Category Archives: philosophy & theology

a death of god

The Harrowing of Hell

‘… should we not learn to see that [the descent into hell], which liturgically is associated with Holy Saturday in the Church’s year, is particularly close to our day and is to a particular degree the experience of our century? On Good Friday our gaze remains fixed on the crucified Christ, but Holy Saturday is the day of the “death of God”, the day that expresses the unparalleled experience of our age, anticipating the fact that God is simply absent, that the grave hides him, that he no longer awakes, no longer speaks, so that one no longer needs to gainsay him, but can simply overlook him. “God is dead and we have killed him.” This saying of Nietzsche’s belongs linguistically to the tradition of Christian Passiontide piety; it expresses the content of Holy Saturday, “descended into hell”1.

— Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), Introduction to Christianity (1968)


Pope Benedict is my favorite living theologian (he is probably my favorite of the past century). Yet, something has always bothered me about this idea; it seems too glib to associate this ‘death of God’ with the modern ‘death of God’.

One thing that I found particularly odd about Mind & Cosmos was Nagel’s comfort in dismissing the idea of even exploring whether his teleological reasoning would, perhaps, lead to a sort of theism: He calls this an ‘ungrounded assumption’ and lets it go on his admission of ‘lack[ing] the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling.’ (pg. 12) Multiple times through the book, he claims that the theistic hypothesis is either a complication or impedes unification (a not necessarily, but justifiable, criteria for a reasonable worldview); however, I fail to see how his forms of neutral monism and pansychism (both his words) are no less so, except on the claim that they are more unifying— the idea that they are less complex is easily dismissible.

Heidegger’s famous remark, ‘Only a God can still save us.’, is intimately related to this one. It is not to be understood that Heidegger is calling for a return to theism, because if anything, his work is as sure in the death of traditional belief as Nietzsche’s. (This is why I believe he purposefully bracketed philosophy away from theology**.) So, to say that this sort of environment is the age of Holy Saturday is strange; at worst, a man who had claimed he was God was dead— it’s hard to believe that God was dead.

Yet, there’s something to it in another way. In the brief time I was in seminary, I wrote a paper about the accusations of atheism by pagan critics towards Christianity; maybe with some glibness myself, I called this intellectual battle ‘the first death of God’. Those accusations generally focused on Christian rejections of traditional forms, but they also focused on specifically theological content, such as Porphyry’s criticism of the idea of omnipotence; an omnipotent God would be an impossible God, therefore, the Christian God was not God at all, but the death of God. Maybe then there is some theological fault which has resulted in a broader, more lasting, ‘death of God’.

Nagel’s appeal to his lack of sensus divinitatis seems to be a good example of such a theological fault; while the idea has currency due to Alvin Plantinga, the sense of the idea has been affected by the intensely emotional content of sensation we have— especially in regard to religious feeling. (Plantinga himself notes that the sense may be impeded by sin, but his description of it leaves something to be desired.) I see no reason why such a ‘sense’ need be of the sort Nagel writes about; that is a sort of mystical sense which I believe is fairly rare in its strong form. (Indeed, I think that the drive to claim it in its strong form is a real problem in modern Christianity.) Is there not a specifically intellectual (in the common sense) sort of sensus divinitatis? That is, is there not a form which is expressed in the rational mind’s acceptance of a reasonable argument of one sort or another? (I think the most common form of reasoned assent is likely that of the recognition of coherence and the general sort of animating that can provide.) If what Nagel is talking about is sensus divinitatis, I have it no more than he does; the difference here is that I did not know that that should have been a compelling reason not to investigate the metaphysical claims of Christianity and their reasonableness.

Deny Turner’s fantastic new book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, reveals Thomas as a man who believed just that— a human person can know God through the light of philosophy. This isn’t to degrade the revelation, but we can think here of Gaius Marius Victorinus, who felt that, as he was in metaphysical & ethical agreement with the Christians (or, at least, as he understood them), he had no need of joining them, religiously speaking. Yet, he must have realized that was not enough, as he converted late in life. What is it that can lead from, let’s say, a metaphysical agreement to one that takes on the ‘addition’ of submitting to revelation? It isn’t as if, for example, you can claim that Christianity is compelling because it taught correct metaphysics by revelation (rather, its metaphysics was formed in concert with it); neither can you claim that there is any necessity that leads one from the philosophy to the revelation. One legitimate move may be the inference to the best explanation, whereby the holistic nature of the Christian teaching, which integrates metaphysics, ethics, history, etc. into a compelling harmony (or nearly so) can be a reason for accepting revelation as an ‘addition’. But this is cursory.

The problem, then, is that a view of the ‘death of God’ which simply links it in a mystical fashion to the Event of Holy Saturday is that it then detaches the search from God from the search from reason. I hardly think this was Benedict’s intention, as his whole corpus can be seen as an attempt to return Christianity to the realm of reasoned discourse, rather than its remaining in the strategic position of irrationality (often, of course, following Heidegger’s ‘advice’…). As he wrote in the same work, ‘…what can go on existing only through interpretation has in reality ceased to exist.’ (Now that’s a damning remark!) It is also relevant that, in that work, he actually rejects the idea that a sort of ‘religious talent’ must necessarily exist in order to uphold the universal claims of religion.

