Sunday, May 26, 2019

It's not that most of us don't get the concept....

It was on the occasion of moving books from the garage back into my office, after a lengthy HVAC project, that I spotted my old Kierkegaard set, mostly picked up in the eighties and nineties when Princeton was first publishing these new translations, and I ruefully noted how few I had finished.

The Concept of Anxiety has the reputation of being one of Kierkegaard's more difficult works, though it is also mercifully short.  But--anxiety.  It's something most of us know.  "Lives of quiet desperation," as Thoreau memorably put it.  But of course for Kierkegaard it has a particularly unique significance for the psychological and dogmatic question of hereditary sin, and this obscure treatise has unexpectedly had a tremendous influence on the way we see human existence.

"Existence" of course is meant to point to "existentialism," but what I don't want to do with Kierkegaard is to treat him too much as a "precursor," as someone who is important because he led to something that he might have disdained as yet another "system."  Yes, of course, Kierkegaard had a great influence on the development of "existentialism," but he was also a seminarian, a Lutheran who never took orders, who in fact died refusing the sacrament, but was passionately, almost pathologically concerned with the question of what it means to be a Christian.

The difficulty of the book stems, I think, from two things.  First, like many of his contemporaries in the mid-nineteenth century, Kierkegaard is writing in the wake of Hegel.  The introduction to the book is a long rolling-of-the-eyes about Hegel's Science of Logic, how it doesn't understand the first thing about logic, especially and specifically how it erroneously brings logic to its natural end in actuality.  The reader thinks, "Well, this may or may not be so, but how does this introduce me to the subject matter of The Concept of Anxiety?'  Kierkegaard does, in fact, eventually come around to this, but it's not express, and it's a long time coming.

The second difficulty is with Kierkegaard's idiosyncratic categories:  the moment, the leap, repetition, presupposition, positing.  Perhaps some of these are Hegelian.  Some probably are.  But they take some getting used to.  And even those we think we know can fool us (the phrase best associated with Kierkegaard is the "leap of faith," which I've never yet run across in his books.)

The starting point for the discussion proper is a subject arcane in Kierkegaard's day, and almost unintelligible in our own:  how Adam brought sin into the world from a prior state of innocence.  Adam's prior innocence is, to Kierkegaard, too fantastic for comprehension.  If Adam was so constituted, he was so far outside of the human race that his actions could hardly have affected his descendants.  But, after identifying the individual with the race, Kierkegaard asserts that each human being brings sin into the world, as Adam did, from a prior state of ignorance and innocence.  But what conditioned, and conditions, that transition, from innocence to guilt?  Anxiety.

Now I don't know a word of Danish.  But I know some German, and Kierkegaard sometimes substitutes the German Angst for whatever the Danish word is.  (I miss the older English translation, The Concept of Dread--so much more visceral, but perhaps not quite as accurate).  And I wonder if the related Danish word works like the German.  In English we say "anxiety about" or "fear of."  In German one says "Angst vor," "Angst before."  Perhaps in Danish, too.  In any case, the anxiety that accompanies one from innocence to guilt is not an anxiety before something, but rather an anxiety before nothing.  When in English we say someone is afraid of nothing we mean he is fearless.  But for Kierkegaard, it is the nothing which is most terrifying.  And here we perhaps see what he was getting at in taking Hegel to task for the exaltation of "actuality."  For what makes the human spirit is not actuality, but the nothing, the absence that is possibility.

OK, a step back.  I do think some Hegelian background helps, to the extent I've understood it correctly.  To distill it to a sentence, history is the self-realization of Spirit, whose developing essence is freedom.  We are all, mostly unwittingly, Hegelians, because we believe that history is progress toward freedom, that the arc of history bends that way, that it makes sense to talk about being on the side of history, that it is the most extreme folly to attempt to "turn back the clock." Freedom is what it's all about, and it's coming.

