What is Philosophy, Anyways?

•August 12, 2018 • Leave a Comment

The Philosopher at Work

The one feature all of the Greek philosophers of the Hellenic and Hellenistic world had in common, aside from speaking Greek, was a strong desire to know the proper and profitable way to live. Whether the fractured and tribal city states of the earliest Pre-Socratics and the later Helleniic period, or the vast centralized bureaucratic empires of the Hellenistic age, concern for the right way of living for the individual and community were central questions. No matter what sort of metaphysical assumptions were made or what the ethical recommendations were, all the extant schools of Greek philosophical thought had an agenda for how to live life, and a program for seeking the best way to manipulate the cosmos and the self to achieve the optimum results for human happiness and well-being.

The Pre-Socratics sought to find the unitary elemental principle behind the universe, so that they could understand and gain some measure of control over the world. Thales was an accomplished engineer, merchant and politician in addition to his more esoteric philosophical pursuits. His philosophy was concerned with how the world works, in order to understand how best to act as a human being. Others, such as the ill-fated volcano diver Empedocles, were actually sorcerers and magicians trying to manipulate the visible world through invisible powers. Some thought of all plurality and change as an illusion, some thought change was the only underlying reality. All were concerned with how best to behave in order to fulfill their lives.

Most notably among the Pre-Socratic schools of thought, the Sophists sought the best ways to use language to manipulate other people, a sort of social magic. They would teach others how to work their speeches, and would sell speeches to be used for set occasions. They were professional educators, teaching traditional civil virtues to the highest bidder, much to the chagrin of the established classes. They would teach their clients the fine art of argumentation and disputation, how to use rhetoric to achieve the desired result in convincing others. Their entire program revolved around telling and showing other people how to live in order to accomplish the goals desired for a good life.

Plato’s over-arching concern was with the political life of the polis, in knowing the virtues of citizenship in a city-state. The point of understanding virtue is in order to become more virtuous in practice. The result of philosophical enlightenment is to produce an ethical mission, as in the allegory of the cave when the freed cave-dweller returns back among the chained in order to help them the best he can after having seen the glory of the Sun. Civic virtue is the highest virtue, because by participating virtuously in the polis, one is being most fully in tune with human nature, fulfilling a cosmic role. He saw rational ethics as superior to traditional religion, as seen in figures like Euthyphro, as the traditional religious beliefs of the Greeks did not provide rigorous methods of judging moral behavior. He was concerned with mathematics, as he saw within numbers a basis for reality that can be understood and manipulated by human beings for their own good. The program of the Sophists, of teaching for money, is depicted in Plato as a most distasteful breach of civic virtue. The true teacher does not charge, but offers knowledge for the sake of enlightening another human being. To crassly charge money for enlightenment is tremendously improper behavior, a violation of the natural order. Philosophy, to Plato, is an initiatory experience that leads to real change in life. His primary concern is the understanding and passing on of virtue.

Aristotle was also concerned with proper human action, and developed his four-fold theory of causality in order to understand how the world and everything in it works through exploring the causes of all things inasmuch as possible. The understanding of a topic such as rhetoric is not achieved by being able to write and deliver good speeches, but rather comes from knowing the root causes of rhetoric. The knowledge gained through this investigation could be used for extrapolating further facts through the method of logic he developed for this purpose. The way to approach universal truths for Aristotle is always through particulars, through the primacy of act, as only that which is in act is knowable. The individual is what is real, not forms floating around in a world of ideas. Action is the root of ethical behavior, as human beings are not abstract objects possessing a quality of goodness or badness, but rather we are agents who commit actions which are themselves good or bad. He saw knowledge of the causes as superior to experience in practical use, as experience deals with particulars, and as such is always limited, while theory gained from observation of the causes deals with universals, and as such is always applicable towards informing proper action. While Aristotle felt that knowledge learned from its own sake was the most pure in nature, in preference to knowledge for moral betterment or for the sake of achieving particular effects, he was himself an enthusiastic naturalist who was fascinated with exploring causality and reason within the cosmos, and his entire philosophy was wrapped up in understanding cause and effect, and how to refine that knowledge in order to live a complete life, a happy life.

The Cynics sought to break free of the constraints of convention and political pressures to achieve happiness in life. They represented more of a discipline of physical and emotional asceticism, rather than an intellectual tradition. They railed against the evils of carnal pleasure, power and riches. They would feign insanity in order to make a point though scandalizing others, trying to galvanize people by shocking them out of their comfort zones. Their philosophy was very practically oriented, designed to be lived rather than contemplated.