Maybe the connection is indeed not with the ‘death of God’ to Western culture, but rather the believer’s life within such a culture; the believer is Joseph of Arimathea or the Mother of God at the tomb. To place the catastrophic atheists such as Nietzsche in that role (which seems implied in identifying our age with Holy Saturday) surrenders far too much.

More on the Turner book, later.


* Here he references Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheist Humanism.

** ‘A “Christian philosophy” is a round square and a misunderstanding. To be sure, one can thoughtfully question and work through the world of Christian experience–that is, the world of faith. That is then theology. Only ages that really no longer believe in the true greatness of the task of theology arrive at the pernicious opinion that, through a supposed refurbishment with the help of philosophy, a theology can be gained or even replaced, and can be made more palatable to the need of the age. Philosophy, for the originally Christian faith, is foolishness. Philosophizing means asking: “Why are their beings at all, instead of nothing?” Actually asking this means venturing to exhaust, to question thoroughly, the inexhaustible wealth of this question, by unveiling what it demands that we question. Whenever such a venture occurs, there is philosophy.’ —Introduction to Metaphysics

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‘aquinas amongst the analytics’

I can identify with this:

My formal education in philosophy was entirely in the analytic mold and I am grateful for that since it introduced me to the power of analysis and rigorous argumentation; but that mold is also a somewhat shallow one. This is not to do with the issue of religion per se, but rather with the narrowing of intellectual sources. When people were trained in classical culture, or literature, or history, or the arts, and especially if they had been introduced to unfamiliar and seemingly strange ways of thinking, their imaginations were more developed and they were less inclined to take the ruling ideas and values of their own time as obviously correct. My first philosophy classes were taught by David Hamlyn and concerned the pre-Socratics. Their strange and oracular remarks immediately ignited my imagination and I still return to them when jaded by the often flat and featureless forms of contemporary philosophy. Among analytic philosophers those I most admire have imagination and are open to diverse sources of insight into human nature and reality: Anscombe, Kripke, McDowell, MacIntyre, Nagel, Putnam, Taylor, Williams – each draws, not always announcedly, on sources outside the brief and narrow canon of analytic philosophy.

My very first philosophy class was an upper–division philosophy of science course I managed to weasel my way into as a sophomore transfer student. The professor was a rarity in two respects: He was a Republican, and—as he put it—the last logical positivist standing (likely not true, though probably true enough). While logical positivism proper didn’t make much of an impact on me, the analytic method did. (My first philosophy paper was a of inductive reasoning.) If it weren’t for an adolescence steeped in Plato (with forays into other thinkers, Kierkegaard especially), I probably could have been completely absorbed within the typical borders of that tradition. It is impressive, seductive, and highly effective. Philosophers and theologian–philosophers who dismiss analytic philosophy in some sort of vague fashion do so at their peril. In fact, I find it hard to take them very seriously, suspecting—perhaps unfairly in some cases—that their dismissals are an excuse to not have to learn the disciplines of analytic thought— especially formal logic. (I think formal logic is often overrated as a philosophical tool, but learning it is a tremendous asset— it expands your mental horizons.)

I have some stuff that’s been on the back–burner for way too long regarding metaphysical Aristotelianism in analytic philosophy; it probably won’t see the light of day any time soon, but the fact that it is a feature of the ‘scene’ shows that the possibilities of analytic thought are far wider than its detractors imagine.


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• I actually haven’t forgotten (!) my project on the New Right, having recently finished a book written by an adherent of the Faye–wing, Andrew Fraser’s The WASP Question. It’s a strange mish–mash of ideas and wild–eyed prophecy, alternately very interesting when it adheres to matters of law and legal history (Fraser taught in law schools for a time), cringingly malinformed (much of his discussion of theology and religious history falls under this category*), and highly inconsistent and strange. It was an interesting read, though not very illuminating, as Fraser seems to be a party of one to a degree unusual even for the political fringe.

• I feel far more investment in my game nights or watching baseball than I do the presidential election, but the collapse of Obama over the past week has been amazing. Since the morning after the debate (before new data could really be adjusted), Obama’s chance of winning has decreased some thirty percent on Nate Silver’s model, from 87.1% to 61.%; if he loses, it could be a historic collapse for a presidential candidate this late in the race.

• On the other hand, there is a realistic scenario where Obama wins the electoral college and Romney takes the popular vote. While the role–reversal from 2000 should provide some humor, the more significant outcome of that would be a decrease in the medium–term probability of a constitutional amendment passing that would put the US on a strict popular vote system for the chief executive. I am in favor of such an outcome. Cue the blustering about ‘a mandate’.

• Speaking of baseball, the Reds’s bad luck and offensive collapse in the NLDS has left my fellow Reds fans more understanding of my position that there should not be any playoffs in baseball at all, other than a World Series between the AL and NL regular season leaders. Regular season head–to–head records should suffice to break most ties; otherwise, an additional three game series would be acceptable. That said, go Tigers.

Coursera and its ilk are going to hasten the bursting of the education bubble. Of course, the banks and universities will get the bailouts, rather than the students bamboozled into taking out loans to get worthless BAs.

