Posts Tagged ‘Friedrich Nietzsche’

de Lubac: The Drama of Atheist Humanism

March 13, 2014

The Drama of Atheist Humanism
Henri de Lubac, S.J.
(Meridian, 1967) [1950]
253 p.

As I understand it, Henri de Lubac was one of the leading theologians in the decades leading up to Vatican II who advocated and exemplified an approach to Catholic theology which emphasized engagement and dialogue with the modern world. I don’t know if that is a fair characterization of his work as a whole — for this is the first of his books that I have read — but it is a good description of what is going on in The Drama of Atheist Humanism, in which de Lubac sympathetically enters into conversation with the sources of contemporary atheism in an effort to both understand and challenge them.

For de Lubac, atheist humanism is rooted in the thought of a handful of nineteenth-century men: Feuerbach (and, through him, Marx), Nietzsche, and Comte. He considers each of them to be a “humanist,” in the sense of being one who takes a high view of the human capacity for greatness, and who wants to see that capacity developed and praised. Yet each conceives of the relationship between God and humanity as being one of competition, and it is in that apparent conflict that de Lubac identifies the principal motive of modern atheism: “Man is getting rid of God in order to regain possession of the human greatness which, it seems to him, is being unwarrantably withheld by another. In God he is overthrowing an obstacle in order to gain his freedom.”

Even the atheists, however, realized that the overthrow of God would exact a price. It was Nietzsche who perceived this most clearly; he foresaw “the rising of a black tide” as God’s influence over human affairs waned. He saw that to reject God was to reject everything founded on Him, and that this would be the greatest upheaval, both intellectual and moral, that the world had ever known.

de Lubac respects the honesty and integrity of these atheist thinkers, granting them credit where it is due, though of course he stops well short of endorsement:

“The criticisms which served as their starting-point were often shrewd, with a shrewdness cruel in its accuracy; and certain of their manifestations have an imposing grandeur which, for many fascinated eyes, masks the horrors that were their purchase price.”

It is Nietzsche, especially, who earns de Lubac’s admiration. Nietzsche was thorough and fearless: he followed his thoughts to their conclusions. It is notable that although he was of course opposed to Christianity, he refused even to argue against Christian theology, for to do so would have been to concede the eminence of truth, which would have been a concession to the principles of theism. Instead, the battle was for him a matter of values expressed through culture, a struggle of wills for domination. de Lubac remarks: “…never, before Nietzsche, had so mighty an adversary arisen, one who had so clear, broad and explicit a conception of his destiny and who pursued it in all domains with such systematic and deliberate zeal.” As I have said before, Nietzsche did everyone, theist or atheist, a great good service simply by clarifying the terms of the debate and its implications.

It is interesting that de Lubac saw the atheists of his time — the mid-twentieth century — as having assumed this same mantle of courageous and integral atheism. He writes, for instance, comparing them to the French philosophes and other early modern atheists:

“How timid those men now seem who, for instance, fought against the Church but wanted to keep the Gospel! Or those who, while claiming to be released from all authority and all faith, still invoked principles derived from a Christian source! “Free thinkers,” but not very bold and not very “free” as yet! Those who have come after them deride their illogicality as much as their impotence and lump them together with believers in a common reprobation. Those of the new generation do not intend to be satisfied with “the shadow of a shadow.” They have no desire to live upon the perfume of an empty vase.”

I have to wonder, however, whether this sort of high-octane atheist has survived into the present day in any large numbers. One of the principal criticisms of the crop of so-called “New Atheists” has been precisely that they are superficial, complacent, tame, and so forth. They take “values” for granted, coasting on the fumes of a religion from which they profess to have cut themselves off. It’s an interesting question. I wonder who were the mid-twentieth-century atheists whom de Lubac had particularly in mind when he wrote the above? Sartre and Camus, perhaps? If so, I think it would be fairly uncontroversial to say that our most vocal atheists today fall well short of the standard.

Yet in the end de Lubac argues that the atheists’ efforts to disparage God have, despite their often praiseworthy intentions, only ended up hurting humanity, and this because there was an obscure truth in the claim (made by Feuerbach and Nietzche) that God was a kind of mirror of humanity, in whom we find our highest ideals and ground our self-understanding. When we rejected Him, we quenched our own guiding light, lost our own balance. From a Catholic perspective, this had to be so, for God is in truth so intimately present to humanity that He could not be forsaken without doing damage to ourselves:

“For man, God is not only a norm which is imposed upon him and, by guiding him, lifts him up again: God is the Absolute upon which he rests, the Magnet which draws him, the Beyond which calls him, the Eternal which provides him with the only atmosphere in which he can breathe and, in some sort, that third dimension in which man finds his depth. If man takes himself as god, he can, for a time, cherish the illusion that he has raised and freed himself. But it is a fleeting exaltation! In reality, he has merely abased God, and it is not long before he finds that in doing so he has abased himself.”

