Sunday, November 8, 2015

History and Theodicy

          “If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent one,” said Voltaire. One cannot help but think of this line out of the French age of lights as one considers the maturation of the scientific discipline of history within the German academy during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. This is not the place to argue for the general importance of this cultural phenomenon, or its connection (with or without hints of causal importance) to the political unification of Germany, or indeed to see in German historicism the intellectual foundations of kaiserist aggression or—even worse—of the Third Reich.[1] No, here I wish merely to consider the role played by God—or the absence of God—in the philosophy of history of that period. At a time when human knowledge came to be based upon new foundations, certain questions of meaning and man’s place in the cosmos that had previously been answered by Christian knowledge now required other explanations, and drew reflection from some of the dominant thinkers of the era.
In this discussion one must begin with the Enlightenment, for it was the conceit of the philosophes that in their time, at last, humankind was beginning to use reason to free itself from superstition.[2] “Dare to know,” as Kant put it (channeling Horace). And in keeping with the rational skepticism given voice by Voltaire, Hume, et alii, the German-speaking philologists of biblical exegesis applied a hermeneutic of rationalism, slowly beginning to strip away components of the traditional content of Christian faith (the historicity of the Old Testament, then miracles, then even the historicity of the New Testament).[3] Apart from any impact of this kind of exegetical interpretation upon theology itself, the “dropping out” of the Incarnation from history had deep implications for other sciences as well, indeed for the basic relation of human beings to the world and to God.
In this context, the meaning of history could not but change, but the change was to come about almost reluctantly, at least in terms of the ethos of Christian history. One does not need to engage the whole corpus of Christian theological reflections upon time and history to appreciate that the basic fulcrum of Christian history—God entering into a particular point in time—could no longer have the same significance. But even beyond the narrative arc of history, the Christian gospel message told a history that gave a meaning to time and to every human individual. With impressive scholarly theorists such as Augustine and Bonaventure, but also from the very earliest Christian writings of Paul, Christian tradition handed down a comprehensive story about the world which (in tandem with the medieval cosmology, its counterpart in space) provided an explanation for historical events and human affairs as parts within the whole. That is, it provided a theodicy, a justification of the ways of God to men (to borrow Milton’s line).
Theodicy for “Enlightened Christians”: Herder and Kant
            This theodicy persisted into the modern era in German philosophical meditations on history, despite the loss of certainty in the biblical accounts. Two examples of what may be called “Enlightened Christianity”[4] are found in the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder and Immanuel Kant, who though they had differing conceptions of the laws of history, nevertheless both took steps in the same theodical direction. Herder’s influence upon the development of so many fields of knowledge demonstrates the enduring draw of his powerful intellect, which subjected so many aspects of human life to its inquiry. Thus when he turned to history, in his Ideas toward a Philosophy of the History of Man, it was as one more subject of humanity to be probed by reason. In accord with the enlightened natural science of his day, Herder looks to natural causes for historical events, and especially to natural circumstances of development. “In natural philosophy,” he writes, “we never reckon upon miracles.”[5] Instead, he uses the metaphor of cultivation to consider the rise and fall of civilizations, in which particular human endeavors are subject to the confining influences of time and place. Then Herder directly considers the theodical component: faced with this apparently meaningless succession of vicissitudes, “man doubts, and redoubts.”[6] But it immediately becomes clear that Herder is no nihilist: the order in nature which he already accepts leads him to accept order in history, and God is saved, because without curtailing free will he has placed laws within human nature that allow humankind in all its variety to pursue its end of “humanity” (though not in a unilinear progress).