Epicurus and his school of thought saw the basic point of existence as the seeking of pleasure, but in an ordered way so as to maximize pleasure rationally. The source of unhappiness for the Epicurean model is pain, so the goal is to maximize pleasure and avoid pain whenever possible. Their entire philosophy was built around figuring out to best accomplish this end, and to prove that it is the highest end. Epicurus sought to see truth and value without resorting to speaking of universal truths. His philosophy centered around the learning of self-governance, which would lead to the ability to deal with other people. Epicurus and his followers composed very accessible works for the purpose of being meditated upon and memorized by others, in order to help them live out their lives properly.

The Stoics saw passionless reason as the best method to organize human behavior and life. Like the Epicureans, the Stoics built their philosophy on forming a practical way of life that was designed to fit people’s everyday lives. They saw the reason behind unhappiness as bad decisions, and the way to achieve happiness as learning to make correct decisions on a rational basis. They would study physics and other sciences for the purpose of justifying their existential system. Everything for the stoics revolved around learning to live in accordance with nature.

The lalatt day Platonists, most notably Plotinus, saw the entire cosmos as an emanation of the One, and the destiny of all things as being drawn back into the one. When Plotinus was teaching in Rome, his circle of followers included many professional and politically active individuals, who found his philosophy useful to them in their everyday sort of lives, showing the practical bent of Plotinus mystical philosophy. He taught that the human soul should be sculpted like a statue through serious meditation in order to achieve a perfect shape over time. Plotinus sought to achieve union with the One, and to guide others towards the same goal

Even when they disagree, which was quite often, all of these philosophers were concerned above all with right behavior and seeking the real goal of living. What is the best way to live, and how do we best accomplish it in this world. All the physical and metaphysical investigations were aimed at the primary goal of figuring out the ideal method of achieving vital life goals, and discerning what the best set of goals would be. From the mystical to the empiricist, the political to the Cynic, the Monist to the Pluralist, they all sought the answer to the question of how to live in the world as a human being.


Saint Romanus, Abbot

•March 1, 2012 • Leave a Comment

St. Romanus the Abbot

May the intercession of blessed Romanus, the Abbot, commend us unto Thee, we beseech Thee, O Lord: so that what we cannot acquire by any merits of ours, we may obtain by his patronage. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen. – Collect from the Common of Abbots

In the territory of Lyons, in the Jura Mountains, the death of St. Romanus, abbot, who first had led the life of a hermit there.  His reputation for virtues and miracles brought under his guidance many monks. – The entry in the Roman Martyrology

St.Romanus, Abbot of Condat, now St. Claude in the French Jura, b. about 400; d. in 463 or 464. When thirty-five years old he went into the lonely region of Condat to live as a hermit, where after a while his younger brother Lupicinus followed him. A large number of scholars, among whom was St. Eugendus, placed themselves under the direction of the two holy brothers who founded several monasteries: Condat (now Saint-Claude), Lauconne (later Saint-Lupicin, as Lupicinus was buried there), La Balme (later Saint-Romain-de-Roche), where St.Romanus was buried, and Romainmôtier (Romanum monasterium) in the canton of Vaud in Switzerland. Romanus was ordained priest by St. Hilary of Arles in 444, and with Lupicinus he directed these monasteries until his death. His feast is observed on 28 February. Two lives of him are in existence: one by Gregory of Tours in the “Liber vitae patrum” (Mon. Germ. Hist.: Script. Merov., I, 663), and an anonymous “Vita Sanctorum Romani, Lupicini, Eugendi” [ibid., III, 131 sqq.; cf. Benoît, “Histoire de St-Claude”, I (Paris, 1890); Besson, “Recherches sur les origines des évêchés de Genève, Lausanne, et Sion” (Fribourg, 1906), 210 sqq.]. – Catholic Encyclopedia

Faith and Works, Body and Spirit

•February 29, 2012 • 1 Comment

But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead?  Was not Abraham our father justified by works, offering up Isaac his son upon the altar?  Seest thou, that faith did co-operate with his works; and by works faith was made perfect?  And the scripture was fulfilled, saying: Abraham believed God, and it was reputed to him to justice, and he was called the friend of God.  Do you see that by works a man is justified; and not by faith only?  And in like manner also Rahab the harlot, was not she justified by works, receiving the messengers, and sending them out another way? For even as the body without the spirit is dead; so also faith without works is dead. – James 2:20-26