Thus those who, as Comte said, set out “to discover a man with no trace of God in him” were on a quixotic quest, for the man so discovered would turn out to be a pale shadow, a cipher, or a mere tool.

(Parenthetically, to move from Nietzsche to Comte is rather like switching from scotch to lukewarm tea. Although he was in his lifetime apparently considered a formidable adversary of religion, a systematic thinker who rode the crest of modern “scientific” thought into an imagined blissful future, he has none of the guts and fire of Nietzsche. In this he resembles our “New Atheists” — though as a scholar of culture and society he easily surpassed even them. It is also, I confess, difficult to take seriously any man who thought sociology the highest of the sciences (!). But de Lubac does relate a hilarious anecdote about Comte’s overtures to the Jesuit order, whom he saw as potential allies to his ambition to bring about a secular world order. Alas, his knocks on the door went unanswered.)


de Lubac’s discussion of the leading atheists constitutes only the first third of the book. In the second and third parts, he turns to two prominent humanists who wrote in opposition to atheism. The first is Søren Kierkegaard, and the second is Fyodor Dostoyevsky. About the former he has relatively little to say — the discussion focuses on Concluding Unscientific Postscript and not much else — other than that Kierkegaard was a kind of herald of transcendence to a culture that had grown almost deaf to it. He called people back from abstraction and speculation to the inner life of faith, to a personal encounter with God. de Lubac cites his maxim from the Postscript: “Preparation for becoming attentive to Christianity does not consist in reading books or in making surveys of world history, but in deeper immersion in existence.” For Kierkegaard, contra the atheists, it was precisely by more serious and devout faith, by grounding oneself more firmly in God, that one could become more fully and maturely human.

The long final section of the book is a detailed engagement with the novels of Dostoyevsky, whom de Lubac sees as something like the archetypal man of our time: “in him the crisis of our modern world was concentrated into a spearhead and reduced to its quintessence”. He describes Dostoyevsky and Nietzsche as “hostile brothers,” united in their experience and understanding of a world conceived apart from God, but responding to that vision in opposite ways. For him, Dostoyevsky is something like an antidote to Nietzsche:

“To put the matter succinctly, he forestalled Nietzsche. He overcame the temptation to which Nietzsche was to succumb. That is what gives his work its extraordinary scope. Whoever plunges into it comes out proof against the Nietzschean poison, while aware of the greatness of Nietzsche.”

There are many atheists within the pages of Dostoyevsky’s novels; de Lubac identifies three principal types: the “man-God” (the individual who is a law unto himself), the “Tower of Babel” (the social revolutionary who proposes to ensure the happiness of mankind without God), and the “palace of glass” (the philosopher who rejects every mystery). Each is portrayed by Dostoyevsky, and each is, in a sense, refuted, not by abstract argument but by a means appropriate to a novelist and humanist: by exposing its defects from the inside. Although even those most sympathetic to Dostoyevsky might wonder whether Alyosha Karamazov, wonderful as he is, quite refutes his brother Ivan. But the point is sound: Dostoyevsky has felt the force of atheism but has pushed back in a way that merits the attention of thoughtful readers.

Among whom I hesitate to number myself. As much as I admire Dostoyevsky, and as much as I saw the importance he has to de Lubac’s overall argument in this book, I confess that I found myself skimming through this final section. To really sink one’s teeth into it one would need to have read the novels recently enough to remember many details, and in some cases it has been many years, too long, for me. Regrettably.


