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Introduction to Philosophy

Wednesday, June 21st, 2017

How and what to teach in an introductory philosophy course?

I suppose, given the two basic approaches you mention, I’d be inclined to follow the first: the historical rather than the topical. The latter gives the impression that ideas come in neat and tidy little boxes, whereas in fact we can’t think well about being (ontology) without also thinking about knowing (epistemology), and our thoughts on these subjects at once presuppose and give rise to further thoughts about acting (ethics). I realize modern “academic” philosophy tends to divide all this up, but real philosophers didn’t, and don’t!

With that approach in mind, I would then go in search of those philosophical works, from the full range of periods you’re expected to cover, which best exemplify, and provoke, this sort of non-compartmentalized thinking. I wouldn’t go out of my way simply to avoid major figures—surely Kant, for example, has to show up somewhere—but I also wouldn’t be worried about fitting authors into my syllabus just because they’re found in most of your discipline’s canons. 

The specifics, of course, are where it gets tricky. Some works, such as The Republic, are obvious, and of course you won’t be surprised to learn that Boethius’s Consolation would likely show up on my list. But personal preference will at certain points have to be your guide, especially as you move into and beyond the modern period.

For myself, I might include E. F. Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed or (a real gem, in my opinion) Borna Bebek’s Third City—idiosyncratic though these choices might be—because they wonderfully suit the dialogical approach I’m suggesting. Or again, I can see myself using something of Barfield’s, or even P. D. Ouspensky. What links these otherwise so disparate works? They’re challenging, engaging, demanding—even upsetting—books, books that can force your students, at least the serious ones (the only ones that count), to consider themselves and the world afresh.

But that’s obviously not the whole story. Once you’ve figured out what authors and works would best suit, then comes the more difficult task of culling a chapter or two from each for your Reader. If it were my course, I’d would want to organize the selections not just chronologically—even though my overall approach is “historical”—but in such a way that Selection One leads to Selection Two and Two to Three and so on, so that students begin seeing how philosophers from different eras were nonetheless thinking together.

Needless to say, I’ve no idea at the moment, never having taught the course you’ve been assigned, how I would pull all this off. The key for me, though, would be how best to help young minds become personally, existentially interested in the Big Ideas, while at the same time showing them that everyone is perforce a philosopher, though only a very few are good at it!

Was Christ a Martyr?

Monday, July 4th, 2016

It seems to me you and your friend could both be right, depending on how one wishes to use the term “martyr”.

As you know, “martyr” means “witness”, and it’s clear from the Gospel that Christ Himself was a witness. He tells us, for example, that He came to do “not my own will, but the will of the Father who sent me” (John 6:38) and that He does nothing except “what He sees the Father doing” (John 5:19). He thus bears “witness” to the First Person of the Trinity, even as the Third Person bears “witness” to Him (John 15:26).

So sure, Christ is a martyr in that sense, as your friend has proposed.

On the other hand, you’re clearly right too–right in saying that it sounds rather odd, in Christian usage, to apply that word to Christ. The more common and obvious use of “martyr” is in speaking of those who’ve testified (witnessed) to their faith by their deaths. Inasmuch as Christ is God, however, and inasmuch as His death entailed the destruction of death, He’s best construed as the object, not the subject, of martyric witnessing.

Cutting the Knot

Saturday, June 18th, 2016

It’s a Gordian Knot. Don’t try to “untie” it. Just cut it. Cut through to essentials. You are yourself getting tied up in knots over peripheral issues.

Is there a longstanding prejudice in the Church against Origen? Sure. Is there, in certain quarters, an anti-intellectualism that likes to pillory Plato and the other “pagans”? Sure. But it would be the height of foolishness to let these historical accidents draw you away from the living Mysteries that the Church is able to offer you.

Plus, you’re not exactly alone. There are saints and respected hierarchs whose views on salvation are consistent with Origen’s. I’m thinking, for example, of St Gregory of Nyssa, who taught a version of the apokatastasis, and of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, who allows for the possible salvation even of Satan.

Do others in the Church disagree? Of course, but that needn’t concern you, for it’s clear, by virtue of these two examples, that one can be a fully Orthodox Christian while at the same time acknowledging, as St Ambrose said, that “truth, by whomsoever spoken, is of the Holy Spirit”.

Imagination: Seductive or Sub-Creative?