• I’ve been overtaken the past few weeks with a desire to radically reduce the amount of stuff in my apartment. On the other hand, I am married. Perhaps this is the military brat coming out in me, but all I’ve been able to think of is how much we would have to move when we (eventually) do. (There is no reason we would be moving right now, though I would be happy for one to come along at any moment.) I did manage to convert this impulse into a few boxes of books and one large box of clothes being donated, however.

• I saw Looper this week. It was surprisingly well–done, the first sci–fi flick in a while to work. It’s not great or anything (so you can wait for the DVD), but it avoids the tackiness and bombast the genre has suffered from recently. Also, it isn’t a comic book movie. (I’m glad that Christopher Nolan is finally done with Batman.) Moon remains my favorite sci–fi effort of the past five years.

• Why isn’t it Thanksgiving, already?

* Some readers may be interested to know that he substantially follows the narrative of Orthodox England, with the good & bad that implies.

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the role of the idea

This is (in part) a reply to Dr Charlton’s reply here. As the reply grew larger than the post he was responding to, I realized I needed to make it its own post.

Well, sometimes you have to go rather deeper into things in order to repair them. (I should note here that I’m not fond of Frost, but that’s a completely superficial judgment as I have read him little and have had him explained to me less; so, I cannot have an opinion for you, there!) Tolkien’s Englishing English for the sake of English–in–itself is an example here. I think there’s some sort of real call here.

I’ve developed an interest in neuroscience (well, a more intense version of a longer casual interest), and the way it positions itself towards mental phenomena (or, perhaps, the way it appears to) inspire a return of sorts; we will have to explore the philosophy of the mind for its own sake again. We also have to recover ontology; Heidegger pretended to do this, but it needs to be done for real. The areas where you see a sort of returning are primarily in second–order disciplines like mereology and the logical expression of ontology; ontology itself is more subtle, but it must underline both. So, one must engage in ontological enterprises for their own sake.

Philosophy that aims at a predetermined goal is simply anotherl form of philosophy as a weapon. Conservatives have engaged in this dark art in numerous ways, the majority of work in Neothomism falls under this category… from the Orthodox side of things, David Bradshaw’s Aristotle East & West, after a stream of good historical analysis, falls into this trap in a really jarring manner. (Wait, Palamism would have prevented the rise of Nietzsche? What?) Theological writers from practically every confession have tried to use post–modern mystification as a weapon to create some sort of vague space for belief.

In the same fashion that philosophy used to aspire to be for its own sake, I think the arts were for their own sake in context with their role in the greater drama of creation; I do not know if the Greek sculptor or tragedian thought about a goal for his art in the way we now attempt to attribute goals to artists, beyond the role of that art in festival, civic prominence, religious rite, &c. Similarly, music–as–music is responsible only to its role as music, how it is the sort of music that it is, not its ‘goals’ in the sense that we mean them. Proper liturgical music does not attempt to create passions or moods; it exists for the sake of being the sort of music that is worthy. Indeed, I suspect that the true forms of all arts are the art–as–art; this is not wholly possible, but what else could the angelic music be? The ideal form of human arts would seem to be a pure sort of creation; this seems to me to be implicit in Tolkien’s ideal of sub–creation (rather than its actuality).

[My collection of footnotes has grown ridiculously unwieldy, so I will add here that I do think there is a difference between goals and roles; any action has its natural telos— as does every being. Art–as–art will be directed towards its telos. Goals, rather, are created when the artist attempts to impose an alien telos on his art. Obviously I should be copyrighting this right now.]

• • •

I think the big ‘dogma’ of the internet reactionary set is quietism, or even a reticence to take concrete positions that may place demands of any practical sort. Yet, it’s one thing to believe in progress, it’s another to be hopeful; it’s one thing to be be a fatalist, it’s another to be a pessimist. (There is a reason—in any case—that hope is a virtue. In the Greek, it’s even a little stronger; ἐλπίς has a meaning akin to awaiting something. Our ‘hope’ is often used for a vague attitude— ἐλπίς is concrete. This is why faith functions as a ‘substance’ of things hoped for in Hebrews.*) It is very easy to show what went wrong; it is harder to see why things may go right, or even what did go right— or what candles may still have burned. This generally leads to historical romanticism, sheer cynicism, or both. (Of the first of those, I have become utterly exhausted for personal reasons.)

Foseti’s (somewhat) recent post on ‘your’ Christianity seems to me to be the atheistic obverse to your coin. You posit a Christianity that bears some resemblance to Lewis’s, with a different sort of nihilism behind it. (I am not trying to agitate you by the use of that word; I am speaking frankly, and I do not think that false diplomacy is of much use in such a discussion.) Lewis wanted to simply bracket away most of the questions of what the Church really is by painting it with a right–ish version of the broad church brush; you’ve used the idea to beg off making choices. It’s little wonder that a Foseti may doubt the Nietzschean/Moldbuggian line about Christianity as the fountainhead of modern liberalism, but cannot seem to respect Christianity— or be able to fully reject the line. (There is some truth in it, in any case.)

I found your post on sacred music to be really illustrative; I do not know any person who takes liturgical music seriously who would disagree with points 1, 4, 5, 6, or 7… but 2 & (in a more trivial manner) 3 are unusual objections. I will grant that chant in Orthodox services is often terrible; this is a common complaint among people who really care about music. To make it worse, certain persons (mostly clergy and bureaucrats) have this false idea of ‘what the people want’ and seek to enforce it at any cost. Taking abuse as normativeness is a problem— if correct practice is not followed, it still exists within the institution as an idea, if nothing else. (Indeed, if a particular church is the Church, not even rampant blasphemy within it could undo its being so— though it may, of course, be evidence to the contrary.)

