Thursday, 27 November 2014

Stoic week and God



We're currently in the middle of Stoic Week (details here). It's an excellent idea and I wish all those participating in it all the best!

When I first read about it, I confess to feeling a little suspicious. Some of the material, frankly, seemed dumbed down cracker barrel philosophy. My contacts with previous online Stoicism had sensitized me to the way that the philosophy could be rewritten to exclude theism (of which more anon). On the other hand, I'm a fairly shameless popularizer: given the general state of Western Europe, getting people to read (eg) comic strip versions of Shakespeare seems to me a quantum leap forward in education, however far it falls short of the ideal of actually grappling with the real thing. The essential thing in popularization seems to me to be the absence of closure: it's important to make clear to the 'consumer' that this isn't the complete story, that there is further to travel and deeper to go. (Even if they don't actually make this journey, at least they should avoid the sense that they know it all. A little learning, provided it is accompanied by humility is a fine achievement. Richard Dawkins and his horde are a terrible example of what happens when it goes wrong.)

Anyway, leafing through the free (only for this week!) Kindle version of the course reader (here), it's clear that the authors have recognized some of these issues before me. An example of this is the debate on the place of God in Stoicism (here). I think this debate shows two things. First, there is a genuine issue about the place of God in Stoicism: there's not a straightforward answer. Secondly, and taking that first point more generally, however much you try and distil philosophical (ie proper) thought into a recipe book, there remains that intellectual incompleteness that (classically at least) is realized in the early, Socratic dialogues of Plato: living well requires a deep pursuit of wisdom that remains, at least in this world, incomplete and unfinished. (I'd say, as an aside, that Catholicism captures this incompleteness centrally through the notion of mystery: the possibility of plunging ever further into a intellectual depth that never ends. But that for another day.)

So what of God and Stoicism? It's important to remember that, for Catholics, the existence of God is not part of revelation, but of reason. In a rough way, classical philosophy represents a real life experiment: how much can you know of God before revelation? And so, for Catholics, it shouldn't be at all surprising that God keeps popping up in Greek and Roman philosophy: why wouldn't he given he is understood (incompletely but still importantly) by natural reason? And (part of the story at least) that's why Stoic Week (and other engagements with ancient philosophy) are good: they allow access to reasoning that has not been distorted (as has so much of modern thought) by a deliberate desire to make God unthinkable. Roughly, the Stoics and other ancients were content to follow the evidence where it led; and for most of them, it led to God.

Tim LeBon argues (here):

Mark Vernon blurs the issue by referring to “God” rather than Zeus in his article. The ancient Stoics did not believe in the Judeo- Christian God. The Stoic god is wholly impersonal – it is just nature, doing its thing. You can’t pray to the Stoic god.

There's a lot that needs to be said here if this were to be dealt with in full. First, the ancient Stoics (key ones anyway) did believe in the God of natural theology: the problem here is that modern atheists misunderstand the nature of the God of Catholicism and the God of ancient philosophy: neither believe in a Giant Nobodaddy throwing hissy fits; the Catholic does not believe in the Jehovah of the Latter Day Church of Snake Juggling any more than Epictetus believed in the Zeus of the peasant down the via. (For a bit on this, see previous blogpost here.)

Secondly -and this is trickier- the God proved by natural reason is still capable of eliciting an emotional, indeed personal, response. The way that the difference between deism and theism is often (imperfectly) explained (ie the former a belief in a rational watchmaker who creates and goes away; the latter a belief in a personal, caring God) somewhat conceals this. This is particularly important, I think, in understanding the Enlightenment. One common (atheist) narrative is that all your favourite Enlightenment figures were deists. And that deist really means: 'I want to exclude God as much as possible from the universe, but, because I was born too early/ am frightened by the Inquisition, I have to sneak the word in somewhere. (But really I'm an atheist.).' Whatever the case for some individuals, I think a truer portrait of many Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment figures would be more like this: 'I have no truck with all the superstitious accretions of popular (ie Catholic) Christianity. But peel these away, and you find at the heart of the universe a loving, caring and rational God. That's the God that I adore and worship.' And that too is the God of most of the Stoics.