And Kierkegaard also values freedom, sees it as central to the human spirit.  But freedom always stands in the face of the possible, and the possible includes the unimaginably dreadful.  Hence freedom is always accompanied by anxiety, and the greater, the more realized the freedom the greater, the more unbearable the anxiety.

So in innocent anxiety one freely makes the leap into sin, and sin comes into the world, with Adam, with everyone.  This is the secret of hereditary sin as preached by dogmatics, and as demonstrated by psychology.  One does not have to sin, but one leaps into it in and through anxiety.  We are dazzled by the nothingness that shades possibility.

So, in a frequently quoted sentences from this book, Kierkegaard observes that "anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself."  Where Kierkegaard goes from here is admittedly hard to describe, since I'm still far from sure I'm following him.  But there seems to be four further possibilities, once we have lost innocence.

There is, first, the strategy to retreat into "spiritlessness."  If to be human is to be a human spirit, and to be a spirit is to be free, and to be free is to be anxious--then perhaps it's not so great a thing to be human.  To renounce freedom, to become a thing, this is one way out.  And this, I think, is a thread picked up by later secular "existentialists," the notion that rigors of freedom can be too much for the mass of men, who retreat into inauthenticity, into Alltaglichkeit.

But there are also two states--possibly two stages--of the entry into guilt, the first being anxiety before evil.  Guilt is indeed engaging in sin in actuality, in having sin enter the world anew, but the creation of this new state does not exclude further possibility, but only orients it to a deepening guilt.  But this anxiety before evil, open as it is to a deepening evil, is still redeemable, unlike the next stage, which Kierkegaard calls "the demonic," anxiety before the good.  Here the model rests on the encounters of Jesus with possessing devils in the gospels, who fear him, and ask a characteristic question:  "What have you to do with me?"  It is what Kierkegaard calls an "enclosing reserve," an isolation and succumbing into guilt such that the good is more fearful than the evil, and anxiety acts to reinforce guilt rather than keep one anxious about it, as in the prior stage.

But did I mention that Kierkegaard is also a Christian?  He is a highly unconventional one, professing a highly demanding Christianity, one that is there in such plain sight in the gospels that we work night and day not to look at it.  Nevertheless Kierkegaard does not merely leave us with anxiety; he proposes faith as the means by which it saves us.

"Anxiety is freedom's possibility, but only such anxiety through faith is absolutely educative, because it consumes all finite ends and discovers all their deceptiveness."  Faith teaches that "possibility is the weightiest of all categories."  And further:  "By faith I understand here what Hegel somewhere  in his way correctly calls  the inner certainty that anticipates infinity.  Whenever the discoveries of possibility are honestly administered, possibility will discover all the finitudes, but it will idealize them in the form of infinity and in anxiety overwhelm the individual until he again overcomes them in the anticipation of faith."

Well, here you begin to suspect, rightly, that I quote extensively to hide the fact that I'm at my wit's end to understand exactly what Kierkegaard is getting at in assigning to faith the task of making possibility a teacher, a teacher about finitude and infinity, and somehow thereby freeing us from anxiety's empire.  This is a far cry from Luther, of course.  But there is a similarity of pattern.  We fear.  We cry out.  And we eventually come to rest in the infinite when the finite isn't sufficient.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Prayers for Paris, again

The Dropping of the Other Shoe

It is, to begin with, a curious title.  "An Essay...."  Newman had before entitled a book-length treatment of a topic an "an essay" in his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.  But here the genre seems, in one sense, strikingly inapt, and, in another, spot on.

Unlike a "monograph," or a "treatise," the word "essay" suggests a particularly personal reflection on a subject, and a perfunctory glance at the table of contents seems to put this work far outside of that category:  "Modes of apprehending Propositions;"  "Notional and Real Assents contrasted;" "Indefectibility of Certitude."  It looks more like a treatise--an extraordinarily dry treatise--on epistemology than an essay.

But in another sense, what Newman is doing here is precisely what an essayist in the mold of Montaigne is doing.  He is taking himself as his subject matter, looking at and describing his own mind, not in the manner of a mystic, but in the ordinary sense of trying to set out exactly what is happening in one's own mind, in one's own consciousness.   " Ainsi, Lecteur, je suis moy-meme la matiere de mon livre."