I know of a choir that takes a conscientious approach to liturgical music… and its main detractors have been clergy. The lay people might not understand it on the level that is behind it, but they can understand the orientation towards worship that careful selection & performance of liturgical music results in.

I mentioned the continuing role in Slavic Orthodox Churches of 19th c. Russian romantic music during the short exchange on your blog. It is not impossible to perform such music in a reverent way (well, some of it), but it is more difficult. Similarly, I believe the modern music tradition in general is less suited for liturgical music, of which there seems to be a growing suspicion— there are new compositions in the traditional modes now in both Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Obviously liturgical music (well, to a degree, perhaps) is not an issue worthy of schism, but it still has a deep importance; music is divine.

Speaking of schism, I’ve always found Lewis’s idea of avoiding theological controversy to be a bit disingenuous. Obviously not just anyone is fit to discuss such matters, but Lewis’s bracketing is no less a theological position than any other position. It is implicitly a theological position even as it denies to be so, in the same way the theological rejectors of reason are making a statement that originates in reason. It’s inconsistent from the get–go. Doctrine matters, even when it creates stress. The following argument (and its relatives) is false:

1. If doctrine is important, than it is an issue of salvation.
2. Therefore, doctrine is only of minimal importance.

I wrote in an earlier post:

… a sort formal assent [to conciliar decisions was] demanded (the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the inclusion of Justinian’s ‘Only–Begotten Son’ within the Greek Liturgy, and so on), but the sort of personal, internal certainty we associate with assent was not. What Newman called the ‘illative sense’ was and remains operative in the faith of the Church, as much as an attenuated version of that sense bridges so many of our metaphors from the formal knowledge that could be attached to them.†

This is a hang–over from Protestantism’s idea that each man is a pope; if the clear meaning of Scripture can be read by each person in turn, a deep degree of doctrinal understanding is required. As it is obvious that such an understanding spread over so many is impossible, we instead simplify & simplify. Even most educated persons are never going to understand the philosophical sophistication that undergirded the Nicene Creed or the decisions of Ephesus or Chalcedon, but they don’t have to; doctrine matters—descriptions of reality have inherent worth—but the detractors of theologically–based schisms are attacking a straw man. Certainly, in the case of the Monophysite controversy which you recently brought up‡, there could have been some degree of misunderstanding, but that does not mean that the decisions of Chalcedon were wrong, it means there were ‘extenuating circumstances’ in regards to the schism.

This idea, that doctrine is not worth schism, is undeniably true with theologoumena; there area range of possible theological opinions which have not been given the weight of authority— and have not needed to.

Rarely do you hear persons say that Arianism should not have been exiled for the sake of unity, because the idea of Jesus as fully God and fully Man is so engrained in our idea of Christianity— to deny it is simply (to us) not to be Christian. But, if this is true, are not the councils of Ephesus or Chalcedon, &c. just as important as they deal with the same subject? That state of Christ as being Man & God has been the central article of Christianity; compared to it, the Trinity seems like a footnote, sometimes. The knowledgable avoidance of doctrine is, on a certain level, an avoidance of Christian faith. Doctrine does not develop— the conciliar proclamations must be primordial, or else they would not be true. How we express and understand doctrine does; and sometimes that expression must be given the weight of authority. Truth remains truth, and is important because it is truth. If you want to say, ‘Chalcedon doesn’t matter’, you’ve set yourself up a church of one.

I do not think that faith is an epistemic category as much as it is a virtue. The Fathers certainly seem to have talked about it in such ways, interweaving it with hope & love rather than otherwise. However, there is epistemic content in accord and in defense of that faith & hope. St Gregory of Nyssa says that faith & hope pass away in the eschaton, leaving only love**— but there will be knowledge in the eschaton, and love always has its object (see also the ‘new names’ as below). If faith is not an epistemic category, there is an even deeper reason to hold as suspect the idea that apprehension of doctrine is necessary for salvation; doctrine is not the object of any of those virtues.

I disagree with a number of things I wrote on the earlier blog (I figure I will disagree with a number of things here in three years…), but I still think this (with alterations) is a passable basis for what I am trying to get at:

The ‘new names’ given in Revelation are another sort of direct [epistemic] apprehension, God’s true naming of each human person. …
… [Philosophical] language does not give us the experience of Communion with God in the Eucharist. …

[Can we define theology in terms that give some idea of the scope of the craft?] … No experience of God is without impact on the language we have. … The Holy Spirit found in the Church guides the Church to reject false theology and recognize the true. Neither ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ theology ever exists totally without the other; the Fathers demonstrate both.

Yet, if [the propositions of] theology are not grounded in an encounter with the living God in the Church, it is a science of idols. Is that a grim picture of [the scope & the importance] human cooperation with Grace in the craft of theology? I think not. It says much about the insufficiency of language before God, but little against man: St Gregory of Nyssa writes that it is not blessed to know things about God, but to have Him, that we have within ourselves (for the Kingdom of God is within us) the ability to apprehend the divine things, as God made us in his image, with the likeness of his glory. We speak about God to guard the teachings of the Church (and to help lead persons to her), and that is an enormous task for human cooperation.