Kant’s philosophy of history is different from Herder’s, yet one will see that his theodical instinct is the same. In contrast to Herder’s centerless variety,[7] Kant’s view of history takes shape into a recognizable form. In his essay “Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” he argues that although at the individual level human actions are impossible to predict and appear to obey no natural law, yet at the aggregate level “a regular march” of human history can be discerned.[8] Like Herder, Kant reasons from nature to history, using more-or-less Aristotelian observations of teleology to deduce a directedness in human action. However, from this point the argument unfolds without recourse to a specific historical narrative but by abstract proposition. On his view, human society is directed toward “enlightenment,” and progresses toward this by developing social institutions that tie people together in dependence despite their desire for independence and finally—solving the “greatest practical problem for the human race…the establishment of a civil society, universally administering right according to law”—by “the establishment of a universal cosmopolitan institution” which regulates the peaceable relations among states which intern regulate the individuals.[9]
In terms of theodicy, Kant’s approach to history is in full agreement with his famous definition of Aufklärung. The enlightened thinker no longer needs the tutelage of religious dogmas, but he does not discard all belief. Rather he is able through reason to discern the ethical truths learned by humankind through history, even through the old religious dogmas. Thus one arrives at his astonishingly bold claim that it is possible “to work out the universal history of the world according to the plan of nature.”[10] This claim to knowledge arises not from the basis of divine revelation, but merely from a confidence in the powers of reason to not only understand the world but to provide the ethical foundations for human life—which are, again, deeply tied to meaning. Thus, Kant is able to justify the world to his readers by means of the ethical evolution visible in a world that had progressed from barbarism and despotism to federations of German states or of American states with the potential for laws to begin to be based on foundations of reason and justice.
Does Theodicy Need God?: Ranke and Hegel
In the first decades of the nineteenth century, German scholarship progressed in its specialization and rigorous methodology—the new University of Berlin was a site for experimental ideas and methods—all with important implications for the theodical “witness” of history. Leopold von Ranke held the chair of history at Berlin, where he laid important groundwork for an apparently scientific practice of history, distinguishing it from the philosophy of history and explicitly rejecting attributions of causal power (whether of divine Providence or a Weltgeist) working behind the scenes to guide history in one direction or another. This historicism, somewhat like Herder’s view, interpreted changes in history by attending to growth that is organic (e.g., of a state within a particular culture), but with less cosmopolitan results. Regardless of whether Ranke deserves the reputation he has,[11] his theory and methodology were in accord with the mythos of modern science that has had tremendous staying power even to the present. It is a natural counterpart to advances in astronomy, physics, etc.
Now, Ranke may have dispensed with theories of active guidance from above, but he actually mentioned God a fair amount in his scattered theoretical writings and lectures. Paradoxically, it was commitment as a historian “merely to stick to the facts” which required him to maintain the eternal presence of God.[12] Unlike the philosopher, the historian “recognizes something infinite in every existence…something eternal, coming from God.”[13] For Ranke, every epoch and event had intrinsic interest (rather than instrumental value as a stage on the path toward some historical singularity) because “every epoch is immediate to God.”[14] This is a generous theodicy, recognizing historical developments but not bound to explain them as divine rewards, punishments, or pedagogical tools. Ranke thus offers a history whose internal changes have internal causes, but which still includes God as a guarantee of universal importance (of every event) and objectivity.[15]
Another towering figure at Berlin who built upon the ideas of Herder and Kant was of course G.W.F. Hegel. Hegel specifically chose the approach of a philosophy of history, which for him meant the application of “the thought that Reason rules the world” to the world’s history. Reminiscent of Kant’s emerging pattern above the interplay of free will, Hegel’s famous theory holds that there is a Weltgeist operating in world history which proceeds toward its end by means of “world-historical individuals,” whose passions serve the Geist even as they frustrate the goals of those very individuals: The “cunning of Reason…allows the passions to work for it, while what it brings into existence suffers loss and injury.”[16] The Weltgeist is certainly no Supreme Being of the Enlightenment, yet it still functions to render a form of theodicy: the “slaughter-bench” of historical evils is not justified, but they are given a place in a larger whole. The tumult and suffering caused by world-historical heroes pursuing their wills (before they are discarded) are sacrifices made by Reason moving toward self-consciousness and toward freedom.[17]