In closing, I will make mention of a short section of the book, placed somewhere near the mid-point and called “The Spiritual Battle”, which functions as something like an extended homily. de Lubac steps back from his analysis of atheist humanism to ask an important question: why has this movement arisen in our culture, and in what ways does the Church bear responsibility for its emergence? He concedes that many of the atheist critiques of Christianity — that it is stale and timid, say, or that its adherents lack true commitment to their professed ideals — have much truth in them that ought to be of grave concern to Christians. He sees, for instance, that even Nietzsche’s scorn for Christianity had something noble in it that we could profitably emulate. In a noteworthy passage he writes:

“Nietzsche’s feelings with regard to Jesus always remained mixed, and so did his judgments on Christianity. There are times when he sees in it not so much a false ideal as one that is worn out. “It is our stricter and more finely tempered piety”, he says, “that stops us from still being Christians today.” Thus his animosity is against the Christians of our day, against us. The lash of his scorn is for our mediocrities and our hypocrisies. It searches out our weakness, adorn with fine names. In reminding us of the robust and joyous austerity of “primitive Christianity” he calls shame on our “present-day Christianity”, as “mawkish and nebulous”. Can it be contended that he is quite wrong? Should “everything that now goes by the name of Christian” be defended against him? When he says of us, for instance: “If they want me to believe in their Savior, they’ll have to sing me better hymns! His followers will have to look more like men who have been saved!”—are we entitled to be indignant? To how many of us does Christianity really seem “something big, something with joy and enthusiasm”? Do the unbelievers who jostle us at every turn observe on our brows the radiance of that gladness which, twenty centuries ago, captivated the fine flower of the pagan world? Are our hearts the hearts of men risen with Christ? Do we, in our time, bear witness to the Beatitudes? In a word, while we are full alive to the blasphemy in Nietzsche’s terrible phrase and in its whole context, are we not also forced to see in ourselves something of what drove him to such blasphemy?”

He goes on to argue that the recovery of “the radiance of that gladness” must be the keen desire of modern Christians who hope for the Gospel to attract modern souls. We need, he says, a new infusion of joy and seriousness in our religion, and we must find the resources for this renewal by delving deeper into our own tradition, not by casting about outside it: “…it is not a case of adapting it to the fashion of the day. It must come into its own again in our souls. We must give our souls back to it.” It is only if we exemplify “gentleness and goodness, considerateness toward the lowly, pity for those who suffer, rejection of perverse methods, protection for the oppressed, unostentatious self-sacrifice, resistance to lies, the courage to call evil by its proper name, love of justice, the spirit of peace and concord, open-heartedness, [and] mindfulness of heaven” that Christianity will be an effective leaven in society, for

“it will never have any real existence or make any real conquests, except by the strength of its own spirit, by the strength of charity.”

And this seems a good thought on which to draw these notes to a close.

The genealogist

June 26, 2012

The Genealogy of Morals
Friedrich Nietzsche
(Modern Library, 1927) [1887]
192 p.

In this book Nietzsche develops and expands several of the ideas earlier presented in Beyond Good and Evil. The book consists of three essays, somewhat disjoint in subject matter, but united by a common concern with conscience and moral life, and more specifically with contextualizing, and then assaulting, the moral heritage of Judaism and Christianity.

Nietzsche takes it for granted that moral judgments are wholly subjective; his central question, as stated in the book’s preface, is this: “Under what conditions did Man invent for himself those judgments of values, ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’? And what intrinsic value do they possess in themselves?” [emphasis his] The seeds of the book lay, he says, in his doubts about the moral value of “pity, self-denial, and self-sacrifice”, his suspicion that the elevation of these values represented “the exhaustion that gazes backwards, the will turning against Life, the last illness announcing itself with its own mincing melancholy”. And his doubts about these values led to doubts about all values.

In the first and shortest essay, entitled “‘Good and Evil,’ ‘Good and Bad’”, he sets forth a basic view of the moral life that will be familiar to those who have spent time with him: he favours ‘aristocratic’ values — strength, courage, pitilessness, nobility — over ‘slave’ values — mercy, meekness, forgiveness, compassion. The former he identifies especially with Roman civilization, and the latter with Jewish and Christian traditions. He argues that the political superiority of the strong is itself a mark of psychological superiority, and only the disguised cunning of the Jews, further deepened and intensified by Jesus, has been able to upset and undermine the natural order. In the waning influence of Christianity upon society, he sees hope for a resurgence of the old aristocratic values.

In the second essay, “‘Guilt,’ ‘Bad Conscience,’ and the Like”, he sets forth a theory of the origins of conscience and penal practices in society. The argument is theoretical, and largely devoid of historical referents.