I am serious about the parenthetical statement in the final sentence: True philosophy is an evangelical mission of the Church. It has become common to scorn the philosophic mind and its concerns, but the Fathers of late antiquity did not hesitate to engage with it; the form became so native that later writers engaged themselves with mock pagan philosophers. A Church confident is one that does not fear philosophy (those outside it, and its own); indeed, it would be somewhat strange for a religion worshipping the enfleshment of wisdom to be opposed to the life devoted to a love of it in that particular way we call philosophic. When you write, ‘Intellectuals love to evaluate others using theological criteria: these are heretical because they believe this – we know they believe it because it is written in their versions of scripture.’, you are writing about a particular perversion of the intellectual’s role in society, and confusing the philosopher with the intellectual. (The more I think about the Strauss quote I posted earlier this month, the more I agree with it.) I also wonder what you mean by ‘their versions of scripture’, because the only ways I can think of interpreting that statement do not seem likely to be its intent.

The connection to the argument about music here may seem somewhat angular. However, I believe that aesthetics are both a proper concern for philosophy, and—indeed—a discussion of the very nature of music is, as well. The Broad Church view of Lewis or a suspicion of the majority of the Christian musical inheritance are both particularly modern affectations which can pose as premodern by being comparatively conservative: a devotion to Christianity as an institution on the one hand, the defense of the post–renaissance Western musical tradition on the other. (Those terms—‘modern’ and ’premodern’—could do with more explication by all of us who frequently use them.) It’s hard to see those trees for the forest, I suppose.

I do not suppose that this argument, either, is very coherent; I hope, however, it can help clarify what I am trying to get at.

* A quote I like on this:

For faith is the foundation of everything that comes after it, I mean hope and love, and firmly establishes what is true. Hope is the strength of the extremes, I mean faith and love, for it appears as faithful by itself and loved by both, and teaches itself through itself to make it to the end of the course. Love is the fulfillment of these, wholly embraced as the final last desire, and furnishes them rest from their movement. For love gives faith the reality of what it hopes for and the enjoyment of what is present.

— St. Maximus the Confessor, Letter 2: To John the Cubicularius

† As often happens, I am not sure I would want to state things exactly that way; I am typically sloppy when blogging, because of the mental state in which I tend to blog.

‡ I should note that there have been attempts to undo that schism in recent history, but progress is slow— if not ultimately impossible through bureaucratic means. The history, however, is far more complex than that alone, and the interactions of the opposed doctrines of the (strict) Cyrillians and the Nestorians made any sort of way that seemed ‘middle’ impossible to respect; II Constantinople managed to displease just about everyone.

** From On the Soul and the Resurrection:

…for hope acts so long as the enjoyment of what is hoped for is not present, and faith in the same way becomes a support for the uncertainty of the things hoped for. This is how he defined it when he said, ‘faith is the substance of things hoped for’. But when the thing hoped for comes, all the others grow quiet while the operation of love remains, not finding anything to take its place.

In the same work St Gregory casts doubt on the idea that reason alone can find a fundamental ontology (and that God has not revealed one), which is as good an argument as any to stand aside my earlier statement that Christianity does not have a thorough ontological doctrine. One can draw other things from that, but I will hesitate.

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order & the will to power

‘Music’s exclusive function is to structure the flow of time and keep order in it.’

— Igor Stravinsky

It is to my purpose to highlight one word here: Order.

The highlight of (post–)modernity has been the active attack and collapse on Order; no longer is it seen as a good (though, of course, liable to be twisted), rather the primary goal of art is to destroy it. There are no longer any aesthetics; there is only war. Anyone on the side of Order is—at least in some degree—on the side of Good.

Arbitrary Power, which is the highlight of totalitarianism, is not Order, but rather a mere reaction to Disorder by filling the vacuum with raw & unformed Will.

by Giovanni di Paolo

Giovanni di Paolo, ‘The Creation of the World and the Expulsion from Paradise’

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a brief note on stravinsky and the musical tradition

Some justification for my statement that Stravinsky was a reviver of the tradition probably seems in order.

The way in which Stravinsky was most obviously a reviver of the tradition was in his theory of the purpose of music. For Stravinsky, there existed two sorts of time— the subjective* & the ontological. Subjective is the time of our normal experience; it’s the time of emotion, and the time of crisis. The most common examples of subjective time are those before dangerous incidents; when I was hit by a speeding full–size pickup, everything happened in a perception of slow motion, after seeing it (a mere fifteen yards away) I had the time to judge its speed, realize it was going to hit me, dread the collision and understand that it would be serious. (I was spun around 450°.) Blissful moments can also seem both longer and shorter, and so on. Stravinsky saw the purpose of proper music to be an aid to bringing the user into the ontological time which was the time of true reality, the time of creation. An accessible (albeit fictional) example of the music of ontological time would be Tolkien’s music of the Ainu (to repeat a quote I have placed in this blog before):

“[…]the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Ainulindalë’ in The Silmarillion (boldface mine)