Beyond the Gulf: Marx and Nietzsche
            With Hegel, theodicy stood upon the brink of a chasm, and perhaps even stepped out in faith over the abyss. Quite distinct from even Kant’s “enlightened Christianity,” Hegel’s metaphysical system showed human history being pushed forward by a Weltgeist in a “forward” that only really has meaning for the Weltgeist (unlike Kant’s progress, which could be measured against universal ethical norms). For the individual and even for a historical nation, there is less “justification” going on, and it is unclear whose ways are being justified in any case.[18] Here then the departure was complete; it would be for other thinkers to look at a history that was post-theodical, that is, for whom no justification is available. Marx and Nietzsche provide excellent examples of how to face history beyond theodicy, the condition of the German academy in the mid-nineteenth century.
            Marx offers the path of confident atheism—or, to be more accurate, of doing scholarship when God no longer poses a question. Yet history is still important; the current economic conditions of humanity are developed historically, and so the science of political economy requires a historical context. It was not for rhetorical effect alone that Marx opened his most famous book with the words “The history of all hitherto existing society…”[19] Moreover, in an almost Aristotelean fashion, the present can only be defined by the future development, its final form. Thus a historical story gives the present a meaning by its place within the story. Perhaps most importantly, Marx retains from Hegel a view of a single story within history: “world-historical existence” is defined in reference to what is ultimately the one story of history.[20] Thus, even now one is provided with a need to give a comprehensive accounting of human history; there is no justification of God’s ways, but the individual can at least find his place in the progress of successive levels class conflict. Nietzsche offers no such comforts.
            There are many writings of the quotable Nietzsche that could be summoned to tear down any remaining walls of the old edifice of ethics based on the Christian dogmas, but his early essay, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life, serves to highlight the place and function of history. Describing one of his later concerns, the “last men,” Nietzsche already strongly criticizes the rational men of his civilization, even the scholars. Nietzsche scorns the products of the advanced, enlightened, rational and scientific German education system, who will have been cut off from life, loaded down by his “inwardness,” and rendered incapable of  living.[21] In Nietzsche’s own narrative of history, there is no triumphant march of human reason, not even of an impersonal Spirit, and past events will offer no consolation that one is safely a part of the cosmic whole. Nevertheless, there is a place for history if only insofar as it stands “in the service of life.”[22] Nietzsche distinguishes three kinds of history (monumental, antiquarian, and critical), each of which can help a person or society to live but can also have stifling, paralytic effects if allowed to draw one away from one’s own present. For the present purposes however, all three types with their uses reflect the stark admission that for humankind after the death of God, theodicy is gone: man must make his own way in this new world.
*   *   *
            The impulse to offer a comprehensive explanation, or theodicy, for history has had a long staying power. In 1989, Francis Fukuyama suggested the world was seeing “the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”[23] But such a claim was based on certainties too few intellectuals of the Enlightenment/academic tradition seem willing to take hold of. The danger that historians have no sure access to the past, or even worse, that “it doesn’t matter” and that they are, like other humans, only keeping themselves busy is a depressing option and one that historical practice as such is ill-equipped to face. The ‘linguistic turn’ in historiography has reflected this epistemological critique of the methods of history. But for all the attractive edginess of such sweeping criticisms, historians seem able to follow Ranke (and perhaps, in part at least, Herder as well) in rigorous attention to sources, satisfied in answering small questions without feeling the need to provide an all-encompassing theodicy to themselves. Whether this is a viable stance remains an important question; the way in which works are couched in either humanist-utilitarian terms (advancing “our” knowledge) or in the terms of righting wrongs (giving voice to the voiceless, giving agency to the weak, or showing how the weak were unjustly deprived of agency) suggests that most historians understand their writing not only in terms of truth but also as a kind of justification.[24]