An essay on what?  Assent.  Assent to propositions.  And let it be said up front, since this is a book by Blessed Cardinal Newman, who, I understand, was approved for canonization just this last February, the first post-seventeenth century Englishman so recognizaed, that, though we are, yes, commencing with all assent in general, Newman is most particularly concerned with religious assent, intent on defending, as the essay proceeds, the justification for religious belief in an increasingly doubting world.

But what is a "grammar of assent"?  He is first talking about a way to talk about assent, trying to define his terms precisely so that he may describe it.  That's not exactly "grammar," but there is perhaps an analogy in that we divide grammars into "descritive" and "prescriptive" grammars--how one does use a language versus how one ought to use a language.  Newman is very clear that he is on the "descriptive" side, wanting to describe how a mind, his mind, arrives at assent.  If he were German he might call it a  "phenomenology of assent."  But note that his assertion that he is describing the phenomenon of assent will not not keep him from criticising, later, what he understands as Locke's "prescriptive grammar"--i.e., Locke's (and much of the modern world's)  strictures on how one should and should not assent.

And there is also that note of modesty, of tentativeness, perhaps of a hope that his "grammar" will be taken and further developed:  "in Aid of."  A contemporary writer might title it:  "Toward a Grammar of Assent."

So it is a very personal book, his own take based on his own long-pondered and painstakingly-written and re-written thoughts, not primarily a response or entry into a pre-existing controversy.  Nevertheless, like the Essay on Development it is a book coming out of his conversion--how does one believe, how does one justify belief, or change of belief?  And how can I be certain now of what I profess, when I was equally certain that what I professed before was true?

The long and the short of it?  It's obviously impossible to do justice to the detailed and careful course of Newman's argument.  But one of his primary points is that, pace Locke, there are not degrees of assent, and we are not obliged to give a higher degree of assent to those which rest on formal demonstration.  To give an example (my own, not one of his), I do not experience a greater degree of assent to the proposition that there is no highest prime number than to the proposition that my children love me.  The first can be shown with a brief and beautiful proof.  The latter?  Well, my reasons tells me that, yes, I could indeed be like King Lear--but in fact I do not doubt, and I am as certain of the second as of the first.

Newman treatment of "certitude" is one of the more surprising, counter-intuitive parts of his argument.  He distinguishes it from infallibility.  He cannot deny that we are often mistaken about what we are certain about.  But he insists that the human mind is made to rest in certainty, and he further maintains that we are justified, by that psychological fact, in being certain about, in believing,  any number of things which cannot be demonstrated logically or scientifically.  And we do that through the exercise of what he calls the "illative sense," a comprehensive, largely unconscious synthesis of antecedent judgments.

This sense operates just as fully in an uneducated laborer as in a trained philosopher.  And that has to be so, unless we are to concede that belief in God is deficient in one who can't follow the higher flights of speculative reason in a Spinoza, a Kant, a Rahner or a Newman.  Ultimately, to come back to Newman's primarily religious concern, our spiritual beliefs are not philosophical or scientific in nature, and it is our attempt to re-cast them and justify them in those terms which sets up the conventional conflict between religion and reason, a conflict which Newman insists is an illusion.

And here my own thoughts turn strangely to Newman's contemporary Kierkegaard.  In most senses these two men, and their thought, are poles apart.  And yet there is an odd convergence in this notion that faith (as Kierkegaard calls it) and belief (as Newman's prefers) do not authentically arise out of logic, demonstration, science, but from untraceable sources that issue in a firm and life-changing conviction.  Newman, I imagine, would have drawn back from Kierkegaard's "leap;"  Kierkegaard, I imagine, would have been repelled by Newman's almost Olympian ease in Zion.  But we can do no more than imagine.  There was no engagement.

