Archive for August, 2012

Dense and Demanding

Friday, August 24th, 2012

As I mentioned last week in my post on Socratic Teaching, I’m leading an honors seminar this fall on the perennialist school. This is the first time, I might add, that I’ve offered such a course at the undergraduate level, and I’m doing so, at the request of a few upperclassmen, with some reservations.

You’re not alone: several other regular readers of this weblog have also asked about the course, and specifically about what I’m having the students read. Here, to answer these questions, is the syllabus, and here’s the front matter (including the table of contents) for the collection of readings I’ve assembled.

Yes—I’ll go ahead and anticipate your response!—it is indeed a dense and demanding set of assignments, especially given the fact that seven of the twelve students are freshmen. Am I expecting too much? Well, we’ll see. Ask me again in December.

Socratic Teaching

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Yes, it’s that time of year again. Like you, I start my fall teaching the week after next. Two courses, as usual: Christian Theology, one of my regular offerings in the Religious Studies department, and a seminar in the University’s Honors College on the Perennial Philosophy.

No, not all of my teaching is Socratic, or not at least “purely” so. It’s interesting that you ask about that just now. At the invitation of our Center for Teaching Excellence, I gave a talk this past spring for fellow USC faculty on the subject of Socratic pedagogy, and I just recently added some audio to the PowerPoint presentation I used and have posted it here. It’s the first time I’ve tried to articulate (even to myself) what I attempt to do in the classroom.

As I explain in this talk, the “intensity” of my Socratic engagement varies from “moderate” to “high”, where a “very high” degree of dialectical intensity is to be found in a dialogue like Plato’s Meno. The pedagogy in my honors seminars is deliberately, and avowedly, Socratic in character, each class beginning with a question and being regularly punctuated by further cross-examinational inquiries.

In larger classes like Christian Theology, however, I dilute the method somewhat. I start each session in a more or less professorial way by summarizing, and then elaborating on, my on-line lecture for the day. But then, as soon as I sense that most of the students have grasped the essential points, I move toward discussion, taking questions, but as often as not turning them back on the students with additional questions of my own.

My fundamental aim in each case, regardless of the grammatical mood of my sentences, is one best expressed by Coleridge, when he pointed out that Socrates’s own aim was

“not to assist in storing the passive mind with the various sorts of knowledge most in request, as if the human soul were a mere repository or banqueting-room, but to place it such relations of circumstance as should gradually excite the germinal power that craves no knowledge but what it can take up into itself, what it can appropriate, and re-produce in fruits of its own” (The Friend, “Essays on the Principles of Method”, Essay VII).

Further Thoughts on Thomism and Such

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

You expressed your surprise, vis-à-vis my post on “A Thomistic Preparatio”, that Schuon would “place Thomas Aquinas at the top of his recommendation list” for Christian esotericists. You’re surprised because you’ve “yet to come across a Thomist who is friendly to the views of the Traditionalist School”. But why should this failure to reciprocate make any difference to Schuon’s estimate? I’m reminded of a passage in Coomaraswamy’s seminal essay “Paths that Lead to the Same Summit”:

The quarrel of Christianity with other religions seems to an Oriental … a tactical error in the conflict of ideal with sensate motivations…. Nor will he participate in such a quarrel; much rather he will say what I have often said to Christian friends: “Even if you are not on our side, we are on yours.”

As for your quotation from Berdyaev, he’s certainly right in noting that “Orthodox thought”—like traditionalist, or perennialist, thought—is “a Platonic ontologism” and that, this being so, it’s necessarily at odds with the characteristic bifurcation one finds in the Catholic West between the natural and the supernatural, hence between God and the world.

On the other hand, I agree with you that Berkyaev is “extreme” in his seeming total dismissal of Thomism. After all, there are specialists in Thomas’s work who have argued that he himself was a Platonist, and yet others who say that everything in Eckhart can be found echoed, albeit in more muted form, in the Summa Theologiae. Though his “mystical” experience late in life may have led the Angelic Doctor to denounce his own work as just so much “straw”, there’s every reason to think that the experience was not unrelated to a lifetime of rigorous dialectical thinking.

A final point: You concluded your comment by saying that “numerous Christians seem to reject the Perennial Philosophy on the grounds that there must be an absolute separation between God and man. And they accuse the Christian Perennialist of thinking that a ‘softening’ of pantheism into panentheism can safeguard his orthodoxy … but (they assume) it can’t!” Again I concur, though of course one must immediately add that these “numerous Christians” couldn’t be more wrong! To quote Coomaraswamy once more, this time from his “Ved?nta and the Western Tradition”:

To say that “I am a pantheist” is merely to confess that “I am not a metaphysician,” just as to say that “two and two make five” would be to confess “I am not a mathematician.”

The true metaphysician is in fact the very first to emphasize the “absolute separation” you speak of (Berdyaev’s “Chasm”), though with this critical difference: for the metaphysician, the real divide is to be found within the Divine Principle itself, between Nirguna Brahman and Saguna Brahman, that is, Eckhart’s Gottheit and Gott. He places the separation here, and not between the Personal God and man, because he knows that this God is “personal” precisely in function of His relation to man, and could not therefore be Absolute in any absolute sense.