[1] See Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History (Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1968), for a classic discussion of these questions of the influences of German historicism.
[2] Weber would of course tie the particular rationalization associated with the “spirit of capitalism” to the Protestant Reformation and to Puritan theology in particular.
[3] In this context, Thomas Jefferson’s version of the New Testament, stripped of all miracles, is an example of such Enlightened Christianity.
[4] Even if Kant would be better described as a Deist, Enlightenment Deism received a particularly Christian inheritance.
[5] Herder, “Ideas toward a Philosophy of the History of Man,” in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner, pp. 34-49 (NY, 1959), 39.
[6] Herder, 43.
[7] “[H]istory is a spider’s web…while its melancholy center, the spider by which it was spun, nowhere appears” (Herder, 44).
[8] Kant, “Idea of a Universal History from a Cosmopolitan Point of View,” in Theories of History, ed. Patrick Gardiner, 21-34 (NY, 1959), 22.
[9] Kant, 26, 32.
[10] Kant, 32.
[11] Cf. Georg Iggers, The German Conception of History, 63 and following.
[12] Leopold von Ranke, The Theory and Practice of History, 56.
[13] Ibid., 38.
[14] Ibid., 53.
[15] Interestingly, Kathrin Maurer, in Visualizing the Past, associates Ranke’s method with the panorama, saying that both aimed for a God’s-eye-view. But a panorama is the perspective of a human being, rooted to one spot and looking all around. Indeed this can be associated with Ranke; for him the fact that God’s perspective was outside of time and space was the essential condition that man’s limited perspective was still seeing a part of something real.
[16] Hegel, Introduction to the Philosophy of History (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1988), 35.
[17] Contra Rousseau, Hegel sees the state and its limiting laws as prior to human freedom and “the condition from which emancipation proceeds” (Hegel, 44).
[18] The relation of the Weltgeist to theodicy resembles, if anything, the nominalist theories of Medieval Christian and Islamic theology, which denied that humans could know God’s nature, only his will as communicated in revelation, and thus had no assurance of the truth of God’s words or even of his goodness.
[19] Karl Marx, “The Communist Manifesto”, Selected Writings (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1994), 158.
[20] Marx, 121.
[21] Nietzsche, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life (Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1980), 26-27.
[22] Nietzsche, 21.
[23] Francis Fukuyama. “The End of History?” The National Interest (1989). Fukuyama’s suggestion offers a theodicy only as a provision of place; no purpose is provided for the whole or for the individual.
[24] This may be taking the analogy too far, but Weber’s insight into the need of Puritans to testify to themselves their own certainty seems to find a measure of correspondence with post-belief philosophers (including historians) and their need to establish grounds for meaning (perhaps most often in the cause of social or economic justice).