The book ends with a lengthy apologia for the Christian faith, very traditional in form, making first a case for natural religion, and then arguing that Christianity is the one true revealed religion that natural religion points to.  It does not claim to be a demonstration of the truth of Christianity so much as a roster of antecedent justifications that make embracing it, with certitude, a fully defensible act, under the terms of the preceding pages.  In some ways it is reminiscent of Pascal's specific defense of Christianity in the Pensees, a defense less remembered and honored than the harrowing description of the human condition forming its preface.  Newman's essay is often treated primarily as an epistemological treatise, but his aim coincides with that of Pascal, to assert that the heart has reasons that the reason cannot understand, and that insight into our own very human constitution will take us to God.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Scientia donum Dei est, unde vendi non potest.

For many years I have heard the term "twelfth century renaissance," but have never really understood the rationale for it.  More recently, for personal reasons, I've become interested in the origins of the University of Paris, and the connection of the two.

A "renaissance" is a not just a cultural flourishing, but some kind of re-birth, a recovery of the past, over and above the usual process of re-appropriation and re-consideration that is a normally continuous aspect of cultural life.  What sets the twelfth century apart?  The events I associate with that century--the foundation and fall of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem, the careers of Peter Abelard and Bernard of Clairvaux, the murder of Becket--are significant, but not outstandingly indicative of any sort of  re-birth.

There was, at this time, a European recovery of Aristotle that had long-range implications for a new conception of science.  But I think what was distinctive was not so much the "what" that was brought forward as a new "how" that would institutionalize appropriating the past.  In other words, what was developing rapidly was a new approach to education--the University.

"Universitas" in the middle ages didn't originally carry a strictly educational meaning.  It referred to any kind of conglomeration of professions or persons that for whatever reason became recognized as a free-standing institution, like our word, "corporation."  Peter Abelard, in the early twelfth century, was a teacher, attracted to a Paris where already one could make a reputation, and a living, among  competing masters in a variety of scholastic settings.  Within a century there was an established institution, the University of Paris, chartered by a papacy far enough away to give it a significant degree of independence from the crown, and the local bishops, and the monastic establishments that hitherto dominated education.

The subjects were not new, but their integration into a single institution was.  One began with the seven liberal arts:  the trivium (grammar, rhetoric and dialectic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).  These prepared one for entry into one of the three higher faculties:  law, medicine or theology.

The theology faculty of the University of Paris soon became a powerful, if non-magisterial, voice in Christian theology, hosting epochal thinkers like St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas in its first century, in the formative years of what came to be called, for obvious reasons, "scholasticism."

But the "baptism of Aristotle" was not the only landmark "re-birth."  Consider this quotation from the great English legal historian William Maitland: "Of all the centuries the twelfth is the most legal.  In no other age, since the classical days of Roman law, has so large a part of the sum total of intellectual endeavor been devoted to jurisprudence."  The study of the law does not sit comfortably with my ordinary notion of what is fit matter for a "renaissance" (and I remind my readers, I am a lawyer myself).  But as the University of Paris was forming, another university, the only university vying with Paris for the honor of "first," Bologna, was attracting legions of students to the lectures of Irnerius on the newly re-discovered Digest of Justinian.  And as the "second life of Roman law" formed the foundation for modern Continental Law, the foundation of English common law was being established in England under Henry II, and canon law was taking a systematic form in the Decretum of Gratian--all in the twelfth century.

But, to return to Paris, Stephen Ferruolo's book, as you might glean from the subtitle, focuses as much on doubts about the New Education as on its development.  The monastics saw it as fostering spiritual pride.  The humanists took it to task for channelling the best and the brightest into the more lucrative callings, medicine and law.  The moralists looked with a jaundiced eye on the natural result of hoards of ungoverned young men exposed, far from home, to the vices of an incipient metropolis

These are all issues still relevant to contemporary education.  But there is another, suggested by the title of this post:  Scientia donum Dei est, unde vendi non potest.  Knowledge is the gift of God, and therefore cannot be sold.  Already in the twelfth century there was unease with the idea of turning the divine gift of knowledge into a marketable commodity.  The occasional papal prohibition or royal regulation had little effect, and though the workman is undoubtedly worthy of his hire, our contemporary American problem with education is not so much with its content as its cost.  Our educated young people often leave the university saddled with debts that may take half a lifetime to repay, or longer.

