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.


Jason said...

Your discussion here made me think of SSRis and other psychiatric drugs. While recognizing there is a legitimate debate to be had about such medications, it does seem to me there can be a kneejerk Platonic, gnostic response to them by the devout. It's as though there is something illegitimate about one's psyche and even spirit being repaired by something that is merely a combination of chemicals. It's so material, so mundane in the minds of some. Prayer or mental improvement should be the cure, rather than the "short cut" of anti-depressants or anti-psychotics or whatnot. Obviously as a physician these issues have probably crossed your mind in interactions with patients.

The Social Pathologist said...


That's an interesting angle I've not actually thought of before, though I have a few devout Christian patients who really need antidepressants and refuse to take them.

Interestingly, they spend "thousands" on natural cures without much benefit.

A lot of people have a hard time accepting the fact that their depression or anxiety is not due to any "issue" rather it's a consequence of biochemical dysfunction. People really do think that their intellect is somehow disassociated from their bodies, hence my view that Neoplatonism is natural cognitive error.

Anonymous said...

Christian Neo-Platonist is what most of the Church Fathers were, up through and including Augustine. Thomism is a relatively recent phenomenon. St Thomas attempted to reconcile his own Christian Neo-Platonism, received through the early Scholastics (who were Platonists after the mode of Augustine, Boethius, etc), with Aristotelianism. This project was a failure, as far from mitigating the errors of Aristotelianism, it was taken as justifying them, and St Thomas' followers would be less interested in the Neo-Platonism of Thomas, Augustine, Boethius etc than they would in the Aristotelianism that St Thomas attempted to reconcile it with. Which lead naturally to the increasing division and in-fighting of later later Scholasticism that allowed fake reductionist philosophies to gain ground, and eventually supplant Christianity in the west with their madness.

"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."

"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."

Nice reading comprehension, bro.

In reality everything sans agape is bad. A thing apart from Divine Love becomes perverted and twisted from its proper function. That's what makes something evil. If it departs from God, from His Love, from The Form of Good, it's iniquitous. Fallen man's eros, prone to depart from agape, often leads him astray. But Benedict is saying the two must be in unity. Submit your eros to agape and it will be purified, it is actually in the nature of eros to do this. Conformance of man to the divinely ordained Form of Good makes things good, and our whole being, even our eros, must conform to this.

"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."

Most everyone then was opposed to Galileo's model, especially the Aristotelian Schoolmen, among whom the Thomists were numbered. And their argument wasn't just 'the bible says this', they had specific counterarguments, rooted in observation, as to why he Earth could not be spinning, could not be in motion. Actually study the history and philosophy of science before you make statements like this. Read up on the Quine-Duhem Thesis, and what a paradigm (in the Kuhnian sense) is. And empiricism isn't real, your eyes can't magically tell you how to interpret phenomena ("but my eyes see that").

"The Enlightenment was a broad thing, and something I'm generally in favour of."

There literally wasn't any such thing as 'The Enlightenment' but the ideas shilled under the label today are all degenerate. Nihilism, reductionism, individualism, empiricism, feminism, the worship of money and technology, the abandonment of legitimate philosophy in favor of empty rhetoric, and delusions of human equality and greatness. A great recipe for societal collapse.

"On a final note. Chesterton made the comment that Platonism seems to be a heresy that continually reappears"

Good to know Augustine, Boethius, and a majority of the Church Fathers were heretics. Aristotle really is a cheap substitute for people who can't into philosophy.

The Social Pathologist said...


This project was a failure, as far from mitigating the errors of Aristotelianism,

And yet the Church regards him as a Doctor. Aeterni Patris?

The problem isn't Arsitotlean philosophy, the problem is "spergism" which fixes on the part and misses the whole.

In reality everything sans agape is bad

Genesis 1:31?

Benedicts encyclical was a discussion document not a formal teaching statement (you might want to read that bit) wanting to open up a discussion on the subject of Cartias

Agape as understood by the ancient Greeks is a capable of evil as is eros. The communist of Nazi soldier who gave his life for the cause displayed great Agape but in the pursuit of evil. That's why the Augustinian synthesis of Eros and Agape as being Caritas is wrong.......

The Social Pathologist said...

@Anon (cont)

Chesterton understood the evil that this interpretation took.

" Thus, the double charges of the secularists, though throwing nothing but darkness and confusion on themselves, throw a real light on the faith. It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasised celibacy and emphasised the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colours, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that white is a colour: not merely the absence of a colour. All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure......

...... But the Tolstoyans are not quite right enough to run the whole world; and in the ages of faith they were not allowed to run it. The world did not lose the last charge of Sir James Douglas or the banner of Joan the Maid. And sometimes this pure gentleness and this pure fierceness met and justified their juncture; the paradox of all the prophets was fulfilled, and, in the soul of St. Louis, the lion lay down with the lamb. But remember that this text is too lightly interpreted. It is constantly assured, especially in our Tolstoyan tendencies, that when the lion lies down with the lamb the lion becomes lamb-like. But that is brutal annexation and imperialism on the part of the lamb. That is simply the lamb absorbing the lion instead of the lion eating the lamb. The real problem is--Can the lion lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity? THAT is the problem the Church attempted; THAT is the miracle she achieved. "

Augustine and Benedict mix colours, Aquinas keeps them pure.

Most everyone then was opposed to Galileo's model...

Consensus of opinion is not the truth.

Actually study the history and philosophy of science before you make statements like this

The Pope acknowledged that Galileo was right and the Church wrong.

And empiricism isn't real, your eyes can't magically tell you how to interpret phenomena

That's EXACTLY what the Feminists and Postmodernists tell me. You see, when I see a being with a penis I call it a male. The Feminists and the Postmodernists tell me I'm seeing things, and that it's really a woman. They're there to tell me how to interpret things, just like you, because like you say I should not trust my eyes.

There literally wasn't any such thing as 'The Enlightenment'

Subtlety in thought is needed. The problem isn't with the Enlightenment but with spergyiness of some of its proponents who failed to keep things in balance. You mistake the idiot for the message. I kind of think that reason is a good thing, and like Thomas, I see no conflict with faith and science, it's a seamless garment.

And, by the way......."bro". Most of the heresies that branched from the Enlightenment came from those who were "into philosophy". There are some eggheads out there who are so into their theories that they constantly deny the sensory reality that's out there. Reality is there to ensure that our ideas remain calibrated to it.