Friday, November 15, 2019

Neo-Platonism and the Early Church

A History of Philosophy: 19 Neo-Platonism and the Church Fathers; Arthur Holmes, Wheaton College

This is taken from a series of eighty-one videos, presumably the lectures from a year-long course.  I truly find the entire series thus far fascinating.  First, something on Holmes:

Arthur Frank Holmes was an English philosopher who served as Professor of Philosophy at Wheaton College in Illinois from 1951 to 1994. …Wheaton College President Philip Ryken said "It would be hard to think of anyone who has had a greater impact on Christian higher education than Arthur Holmes."

He was involved in the creation of the Society of Christian Philosophers, what is today the largest subgroup of the American Philosophical Association (APA).  When he started teaching at Wheaton, he set an objective to produce 100 graduates who would go on to earn Ph.D.’s in philosophy.  Some time after his death, a count was taken: there were 116 identified.

Holmes wanted to separate the philosophy department from the theology department at Wheaton; this generated severe pushback from the faculty, believing it would serve to separate human reason from God’s guidance.  He was called to task on his desire:

When he arrived, they asked him to affirm the college’s Statement of Faith. Holmes replied in his English-American accent, “Sir, I wrote Wheaton College’s Statement of Faith.”

Now, on to the lecture.  In this lecture, Holmes offers the beginnings of the connections of Greek philosophy and Christian theology:

Justin Martyr, from his address to the Greeks: from every point of view it must be seen that in no other way than only from the prophets who teach us by divine inspiration is it at all possible to learn anything about God and true religion.

As if to demonstrate this:

Martyr cites Homer, Pythagoras, and Plato when they had been in Egypt and had taken advantage of the history of Moses, they afterwards published doctrines concerning the gods quite contrary to that which they formerly had promulgated.

The reference to Homer isn’t clear to me, but I take the point overall.  Back to Martyr: he then seems to contradict this point, or at least offer some room for nuance:

We have been taught that Christ is the firstborn of God.  We have declared that he is the logos of whom all men are partakers, and those who live reasonably (live with the logos) are Christians even though they had been atheists – among the Greeks, Socrates, Heraclitus and men like that.

How did they know so much of the truth – without the prophets?  We know that all men are in search of God, but this does not necessarily make them all Christian.

Holmes summarizes Martyr’s logic: all Christians are enlightened by the logos; Socrates and Heraclitus are enlightened by the logos; therefore, they must be Christians.  But this logic doesn’t quite hold: they could all be enlightened by the logos, but not all be Christian.  Both Christians and non-Christians are enlightened by the logos; the two sub-groups need not intersect.

In other words, to varying degrees, all men are so enlightened (all men seek God); yet not all men know the (meaningfully) full truth.

Clement of Alexandria: Truth is illuminated in the dawn of Light (capital L) – the barbarian and Hellenic philosophy is torn off a fragment of eternal truth; not from the mythology of Dionysus but the theology of the ever-living logos.

Holmes points to the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel – this is what the early church fathers are “playing with” (in Holmes’ wording), integrating or tying together Greek philosophy and Jesus Christ as the logos.  This same kind of identification continues throughout the Middle Ages – from Augustine to Aquinas; it is lost sight of when we get into modern times, but it is part of the medieval conception of the framework.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

It’s Not the Most Important Thing

Walter Block is again asked about Judge Napolitano and his attacks on Trump.  A few months ago, this was brought up to Block: Napolitano – a good libertarian, yeah or nay?  Block responded “yeah,” albeit he disagreed with Napolitano’s views on the issue of Trump obstructing justice, etc. 

At the time, Block followed this up with some further exchanges on the matter – always addressing the “Napolitano as libertarian” question.  For the record, I agree with Block: Napolitano is a good libertarian – very consistent in this regard; I also agree with Block’s disagreement with Napolitano on Trump obstructing justice, etc.

But on to the recent email to Block.  This writer places the focus on Napolitano’s criticisms of Trump – criticisms with which Block disagrees, as do I.  There is little I will cite directly from the email, as it contains too many asterisks attempting to mask profanity that covers for poor vocabulary, but this part captures it:

You can have “Judge Andrew Napolitano is an Excellent Libertarian” Part M and it won’t change that most of us “libertarians” can’t stand him.