The essay begins, curiously, with a discussion about the making of promises, for in man’s ability to promise Nietzsche finds the seeds of the whole moral order. By promising one asserts one’s power over the world and over one’s own actions; one declares oneself to be sovereign and autonomous, and one achieves thereby an honourable status, both in one’s own eyes and in the eyes of others. Likewise one recognizes this same honourable status in others when it is present — and in this pride, he argues, is rooted the first intimations of moral judgment: contempt for those who lie. The capacity to make promises gives one, furthermore, a consciousness of “the proud knowledge of the extraordinary privilege of responsibility”, and this knowledge he calls “conscience”. (This definition of “conscience” is peculiar. Socrates famously said that his daemon told him what not to do, but not what to do. Nietzsche’s conscience would seem to be doing the opposite. What does your conscience tell you?)

For Nietzsche conscience finds expression through, and is in turn shaped by, penal practices and laws. In the Western tradition the principal purpose of just punishment has usually been said to be retribution. Nietzsche asks why. Why does punishment seem to be an adequate — or at least a pertinent — response to wrongdoing? Guilt implies debt, but why is suffering (endured by way of punishment) a way of paying that debt? Nietzsche, true to his dark vision of things, argues that the infliction of suffering is itself pleasurable, for it bestows a sense of power on the wronged party, and it is for this reason that suffering can serve as compensation.

As a civilization becomes stronger and more stable, however, it can afford to be more lenient. Man’s natural inclination to punish is thwarted and turns against him, producing what Nietzsche calls a “bad conscience”. (He does not say, so far as I can see, why the desire to be lenient arises. If punishment is all about pleasure, why should social stability work against it?) His idea seems to be that the instinct for punishment — “enmity, cruelty, the delight in persecution, in surprises, change, destruction” — when prevented from acting outwardly turns inward, against the possessor. Each person begins to think himself guilty, at odds with the natural order of things, and he develops a desire for self-inflicted punishment. Here Nietzsche locates the origin of the notion that altruism is a good. He sees it, apparently, as a manifestation of self-loathing.

The “bad conscience” is a dynamic psychological force, and it cannot rest quietly. It provokes the thought that one somehow owes a non-specific, pervasive debt, and this is intolerable. In our own culture, this debt has been conceived as owed to God, and part of the (in Nietzsche’s mind, perverted) genius of Christianity has been to propose that God himself pays the debt on our behalf. Thus, the appeal of Christianity is rooted in a psychological and spiritual inclination for self-torture.

Naturally, this account of things is subject to doubt at nearly every step of the argument. It is a nice example, though, of Nietzsche’s method of depth psychology in the service of philosophical inquiry. The idea that retributive justice is ultimately grounded in sadism is one of those lurid Nietzschean notions that make him such an entertaining, if not quite convincing, figure. One often hears it said that God is the source of a sense of guilt — St. Paul himself argues that the law was given to teach us about sin — but Nietzsche puts it the other way around: a guilty conscience (a “bad conscience”) is itself the price of civilization, and the Christian God serves as a remedy for this psychic disease. That is at least an interesting idea that bears some reflection.

The third and final essay is titled “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?”, and it is by a fair margin the most interesting of the bunch. Certainly it is written with a savage rhetorical beauty that is at times overwhelming. (Some examples appended below.) The quality of its arguments is less impressive.

In the beginning, says Nietzsche, man found himself encircled by the void, living a life that lacked any intrinsic meaning or purpose. Unable to endure this condition, and especially unable to bear the thought that his suffering had no meaning, he willed a meaning for himself by adopting an ascetic attitude toward life. Asceticism gives him a goal, an orientation to the world; in limiting him it gives his life shape and structure. By way of asceticism, the wounded creature finds a way to affirm life. Asceticism is thus, at ground, a kind of self-hypnotism by which man protects himself from nihilism.

When we think of asceticism, I expect that most of us think first of religious traditions, most of which have integrated ascetic practices into their religious devotions and duties. Nietzsche doesn’t overlook this manifestation of the ascetic ideal — the priest, he says, is “hostile to life”, and his prescriptions are all intended to stifle vitality and secure power for the priest himself — but he casts his net much wider, finding commonalities between ways of life generally thought to be quite different from one another. Philosophers, for instance, starting with Plato (“the great defamer of life”), have in Nietzsche’s view championed asceticism for their own selfish purposes. The life of study and reflection cannot exist without renunciation. Nietzsche sees the dominant philosophical ideals of our entire tradition — tentativeness, making of careful distinctions, consistency, even rationality — as manifestations of asceticism, for they place limits that must not be transgressed. Thus the claim he made in Beyond Good and Evil about the autobiographical nature of philosophical ideas finds a particularly pervasive instance.