I can't suggest a concrete solution, but I can note that tuition at the University of Paris is still less than four hundred dollars per year.  This is, unhappily, about to change for foreign students.  Last fall the Prime Minister announced that, for non-EU students not yet enrolled, tuition would increate about fifteen-fold.  That's still a bargain, compared to what comparable universities charge in English-speaking countries.  But it highlights the challenge of how we collectively value learning, and what other costs we suffer when we fail to educate our people.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

St. John and the Dragon

On a few previous occasions I've noted surprising juxtapositions of conventionally different worlds.  In that vein I've just completed the book pictured above, in which, for two years, high school students in Beijing were introduced to a Western liberal arts curriculum, taught in the manner of the two St. Johns Colleges in the U.S.--reading and discussing the "Great Books" only, without lectures, without textbooks, without testing to winnow out right from wrong answers.

My interest in the book is personal.  Martha is both a friend and a professional colleague.  Though both she and her husband Grant are tutors at St. John's College here in Santa Fe, her occasional references in the book to being a lawyer rather underplay her well-known local expertise and experience in water law ( to follow Will Roper, "a study in effect able to occupy the whole life of a man").  Though never a teacher I would hope the contents of the blog suggest a similar love of the humanities, and the particular merit of this volume is its hazarding on introducing a liberal arts curriculum in modern China at a time when, here in the West (certainly not the first time), the relevance, the utility, the worthiness of the old canonical texts are seriously questioned.

And the cultural clash is three-fold.  We have first, most obviously, portions of the Western "canon" being taught in China, with India one of the two great foci of ancient Eastern civilization.  But it is also Communist China, an Eastern civilization professing to adhere to a distinctly Western ideology, the nineteenth century German dialectical materialism of Karl Marx, as mediated by Mao, still ubiquitously celebrated as the "Great Helmsman."  But, finally, this is decidedly "post-Mao" China, which, if not exactly capitalist, officially celebrates the pursuit of individual wealth and innovation, if still under an authoritarian government and Party.

So when these high-achieving high-schoolers are asked, "Is Agamemnon a good king?"  Or "Is Achilles right to withdraw from the fight after being dishonored?", they are challenged, first, by questions to which they are told have no "right answers"--a disconcerting assertion in a school system ruled to a very high degree by the assumption that successful test-taking  is the be-all and end-all of education.  (Would that that attitude were not gaining ground here in the West!).  But they also bring the assumptions and values of an upbringing informed by traditional Chines values, and Communist values, and the newer and somewhat contradictory values of steel-eyed competition and individual achievement.

It is in the recorded dialogues with students that the book most shines.  Should Agamemnon have sacrificed his daughter for favorable winds?  No, that was murder.  But, as king, shouldn't he have put the good of his people, his army, over that of his own family?  Who determines what is good, the individual or the collective?  And how is what is right determined, whoever makes the decision?  Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphigenia, his wife Clytemnestra killed him, her son Orestes killed her.  Should the avenging wrath of the Furies be restrained?  In these and many other questions these students, after being prompted out of their habitual silence, take on each other with argument and counter-argument, appealing sometimes to the conformity encouraged by an authoritarian state, sometimes to a revolutionary fervor which doesn't quite always lie dormant, and sometimes to lingering implicit traces of long-suppressed Confucian ideas of propriety, inquiry and humanity.