Whether the judge is or isn’t a libertarian or “anarcho-capitalist” or whatever big-brain terms you conjure is beside the point.

It ain’t hyperbole: there’s a war on. Like it or not…you gotta pick sides. Does my side suck? On a lot of things: yes.

This is the rub.  Setting aside the issue of if Trump is actually on “our” side – which is not clear at all – the writer points to the issue: there are much more important things in life than being a good libertarian.  If one is after liberty, theoretical purity isn’t going to be sufficient.

Whether or not Trump is following through with some 8-D chess (because we have already wrongly given him the benefit of the doubt on chess from 3-D to 7-D) is a separate issue: he was voted in based on his most basic attacks against the system: war and empire, central banking, Hillary is a crook and should be in prison, fix immigration.  These are more important to the people who supported Trump than is libertarian purity.

On at least one of these – war and empire – I offer two thoughts: first he hasn’t started a meaningful new war; second, he is doing a great job of accelerating the rest of the world’s movement away from the American empire.  Both are tremendous libertarian victories as far as I am concerned.

On the others, Trump has been pretty useless.


It’s in the title.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Law or Power

Good, Evil, and Science, Fr. James Brent, OP (audio)

This is lesson 16 from a series entitled Aquinas 101, offered by The Thomistic Institute.  Each lesson comes out weekly, with a short video (3-5 minutes) and audio lecture (30 – 50 minutes) and a reading or two. 

Brent proceeds in three parts: first, Aristotle’s philosophy of nature – the world of form and finality; second, the mechanistic materialism that replaced Aristotle’s philosophy – the world of power and control; third, he will propose a way forward to integrate these two.  He offers some interesting thoughts on our contemporary situation in society – it is no coincidence that the meaning crisis and interest in some philosophy other than “material” are occurring simultaneously. 

First, form and finality: in this world, there is a basis in nature for moral claims, and humans have the ability to know this basis – both Christian believers and unbelievers.  He begins with Aristotle as an example, but this view isn’t bound or limited to Aristotle.

What follows are examples of forms and functions, with the end or telos of each respective kind.  We live in just such a world, and it was a pagan philosopher who laid this out.  Human beings are capable of at least some eternal truth without learning it from the Scripture – or to look at it another way, all men are in search of God.

He offers some of the sayings from the sages of Delphi: practice justice, respect your parents, follow god.  Well, Christians can agree with this.  Paul offers in Romans 2:

14 For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: 15 Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;

So, what is “good”?  Each thing is good to the extent it realizes the proper end, or telos, for its kind.  If a bald eagle didn’t soar, or an apple tree didn’t produce fruit, we would say something was wrong with it – it is a factual, objective assessment, not a subjective one. 

So, what of human beings?  We are to live according to reason.  But it is reason tempered by Scripture – this is not an “anything goes” reason, one unbound by morality, but reason grounded in God’s wisdom.  Hence, Natural Law as developed in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition fits neatly inside this window – or, perhaps, properly bounds this window.

Brent turns to the second part: the world of power and control – what comes by rejecting the world of form and finality.  In this world, there is no basis in nature for shared moral evaluation and agreement.  The difficulties here begin with William of Ockham and his concept of nominalism.  Nominalism denied the concept of universalism – denying that there were forms or essences universal to a type.

Form and finality compromised the sovereignty of God, argued Ockham.  Was God bound to abide by the form and finality of His creation?  Ockham denies this to be the case; God was not bound by this.  Hence, there are no universals, only particulars.  Agents do not act according to their nature, as there are no natures.  Agents act according to power or control, not nature.

I am aware that this opens a theological can of worms.  I am not sure how to comment beyond recognizing that Ockham introduces an arbitrariness that would make it difficult for a mustard seed of faith to grow.

If the values aren’t written in the form and finality, there is no basis of moral evaluation and judgement.  If the values aren’t written into the fabric of forms and final causes, where will one find the truth of such judgements?  One could conclude that such values are not true at all; yet this would make for an unlivable world.