Monday, May 16th, 2016

I’m not sure there’s quite the dispute or divide you imagine (!) between the Romantics and the Orthodox. You’re right, of course, that many Fathers, both ancient and modern, often warn against the distracting dangers of imagination. To pick but one example, St Maximos the Confessor writes, “An intellect which dwells in imagination is unable to advance through contemplation to those intelligible realities cognate with it.”

If you take a look at the glossary of the Philokalia (from which this quotation is taken), you’ll find, however, that the word here rendered as “imagination” is the Greek phantasia, that is, “fantasy” or simply “fancy”.

Whether he can be taken as speaking for all the Romantics, I can’t say, but the poet, philosopher, and literary theorist S. T. Coleridge distinguishes quite emphatically between imagination and fancy in his Biographia Literaria, Ch. 13. At least on a terminological level, he agrees with the Fathers of the Philokalia in seeing the second as at best second rate. In case you’re interested, I discuss this at some length in my book The Form of Transformed Vision: Coleridge and the Knowledge of God.

The phantasia disparaged in the Philokalia, and among Orthodox authorities in general, is not the “imagination”, in STC’s usage, but rather “fancy”, which (says Coleridge) is “no other than a mode of Memory emancipated from the order of time and space…. Equally with the ordinary memory it must receive all its materials ready made from the law of association” (Biographia Literaria [Princeton, 1983], Vol. I, 305).

The “imagination”, by contrast is something quite different. It comes in two forms, primary and secondary. The first is “the living Power and prime Agent of all human perception” and “a representative in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” (BL, ibid., 304). To use more characteristically Orthodox language, it’s our cognitive participation in the Logos, “the light of men” (John 1), whereby one is enabled to see the inner logoi of things. The secondary imagination, on the other hand, “co-existing with the conscious will”, presupposes the “light” of the primary—STC calls it “an echo of the former”—but it adds a dimension of intentionality as it “struggles to idealize and to unify” (304).

As I see it, the key—or at least a key—difference between Orthodox phantasia and Coleridgean imagination is that the latter is necessarily neptic: it depends on a degree of wakefulness, and its aim, in its secondary form, is to assist and extend the creative work of God. I can’t help but think in this connection of J. R. R. Tolkien’s “sub-creation”, the art of making “according to the law by which we are made”.

Perpetual Virginity and Pain

Saturday, April 23rd, 2016

As you no doubt know, the three stars on the Virgin’s maphorion (mantle) in Orthodox icons—one on Her head, and one on each shoulder—are intended to signify Her perpetual virginity: (1) before, (2) during, and (3) after the birth of Christ.

The “during” often puzzles people: “before” obviously means that She had no sexual relations with a man prior to Christ’s birth, and the “after” that She had none later. But “during” seems odd; clearly no woman is going to engage in intercourse while she’s giving birth. The second “star” has therefore often been taken to refer to what’s going on with Mary physiologically when Christ leaves Her womb, and thence to the claim that Her hymen remained intact and unaffected. This, if I understand you correctly, is the backdrop to your question: Did Mary experience any pain in childbirth?

Of course, what the Church won’t allow us to say (and for very good reasons) is that the birth was not a real birth. Although Christ entered Mary’s womb miraculously, His exit was such that, if we’d been there, we would have seen a little body coming out of His mom’s birth canal, just as all babies do. No docetism allowed … no preternatural “birth” of an Athena from the head of some Zeus. You can talk about the birth being “a type of ecstatic experience, God coming-out-of-the self” (your phrase), if you want, but it’s important to insist even so that genuine bodies were involved: a mother’s body and a baby’s body; whatever it was that occurred, it had an impact or a “resonance” (if you will) on multiple planes, including the material.

This, by the way, is why some Orthodox iconographers, while showing two stars on the maphorion, deliberately paint the Child’s body in such a way as to conceal the third. The third star remains proportionately or symmetrically implied, as it were, but the fact that it can’t be seen helps to “offset any suspicion that a virginity in partu might render the birth of Christ excessively ‘magical’ and docetic…. In this the theologian-iconographers’ … instinct for Orthodoxy was unerring” (John Anthony McGuckin, The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture [Blackwell], p. 215).

