Thursday, July 18, 2013

Losing God and the Self

One of the consequences of the Fall was that man not only lost God, but also became disordered in his own soul. More specifically, he lost knowledge of himself as well as God. This is why we tend to wander through life without really knowing what we are doing.

I accepted that the Fall had these consequences, but the connection between losing God and losing yourself was never obvious to me. As has been happening regularly in my re-reading of Gilson's The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Gilson made clear what should have been obvious all along:

The trouble is that he is himself involved in the mystery. If, in any true sense, man is an image of God, how should he know himself without knowing God? But if it is really of God that he is an image, how should he know himself? There are depths in human nature, unsuspected by the ancients, that make man an unfathomable mystery to himself. (Ch. 7)

Of course. Man is an unfathomable mystery because he is an image of an unfathomable mystery; as long as he in God's grace, and God grants him supernatural of Himself (and therefore that of which man is an image), man may know himself. But when he no longer knows God, he no longer knows that of which he is an image, and so he no longer knows himself.

But his ignorance has a particular cast in light of this analysis. While all beings naturally refer to God as the source of their being, man does so in a special way as an image of God. When he falls, he may no longer know God, but he still knows himself to the extent that he recognizes that he is the image of something. In other words, man is not the creator of his own meaning, and he senses that to know himself means knowing something greater than himself. This is one of the themes of Plato's Republic; the search for the nature of the soul is simultaneously the search for that within which the soul finds its meaning, which for Plato is the city. But as Gilson notes, the true touchstone of human nature is something far more profound than the secular city.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Gilson on Christian Personalism

In The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Gilson discusses the basis of Christian personalism and why Christian philosophy gave the individual a dignity impossible for the Greeks:

Thus we are carried far beyond Greek thought, whether it be Plato's or Aristotle's. For if the human soul is a substance and principle of substantiality, it is because it is an intellect, that is to say an immaterial being by definition and consequently incorruptible. After that, St. Thomas can turn to his own account, and does so unweariedly, the famous Aristotelian principle that the individual exists for the sake of the species; only, by a now inevitable reversal, the consequences that favoured the species in the Aristotelian system work out in favour of the individual in the Christian system. That to which the intention of nature now tends is much less the species than the incorruptible. If, sometimes, it looks to the good of the species rather than that of the individual it is only in those cases where the individuals are corruptible and the species alone endures; but in the case of incorruptible substances, it is not only the species that permanently endures, but also the individuals. And that is why the individuals themselves fall within the principle intention of nature: etiam individua sunt de principali intentione naurae. Now it is the soul that is the incorruptible part of man; and consequently we must admit that the multiplication of human individuals is a primary intention of nature, or rather of the Author of nature, Who is the only Creator of human souls: God.

With respect to species in which the individuals do not endure, the individual exists for the sake of the species. The end of the individual is the perpetuation of the species. But in species in which the individuals are incorruptible (i.e. eternal) we have the paradoxical situation that the individual himself is an end in himself; even more than this the end of the species is not merely itself but the individuals. Gilson is making a philosophical point here; the immortality of the human soul is known through philosophical analysis, not merely revelation (although Christian revelation may have provided the initial motivation to pursue this line of philosophical investigation.) That the species man exists for the eternal individual man is a principle of nature, and can be known through nature; it isn't something imposed on nature through an arbitrary act of God's will.

But what happens when the immortal nature of man is lost to view, as it has been in the modern world? Then, inevitably, the relationship between the species man and the individual man will change, or rather, it will be perceived differently. There will no longer be a rational basis for holding the individual man to be an end beyond the species. Like every other species, the individual man will come to be seen to exist for the sake of the species, as the individual dog exists for the sake of its species. It's not hard to see here the foundation for the horrors of the twentieth century, where millions of individuals were sacrificed for the material progress of humanity (in Communism) or for pseudoscientific biological progress (as in Nazism). Those horrors have tempered the ambitions of secular man, but the immortal nature of man is still no longer in view anymore than it was in the past century; so while we may not be in immediate danger of twentieth century style mass atrocities, it may be expected that the current century will provide novel assaults to the dignity of the individual man.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Gilson on Christian Humanism