The metaphor used in the Scripture is of Faith = Body and Works = Spirit.  A body that lies still and does not grow, breath, move or generally live is a corpse, lacking an animating principle (much like this blog  since I started Grad School).  The fallen angels believe in God, insofar as they know the truth, but they are not animated with love of the truth and so tremble.  But a spirit without a body to animate is a ghostly apparition, unable to experience the fullness of life, hence why we look forward to the Ressurection of the Dead rather than being freed from the body.  Without a body, we are ghosts; without the spirit, we are corpses.  Only with both, in a full Hylomorphic union, do we experience actual life.  Similarly, if we believe the truth and do nothing, our faith is like a corpse, stagnant and fruitless.  If we do good deeds and do not believe, our works are like a ghost, adrift and meaningless.

Anyway, that’s a thought for the day.  I’m goign to try doing something a bit more with this blog, maybe a saint of the day sort of deal, which I have been doing on FaceBook anyway.  Maybe some book reviews.  Time will tell.

Si vales valeo, amicos!

Sacramental Worldview: Magic?

•March 14, 2010 • 7 Comments

The Archangel Raphael, on God's orders, uses occult knowledge to help Tobias

A Calvinist aquaintance of mine recently said that “God can appoint whatever means He chooses for communicating His will. The urim and thummim were God-ordained by the written word, which would *de facto* preclude them from the realm of magic.”  This was after he was criticiing the Harry Potter, Narnia and Lord of the Rings books as horribly anti-Christian, and called the Catholic Mass “witchcraft” in a Biblical sense.

So I just though I’d post some Scriptural passages in regards to “magic” in the Scripture, leaving out the abundant examples of approved divination:

“Is any man sick among you? Let him bring in the priests of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith shall save the sick man: and the Lord shall raise him up: and if he be in sins, they shall be forgiven him.” (James 5:14-15)

“And going forth they preached that men should do penance: And they cast out many devils, and anointed with oil many that were sick, and healed them.” (Mark 6:12-13)

“‘As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained’” (John 20:21–23)

“And these signs shall follow them that believe: In my name they shall cast out devils: they shall speak with new tongues. They shall take up serpents; and if they shall drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them: they shall lay their hands upon the sick, and they shall recover. And the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God. But they going forth preached every where: the Lord working withal, and confirming the word with signs that followed.” (Mark 16:17-20, phah to historical-critical method)

“Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:10-14)

Justification: Where’s the Beef?

•January 12, 2010 • 8 Comments

“For this reason Luther’s phrase: “faith alone” is true, if it is not opposed to faith in charity, in love. Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life. And the form, the life of Christ, is love; hence to believe is to conform to Christ and to enter into his love. So it is that in the Letter to the Galatians in which he primarily developed his teaching on justification St Paul speaks of faith that works through love (cf. Gal 5: 14).

“Paul knows that in the twofold love of God and neighbor the whole of the Law is present and carried out. Thus in communion with Christ, in a faith that creates charity, the entire Law is fulfilled. We become just by entering into communion with Christ who is Love. We shall see the same thing in the Gospel next Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King. It is the Gospel of the judge whose sole criterion is love. What he asks is only this: Did you visit me when I was sick? When I was in prison? Did you give me food to eat when I was hungry, did you clothe me when I was naked? And thus justice is decided in charity. Thus, at the end of this Gospel we can almost say: love alone, charity alone. But there is no contradiction between this Gospel and St Paul. It is the same vision, according to which communion with Christ, faith in Christ, creates charity. And charity is the fulfillment of communion with Christ. Thus, we are just by being united with him and in no other way.

“At the end, we can only pray the Lord that he help us to believe; really believe. Believing thus becomes life, unity with Christ, the transformation of our life. And thus, transformed by his love, by the love of God and neighbor, we can truly be just in God’s eyes.”  – Benedict XVI

Justification is the classical issue of the Reformation, and much ink and blood has been spilled over what the correct doctrine is, really.  Some will accuse the Council of Trent of “anathamizing the Gospel”, but a careful reading of Pope Benedict’s statement above and the Councils decree shows that they are the same as that espoused in the Bible.  Paul tells us in Romans and Galatians that Justification comes through faith rather than the works of the Law, but James tells us in his epistle that “faith without works is dead” and that “man is justified by works, and not by faith alone”.  Jesus himself, in the parable of the sheep and the goats, seems to lay the works of love springing from true faith as a standard for our justification before God, the standard that the Holy Father echoes in the above quote.  Once you peel away 500-year old rhetoric, the truth remains: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind: and thy neighbour as thyself.” (Luke 10:27)


My friend Kevin asks:  “So you agree that doing good works does not get you into heaven?”

