves. As Fr. Kavanagh would put it, the liturgy itself is how we do the Church. 

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Homogeneity and Heterogeneity of the Sacred and Profane

The sacred may be understood in two ways which I think are necessary and complementary - and these two ways are sometimes also symbolized in sacred ritual, art, and especially architecture. In the first sense, the sacred is something set apart from the world, the profane or mundane, for the express purposes of an otherworldly action: worship. In this understanding, the sacred and the profane are heterogenous, because they are in some way separated from each other. In the use of space for the ritual of divine worship, one does not worship just anywhere; one worships in a place set apart and consecrated for that purpose, apart from any other purpose. One worships in a church, in the sanctuary, at or around an altar. This space is distinct from all other space; it is set apart, it is another world - quite literally, indeed, if we take a realist interpretation of liturgical symbolism. In the church, we enter into the New Jerusalem; we take part in the citizenship of heaven, not of the world.

In the second sense, however, the sacred is more like the extreme limit of the profane. This strikes me also as a profound understanding. In this sense, the consecration of a particular space is not simply the cutting off, setting apart, of that space; but also the concentration of all space at a particular point; it is a certain intensity of spatial meaning. The sacred becomes like the center of a circle which, still contained within the area of a circle, is yet an inner limit or boundary of the whole; or like the circumference, which is the outer limit, where the circle ends and a new sphere continues. In this understanding, the church is not only heaven - set over and against the world or the cosmos - but it is itself the very limit of the cosmos, a microcosmos. But it is indeed also heaven, for as a boundary, it is where different realities meet, as two cones converge and open into each other at their common vertex.

This is one characterization of the difference in emphasis between the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. With few windows and somewhat minimal natural light, the earlier Romanesque church was a place set apart for the purpose of divine worship, over and against all mundane purposes that were pursued outside the church space. Here is a distinct world, a sacred and indeed a secret place, protected from the outside world by fortress-like walls of stone. By contrast, the Gothic, though it loses nothing of the sense of being set apart, was also constructed to let the cosmos outside enter into itself - it was not just a setting apart from, but a sanctification of, the entire cosmos. Enormous stained glass windows let the natural light of the sun flood the space with the entire cosmic range of color. The copious use of fractal patterned ornamentation suggests continuity with the fractal geometry of nature. Here was not a confusion of the sacred and the profane, as occurs in much modern church architecture, but an integration of worlds by the consecrating of all profane space into a sacred sacred space: an intensified concentration of the cosmos, a microcosm.

The Romanesque

The Gothic

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Traditionalism, the Past, and Permanent Things

The affirmation of tradition against modernity cannot be simply a matter of wishing to turn back the clock to a former period of history. Perhaps many traditionalists or conservatives give this impression, but traditionalism as such does not simply entail the desire to turn back the clock. I say it does not entail this simply. It certainly does often entail the recovery of things from a past age, now lost in the rubble of modernity; but it is not merely because they are past that traditionalism seeks their recovery, but because they signify something timeless, something inherently permanent and trans-historical, and thus something that continues to be relevant and applicable in the present. And it may be that a past era upheld such permanent values with more rigor and reverence than does our modern age.

In Catholic traditionalism, the high Middle Ages are often taken to be the pinnacle of Catholic history. Even if there is any truth to this claim, such a claim must be tempered by the recognition that, in a sense, all times are bad times. Paradoxically, the errors of modernity are not, in the last analysis, modern errors; they are perennial deviations from perennial truths. There have always been modernists, just as there have always been sinners and heretics. There has always been struggle and conflict within the Church and the whole civilized world; there has never been a utopia. The nostalgia of the true traditionalist is directed at particular ages of the past only in subordination to the age of eternity, of which each historical era is but an imperfect instantiation. True nostalgia is for this eternal age, which is symbolized in different ways by past, present, and future. Historical beings and situations are, in a Platonic sense, mere participations; the nostalgic yearning for a past age must consequently be tempered by a sense of the merely partial goodness of any age.

Yet that goodness is a real goodness; and insofar as it is good, it really does bear in it something that pertains to all times. Every instantiation of the good is also, to that extent, a model of goodness. Thus, the past is always, in some sense, a model for the present. In a certain sense, indeed, of the three elements of time, the past is the most privileged model for the present. Memory is our storehouse, our reservoir of inspiration; the past holds the potency for the continual actualization of good things in the present, and into the future. We can only act now, in the present, on the basis of what we have already received; and we receive from eternity not only in the present, but also through the past. We are receivers before we are doers; what we receive is the model of our doing. The passio essendi is the ground of our conatus essendi. 

One might say that, in moral terms, the virtue of the present is the virtue of prudence. Prudence is the facility to judge concerning the present moment, in which it is imperative to act. Prudence determines right action insofar as the rightness of action is conditioned by the present as such, i.e. the circumstances and situation of the actor. Prudential judgments are made on a case-by-case basis. However, there is a tendency in modern approaches to ethics to reduce morality to prudence - that is, to make circumstantial judgment the sole factor of moral deliberation. According to such an ethics, the only principles of action in the circumstances of the present are...the circumstances of the present. From this attitude, there arises a destructive disdain for history as the reservoir of moral example: one cannot learn anything morally substantive from the past, after all, if the only principle of action in the present is itself the present. If prudence were the only virtue, there could be no virtue in looking to the past for wisdom or guidance, nor in looking to the example and advice of one's elders, nor those more experienced than oneself - nor in unchanging moral principles. History is reduced to curiosity; tradition is rendered meaningless; and there are no eternal principles, but only "prudence."

This is a catastrophically destructive moral reductionism. It is necessary to affirm, against such a reductionism, the abiding relevance and repeatability of permanent principles. Traditionalism is this affirmation, with a stress on the historicity of such principles in their instantiation. In this sense, traditionalism is simply a companion of realism. In ethics, traditionalism claims that moral principles do not change with the fluctuation of human and cultural situations, even as prudence must be exercised in accordance with such situations. Prudence is not, for the traditionalist, merely an account of circumstances, but an evaluation of them against eternal principles of action. But such an evaluation does not take place totally apart from any consideration of prior instances of the principles; principle are only known, after all, through such instances - universals through particulars.

A sense of history and tradition is thus fundamentally necessary for a sense of permanence. A sense of the past is necessary for tradition. This sense must, of course, be properly informed by reliable insight into the lessons of history, and the relationship of historical circumstances to the eternal principles which are their measure. Such insight may indeed reveal some historical eras to display a sense of reverence for permanent things more perfectly than other eras. A true sense of history should be open to the discovery of this inequality of historical eras: some times truly are better than others. A true sense of the givenness of history resigns to, even embraces this fact as something contingent but providential. This is not merely to yearn for a different era; such a longing is ultimately something naive, from a pragmatic and prudential point of view. Nonetheless, the differences of historical circumstances is no excuse to neglect earlier periods as somehow paradigmatic or exemplary for the present age. On the other hand, it is also true that a sense of the givenness of history must also resign to the fact that both past and present ages come with many imperfections - for indeed, every age does. But this resignation is not complacency: one does not, in resigning to imperfection, give up the struggle to act now for the better. These are consequently two sides of the same coin of a balanced traditionalism, properly informed by the contingency of history against the background of permanent principles.