In his The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson has a wonderful summary of what has been called "Christian humanism" (although he doesn't refer to it as that here). This passage had not stood out to me on prior readings of this book, but this time it struck me that I finally understood what Christian humanism really is:

It is clear to start with, that in virtue of his very rationality man is able to use other things as his instruments. They may destroy him eventually by sheer brute force, but they can never use him; on the contrary, he uses them. Things, therefore, are ordained to man as to their end, not man to things, and that amounts to saying that the rest of the universe is directed towards its end by man and through man. Reasonable beings are there, in a sense, for their own sake, the rest are there only for the sake of reasonable beings. The case is like that of an army, of which the whole object is the achievement of victory; those who are to achieve it are the soldiers who fight, and as for the auxiliary services, they exist only for the soldiers and participate in the victory only through the soldiers. it is the same with the universe and man; for the end of the universe is beatitude, and since only reasonable beings can enjoy it, the rest are called to participate it in them and for their sake. Providence, therefore has specially chosen the human species and leads it towards its end in an altogether special manner, since God is the end of the universe and it is through humanity that it is to attain Him.  (Ch. 8)

Gilson points to the utility men make of other things as the key empirical fact separating man from the rest of material creation. Man uses things, but they never use him, although they may destroy him. This undeniable phenomenon cuts through the ongoing debates respecting the metaphysical status of animals, e.g. to what extent they share rationality with us. Whatever extent it is, it is never to the extent that animals domesticate men the way men domesticate animals. And the relationship between men and animals is one of instrumental to final ends; man uses other things for his own ends. This is not a metaphysical conclusion but a simple observation of empirical fact; but from that fact significant conclusions, including the metaphysical, may be drawn. The relationship between men and animals is itself constituted by nature - man did not set himself up as lord of the earth but it is nature that makes him so. Since this relationship is constituted by nature it reflects nature's ends as well as man's. That man is an end for nature in a way superior to other things is not merely an anthropological conceit. Nature proclaims it so in its very constitution.

And note that it is nature that does so. Gilson does not quote Scripture. This makes it a "humanism" not only because it ratifies the essential dignity of man, but because it does so on the basis of man's own nature as we know it independently of revelation. Yet it is a Christian humanism because, although based on an empirical analysis of man's nature, it provides a ground in which the specifically Christian understanding of Providence makes sense. God has specially provided for man not to separate man from nature but because man is nature's glory; and it is through man that nature attains to God.

The Contemporary Need for Socrates

In our highly technical age, it might seem that the crucial element in education is its scientific content. But I am convinced that it is not science, but Socrates, that we really need. And the more technical our culture becomes, the more necessary becomes Socrates.

The key aspect of science to keep in view is that it is science only if you do it. A physics student investigating Newton's laws of motion in his lab is doing science; a casual reader of Discover magazine reading about the discovery of a new planet is not doing science but only reading about the science that others have done. Actual science is painstaking and time-consuming, with the consequence that a genuine scientific relationship to knowledge is possible, even for the most intelligent and ambitious man, for only a very limited range of topics. On everything else, a man does not have a scientific relationship to knowledge, but only a relationship to a scientific relationship to knowledge. Put simply, most of what we think of as scientific knowledge is not genuinely scientific, but only science at second hand - which is not genuinely scientific knowledge for us at all.

The more our scientific culture advances, the more any particular scientific career becomes an exercise in specialization. Back in the days of Pascal and Boyle, a man of talent could easily bring himself abreast of the current state of scientific knowledge. He could even replicate for himself many of the relevant experiments, thus making his relationship to the knowledge genuinely scientific. Those days are long gone, not merely because the breadth and depth of scientific knowledge is far too vast for any single man to have any hope of mastering, but because scientific investigation nowadays typically involves expensive equipment available to only a few. Galileo's homemade telescope isn't good enough anymore; now you need the Hubble Space Telescope.

The paradox, then, is that as our scientific culture advances our individual relationships to science become less direct and increasingly mediated through others. Maintaining a reasonable relationship to science no longer means performing experiments like it did for Pascal (except for a few), but maintaining a reasonable relationship to those conducting and reporting science. And this relationship is not a matter of science, but of philosophy - and Socrates is its master. For the Socratic excellence was not the ability to discover knowledge on his own, but to discern whether others had in fact discovered knowledge - or only thought they knew things when they really did not.