We so take for granted that we can have these kind of discussions that we mostly simply don't have them at all.  In China there are strong (if largely unspoken) memories of the Cultural Revolution among the old and an uneasy consciousness of the Tiananmen Square protests among the students.  On occasion a group of observers from the Party will stop by and discussion is immediately dampened (Sinister?  Yes, but of course the same thing happened when our parents entered the room when we were teenagers.)  Discussion of the separation of powers doctrine grounding the U..S. constitution leads unexpectedly to a consensus that that just showed how much more corrupt the West must be than China.  And perhaps most surprisingly, when it came time to read the Communist Manifesto, none of these children of the revolution had read it, or could easily grasp what it was all about.  When pressed about what they really wanted from life, it was money, fame, maybe being a rock star.  So much for communist indoctrination.

I could go on and on.  As at St John's, science is approached, not through textbooks, but through reading Galileo, Newton and Darwin.  And science as a practice and a method raises many of the same kind of questions as Greek drama:

"Do you think that science has made the world better,?" I asked.
"Of course!" said many, pointing to medicine and iPhones.
"No," said others, pointing to weapons and iPhones.

There are visits to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and the home of Confucius, academic conferences and brief excursions into the Chinese classics, wonder at the differences and wonder at the similarities--in short, a juxtaposition of many marvelous new ways of seeing East meet West (and the Young meet the Old).

I do recommend my friend's surprising and enjoyable book.  It's locally published, so not available from vendors such as Amazon,  It can, however, be found at, under "New Products," for anyone interested.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

A postscript on Newman

Two posts back I had mentioned my failure thus far to make any headway with the Grammar of Assent.  Having so confessed in public made me think I ought to give the thing one more serious try, and to encourage that resolve I did a few web searches looking for contemporary discussions of it.

I didn't find that many, but I did run across the selection below, part of a 1990 talk by then-Cardinal Ratzinger.

Now I am always reluctant to just post other people's work here.  For whatever reasons of vanity or self-importance I like to make this a place for my own observations and associations.  But the selection below seemed such an apt expansion, an enlargement of that whole idea of change and development, reflecting not only what I have experienced in myself, but what I believe I have seen in others, as the ideas and convictions of a lifetime are long pondered, and then have their effect.


"It is known how Newman's insight into the ideas of development influenced his way to Catholicism. But it is not just a matter of an unfolding of ideas. In the concept of development, Newman's own life plays a role. That seems to become visible to me in his well-known words: " live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often".

"Throughout his entire life, Newman was a person converting, a person being transformed, and thus he always remained and became ever more himself.

"Here the figure of St Augustine comes to my mind, with whom Newman was so associated. When Augustine was converted in the garden at Cassiciacum he understood conversion according to the system of the revered master Plotin and the Neo-Platonic philosophers. He thought that his past sinful life would now be definitively cast off; from now on the convert would be someone wholly new and different, and his further journey would be a steady climb to the ever purer heights of closeness to God.

"It was something like that which Gregory of Nyssa described in his Ascent of Moses: "Just as bodies, after having received the first push downwards, fall effortlessly into the depths with ever greater speed, so, on the contrary, the soul which has loosed itself from earthly passion rises up in a rapid upward movement... constantly overcoming itself in a steady upward flight".

"Augustine's actual experience was a different one. He had to learn that being a Christian is always a difficult journey with all its heights and depths.

"The image of ascensus is exchanged for that of iter, whose tiring weight is lightened and borne up by moments of light which we may receive now and then. Conversion is the iter - the roadway of a whole lifetime. And faith is always "development", and precisely in this manner it is the maturation of the soul to truth, to God, who is more intimate to us than we are to ourselves.

"In the idea of "development" Newman had written his own experience of a never finished conversion and interpreted for us, not only the way of Christian doctrine, but that of the Christian life.

"The characteristic of the great Doctor of the Church, it seems to me, is that he teaches not only through his thought and speech but also by his life, because within him, thought and life are interpenetrated and defined. If this is so, then Newman belongs to the great teachers of the Church, because he both touches our hearts and enlightens our thinking."


Saturday, January 12, 2019

And now, a giddy romp through the funny papers of an allegedly more innocent time....

From Walt Kelly's Pogo, June 8, 1953, featuring a certain "Simple J. Malarky," reprinted in The Complete Syndicated Comics, Vol. 3, Fantagraphics Books