Now, as I've said, one of the keys to understanding deep thought is that it doesn't stop there. There is more to be said. More to be argued. Little that can be taken as a conclusive ending. But let me end (temporarily!) with two things. First, let me quote Long on Epictetus:

Epictetus' theological language betokens a personal belief and experience as deep and wholehearted as that of any Jew or Christian or Muslim. (Here, p145.)

Secondly, let me present in full Cleanthes' Hymn to Zeus:


Most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful,
Zeus, the First Cause of Nature, who rules all things with Law,
Hail! It is right for mortals to call upon you,
since from you we have our being, we whose lot it is to be God's image,
we alone of all mortal creatures that live and move upon the earth.
Accordingly, I will praise you with my hymn and ever sing of your might.
The whole universe, spinning around the earth,
goes wherever you lead it and is willingly guided by you.
So great is the servant which you hold in your invincible hands,
your eternal, two-edged, lightning-forked thunderbolt.
By its strokes all the works of nature came to be established,
and with it you guide the universal Word of Reason which moves through all creation,
mingling with the great sun and the small stars.
O God, without you nothing comes to be on earth,
neither in the region of the heavenly poles, nor in the sea,
except what evil men do in their folly.
But you know how to make extraordinary things suitable,
and how to bring order forth from chaos; and even that which is unlovely is lovely to you.
For thus you have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,
so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.
This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;
though they are desirous of good things for their possession,
they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law;
and yet, if they obey it intelligently, they would have the good life.
But they are senselessly driven to one evil after another:
some are eager for fame, no matter how godlessly it is acquired;
others are set on making money without any orderly principles in their lives;
and others are bent on ease and on the pleasures and delights of the body.
They do these foolish things, time and again,
and are swept along, eagerly defeating all they really wish for.
O Zeus, giver of all, shrouded in dark clouds and holding the vivid bright lightning,
rescue men from painful ignorance.
Scatter that ignorance far from their hearts.
and deign to rule all things in justice.
so that, honored in this way, we may render honor to you in return,
and sing your deeds unceasingly, as befits mortals;
for there is no greater glory for men
or for gods than to justly praise the universal Word of Reason.


[Here.]

So, happy Stoic Week. Enjoy meeting some of the finest minds of the classical world. And afterwards, dig further into the God of natural theology, find that rational principle which rules the world. (And don't forget to come back to the Catholic Church to find out, in full, what we can know about that God through his self-revelation in Jesus and his body, the Church.)

Friday, 21 November 2014

Blooming buzzing confusion





I'm still not sure if there is a word 'parachronicity' (or even if that is the word I want whether it exists or not). (I had a quick google search which, on a quick scan, threw up one PhD thesis. I suspect that means that it is not exactly colloquial even if it exists.) Anyway, I want a word that suggests the opposite (well, almost the opposite) of synchronicity: the occurrence of two or more events that appear to be meaningfully related but not causally related. So the occurrence of two or more events that don't appear to be meaningfully related (but do, in a way to be discussed, produce meaning).

I've been relatively silent on the blog recently. Mostly, this is simply having a lot of (proper) work to do. But I'd be disingenuous if I didn't admit that the confusion of the Synod on the Family, the aftermath of the Independence referendum, as well as some personal experiences, the month of the dead and the serious illness of a member of the family haven't been in there in the mix. So that's the blooming, buzzing confusion...

And you can add into that the usual fizz of whatever I happen to have come across intellectually in the meantime. Let's pick something I came across this morning:

So where does the opposition to introducing philosophy into the curriculum at GCSE level come from? The people who are afraid of the open discussion of ideas are primarily those who are nervous whether their own faiths and dogmas will not survive scrutiny, and do not want the discomfort of finding that out. But such people are not really interested in one kind of education rather than another. They are the unimaginative forces of reaction and complacency – the enemies of education.