The idea that music would appeal to the subjective time of the composer’s (or performer[s]’) emotion was part of the fear of the entry of music into the liturgical services of the Church, and once again part of the fear of using anything other than monophonic recitation. The purpose of the liturgies of the Church are explicitly to be a foretaste of the reality of that which is about God and the future that is the new heaven & the new earth. Stravinsky understood this, and appealed against the classical and romantic tradition which we now often see as the only tradition because of it. (This is not to say—in my opinion—that pieces within that tradition cannot bring the listener into such time, and I do not believe that musics which operate on the level of entertainment—folk song, opera, musicals—are subject to this objection.) I have some feeling that the following Mozart piece manages (or can manage, depending on performance) that:

But it manages it in a very different fashion than Stravinsky or Arvo Pärt do:

Part of this may be ear & training, I do not know. But in his philosophical basis (at the very least) Stravinsky is correct and deeply in tune with the Tradition that is rare in modernity; he is not its destroyer, he is someone who was fundamentally misunderstood, with his disciples reading a political–artistic stance that was not there.

I suppose that this note was only brief by my standards.

* I do not remember if this is the precise word he used— I do not own the text.

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ideas of dogma

Via Bad Astronomy I have seen this comic that allegedly shows the difference between dogma & science. There are a few obvious problems with this set–up— so obvious that they illustrate the dogma of the very persons who are sharing it.

I do not believe that the natural sciences are wholly dogmatic no more than I believe Christian theology is (more on this, later, as I do not mean this in what might seem to be the ‘normal’ sense). However, they do include unprovable assumptions. Further, even among educated persons the acceptance of evolution or relativity or quantum mechanics are not remotely understood; they are understood in a dogmatic fashion via authorities. I do not think that there is anything wrong with this; even those with the intellectual ability to be such multifaceted polymaths simply often lack the time to engage these various subjects even at the level which can involve fairly reasoned assent, much less exhaustive extent. A large portion of my academic training was tied up in a discipline so related to evolutionary biology that it is one of its pillars, but I do not have any real understanding (beyond basic outlines) of things like biochemistry or comparative genetics. In other words, my assent to evolutionary biology involves (partial) dogmatic assent; I trust the pronouncements of authorities (with some reservations at times), because they are authorities.

Now, Phil Plait would likely insist that there is some radical difference between assenting to scientific & theological (or philosophical) authorities. The most difficult would be the range of opinion, but that could be largely due to the relative well, modernness, of modern science. You don’t have time for vast ranges of less–correct (to be generous) opinion to grow up from (allegedly) the same sort of source; theology and philosophy have both had plenty of time. Even among ‘professional’ philosophers—for an example—ignorance of large portions of philosophical/theological (I do not believe there is a particular difference between both disciplines, properly understood) history on dogmatic grounds that they were so wholly mistaken that it is not worth investigating them in a more than cursory matter. (There is some real ‘turning back’ even within Anglo–American philosophy at this point, mostly to Aristotle.)

Most striking in all this is the ignorance of the philosophical genealogy of modern science.

Last week I went to a star party in north–central PA. It was a great time, despite non–ideal weather for much of the time. There were talks given on Saturday which were very interesting; of the ones I attended (I may have attended all of them) there were: one on magnetars, another on the shift in space exploration to private and academic institutions, another on the history of the intertwining of SF and science, and another on the history of astronomy.

The speaker was a non–specialist, but for the most part he did a good job exploding some myths, like believing the earth was flat was almost non–existent in the west, for example. He was, however, wrong and even ignorant on some of the particulars such as believing in heliocentrism was not, on its own, an ‘offense’. While geocentrism was held in high esteem (in part on the authority of Aristotle, on part of the authority of the Bible in such things as Joshua’s prayer that the sun stand still being answered), it was not given strict dogmatic authority. Galileo was not put under house arrest for his heliocentrism, and he was dead wrong about other things. (Further, his long term patron was the Barberini family member who later became Pope Urban VIII.)

Further, Galileo’s heliocentrism was dogmatic; he insisted that astronomy was not mathematical, and believed that comets were an optical illusion based on the fact that if they were not, they would have impossible (to his mind) elliptical and tilted orbits. In this he was contested by a Jesuit astronomer. Indeed, until Kepler became widely known, the empirical justifications for heliocentrism were weak; the Aristo–Ptolemaic tradition’s series of complex epicycles was much better at predicting astronomical phenomena than the heliocentric system. The birth of heliocentrism was deeply connected to the quasi–late pagan Platonism which had taken root, first in Italy, after its introduction around the time of the fall of the Eastern Empire; the sun, as the source of light, was the image in the universe of the One— that it was the center of the universe was obvious.

Further, there are unprovable assumptions in the bedrock of our current science, such as the continuity of the slow processes we call gradualism; gradualism is fantastic as an instrument, but it occasionally is not. I am not talking about the controversial and not widely–held punctuated equilibrium of Gould. (Though there are paleontological reasons to doubt a pure gradualist account; while it does not precisely debate gradualism, my undergrad thesis was making a case that the rise of new species in one series illustrated changes in body–size due to paleoëcological conditions, not a transition of species.) There are questions, but it is possible that they will be solved, or at lest given reasonable explanations within the normal view.

