Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Neoplatonism, Thomism and Modernism

I thought I would just follow up with a few more thoughts on the subject of Neoplatonism in the Church.

I can't say that I'm a scholar of Church history but what's apparent in a brief survey of it is just how often the spirit/body duality pops up as a heresy. A brief review of Church history shows the the Manichee's, Gnostics, Albeginians, Bogomils and  Jansenists.  As Chesterton remarked:
What is called the Manichean philosophy has had many forms; indeed it has attacked what is immortal and immutable with a very curious kind of immortal mutability [ED]. It is like the legend of the magician who turns himselfinto a snake or a cloud; and the whole has that nameless note of irresponsibility, which belongs to much of the metaphysics and morals of Asia, from which the Manichean mystery came. But it is always in one way or another a notion that nature is evil; or that evil is at least rooted in nature. The essential point is that as evil has roots in nature, so it has rights in nature. Wrong has as much right to exist as right. As already stated this notion took many forms. Sometimes it was a dualism, which made evil an equal partner with good; so that neither could be called an usurper. More often it was a general idea that demons had made the material world, and if there were any good spirits, they were concerned only with the spiritual world. Later, again, it took the form of Calvinism, which held that God had indeed made the world, but in a special sense, made the evil as well as the good: had made an evil will as well as an evil world.
We'll get to the immutable immortality a bit later but the important thing to recognise that it is a persistently recurring heresy one that the Church has never really been able to stamp out completely. But it's important to understand that just because the Church has actively fought against the error it in the past does not mean that there isn't a well of sympathy within it.
This error then had many forms; but especially, like nearly every error, it had two forms, a fiercer one which was outside the Church and attacking the Church, and a subtler one, which was inside the Church and corrupting the Church. There has never been a time when the Church was not torn between that invasion and that treason.
It's the treason that I'm interested in.

Let me illustrate what exactly I mean with this passage on the subject of Caritas by Pope Benedict.
According to Friedrich Nietzsche, Christianity had poisoned eros, which for its part, while not completely succumbing, gradually degenerated into vice.[1] Here the German philosopher was expressing a widely-held perception: doesn't the Church, with all her commandments and prohibitions, turn to bitterness the most precious thing in life?
Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity.
In philosophical and theological debate, these distinctions have often been radicalized to the point of establishing a clear antithesis between them: descending, oblative love—agape—would be typically Christian, while on the other hand ascending, possessive or covetous love —eros—would be typical of non-Christian, and particularly Greek culture. Were this antithesis to be taken to extremes, the essence of Christianity would be detached from the vital relations fundamental to human existence, and would become a world apart, admirable perhaps, but decisively cut off from the complex fabric of human life. Yet eros and agape—ascending love and descending love—can never be completely separated. The more the two, in their different aspects, find a proper unity in the one reality of love, the more the true nature of love in general is realized. Even if eros is at first mainly covetous and ascending, a fascination for the great promise of happiness, in drawing near to the other, it is less and less concerned with itself, increasingly seeks the happiness of the other, is concerned more and more with the beloved, bestows itself and wants to “be there for” the other. The element of agape thus enters into this love, for otherwise eros is impoverished and even loses its own nature. On the other hand, man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot always give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift. Certainly, as the Lord tells us, one can become a source from which rivers of living water flow (cf. Jn 7:37-38). Yet to become such a source, one must constantly drink anew from the original source, which is Jesus Christ, from whose pierced heart flows the love of God (cf. Jn 19:34).
Superficially, it's typical Catholic teaching and would appear to benign, but if you think about it for a minute, the implications of what Benedict is saying is that without the benefit of Agape, Eros is bad. i.e the natural human proclivity for procreation is a bad thing. Let me illustrate the implications of this by way of analogy. Imagine the human passions as being like horses tied to a chariot, with Eros being a particularly wild steed. What Benedict is saying is that Eros, on its own, is a bad horse because he is so randy all the time that he loses his way. The addition of Agape makes for a more docile horse. What a Thomist would say, on the other hand, is that a randy horse is a good horse, he just needs to be kept firmly in the reigns. What you get with Benedict's vision is a gelding what you get with Thomas's vision is a wild stallion. It's subtle neoplatonism but its there. Nietzsche is vindicated.

"Christian" Eros after the Neoplatonic treatment, gets "transformed" from something bad into something better, beocmeing something of "consideration of the other" and "respect", and draining it of its passion and abandon. Passion are abandon, features inherent in intense erotic love are suspect, it can never be "mere" sex but must have some agape dimension to it as well.  Even within a chaste marriage, mere sex need to be expunged, its no wonder that sin is where all the fun is at.  Sex becomes a passionless affair because the Neoplatonist thinks that sex should be a passionless affair. Instead of recognising Eros as it is, he constructs Eros as it should be.