[Simon Blackburn -here]

Now, I don't have immensely strong views on whether there should be a GCSE (or the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence equivalent) in schools. But to the extent I had to give an answer, I'd probably be against it. I'm not against the open discussion of ideas, but (having children of that sort of age myself) I'm aware of the limitations of 'open' discussion at schools. You have the immense difference in power relationship between teacher and student. You have a a social climate which is very open to discussing some 'faiths and dogmas' and very closed to discussing others. You have the difficulty in finding teachers who are sufficiently wise to replace Socrates. You have the ignorance (inevitable) of the young. You have the limited sense of what 'philosophy' involves. (I'd be delighted to think that GCSE philosophy would involve disruptive interventions such as practicals in Iamblichean theurgy or studies of Heidegger's Nazism, but I suspect not...) It's all difficult enough in the context of a full time university degree in philosophy. But squeezed within schools?

I suspect what you'd get (in a phrase I've only just come across but which I intend using a lot) 'philosophes de service': philosophy put at the service of a certain complacent and 'modern'  worldview rather than a true, Socratic search for wisdom. It all reminds me of that ghastly sense which you sometimes (rather too often) get in the Catholic Church that every theologian you meet is a heretic. I wouldn't mind so much if these were intellectuals who sometimes, at least in the dark of the night, wondered if they might, just possibly be wrong. But too often it's some ghastly blend of magisterial phenomenology (compare its near relation, Oxbridge analyticism), a battering of words from which the student emerges dazed and able to be pointed in whatever direction the psychopomp has decided on. Much better, on the whole, I think, to let reality in and let the dearest freshness deep down things speak for itself: Shakespeare, Homer even science can provide a more reliable escape from Plato's Cave for the young...

A moan, then. But the odd thing from all this (and this is the parachronicity) is that I find myself quite unable not to be a Catholic. It's all ghastly, and yet, it's ghastly within that Catholic space. I find myself emotionally confused, and I pray. I find myself intellectually thrown around, and I read Aquinas. I fear death, and I picture myself dying holding onto a crucifix and the image of Our Blessed Mother. These are not so much remedies (in many ways they don't comfort but structure) as bedrock. One discovers, unexpectedly, that, at least for oneself, Charles Taylor is wrong:

Taylor might say: “I am uncertain and sometimes even uneasy about my own religious ‘construal.’ My doubts are only compounded when I realize how easily I could see the world differently. I do have a sense of God’s reality—it seems a compelling explanation of my personal experiences—but I’m not absolutely sure I’m right, especially when I consider the ‘construals’ of non-Christians, some of which are reasonable and which I could adopt without dramatically altering my life.”

[Matthew Rose on Charles Taylor: here]

We enter the world in medias res. We leave it the same way. However well we master a deep intellectual discipline -however well we master philosophy let's say- there is (or ought to be) an incompleteness. So where do we live out that incompleteness? Oh guess...

So 'parachronicity': that clash of events that makes life appear meaningless, and yet, oddly, highlights the meaningful space within which that meaninglessness takes place.




Friday, 7 November 2014

Love craft: homosexuality, misogyny and being locked in with pigs and cows.


This is going to be a bit icky...

Quite the most revolting thing I've read in a long time was this article by Patrick Strudwick in the Guardian on misogyny amongst gay males. Alongside the admission of a tendency among gay men to describe women's bodies in breathtakingly vile ways, it also does that very typical, nauseating male progressive thing of explaining why they're better feminists than everyone else...

Well, I'm not a progressive, not a feminist, and I'm not even going to bother pretending to be writing this blogpost as a white knight to protect women, something, certainly in this case, women can do better for themselves. (Strudwick's article really ought to be entitled: 'Shut up, Rose McGowan: as a gay man, I know more about women than you do.') This is purely going to be about men and their need for purification.

Although it's very common these days to be advised to 'check your privilege' (a task which numerous, privately schooled, Oxbridge educated successful media types have managed to do with the surprising result they've discovered they're actually more oppressed than plantation slaves), very few people these days bother to check their motivations. That's something that Catholics need to do before confession, and something that really ought to be built into our daily lives. (I've rather got out of the formal habit, but the practice of a daily examen is highly advisable.) On a more secular level, the abandonment of Freudian or Jungian psychotherapy as a major cultural influence in the West has also led to the forgetting that our motivations and indeed character of our actions (and indeed ourselves) is not something that lies on the surface but something that requires careful, constant exploration. Instead, we focus on the externals: the political structure of privilege. Do I have power? Am I part of an elite group? Even setting aside the omnipresence of delusion in answering these questions as illustrated by Strudwick's article, it leaves out the individual and the subjective: what am I doing? Why do I feel so strongly about this? What lies deep in my unconscious that I am denying? These are not easy questions and indeed they are probably not completable in our lifetimes. That, from a Catholic perspective is fine: it is the process of sanctification, probably completed only after our deaths and only by God's grace. But even putting aside the theology, it ought to be perfectly comprehensible to the most secular mindset that the rooting out of delusions, spotting, and then struggling to articulate ourselves are tasks that are essential and yet exist on the cusp of impossibility.