In any case it’s important not to get too caught up in thinking that the Virgin’s perfection, or that of Her Child, made Her immune to pain pure and simple. Perhaps the birth process, given Her perpetual virginity, was other than the unusual, as I’ve noted above, and perhaps it therefore didn’t cause Her physical pain. Nonetheless, let’s not forget the prophecy of Simeon: “A sword shall pierce through thine own soul also” (Luke 2:35). Whatever that means, I’m guessing it really hurt.

A Question of Translation

Monday, March 21st, 2016

What’s the best way to render the French déifuge when translating Schuon? Previous translators (myself among them) have generally opted for the literal transposition, “deifugal”, but you’re thinking about “theofugal”, you say, or else simply “God-fleeing”. As I see it, there are two issues to keep in mind: one is philology, and the other is connotation in relation to context.

Philologically, the question you ask raises the further question of why some English compound words having to do with God use a prefix derived from the Greek (theos) while others use a prefix derived from the Latin (deus). While it would doubtless be foolish to impose any hard and fast rule, it seems to me we should avoid English compounds that fuse a Latin with a Greek root; both parts of a word should come from the same ancient language. We may say théomorphique/“theomorphic”—as Schuon does from time to time—because θεός/theos (God) and μορφή/morphe (form) are both Greek; but we don’t say “theoform” because in this case the Greek-derived prefix would be “unequally yoked” to a Latin root (forma). Crossett would have referred to the resulting mix as a linguistic “bastard”, for obvious reasons.

The French déifuge respects this rule inasmuch as both parts of the word are Latin in origin: deus + fugo, -ere “to flee”. A quick search suggests that our English equivalent, “deifugal”, while by no means a common adjective, does have a number of precedents in other authors, including Simone Weil, who observed, in perfect accord with Schuonian metaphysics: “There exists a ‘deifugal’ force. Otherwise all would be God” (Gravity and Grace). It actually surprised me to discover that your proposal, “theofugal”, appears to have a few precedents as well; curiously one Evangelical Christian website I happened upon employs the term “theofugal” as a label for “ministries that are designed to cause a person to flee from sin to God”. I wouldn’t recommend using the word that way!

As it happens, “theofugal” also conforms to the rule of pairing words derived from the same language, for the Latin verb fugo is itself derived from the Greek φεύγω/pheugo (flee). The problem in this case, however, is that your spelling “theofugal” fails to preserve the orthography of the Greek double-parentage: if you wish to use this term, it really ought to be “theopheugal” or perhaps “theophugal”—“ph”, not “f”, being the proper way in which to transliterate the Greek letter φ (phi). But I have to confess, neither of those options appeals to me very much: they seem much too pedantic, even ostentatious, for your purposes. The Schuon translator must strive for precision, certainly, but not at the price of imposing a neologism—or not at least if there’s an established alternative. I believe I would therefore stick with “deifugal”.

But then of course there’s also the possibility, as you suggest, of simply muting the classical source of the term altogether and rendering the French déifuge into English as “God-fleeing”. I think if you choose to go this Anglo-Saxon route, however, you need to be careful to consider both context and connotation. What is it precisely that Schuon is talking about in a given passage? What substantive is said to be déifuge? And does the connotation of the adjective we choose make sense in relation to that substantive?

As I’m sure you’d agree, our English verb “flee” connotes, not merely movement away, but movement with the intention of escaping, and it therefore implies agency, and motive, on the part of the one who is fleeing. The Latin fugo, by contrast, seems more neutral, and more especially focused on the movement as such. Hence the Latin aphorism tempus fugit, the point of which is to express the rapidity with which time passes, but without attributing any agency—let alone any angst!—to time as such.

Given these connotations, I believe it makes better sense to use the Latin derivative and thus to say “deifugal” when Schuon is speaking of the way in which the descending levels of manifestation “move”, as it were, further and further away from the Absolute, approaching the impossible possibility of non-being. On the other hand, if our author is speaking instead, as he sometimes does, about the ego or about sin and its moral as well as ontological tendency, then your suggested “God-fleeing” may well be the better choice.