We are then left with an arbitrary God, or with our appetites (hedonism, utilitarianism), or in our autonomous reason and arbitrary legislation.  A current fad in this regard is something akin to intuitionism – our intuition figures it out.  Yet we live in a world of interminable discourse and futile disagreement – so where is this “intuition”?  Why has this intuition not figured anything out, instead, perhaps, opening the door wider for ever-diverse disagreement?

This is the world of power and control – not at all in conformance with the Bible, and not at all conducive to a world of liberty.  The human person is unsafe – in every aspect of the term.  This opens the door to what Brent calls the hermeneutics of suspicion.  He offers Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as examples of those who have brought this forward.  It seems to me that much of the modern world to even include post-modernists – in reaction to the Enlightenment – is reacting in the same way.

Theirs are attempts to find liberation and safety from the fundamental and threatening forces of power and control – it is the same thing that libertarians battle against.  Yet, in the case of Marx, Nietzsche and Freud, the post-modernists (and many libertarians), it is an attempt via self-salvation.  But all this leaves us with is competing battles for power and control – or control of power.

So, what is the way forward?  This is the third part of the lecture.  One can affirm on philosophical grounds both the science of form and finality and the findings of contemporary science.  Brent offers a group of contemporary philosophers known as the River Forest Thomists: Aristotle offered highly generalized truths; modern science offers necessary particulars.  These need not conflict.


The metaphysics of form and finality are better suited for the purposes of ethics (and liberty) than is power and control.  Something or someone will govern.  Does liberty have a better chance in a world governed by laws deduced from the nature of humans or governed by humans unbound by such laws?

I believe the question answers itself.  And there is no third way.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Other Paths

A look at the traditions emerging in India and China and considering these against the traditions of the Greeks and the Hebrews that ultimately developed into Natural Law.  My purpose is not to demonstrate the superiority of any one vs. the other; more so, to consider these as foundations for a culture conducive to liberty as we have come to understand this concept in the West.

There is value in this, I believe, on many levels: is liberty – as westerners consider the term – universal?  Is it possible to build liberty – as westerners understand the term – on other cultural foundations?  These are worth considering, if for no other reason than to develop an appreciation for the value of culture and tradition – a specific culture and tradition – in developing and sustaining liberty.

Note: I do not say that those who do not come from a Christian tradition cannot or will not find or value liberty as Westerners understand the term.  But if we believe at all that the foundation matters to the long-term health of a structure, well…then the foundation matters. 

You are free to believe that the foundation of a structure is irrelevant to the long-term health of that structure.  But, then, you won’t be free for long – and I strongly prefer that you don’t take the rest of us down with you.  That others from outside of this foundation also value the structure is a different issue entirely.

On to Armstrong: in the sixth century BC, a new philosophy was emerging in India: Samkhya – meaning discrimination, reflection, or discussion.  This philosophy would become extremely influential in India – almost every other school would adopt some of its ideas.  While a sixth-century sage, Kapila, would be credited with its invention, it is not even certain that such a person existed.

While the Greeks were oriented to the external world, Samkhya looked within:

The supreme reality of the Samkhya system was purusha (the “person” or “self”). …Every single human being had his or her own individual and eternal purusha…. purusha was impossible to define because it had no qualities that we could recognize.

It was the essence of human beings, but it was not a soul; it had nothing to do with our mental or physical states; it had no intelligence and no desires; our ordinary waking selves were oblivious to its existence.

The root of our unhappiness was our sense of ego, trapping us in a false sense that had nothing to do with our eternal purusha.   When we say “I,” we think we are representing our entire being, but this being was subject to time – not eternal; it yearned for liberation.  It was ignorance of this eternal purusha that held us back.

…sacrifice was useless.  The gods were also imprisoned by nature, so it was pointless to ask for their help.

Two important contributions to Indian spirituality were offered: first, all life was suffering (unsatisfactory, awry).  People died, became ill, lost their beauty and vitality.  The second contribution was yoga – offered as one of India’s greatest achievements.  Designed to release the purusha from the entanglement of nature, it was a systematic assault on the ego.