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

De Ioannes-Iacobus Russulus: Transparentia et Obstaculum de Jean Starobinski

De Ioannes-Iacobus Russulus: Transparentia et Obstaculum de Jean Starobinski

‘The Lord God said: It is not good for the man to be alone.’
‘The Lord God then called to the man and asked him: “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden; but I was afraid, because I was naked, so I hid.”’

In the beginning of his Introduction to Christianity, Joseph Ratzinger approaches the question of faith by way of the experience of doubt, of uncertainty, which he identifies as a characteristic of our time.[1] In the same post-war milieu the literary scholar and medical doctor Jean Starobinski wrote a dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Ratzinger discusses the common difficulty facing believer and unbeliever today: neither one can claim the certainty of “being possessed of full knowledge.” The believer “is always threatened by the plunge into the void,” while the unbeliever who “may assert that he is a pure positivist, who has long left behind him supernatural temptations and weaknesses and now accepts only what is immediately certain,” is also afflicted by doubt about whether positivism really has the last word…. In short, there is no escape from the dilemma of being a man.”[2]
In addition to the shared concern for “immediate certainty,” engaging the theologian’s contemporary voice is important because Starobinski’s interest is “anthropological in the broadest sense of the word,” exactly like Rousseau’s, and therefore both (Starobinski and Rousseau) are fundamentally religious thinkers, in the Christian sense of that term with its Hellenic and Hebraic roots.[3] Starobinski observes that Rousseau’s oeuvre represents “a continuous treatise on man”[4] as opposed to a great philosophical system. And in this continuous treatise Starobinski has rightly withheld from distilling a series of syllogisms or Questions along the lines of Thomas’s great Summa Theologica; rather he has identified a motif that helps to understand the unity of Jean-Jacques’ search for freedom. That motif is transparency and obstruction. Thus, Rousseau’s fundamental concern is with overcoming the media between the self and the other which prevent certain, immediate knowledge.
In his multi-work treatise on man, Rousseau is a participant in a very long tradition, and his concerns reflect his place in that tradition, his proximity to and distance from other writers and other concerns. But the fundamental questions are immediately recognizable: 1) the search for true knowledge, which for Rousseau is characterized by immediacy; 2) the relationship between man and his neighbor, between I and thou; 3) the place of God and of physis or kosmos. These three questions are obviously interrelated, and the answers to them have ever played upon one another, from Plato and Aristotle, through the Stoics, Augustine, Aquinas, and down to Rousseau.
Starobinski begins be leading us (or by letting Rousseau lead us, in his Confessions) to Rousseau’s earliest memories, in order to introduce us to transparency and to the veil of obstruction. At Bossey, Rousseau writes, he experienced a loss of transparency, with implications for his relationship with Nature (physis), with reality (kosmos), and with other persons, and, by the language he uses, we may suggest that this veil also had implications indirectly for his relationship with God:
“From that moment paradise is lost, for paradise was the state of transparent communication between mind and mind, the conviction that total, reliable communication is possible.”[5]