• • •

Dogma extends into areas which are actually about the defense of dogma. While not to pick on him, Bruce Charlton and I recently had a short exchange about whether or not Stravinsky was an iconoclast. (Well, that was the explicit debate.) Here we have Charlton rejecting what amounts to over three–fourths of the musical tradition of the Christian Church for what amounted to a fairly radical innovation that occurred over the very same time that the theological, philosophical, and political transitions that Charlton decries— as if the arts are divorced from the rest of culture!

Stravinsky explicitly made a return to the tradition (especially in his latter works), even as he developed it. The tradition never has stayed static, but has changed with what Chesterton has called the votes of the ancestors intact. Charlton further made appeals to C. S. Lewis, who despite his constant appeals to tradition mostly followed modern sources (The Discarded Image understands the Middle Ages through the Platonist tradition that Galileo was part of, rather than the Platonist–Aristotelian synthesis that Christian theology wed itself to), and whose innovations were glosses upon that line of thought. The breach in art and ideas between Tolkien and Lewis was no accident on personal differences or mere artistic differences— Tolkien appealed more to Lewis’s theology than his art, simpliciter.

Further, Tolkien was a man who developed within the tradition; he was not a mere conduit of it, but was consciously trying to revive it in a new fashion and strengthen it thereby. There are unique elements to his art and even theology which amount to faithful attempts to advance the tradition. And that’s just it— unlike Charlton’s image of the tradition, the tradition develops within itself it dives deeper & deeper into the truth, rather than continuing to propel along a course upon its surface. (Submarine metaphors are somewhat natural to me.) Indeed, the eccentricity of Charlton’s ‘tradition’ is illustrated in his reluctance to submit to any Christian tradition— rather, he begs off the issue by appealing to the imperfection of it, as if such imperfection was not the reason for its continual correction against its issues!

• • •

Heidegger argued that theology was not philosophy because it could not bring up radical questions regarding the nature of being. That is absurd; theologies are simply philosophies which have theories of the nature of being (often, however, in very general senses— there is no real ontological dogma in the Christian tradition), or set a fence around the range of ontological possibilities. Before the philosophical embrace of a theology, the philosopher may have a range of possibilities he contemplates, but he can discover that the ontological limits of a theology are correct.

The objection I anticipate here—at least from Orthodox of the Eastern tradition—is that a theologian is not a philosopher, but rather is one who simply describes brute facts which are revealed radically in the hermetic life (or a life that is blessed such that it mirrors it). Theology is fideist; it is anti–philosophical. That is—frankly—bullshit. St Gregory the Theologian—one of only three saints to bear that title (and with St Symeon it is unclear if that was ever not a negative epithet for some time)—would have vigorously denied it; he saw his very work as theologian as his own asceticism. Indeed, in some ways, the hermetic life is not suited to theological discourse as its time is focused about a role just as unique as the life of a true theologian, but different.

The recent rise of ‘the theologian is the one who prays’ as a catch–phrase seems to track alongside late–modern philosophy and a Protestant influence which seeks to divorce theology from the ‘corruption’ of (Greek) philosophy— as if the rise of such ideas is apart from contemporaneous philosophical movements! (Let me not omit that another man entitled ‘theologian’—St John the Evangelist—shows every sign of philosophical sophistication in his Gospel. And St Symeon’s own relation to philosophy is often misunderstood so that it can be used as ammunition.)

The idea of dogma is far more complicated than both the believers in science–as–philosophy–entire and the fideists would wish to believe; and the fideists and their close allies would both do well to recognize the intimate relation between their ideas of it.


Filed under philosophy & theology, science

the treason of the intellectuals

‘Originally, philosophy had been the humanizing quest for the eternal order, and hence it had been a pure source of humane inspiration and aspiration. Since the seventeenth century, philosophy has become a weapon, and hence an instrument. It was this politicization of philosophy that was discerned as the root of our troubles by an intellectual who denounced the treason of the intellectuals. He committed the fatal mistake, however, of ignoring the essential difference between intellectuals and philosophers. In this he remained the dupe of the delusion which he denounced. For the politicization of philosophy persists precisely in this, that the difference between intellectuals and philosophers—a difference formerly known as the difference between gentlemen and philosophers, on the one hand, and the difference between sophists or rhetoricians and philosophers, on the other—becomes blurred and finally disappears.

—Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History, 34 (emphases mine)

I do not know who the “intellectual who denounced the the treason of the intellectuals” is; my guess is that it is Heidegger—whom Strauss would probably have been loath to name—but if someone else has a sure answer, I would like to know. [See Comments]

NB: I’m working from the edition linked; the page numbers could be different in more recent printings— I don’t know.


Filed under philosophy & theology, politics & economics

the depths of dysfunction

As I’ve been assembling quotes and sources for my review of Benoist’s Beyond Human Rights, I’ve found that what is fascinating about him (and much of the alt–right/politically reactionary set) is that combination of powerful critique of the modern political order and thorough embedding within it: He is an anti–democratic sworn democrat, an anti–subjective relativist, a cosmopolitan anti–universalist, a pan–European who rigorously defends local particularity. Perhaps most notably, Benoist displays a uniquely European version of the foolish faith in federal structures; he actually believes that a pan–European government will simultaneously allow the flourishing of local particularity— a sort of extreme cultural federalism. While he insists that his ‘New Right’ is simply a think tank and he is not proposing a practical program, this particular oddity crops up again & again in his essays and interviews; if he did not despise America so much, he might see what federalism ultimately does to local particularity and government. He occasionally seems to provide a solution for this in his idea of a restricted idea of citizenship, but explicitly rejects this for a broad, post–Jacobin definition of democracy (indeed, he says that the only undemocratic act a democracy is capable of is abolishing itself). For a man who says that constitutions and the rule of law are helpless before the weight of politics, this is a curious faith.