Scientific inquiry, too, is a modern manifestation of the ascetic ideal, a “self-anaesthetic” that prevents one “coming to consciousness”. Science, insofar as it demands discipline, prefers reason to instinct — or, in a word, is serious — encircles and fetters the human spirit. The scientific mindset has also begun to pride itself on its “contempt for man”, and this will to belittle and undermine man’s spiritual grandeur is another sickly manifestation of asceticism.

Even atheism does not escape. Nietzsche calls it “the awe-inspiring catastrophe of a two-thousand-year training in truth, which finally forbids itself the lie of the belief in God.” When atheism, in other words, is grounded in a devotion to truth, it earns Nietzsche’s contempt.

It seems, then, that Nietzsche sees ascetic ideals everywhere. Even so fundamental a thing as respect for truth is, for him, a souring of the golden, “Homeric” nature that rightly belongs to man at his best. “For some time past there have been no free spirits; for they still believe in truth.” We come face to face, therefore, in a particularly unvarnished and radical form, with Nietzsche’s admiration for animal nature, instinctive and amoral. There is an irony at work here, for the injunction to honour truth is grounded in a belief in God, yet this same injunction eventually undermines (says Nietzsche) this belief. But the deeper irony is that of a philosopher who believes that both truth and reason are cramping his style. Frankly, one wonders what to do with him.


To review: what we have in this book is, first, an argument that our basic moral framework is a weak-souled inversion of the values that ought truly to govern our conduct, values exemplified best by an eagle attacking its prey, noble and remorseless; second, an argument that our sense of justice is based on a sadistic lust to see others suffer, and that our psychological and spiritual disorders result from our reluctance to indulge that lust; and third, an argument that efforts to discipline our minds and our hearts are covert evasions of our true existential situation, which is that nothing — the nothing — is the ultimate horizon against which our lives play out.

I know that Nietzsche is a lion, and that I should quiver at his roar. The truth, however, is that I am finding him just a little too strident, a shade too vicious, to be taken quite seriously. After finishing this book I let it sit a full year before writing up these notes, trying to muster some sort of manly resolve to confront Nietzsche in the way that I fondly wish he deserved, but, in the end, I have been unable to do it. Blame me, perhaps, but perhaps not. As I have been writing these notes, some lines from Chesterton have been running through my mind:

And all these things are less than dust to me
For my name is Lazarus, and I live.

For better or worse, I am simply not ready to be impressed by Nietzsche’s radicalism. I hear a sounding gong and a clanging cymbal, full of sound and fury, granted, but signifying next to nothing.


Ah, but the man could write:

What is the meaning of ascetic ideals? In artists, nothing, or too much; in philosophers and scholars, a kind of “flair” and instinct for the conditions most favourable to advanced intellectualism; in women, at best an additional seductive fascination, a little morbidezza on a fine piece of flesh, the angelhood of a fat, pretty animal; in physiological failures and whiners (in the majority of mortals), an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a holy form of debauchery, their chief weapon in the battle with lingering pain and ennui; in priests, the actual priestly faith, their best engine of power, and also the supreme authority for power; in saints, finally a pretext for hibernation, their novissima gloriae cupido, their peace in nothingness (“God”), their form of madness.

But in the very fact that the ascetic ideal has meant so much to man, lies expressed the fundamental feature of man’s will, his horror vacui: he needs a goal — and he will sooner will nothingness than not will at all.

[Artists and their work]
It is certainly best to separate an artist from his work so completely that he cannot be taken as seriously as his work. He is after all merely the presupposition of his work, the womb, the soil, in certain cases the dung and manure, on which and out of which it grows—and consequently, in most cases, something that must be forgotten if the work itself is to be enjoyed. The insight into the origin of a work is a matter for psychologists and vivisectors, but never either in the present or the future for the aesthetes, the artists.