The allusion to paradise is telling: in the book of Genesis, paradise was the place of the right ordering of God’s creation, with his plan for the human person in his proper sphere. In Genesis, the fall of the man and the woman by their disobedience leads to a rift between them and God (from whom they hide), between one another (as they begin to hide their nakedness), and between them and Nature (as they are cast out of the garden and forced to till the soil by the sweat of the brow and to labor in great pain to deliver new life). The experience of alienation expressed through the biblical language has begun for Rousseau: “Before the self senses its distance from the world, it experiences its distance from others.”[6] Thus the motif of transparency is immediately followed with that of obstruction—the veil—covering others, covering the world, covering oneself through memory (as one’s innocence and happiness is lost to the past).[7]
            By this notion of obstruction Rousseau is engaged in a common theme. Morrison notes that Starobinski, making use of the contrast between paraître and être, appearance and being, is drawing upon the tradition of phenomenology: Starobinski recognizes that Rousseau’s thirst for true, immediate knowledge—particularly in regard to nature, when he leaves the company of men for solitude and experiences a lifting of the veil—is a reaching for being, for fundamental reality and not merely for correct facts. Given Rousseau’s milieu, this is an important point. The trajectory of the philosophic “mythology”—Reason lifting the veil of superstition from man’s face, allowing him to see true knowledge—involved a prizing of knowledge of the natural world (consider the apotheosis of Newton or the popularity of Franklin) and at the same time a dropping away of concern with being as such, with the ground of all being. (I suppose in Aristotelian terms, the final cause of the whole and of man fell away in favor of close application of the first three causes). But Rousseau remained concerned with être; his moral education and political philosophy are part of the treatise on man that consists in his study—explicitly in his latter works—of himself.[8] Starobinski identifies as the common feature across Rousseau’s works his goal of a “restoration of transparency”.[9]
            If Rousseau is set apart from the philosophes he lived among (broadly speaking), what about the more distant voices in the tradition “on man”? The removal of obstruction in the way of true knowledge is as old as Plato in the Greek tradition (and as we have seen goes back to Genesis in the Hebrew tradition, though in a covenantal rather than epistemological relation). It would seem Rousseau shares in the platonic epistemological structure: he can see true realities behind or above the level which the mass of mankind knows, and he places great importance upon memory and distant origins of man, which is reminiscent of platonic nostalgia. Moreover, his inner conviction, articulated by his character Julie as immaterial, “immediate communication” with no need for speech or writing (or even bodies), is suggestive of platonic knowledge-as-participation. The connections are there perhaps, yet Rousseau’s is not platonic philosophy: his are intensely personal, individual concerns (think of his descriptions of the love affairs in his own life, and the relationships in La nouvelle Héloïse). Furthermore, for that classic figure of the sage, whether for Plato or Aristotle or (especially) the Stoics, control of the passions and obedience to Reason was essential.[10] Consider Aristotle’s three kinds of life described in Book I of the Ethics: the life spent in pursuit of pleasure, the life of public affairs, and the life of contemplation. All those who are ruled by their emotions and have no self-control are “choosing the kind of life lived by cattle.” Aristotle considers the vast majority of men to be “absolute slaves.” If Rousseau also holds that men are everywhere in chains, the cause lies in society itself, not in the common man’s ignorance of philosophy.
            In fact, for Rousseau, emotions are of entirely different import: “In these extraordinary moments immediate feeling is immediately expression. To be moved and to display emotion are one and the same.”[11] In philosophizing itself, in making judgments, one participates in the veiling rather than in unveiling. That is why for Rousseau childhood and origins are so important. “Sensation is always correct,” and, with Condillac: “if error enters in, it does so only insofar as we presume to judge.”[12]
            It becomes clear thus that Rousseau is a thinker who is firmly situated after or within Christian thought, and also that his position is closer to that of Augustine than that of Thomas Aquinas. Rousseau’s concern with universal human dignity bear the mark of Christian influence, yet his experience of alienation which is so fundamental for him is strongly at odds with the great stability of Aquinas’s system. Indeed, it is the confidence of scholastic (and classical) thought in its own judgments which is so lacking in Rousseau. If Aquinas distinguished between the rational and sensitive souls in sober statement of man’s place at the summit of the material world, Rousseau is confident in sensation and emotion, but distrusts ratio.
            Rousseau is in a conundrum: he has the same concern with être, but not the same confidence in reaching it. Josef Pieper describes the scholastic/classical position:
“The spiritual being is [in Aquinas’s words] ‘capable of grasping the whole of being’… That is the tradition of Western philosophy: to have spirit, or to be spirit, means to exist in the midst of the whole of reality and before the whole of being… That is what is meant by the proposition omnes ens est verum (everything that is, is true)—though we have almost ceased to understand it—and by the complementary proposition that being and truth are interchangeable concepts. (What does truth mean, where things are concerned, the truth of things?) ‘A thing is true’ means: it is known and knowable, known to the absolute spirit, knowable to the spirit that is not absolute.”[13]