The relationship between women and men and, more particularly for present purposes, how men see women is probably one of the trickiest aspects of this tricky area of self-exploration.  (I would emphasize that in my experience women are just as prone to difficulties here as men, but I'll leave that for them to sort out.) It was perhaps unfortunate that reading Strudwick's article occurred for me at the time I have been in a bit of a Lovecraftian binge, but the combination of Strudwick's piscine fetish with Lovecraft's obsession with hidden horror and marine creatures has made for troubling insights. (Is Lovecraft all really just about fear of women and their cavities?) Male adolescents really don't quite know what to do with/about women (although they spend all their time trying to pretend to themselves and others they do). Frankly, I'm not willing -even under a veneer of anonymity- to go into all the details of my own inadequacies -past and present- in this area. But one that is both true and relatively funny is that I remember that while it seemed quite clear from the (massive) amount of biologically oriented sex education we had received that some sort of penetration was involved in intercourse, such a manoeuvre was clearly so utterly absurd that I concluded I had simply misunderstood and settled on the view that, whatever the precise physical details, the process was clearly more akin to target shooting from a distance.

This sort of physical unease is never entirely separable from a sort of moral queasiness. Old jokes about mother-in-law or wives as 'her indoors', 'the ball and chain' and so on, testify to a widespread male fear of loss of autonomy in domesticity. (And its recovery in the midlife crisis of new cars and running off with a woman marked as less threatening to autonomy economically and by her youth.) Perhaps this all comes together symbolically at least in the vagina dentata: a physical and a moral threat from the space within.

And so back to Strudwick and misogyny. His is a well worn tale: 99% of violence against women is by heterosexuals so they're the problem and we (the good gay men) are part of the solution. But here's the other way of putting it. What do you (me) really think about women? Why do you (and this time it is you) find them sexually unattractive? (And what is it to find someone sexually unattractive: some deep combination of the physical and the moral in my experience...) Why as a culture do we (majority heterosexuals) privilege that sort of camp male aggressiveness against women? What is really going on when we pretend (say) that Conchita Wurst is unproblematically a good, funny thing? (No question at all that he might be, oh, I don't know, taking the p*** out of women? Really? Sure? And the Freudian thing with the name?) Fishiness isn't simply a bizarre manifestation of a gay subculture: that mix of physical and moral queasiness towards women is typical of maleness in general, of which gay maleness is merely an aspect -and one peculiarly isolated from corrective female critical engagement.


                                                       Miss Sausage....

I don't pretend to know what individual gay men would find on pursuing this sort of internal questioning. I say that because, as I've said, what all men will find isn't exactly clear. (But if you've defined yourself as someone who -in some major, life structuring way- doesn't like women, I'd expect some interesting observations over a lifetime, wouldn't you?) But as far as a culture which celebrates precisely the sort of bitchy queenness that produces the vile physical attitudes he remarks on, why do we give it a free pass rather than seeing it as a typical part of a male difficulty in dealing virtuously with women? (And to which the major (albeit not only) solution is the lifetime commitment of matrimony -which is, of course, yet another victim of our culture's unreflective celebration of homosexuality and, unconsciously, the locking into the trench warfare of gender against gender.)


'O what was I doing when the procession passed?
Where was I looking? Young women and men
And I might have joined them.
Who bent the coin of my destiny
That it stuck in the slot?
I remember a night we walked
Through the moon of Donaghmoyne,
Four of us seeking adventure,
It was midsummer forty years ago.
Now I know
The moment that gave the turn to my life.
O Christ! I am locked in a stable with pigs and cows for ever.


[Kavanagh: The Great Hunger.]