An Extraordinary Visitor

Sunday, February 21st, 2016

Your information is correct: the Kursk Root Icon has indeed been traveling throughout the Southeastern United States in recent days. In fact we were very fortunate to have had it in our home one evening this past week; here is one of the photos we took. From the way your question was posed, I assume you are aware of this icon’s extraordinary history, but for those of your friends to whom this is new and with whom you might wish to share a few facts, here are the essentials:

Discovered near the city of Kursk in Russia on 8 September 1295, the icon—a Virgin of the Sign—is associated with numerous miraculous events and phenomena over the course of many centuries. It is said to have survived several attempts to destroy it, “healing” itself in one case after it was split in half with an axe and emerging another time from an explosion as the lone survivor; and it is believed to have been the source, occasion, or medium for a wide range of miraculous cures, including that of a young future saint, Seraphim of Sarov. Spirited out of Russia at the Bolshevik Revolution, it resided in various places in Europe for several decades and is now kept at the Russian Cathedral of the Mother of God in New York when it is not on tour.

Returning to Russia in 2009 for the first time since the Revolution, the Kursk Root Icon was greeted by many thousands of Orthodox Christians, who patiently stood in line for hours for an opportunity to kiss this holy object. To have had our own private darshan with this medieval Virgin—to be able to spend time venerating and praying before Her, opening to the uncreated energies with which She is believed to be imbued and sharing in the devotional energies that have been directed Her way for over 700 years—was a tremendous gift. We were reminded of the words of Elizabeth: “How is it that the Mother of our Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43)

Here I share a photograph of the icon in our oratory, resting on the altar in front of my own icon of the Virgin of the Sign as Burning Bush, which you’ve no doubt seen on my website. And here you can see our priest reading some prayers as we prepare to carry the icon throughout our house for the annual blessing, singing this special hymn: “Come, ye faithful, let us radiantly celebrate the wondrous appearance of this most precious image of the Mother of God, and drawing grace therefrom, let us cry out with compunction: Rejoice, O Theotokos blessed Mary, Mother of God!” (Kontakion for the Icon, Tone 4).

Not Just Harps and Nightgowns

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

Yes, it’s true—I say this based on my own personal, though very limited, experience, as well as (much more importantly!) the consistent teaching of the Orthodox Church—that our prayers and other spiritual work can have a healing impact on others, including those who are no longer in this world but nonetheless alive in and to God. And this would doubtless be especially true for husbands and wives, who were made “one flesh” for eternity by their marriage.

And yes again: those who’ve died—precisely because they are alive in and to God—can help us as well. This is why we speak of a “communion of the saints”, and it’s the reason Orthodox pray for the dead as well as request the intercessory prayers of the saints. Orthodoxy doesn’t believe in “soul sleep”: the idea, promoted in certain Christian quarters, that when we die we pass into a state of suspended animation, only to awaken at the Second Coming of Christ. According to Orthodox belief, we’re still entirely conscious, and we remain aware in some sense of our past life in this world and of the continuing lives of those who remain.

Let’s add this too: Orthodox teach that salvation is a continuing, ever-deepening process, which doesn’t stop when we pass beyond the limits of this world at death. St Gregory of Nyssa used the term epektasis, a Greek word meaning to “stretch out” or “reach forward”. Perfection or deification, he said, consists in an unending epektasis, a continual reaching toward an ever-increasing perfection, as we dive deeper and deeper into the abyss of an infinite God. The Orthodox Christian needn’t fear ever becoming “bored” with a Heaven that’s only harps and nightgowns!

Perpendicular to Time

Sunday, January 3rd, 2016

Is “the present moment” perpendicular to the line of time? Interesting question. It seems to me a good answer depends on which sort of “present” you mean.

I have in mind the medieval distinction, going back at least as far as Boethius, between two distinct forms of the “now”: the nunc fluens (the “flowing now”) and the nunc stans (the “standing now”). According to Boethius, nunc fluens facit tempus, nunc stans facit aeternitatem; that is, “the flowing now [or the now that passes] generates time, while the standing now [or the now that remains] generates eternity.”

It’s useful to pause and ponder the Latin facit (“generates”) in this context.

By “flowing now” Boethius means the present insofar as it is caught up in the flux of associative mentation, the now that is simply an effect of the previous moment and a cause of the next; whereas the “standing now” is a “stop”, the cessation—however brief—of associationism and automatism … a “stop between thoughts”, to allude to a passage I was just reading the other day in Jeanne de Salzmann’s Reality of Being. The mind, she says, must “remain motionless in the stop between two thoughts until it becomes more sensitive and perceptive, more alive than what is seen, what is under its look”.