Starobinski puts Rousseau’s goals thus: “To be oneself and to see the truth: he wants both, and he wants each by means of the other.”[14] The problem is that Rousseau is distrustful of communication itself, and therefore of the means of knowing. Society did not see the truth of him, and his own attempts through writing to convey himself fail as well (forcing him to try again and again). He therefore withdraws from society.
            In Rousseau’s final withdrawal to inaction (as well as his request to be imprisoned) we are reminded of comparisons: Albert Camus and his rebellion, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, and Boethius and his consolation. His struggle to maintain authenticity is intensely individualistic, always returning to himself and always questioning his relationship with society as a whole and with other actual acquaintances. Unlike Camus, his rebellion cannot involve actual brotherly charity. Unlike the Underground Man, his isolation can achieve some measure of meaning and even of freedom.[15] But unlike Boethius, philosophizing can offer no remedy.          
* * *
The religious element (especially the Fall) would seem to generalize Rousseau’s strivings into an a-historical tradition of the essential condition of man, and to some extent this is proper as such is the domain claimed by philosophy in the broad sense in which Rousseau participated. But on the other hand, Rousseau is asking timeless questions in a very particular time and place. And to the extent which he critiqued the evils of history, which place man “everywhere in chains,” he speaks to a particular experience of alienation and isolation in the midst even of society that is the condition of the human person in the modern age. To the extent that he strongly criticized the project of the philosophes, he remains a defiant rebel today, as the iterations of the Enlightenment project are continuously generated. In this way in particular, he speaks to the post-modern doubt that characterized the milieu in which Starobinski worked and in which Ratzinger wrote his Introduction.
Thus we return to the beginning: Christopher Bertram says that Rousseau’s primary concern throughout is to preserve human freedom, yet he is at the same time “consistently and overwhelmingly pessimistic that humanity will escape from a dystopia of alienation, oppression, and unfreedom.”[16] As Starobinski well demonstrates, Rousseau’s pessimism was grounded for him in the very experience of his own inability to convey his true self to others immediately. But perhaps a path exists to break beyond Rousseau’s veiled “I” (even if he himself never took that path). In his tales of the unveiling statues (Galatea and the wicked idol), Rousseau provides the “initial gift, given unconditionally” (of existence [Galatea] and truth [from Christ]).[17] But does not that unconditional gift describe the place of each person—of Rousseau himself? In contrast to the identity of man as having a freedom of unrestrained volition which has been the achievement of the Enlightenment, this “givenness” precedes the will in both the order of time and that of existence. Rémi Brague has raised this point in the context of his call to return from Aristotle to Plato and be confronted by ontological goodness. Brague asks, “How can I tolerate not having created myself?...If and only if I come from some utterly good principal”[18] The soul of Descartes’s disembodied ego may be faced with insurmountable isolation, obstructed by a veil that may hide nothing at all. But that is not in fact the condition in which man finds himself. Man is from first to last in relationship.
In this way, Rousseau is closer to Augustine than to Aquinas. At the time of his conversion, Augustine looks for God along the path of (platonic) philosophy, in his dialogic Soliloquia. How can I know that I know God? But much later, in his own Confessiones, Augustine reveals to us one side of his cor ad cor loquitor with God. Less Greek and more biblical, Augustine is in a covenantal relationship rather than an analytic epistemological act: You have made me for yourself. Though the idea of personal relationship to God remains at most in the background in Rousseau, inter-personal communion, communion personarum, does in fact arise as at least an ideal of overcoming the obstruction. Rousseau, then, for all his pessimism, is not a nihilist; there really is être behind the paraître, and the way to reach it, as for Augustine, is through love. And so we return to the milieu of Starobinski and of Ratzinger (perhaps not so different from our own today) in the relevance of Rousseau’s thought. Ratzinger suggests that the article of the creed that “expresses the unparalleled experience of our age” is the descent into hell—the absence of God. This absence is for Rousseau the very experience of human beings in their condition of living under a veil and participating in the covering over of transparency. But perhaps Rousseau, in his internal convictions, hinted at an Augustinian path beyond doubt through love:
“God has drawn a veil across his face, but Julie penetrates the veil that separates matter from spirit, life from death.”[19]

Works Cited
Aristotle. Ethics. In The Philosophy of Aristotle. Trans. J.L. Creed and A.E. Wardman. New York, NY: Signet Classics, 2003.
Augustine of Hippo. Confessions. Baltimore, MD: Penguin Classics, 1968.
——. Soliloquies. Trans. C.C. Starbuck. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Ed. Philip Schaff.(Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Rev. and ed. for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .
Brague, Rémi. “Necessity of the Good,” in First Things No. 250 (Feb 2014): 47-52.
Pieper, Josef. Liesure the Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. London, England: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1952.
Ratzinger, Joseph. Introduction to Christianity. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004.
Starobinski, Jean. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Transparency and Obstruction. Trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