Now Benedict explicitly reaffirms the hylomophic conception of man in his encyclical but the problem is that it's not how he treats the subject. Similar things were going on during the Albigensian heresy.
 Anyhow, it is historically important to see that Platonic love did somewhat distort both human and divine love, in the theory of the early theologians. Many medieval men, who would indignantly deny the Albigensian doctrine of sterility, were yet in an emotional mood to abandon the body in despair; and some of them to abandon everything in despair.
As Chesterton says the Platonic approach to love distorts it. The point about Christian Neoplatonism is that it seeks to transform human nature, instead of accepting it as it is, since the originial version is "deficient" i.e. bad  In that way, Christian Neoplatonism is very much like Blank Slatism which rejects man as he is and seeks to transform into a "New Man". The analogies are clearly there.

An this stuff doesn't just affect the domain of Eros, but it spreads over to other areas where human nature plays a prominent role. Take parochialism for example. Civil and ethic strife exists all over the world because one mob feels that certain limits have been crossed by another. It's a fact of life, present across different cultures and times.  But the tendency, particularly post WW2, has to be regard this aspect of human nature as morally suspect. Christian Churches, in particular, have been at the forefront of pushing global migration on the grounds of charitable love of the poor, labeling anyone who opposes the notion as being sinful. Once again, human nature is seen as problematic. ( The secular analogies are eerie)

The interesting question to ask is, what would St Thomas do?

Being speculative here, I imagine he would start off by saying that the parochialism that human beings are born with is good, however God also commands us to be charitable to our neighbors and those in need. Can we find a solution which accommodates both?  Let us keep people where they are as we want to avoid inter-racial strife, if possible,  and ensure their safety and prosperity where they are. This train of thought is not even entered into by the modern Church men, instead man's natural love of "blood and soil"--Patria--  is immediately denounced as anti-Christian.

As a Christian, I believe in the Devil, and it's becoming apparent to me as to how the game is being played.

1) Firstly, promote doctrinaire religious aesthetes within the hierarchy of the Church who practically, if not explicitly, shape the Church thinking along Neoplatonist lines.

2) Declare normal things sinful or change the norms in such a way to denature their vitality.

3) Encourage the reshaping of the person--"transformation in Christ"--by encouraging the person to shape their personality according to aesthetic ideals with constant negative reference/no reference to reality of our natures. i.e. promote practical Neoplatonism.

4) Set up alternative organisations outside the Church  which embrace normality but tie them to some other pathology.  i.e. Natsoc, Patria+ murderous hatred of the other. Providing them with a psychic escape, drawing people away from the Church and leading them to sin.

5) Stifle any attempt at reform by appealing to Tradition, making sure that the status quo remains.

Now, the reason why I'm harping on about all this stuff is because I've been trying to understand why the Christian religion has been unable to mount a viable defence against Modernity. In my opinion, the reason is because the motor of modernity is part and parcel of the Neoplatonic tradition of the the Church. Attacking Modernity, it attacks the Neoplatonism within itself, and any successful assault on Modernity is going to rely on shift within Church culture which affirms "pragmatically" the implication of Thomistic teaching.

When commentator Goldenye asked in a previous post,
In my musings as to why we're in this mess, I realized that modernity only appears to come from Western Christianity. Eastern Christianity doesn't appear to have modernity unless it's imported in from the West. What part or parts of Western Christianity cause modernity?
I think the answer lays in the fact Neoplatonism is a tendency rather than explicity declared doctrine, with the doctrine mitigating the Neoplatonic tradition. Thomism gained enough traction to make the scientific revolution ultimately possible but it did it against institutional resistance.

Let me give you an example. The whole Gallileo saga illustrates that battle between Neoplatonism and Thomism in the Church. The Neoplatonists said the Bible says this, the Thomists said but my eyes see that. The Thomistic view eventually won but the Church had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the accept of the reality acknowledged by the Thomistic view. It's quite probable, had Thomism not won, that Christianity would be dead now and that we'd probably be living in some form of fifteenth century hovel.

Modern Trads like to blame the Enlightenment on all our troubles but that's a simplistic view. The Enlightenment was a broad thing, and something I'm generally in favour of. However two malignant strands came out of it. The least malignant of them was Positivism, the more dangerous one was Rousseauean Idealism, and guess where Rousseau got a lot of his ideas from.  Interestingly, the expulsion of James Watson from polite society should be seen as a secular version of the Gallileo controversy.  Secular idealism trumps scientific fact.

On a final note. Chesterton made the comment that Platonism seems to be a heresy that continually reappears, though in different forms. I agree but disagree with his understanding. I personally believe that this heresy is a consequence of the nature of human cognition and the tendency for cognitive miserliness. Hence, it's continual manifestations across a variety of cultures and times, though with various local modifications. It's very easy to imaging a spirit flesh duality, it's intuitive: Hylomorphism is hard.

I don't think that there are Churchmen secretly squirreling away copies of Plato and worshiping him on clandstine altars, rather Plato was the most explicit exponent of the spirit/flesh duality and people trying to understand the phenomenon of Neoplatonism try to undestand it within the model of human rationality, not recognising that it is a type of System 1 misattribution error.  Neoplatonism is a type of cognitive error, and the philosophy comes after the fact.

*Chesterton's quotes are taken from his book on St Thomas Aquinas.