In the midst of this motionlessness, it seems to me the answer is yes: we are indeed on a line that is “perpendicular” to time.

The Lower Depths of Higher Ed

Wednesday, December 30th, 2015

As a follow-up to my last post—Logismoi—I thought you might be interested in the following recent article by George Will. So perhaps things aren’t so bad after all at your university?!

WASHINGTON (26 November 2015)— Give thanks this day for some indirect blessings of liberty, including the behavior-beyond-satire of what are generously called institutions of higher education. People who are imprecisely called educators have taught, by their negative examples, what intelligence is not.

Melissa Click is the University of Missouri academic who shouted “I need some muscle over here” to prevent a photojournalist from informing the public about a public demonstration intended to influence the public. Click’s academic credentials include a University of Massachusetts doctoral dissertation titled “Its a ‘Good Thing’: The Commodification of Femininity, Affluence and Whiteness in the Martha Stewart Phenomenon.” Her curriculum vitae says she studied “advanced feminist studies.” Advanced. The best kind.

University of Missouri law students, who evidently cut class the day the First Amendment was taught, wrote a social media policy that included this: “Do not comment despairingly (disparagingly?) on others.” A grammatically challenged Ithaca College professor produced this “cri de coeur” regarding the school’s president: “There have been a litany of episodes and incidents during (his) tenure here which have led to frustration because, when brought to his attention, the view of the protesters is that he has been unresponsive.” Symptomatic of Ithaca’s intellectual flavor is another professor, who says agriculture is “capitalist, racialized patriarchy.”

The University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, an irony-free campus, declared the phrase “politically correct” a microaggression. The master of Yale’s Pierson College said his regrettable title reminds distressed students of slavery.

Wesleyan University’s student government threatened to cut the school newspaper’s funding because it published a column critical of campus leftists. Wesleyan created a “safe space,” aka a house, for LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM students (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, flexual, asexual, gender—, polyamorous, bondage/discipline, dominance/submission, sadism/masochism).

A Washington State University professor said she would lower the grade of any student who used the term “illegal immigrants” when referring to immigrants here illegally. Another Washington State professor warned in his syllabus that white students who want “to do well” in his “Introduction to Multicultural Literature” should show their “grasp of history and social relations” by “deferring to the experiences of people of color.” Another Washington State teacher, in her syllabus for “Women & Popular Culture,” warned that students risk “failure for the semester” if they use “derogatory/oppressive language” such as “referring to women/men as females or males.”

The University of Tennessee’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, worried that students might be uncomfortable with gender-specific pronouns (he, she, him, her), suggests gender-neutral noises (ze, hir, xe, xem, xyr).

The University of California system’s sensitivity auditors stipulated that “hostile” and “derogatory” thoughts include “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” and “America is the land of opportunity.” The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point’s list of racial microaggressions includes “America is a melting pot” and “There is only one race, the human race.”

Some Johns Hopkins University students proclaimed themselves microaggressed by the possibility of a Chick-fil-A restaurant on campus. (Chick-fil-A’s CEO defines marriage as Barack Obama did until 2012.) Mount Holyoke College canceled its annual production of “The Vagina Monologues” because it is insufficiently inclusive regarding women without vaginas and men who, as the saying goes, “self-identify” as women. “Gender,” said a student, “is a wide and varied experience, one that cannot simply be reduced to biological or anatomical distinctions,” and the show “is inherently reductionist and exclusive.”

Writing in the University of California at Berkeley paper, two geographically challenged students objected to a class featuring Plato and Aristotle and other “economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States).”

A branch of the University of California at Irvine’s student government passed a resolution against the display of flags. Written by a student in the School of Social Ecology (“transformative research to alleviate social inequality and human suffering”), the resolution said flags are “weapons for nationalism” and “construct” dangerous “cultural mythologies and narratives” and “paradigms of conformity” and “homogenized standards” and interfere with “designing a culturally inclusive space.”

Students on Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board suggested trigger warnings for persons who might be traumatized by reading, say, Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” wherein some myths portray bad sexual behavior. But a feminist blog warned that the phrase “trigger warning” itself needs a warning attached to it because it might remind people of guns. But, then, the word “warning” might (substitute word for “trigger”) fright.

So, today, give thanks that 2015 has raised an important question about American higher education: What, exactly, is it higher than?