I respond:

It is not a strict dichotomy of either faith or works, because “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:20). It is a both/and, a favorite Catholic theology catchphrase. Brownie points will not earn salvation, but “the devils also believe and tremble” (James 2:19). One cannot exist authentically without the other.

“Not every one that saith to me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven: but he that doth the will of my Father who is in heaven, he shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.

“Many will say to me in that day: ‘Lord, Lord, have not we prophesied in thy name, and cast out devils in thy name, and done many miracles in thy name?’ And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, you that work iniquity.

“Every one therefore that heareth these my words, and doth them, shall be likened to a wise man that built his house upon a rock, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell not, for it was founded on a rock.

“And every one that heareth these my words, and doth them not, shall be like a foolish man that built his house upon the sand, and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof.”   (Matthew 7: 21-27)

Whence “Neo-Catholic”?

•January 6, 2010 • 4 Comments

The Neo-Pope

This is in response to a discussion on Mark Shea’s blog, regarding the term “Neo-Catholic”, apparently meaning  by the definition of the poster DM,  “A Catholic whose enthusiasms and opinions are mostly defined by John Paul II’s papacy.”

This is what I have seen the term used to mean in actual conversations with my Traditionalist friends, it is kind of  a cartoonishly simplistic take on the opinions of those who are orthodox yet not full-blown Traditionalists in their devotional life.  As a Traditionalist-leaning former Protestant (product of Benedict XVI’s papacy rather than JPII, still Chrismy fresh!), I find myself hemming and hawing over these points, “yes, well, sort of…”.  I’ll take them one at a time, for clarity’s sake:

“1) The Second Vatican Council was a positively good thing.  Its documents are “marching orders for the new millennium”. The pastoral strategy given by Gaudium et Spes is authoritative and, more importantly, correct.  The problems in the Church following the council are not the fault of the conciliar documents themselves, but can be blamed on misinterpretation, misimplementation, or ignorance of them. “

Well, yes.  Many problems that have followed from the Council actually contradict the conciliar teachings directly.  This is well documented.  Though I will say that the Council’s teachings, even when not wrong, did lend themselves to misinterpretation and misapplication.  This is true of all the Ecumenical Councils, actually.  They all caused as many problems as they solved, if not more.  I have come to the conclusion that if there hadn’t been a VII, the past 50 years very well could have been bumpier.  I trust the movement of the Holy Spirit that way.

“`2) The Bugninine liturgical reform was a positively good thing. The problems following the promulgation of the new Mas are not the fault of the content, form or circumstrances of origin of the new Mass itself, but can be blamed on liturgical abuse at the diocesan and parochial level.  When celebrated reverently, there is “nothing illegitemate or doctrinally inexact” about the reformed liturgy.”

Well,  I have problems with some of the directions taken with Paul VI Mass, but it is not *illegitimate* as it is a valid Mass promulgated by the Church.  I’d cut the three Euphoras aside from the traditional Roman Canon, among other niggling liturgical tidbits.  I think the transition was ill-advised and poorly handled.  But again, many of the problematic practices of the reform era were indeed not part of the new standards, but people going beyond the rubrics and staying there.  Partly, this is due to the aforementioned poor handling of the changes, but part of it is that there were some serious problems with formation within the Church in the generation leading up to the Council.

“3) The ecclesiastical tradition of the Church has no permanment objective content. All “little T” traditions can and should be modified according to perceived pastoral or evangelical expediency.”

This is an overstatement and misinterpretation of Congar’s “Meaning of Tradition” and the position taken by the Magesterium with regards to “little t” traditions.  The distinction is a true one, though I would say that the past 50 years show that messing with the “little t” can be very dangerous and ill-advised.  But there is a truth that the Church is objectively not the same with regards to these “little t” practices in 1st century Rome, 7th century Lebonon, 19th century France and 21st century Kenya.  It just isn’t.  The issue that was taken up by Congar and VII was that some of the “traditional” practices were only 100 years old, and were in danger of being confused with the Deposit of Faith.  Their mistake was in assuming that they could change the traditions of the Faithful by Episcopal fiat, an action that is obviously folly in retrospect.  In addition, it is dangerous to presume to know where the line between “little t” and “Big T” lies.  This is a complex issue, that doesn’t lend itself to a simplification with “Traditionalists” on one side and “Neo-Catholics” on the other.