[1] He wrote this book in 1967.
[2] Ratzinger, 45 (emphasis mine).
[3] Starobinski, xxxiv.
[4] Starobinski, 273.
[5] Starobinski, 8.
[6] Starobinski, 10.
[7] Starobinski, 11-12.
[8] “Rousseau was totally preoccupied with one affaire: his own” (Starobinski, 22).
[9] Starobinski, 13.
[10] Aristotle, Ethics I, 317.
[11] Starobinski, 138.
[12] Starobinski, 26.
[13] Joseph Pieper, Leisure the Basis of Culture , 115-116.
[14] Starobinski, 80.
[15] “Rousseau, unlike most previous moralists, is not content merely to criticize external things: he incriminates the external in his very definition of evil. This condemnation is merely the counterpart of an exculpation that claims, once and for all, to save man’s inner essence” (Starobinski, 20).
[16] Bertram, Christopher, “Jean-Jacques Rousseau,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .
[17] Starobinski, 78-79.
[18] Rémi Brague, “Necessity of the Good,” in First Things No. 250 (Feb 2014), 52.
[19] Starobinski, 118. It is true that Starobinski reads this as a “triumph of the veil” in the inevitability of death. But may one not question his reading of the gaze of the Judge (God) and his opposition between community and salvation? For Augustine and Aquinas, and perhaps also for Rousseau, to the extent that he received the Christian tradition, the gaze of the beatific vision is salvation is communion. As John has it, “I and the Father are one” and  “If you remain in my word…, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” and “this is eternal life: that they know you” (10:30, 8:13, 17:3).

Monday, December 30, 2013

Nature as Replacement or Reflection of God?

I don’t take atheism lightly. I think there is the possibility of a cohesive argument against the existence of God. I don’t think it would be foolproof or uncontestable; but I can imagine it being formidable.

That said, I find the common contemporary arguments against theism extremely lacking. (Perhaps the same can be said for the common contemporary arguments against atheism. I don’t know.) What I find extremely lacking is the ability to perceive of the theist’s point-of-view—not to agree with it, but to understand it. As such, most of the arguments assume their conclusion, and then it is no wonder they “find” it.

Here is one example that is indicative of many arguments against God from the realm of “science.”* The other day I heard this story on the radio. (I am going to simplify to the point of butchering, but I think the point remains.) A scientist was explaining how he conducted tests with cells in order to see if it was more effective—or evolutionarily advantageous—for cells to work for their own ends or in groups. What he found was that if there were enough “cooperative” cells in a group, they could effectively stop and overtake the “selfish” cells. OK, interesting study. I have no background in this sort of thing, so I must take others’ word for it. But I have a problem with the scientist’s philosophizing about his study.

The doctor went on to hypothesize that the basic human moral code, found eerily similarly throughout cultures and historical periods (despite cultural relativists’ need to blow up the rather minute differences) may be found in genetics and evolution, not in God or teachers of ethics/religion. What is mind-bogglingly baffling is the inability of the scientist to take the vantage point of the theist and ask the question, How would we expect biology to work if God is real—or, more specifically, if the Christian God is real? Would it surprise us at all that on a cellular level, the human body—or all of creation—works better in cooperation rather than in isolation? Absolutely not. In fact, this is exactly what we'd expect. Yes, man and nature is fallen, but the center of Christianity—and therefore the center of humanity and all of reality—is the Trinity, that beautiful indication that even God doesn’t exist in isolation. So we would expect this Triune God’s creation, from a single cell to a living organism to a human person, to reflect some of the more important and basic truths about God.

This sort of study, on a scientific level, proves nothing about atheism or theism. It is a basic scientific set of data. It can fuel the atheist, who can see it as proving a biological origin of ethics; but it can equally fuel the theist, who can see it as nature reflecting its Creator.

I’ve heard a number of similar arguments that present scientific data to show the non-necessity of God. But the data is always exactly what we’d expect to see if we posited a Christian God. “Look, there was a big bang. Why do we need God?” Positing God, wouldn’t we expect to see a creative moment in the scientific history of our universe? “Look, there is evolution. Why do we need God?” As if positing of God would rule out a natural process of nature improving itself...

I’m not sure the exact place of these sorts of scientific studies, but I’m very sure it’s not to prove God doesn’t exist.

[*I use quotation marks not to demean science, but to mock the pseudoscience that is often presented as science—or to mock, as more often is the case, the vast logical and metaphysical leaps the scientist makes going from his scientific observations to his conclusions about the world.]