[Modern hubris]
Even judged by the standard of the ancient Greeks, our whole modern life, in so far as it is not weakness, but power and the consciousness of power, appears pure “Hybris” and godlessness: for the things which are the very reverse of those which we honour to-day, have had for a long time conscience on their side, and God as their guardian. “Hybris” is our whole attitude to nature nowadays, our violation of nature with the help of machinery, and all the unscrupulous ingenuity of our scientists and engineers. “Hybris” is our attitude to God, that is, to some alleged teleological and ethical spider behind the meshes of the great trap of the causal web. Like Charles the Bold in his war with Louis the Eleventh, we may say, “je combats l’universelle araignée“; “Hybris” is our attitude to ourselves—for we experiment with ourselves in a way that we would not allow with any animal, and with pleasure and curiosity open our soul in our living body: what matters now to us the “salvation” of the soul? We heal ourselves afterwards: being ill is instructive, we doubt it not, even more instructive than being well—inoculators of disease seem to us to-day even more necessary than any medicine-men and “saviours.” There is no doubt we do violence to ourselves nowadays, we crackers of the soul’s kernel, we incarnate riddles, who are ever asking riddles, as though life were naught else than the cracking of a nut; and even thereby must we necessarily become day by day more and more worthy to be asked questions and worthy to ask them, even thereby do we perchance also become worthier to—live?

[The Old and New Testaments]
I have the courage of my bad taste. The Old Testament—yes, that is something quite different, all honour to the Old Testament! I find therein great men, an heroic landscape, and one of the rarest phenomena in the world, the incomparable naivete of the strong heart; further still, I find a people. In the New, on the contrary, just a hostel of petty sects, pure rococo of the soul, twisting angles and fancy touches, nothing but conventicle air, not to forget an occasional whiff of bucolic sweetness which appertains to the epoch (and the Roman province) and is less Jewish than Hellenistic. Meekness and braggadocio cheek by jowl; an emotional garrulousness that almost deafens; passionate hysteria, but no passion; painful pantomime; here manifestly every one lacked good breeding. How dare any one make so much fuss about their little failings as do these pious little fellows! No one cares a straw about it—let alone God.

The intemperate genealogist

June 10, 2011

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Nietzsche; I admire his candour, and his constantly renewed assaults on spiritual complacency, and his determination to follow the truth wherever it leads (or seems to be leading — I do not forget that Nietzsche was fundamentally wrong), and, not least, his glorious rhetorical power. Reading him is almost always a bracing, eye-opening encounter.

Sometimes, however, reading him is more eyebrow-raising than eye-opening. Sometimes his rhetoric gets the better of him, and he says something so outrageously misanthropic that it rather spoils the effect. Last night I was making my way slowly through The Genealogy of Morals and I came across this, the opening paragraph of the third section of the book, titled “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?” Nietzsche writes:

What is the meaning of ascetic ideals? In artists, nothing, or too much; in philosophers and scholars, a kind of “flair” and instinct for the conditions most favourable to advanced intellectualism; in women, at best an additional seductive fascination, a little morbidezza on a fine piece of flesh, the angelhood of a fat, pretty animal; in physiological failures and whiners (in the majority of mortals), an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a holy form of debauchery, their chief weapon in the battle with lingering pain and ennui; in priests, the actual priestly faith, their best engine of power, and also the supreme authority for power; in saints, finally a pretext for hibernation, their novissima gloriae cupido, their peace in nothingness (“God”), their form of madness.

I admit that I set the book down and laughed. Someone get the man a cold compress for his fevered brow.

Knight of faith vs. Antichrist

May 5, 2010

A few years ago a friend of mine published a book — a good book — about Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.  He argued that, in interesting ways, Kierkegaard, though writing some decades before Nietzsche, nevertheless seems to have anticipated, and answered, many of the ideas which Nietzsche was later to set forth.

The picture above links to a site where, in a sense, that argument is illustrated.  Pitching quotations from the writings of these two great men against one another, they clash over self-esteem, fatalism, despair, death, freedom, faith, truth, and more.  Don’t let the 1990-vintage Html coding mislead you: this is an existential, bloody-knuckled battle for your soul.

Who triumphs in the end?  I hope that is obvious.

Happy birthday, Søren!

Adventures in enthymemes

April 27, 2010

In the most recent edition of First Things, David Bentley Hart sallies forth once again against the so-called New Atheists — Dawkins, Hitchens, and the rest of them.  He is not impressed.  His essay is a hilarious savaging  — not of atheism per se, but of the half-baked and (worse) self-satisfied atheism on display at the bookstore these days.  You really owe it to yourself to read him; as usual, he is articulate and entertaining.

There is a melancholy note struck at the essay’s center, however, and that is a kind of sorrow for the poor showing that our contemporary atheists — the most vocal ones, at least — are making.  Their project fails to impress not just because of intellectual sloppiness (though there is that too), but principally because of spiritual torpor: it seems they cannot rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their disbelief.  There is another side to the sadness too, which is that contemporary believers can rarely rouse themselves to thorough commitment to their belief.  Mediocrity afflicts us all, on both sides of the aisle, and that is a sad comment on our times.