To show one’s spiritual ambition, one first had to move through a long preparation.  Yogic exercise was not permitted until an extensive moral training was mastered: harmlessness to all of creation; stealing and lying were forbidden as were sex and intoxicating substances.

From here, one would master the ability to sit: straight-backed, legs crossed, completely motionless for hours at a time.  Breathing must be controlled – pausing as long as possible, such that one appeared to stop breathing altogether.  Once the physical was conquered, the mental came next: the concentration on one point, until the “I” slowly disappeared from his thinking.

Yogins did not believe that they were touched by a god; there was nothing supernatural about these experiences. …these men of the Axial Age were achieving an ecstatic “stepping out” of the norm by becoming more fully aware of their own nature.

Their nature was fully realized when the “I” and the “mine” completely disappeared.  Yet, a spiritual vacuum would open up.  Karma would depress society: one felt doomed to one transient life after another – with this eternal purusha moving from being to being upon the death of its host.  Even good karma couldn’t save them – as all around they saw only pain and suffering.

Further, yoga was not available to all – demanding hours of effort every day, and this after the countless hours necessary to achieve mastery.  Householders need not apply – there was no time.

Meanwhile, in the mid-sixth century BC in China, Kong Qiu came on the scene, better known to us as Confucius.  China’s Axial Age was about to begin.

Confucius was incensed at the illicit performance of royal rites:

“The Way makes no progress,” he lamented. …As a commoner, he could not establish the dao; only a king could do that.  But he could educate a band of holy informed men who would instruct the rulers of China in the Way and recall them to their duty.

No solitary ascetic, Confucius was a wandering scholar who enjoyed fine wine and a good dinner.  He did not develop his thoughts through introspection, but through conversation with others.  He is described as both kind and brilliant.

After marveling at the somewhat daunting attainments of the yogins, it is a relief to turn to Confucius, whose Way, properly understood, was accessible to anybody.

For Confucius, everyone had the potential to become a fully developed human being – this can be seen as the proper end or purpose for humans in the Aristotelian sense.  A proper study of the Way could lead anyone to become a gentleman – a mature or profound person.  This was no longer limited to the princes or nobility.

Confucius felt that the Way was once perfectly practiced, but no longer.  Most princes never gave the dao a second thought – instead chasing after luxury and pursuing their selfish ambitions.

But Confucius did not concern himself with a chase of heaven, instead seeing the Way in terms of action in this world.  Metaphysics and theological chatter were not for him.  “Till you know about the living, how are you to know about the dead?”

Like the Indian sages, Confucius saw the ego as the source of human pettiness and cruelty.  Unlike the Indian sages, Confucius saw that the way to overcome this was via practice – actual practice of proper behavior toward others, and not by sitting still in one position for hours at a time.  Confucius was looking at man’s actions toward his fellow man.

Treat others with absolute sacred respect.  Start with close family, then friends, then grow the circle and grow more circles.  He was the first, perhaps, to articulate something approaching the Golden Rule: “Never do to others what you would not like them to do to you.”  More like the Silver Rule, but still a foundational moral precept.


From this limited introduction, it seems clear that the work of these Indian sages offers an example of an inward focus – the end result might be a peaceful community if enough people choose this life, but the entire focus was internal: man was the means through which he would achieve his own perfection.  Yet if man is the standard or measuring stick, he has already influenced the answer merely by being in the game.

In answer to the Indian sages, Christianity offers Jesus Christ as the measuring stick – the standard at which we are to aim – the Form of the Good made manifest.  Man as the standard leaves room for manipulation and control.

Confucius, on the other hand, offered the Way – something similar to what we know as Natural Law, committed to other-considering behavior.  C. S. Lewis makes this point clearly.  Yet Confucius was missing something: an answer to the question “Why?  On whose authority?”

In answer to Confucius, Christianity offers two concepts: man is made in God’s image; this answers the why.  Jesus came as the Form of the Good made manifest; this answers on whose authority.  This combination of concepts are found in no other tradition or religion.  Without these as unquestioned foundations, any concept of liberty as a westerner might understand it is built on sand.