This litany antinomies is inherent in the project of a right–wing itself; Corey Robin’s thesis of an essentially parasitic right is wholly correct, but right–wing embracers of such an idea often begin only with the French (or American) revolution and not much earlier. Moldbug and his disciples are near–unique in pushing the event back to the English Civil Wars, which recognizes the broader history, but it doesn’t go far enough. To this extent, while not recognizing his own binding within the tradition, there is some truth to Benoist’s idea that this comes ‘out of Christendom’, insofar that it was initially a theological event that politics wed itself to. Pathology is fine as metaphor, and Benoist perhaps touches on a better metaphor when he mentions (in passing) nominalism, but even that is really insufficient. Modern discourse has been—and for some time—inherently democratic, and Benoist is just particularly honest in trying to base his particularist and quasi–elitist right on open, democratic principle. The Taylor/MacIntyre communitarians he admires (while not ‘right’) are in the same position. To this end, Benoist—correctly—recognizes the ephemerality of the right/left distinction, but doesn’t explain why very well, relying on the collapse into neo–liberalism and the consumption–as–expression society he believes is uniquely American (but is not entirely detached from church–as–expression, etc). While it may seem myopic to focus on him, here, it’s his pathological honesty that makes him such an excellent target for diagnosis; ‘I have never tried to please.’, he says— and it obvious that he means it. In any case, such bipolarities would seem to have more to do with a love for metaphors of clear opposition, of war, rather than clear realities. In reality (something Benoist touches upon), politics truly is particular— it is about loyalties, duties, aspirations, fears, hopes, and private convictions. Traditional governance is largely more practical than ideological, and politics has often been separated from governance–as–such— which is hard to imagine for us.

Another interesting confession is his condemnation of LePen’s Front National for its entirely negatively–defined idea of France and the French people; he says a real nationalist party would be asking, ‘What is French?’ Yet, is not ‘What is French?’ the sort of question that negates itself in the asking? Being French is simply being French; it’s a fiat confession, something hardly thought about by the ‘traditional’ peoples he lauds. It is hard to imagine a medieval resident in Normandy (Benoist’s home) asking himself, ‘What is Norman?’ or ‘What is French?’— to the degree that the identity would matter at all, it would be assumed in the same way you see people claim that such–and–such is American, though there is not anything obviously American about it. As an ‘old American’, I’ve never felt much need to define what being one is: I can claim its due to my centuries–long ancestry, my love for America’s land, and so on, but the real truth is that my being American is just something I am, and any attempt to pin it down in any non–bullshitting–over–beer sort of fashion would just be a joke. Romans claimed that certain attributes were Roman just because they saw them as such; historical grounding was not defined. Herodotus used cultures as counter–points without much thought to the historical and anthropological validity of such claims. Culture, nationality, even political alliance is metaphor; they are how we navigate social commitment and desire, not their reality.

The obvious objection to this would be religion: Did not the Church define itself in precise terminology? Yes, it did, but in each case it did so in reaction and never expected the bulk of its people to understand or even know its confessions; the philosophical definition was to preserve the actuality of an inexpressible belief and allegiance— a sort formal assent would be demanded (the recitation of the Nicene Creed, the inclusion of Justinian’s ‘Only–Begotten Son’ within the Greek Liturgy, and so on, but the sort of personal, internal certainty we associate with assent was not. What Newman called the ‘illative sense’ was and remains operative in the faith of the Church, as much as an attenuated version of that sense bridges so many of our metaphors from the formal knowledge that could be attached to them.

Indeed, I’m not really formally defining any of what I’m saying here— and while I do think a more rigorous conception is possible, I’m incapable of doing it myself at this time. It’s a combination of metaphor and an illative grasping at what I intuit to be true about our intellectual situation.

In completely trivial news, I’ll include updates to this blog on the Twitter account I’ve had sitting around for a while, unused. It is somewhat possible I will use it for something other than an alternate way to keep track of updates, but I don’t know.


Filed under philosophy & theology, politics & economics

act and song

“Words can be hard to utter: those, for example, with which one renounces something, or confesses a weakness. (Words are also deeds.)”

— Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (546; boldface mine)

“So, λόγος, ‘speaking’, is to exhibit beings in themselves, if this speaking is of such a character as it shows being in their having–of–limits, that it limits being in their being. That λόγος which is ὁρισμός* is the genuine mode of entry into beings; speaking as ὁρισμός is the genuine addressing of the world.”

— Heidegger, Basic Concepts of Aristotelian Philosophy (§8)

“[…]the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void and it was not void. Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, “Ainulindalë” in The Silmarillion (boldface mine)

“The providence of God which is ‘without beginning or end’ consists precisely in this providential ‘pre–loving’ of existent things in their logoi…”

— Nikolaos Loudovikos, A Eucharistic Ontology**

… and I could go on like this for a while.

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