These reflections lead Hart to pen a moving appreciation for Friedrich Nietzsche, the great atheist of the Western tradition.  He writes, in part:

Above all, Nietzsche understood how immense the consequences of the rise of Christianity had been, and how immense the consequences of its decline would be as well, and had the intelligence to know he could not fall back on polite moral certitudes to which he no longer had any right. Just as the Christian revolution created a new sensibility by inverting many of the highest values of the pagan past, so the decline of Christianity, Nietzsche knew, portends another, perhaps equally catastrophic shift in moral and cultural consciousness. His famous fable in The Gay Science of the madman who announces God’s death is anything but a hymn of atheist triumphalism. In fact, the madman despairs of the mere atheists — those who merely do not believe — to whom he addresses his terrible proclamation. In their moral contentment, their ease of conscience, he sees an essential oafishness; they do not dread the death of God because they do not grasp that humanity’s heroic and insane act of repudiation has sponged away the horizon, torn down the heavens, left us with only the uncertain resources of our will with which to combat the infinity of meaninglessness that the universe now threatens to become.

I’ve expressed my own appreciation of Nietzsche before, and on similar grounds, but obviously without Hart’s nimble eloquence.

Hart closes his reflections with a few brief remarks about one of the most prolific of the New Atheists, A. C. Grayling.  As it happens, Grayling’s most recent book, Ideas that Matter, has come up for a thoughtful and critical review by John Gray at The National Interest.  This is also worth reading.

Incidentally, Hart’s essay seems to have set the cat among the pigeons.  As I am posting this, it has generated nearly 300 comments.  I haven’t read any of them, and I think that is probably wise.  Avalanches can be deadly.

Pieper: Tradition

November 16, 2009

Tradition: Concept and Claim (1970)
Josef Pieper (ISI, 2008; trans: E.C.Kopff)
128 p. First reading.

Our time is unfriendly to the idea of tradition, so much so that the word itself acquires in some circles a perjorative connotation.  Nietzsche said, “What is under the most profound attack today is the instinct and will of tradition.  All institutions which owe their origin to this instinct are opposed to the taste of the modern intellect.” Pieper’s tastes are rather different, and he is especially interested in traditions of teaching — that is, traditions which aim to preserve important truths.  This little book is an examination of the concept and the value of tradition.

The purpose of a tradition is to preserve something through time, passing it from one generation to the next.  Tradition requires two unequal partners: the one who “hands down” the teaching, and the one who receives it. The thing handed down is not an original contribution of the one who hands down, but rather something he himself received. “I received what I handed down to you”, as the Apostle says. The act of reception is not “learning”; receiving a tradition is not the same as gathering information.  The tradition is only received when the hearer accepts and appropriates the thing handed down.

A paradox in tradition is that a healthy tradition does not talk about itself as a tradition.  The tradition is not accepted because it is “traditional”; it is accepted simply and solely because it is true and valid.  Yet the one to whom a tradition is offered cannot independently know that the tradition is true; if he could, he would not need to receive it.  This means, says Pieper, that “accepting and receiving tradition has the structure of belief.”

Since participating in a tradition involves relying on the testimony of someone else, the question of authority necessarily arises.  (This is the point on which tradition runs aground in our culture, which is so allergic to authorities.  Tradition is incommensurable with the doctrine of the autonomy of the will.)  For the one who receives, the one who hands down acts as an authority.  Yet he himself relies on the word of the one who handed the tradition down before, and so on.  When we accept a tradition, therefore, the one in whom we ultimately place our trust is the one who stands at the beginning of this chain.  Plato called these originators “the ancients” or “the men of old”.  Yet their authority was not derived simply from the fact that they lived long ago, but from the fact that they received a divine gift:

This is the definitive platonic formulation about the status and authority of the “ancients”.  Their dignity consists in the fact that they received from a divine source a message, a pheme, something spoken, and handed on what they had received in this way.  This is the only reason why they are the “ancients”.

In this understanding, by accepting a tradition one places one’s trust in the divine source that originally spoke the truth which the tradition preserves.  This means that the concept of tradition is intrinsically related to revelation.  In fact, the only legitimate way something can merit preservation for all time is if it goes back to divine speech. By believing this word, we are in a real sense united to that divine source, for “whoever believes in another person by that act wants and realizes ‘spiritual union’ and communion with him.”