4) The pope can and should positivistically innovate in matters of liturgy and devotion.

Well, I don’t much care for Papal fiat in these matters, but this goes back to St. Gregory the Great, St. Gregory VII, St. Pius V, etc.  The Tridentine Mass itself represents a number of liturgical and devotional innovations coming from the Pope and an Ecumenical Council, perhaps moreso than that of Paul VI following Vatican II.

5) Ecumenism is a positively good thing and a “solemn and binding duty” on all believers.

Well, it was said by a Council of the Church, so who am I to disagree?  St. Peter does tell us to be always ready with an answer.

6) Modern philosophical (e.g. phenomenology), artistic, and cultural (e.g. World Youth Day) forms can and should be used as vehicles for the Gospel, and there is nothing intrinsically and qualitatively superior about the forms used by the Church in the past (e.g. Thomism, Gothic architecture).

Are you saying that modern forms cannot or should not be used to advance the Gospel?  I think that traditional artistic forms are vastly superior, for a number of reasons I won’t go into here, but is it a zero-sum game where modern culture is of no potential value?

7) The 1992 Catechism is a “sure guide” to the faith, and can be considered a final authority on any matter it addresses.

I don’t know anyone who would claim the Catechism (or any other Catechism, really) as a “final authority”.  It’s pretty through and useful, however.

8) Disagreement with the above statements puts a Catholic in danger of “private judgment”, “being more Catholic than the pope” or “Protestant mentality”.

Well, when one disagrees with the Pope because he isn’t hewing to tradition, it is an understandable charge, isn’t it?  I don’t think it is a fair charge, but it follows naturally from the positions taken.  I think there is much room to disagree with what’s been going on for the past 50 years, and with Popes and their actions, without being “Protestant”.  The line is crossed by people such as the SSPX, when they declare the Church apostate.  And there lies the charge of “Rad-Trad”.

“I don’t think that any part of that is inaccurate of unfair, and apologize if it is.”

I think you could use some nuance in your statements, and a few (namely number 3) cross the line into parody, but a fair enough list.

And, as usual, I ask that anyone who objects to the term “neo-Catholic” suggest a different name for the set of opinions and enthusiasms I have just described.  (Refusing to call it anything other  than “Catholic” winds up just being an integrist game of its own, as that suggests that “Catholisicm” is coterminous with that set of opinions and enthusiasms.)

One problem with the term “Neo-Catholic”, is that people I know who would fit in that category as understood here, use the term to refer to right-wing dissenters who see the Church as a vehicle for free market/militaristic/nationalist political aims, which makes the term ambiguous, and hence less-than-useful.  Also, the self-understanding of “Neo-Catholics” is not one of being innovative, but of bringing Tradition to bear in the modern world.  The “Hermeneutic of Continuity” as Pope Benedict states it.  Most even consider themselves as Traditionalists, who prefer the OF in Latin with very traditional rubrics.  I don’t know what a better term would be, but “Neo-Catholics” is disrespectful and unhelpful.

Western Exceptionalism

•January 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Learning classical languages is essential to European civilization….Europe’s luck was its initial poverty. For a very long time, Europe remained far removed from the existing cultural centers in Asia. Europeans were barbarians, inhabiting distant, freezing northern shores. And they knew this about themselves. Studying classical languages, and thereby imbibing a civilization wholly different from their own, made them conscious of the fact that they were stinking barbarians, who needed to wash themselves with the soap of higher civilizations. The Romans were well aware that they were culturally inferior to the Greeks. But they also had the courage to admit it. And that is precisely what gave them the strength to absorb the Hellenic civilization, and spread it to the lands they conquered. The essential characteristic of European culture is that it is ex-centric. Not in the sense of an Englishman who takes a bath wearing his bowler hat, but in the sense that the two sources of her civilization, Athens and Jerusalem, lie outside the geographical area of Europe itself. European culture is based on the recognition that we are barbarians who civilized ourselves by internalizing ‘strange’ cultural sources.

Remi Brag