This analysis seems to imply that tradition is always at least implicitly sacred tradition, and Pieper does indeed want to define this strict sense of the word.  In this strict sense, Catholic Christianity is obviously an example of a tradition: it claims to possess a divine revelation which it preserves from corruption and forgetfulness through time, passing from one generation to the next truths of great and abiding value.  Yet Pieper points out that even Christian theologians acknowledge that other legitimate traditions exist: from its early days the idea has been put forward, renewed and emphasized again by Vatican II, that all people possess an “original revelation”.  All have heard, in one way or another, the divine Logos who is Christ.  This divine speech has entered into the respective myths and religions of different cultures, though “hidden beneath a thicket of fanciful additions”, and mixed with heterogeneous elements.  When Plato turns to myths in his dialogues, he seems to recognize that they are “only broken shards, fragments of a tradition which can no longer be grasped as a whole”.  Here, indeed, is the difficulty: this fragmented tradition cannot be restored to its original form without a further divine intervention.  (It is this further revelation that Christianity claims to have been entrusted with.)

The practice of handing down a tradition poses challenges to both parties.  The one who receives does not do so casually or uncritically.  It is natural and important that the value of the tradition be questioned and its claims probed if it is to be truly appropriated and its value truly appreciated.  This critical attitude, however, must remain humble, open to the possibility that it may reap a unique benefit from this gift that is offered.

The challenge is more severe for the one who hands down the tradition.  If the tradition is to be kept alive and vibrant, the truths it conveys must be presented in a compelling and credible manner.  To do so, especially in a culture that changes rapidly under the influence of powerful forces alien to the tradition, is extremely difficult.  Pieper quotes a Hebrew proverb: “Teaching the old is harder than teaching the new”.  We can draw a distinction between the core truths of the tradition and the external form in which they are presented.  Granting, and even insisting, that the relationship between these two elements, inner and outer, is not to be lightly tampered with, we must acknowledge that it is legitimate, and may at times be necessary, to alter the external form in order to preserve the inner substance.  To be stubbornly attached to a particular historically accidental form may hinder the transmission and reception of something truly worthy of preservation, and is, says Pieper, a form of decadence.  At the same time, the essence of what is to be preserved becomes naturally entangled with particular historical forms, and altering those forms risks altering or destroying the understanding of those essential truths.  It is a delicate business, then, requiring what Pieper calls a “very rare linking of prudence and courage”.

We can see this delicate interplay of historical forms and inner truths in recent Catholic history.  The liturgical changes that followed Vatican II are an obvious example: the outer form changed considerably, and to this day people argue about the degree to which our understanding of the theological truths conveyed by the liturgy has been damaged.  Another example is John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, in which he reformulated in modern, humanistic language the historic teachings of the Church with respect to human sexuality, teachings which had traditionally been presented with quite different language and reasoning.

With this understanding of the nature of tradition and the challenges it poses, we can briefly sketch the character of the ideal “critical traditionalist”.  We look for “a characteristic element of fundamental reverence and thankfulness”, for he recognizes his debt to those who have proclaimed and entrusted these truths to him.  His respect for tradition produces “distrust of that zero-point radicalism that fancies it always possible to start again from scratch with a tabula rasa, as well as distrust of the inclination to treat each new moment as a ‘completely new situation’, and so forth.”  A traditionalist makes a distinction between innovations in science or medicine, and innovations in our basic understanding of human nature, death, love, or God.  The former may be warmly welcomed; the latter provoke grave suspicion.

When a generation tries, as ours does, to emancipate itself from reliance on tradition, a consequence is that it loses sight of those truths which were the special province of the tradition.  If those truths were trivial or otherwise insignificant this is fine, but if they were of genuine value the result is inevitably an impoverishment.  Karl Jaspers remarked that divorced from sacred tradition philosophy was characterized by “an increasingly empty seriousness”.  Pieper cites the following aphorism by Viacheslav Ivanov: “Freedom achieved by forgetting is empty”.  “Empty freedom”: the phrase describes quite aptly the modern spiritual situation.

Although Tradition was written in 1970, this is (I believe) the first English translation to be published.  The translator, E. Christian Kopff, also provides a lengthy introduction and extensive notes and bibliography.  The length of Pieper’s text is just over half the length of the whole volume.