Friday, May 04, 2018

Reps for Jesus


 The Body was no longer what it was when Plato and Porphyry and the old mystics had left it for dead. It had hung upon a gibbet. It had risen from a tomb. It was no longer possible for the soul to despise the senses, which had been the organs of something that was more than man. Plato might despise the flesh; but God had not despised it. 

(G.K. Chesterton, St Thomas Aquinas)
While on Twitter the other day, this particular tweet thread caught my eye;


Now, I've got to admit that excesses of any kind are a sign of mental imbalance but the overall tone of that comment, and later ones, suggested that author was disparaging the idea of a "muscular Christianity".  Now the point of this post is not to rag on the author of those comments but to point towards what I think is a persistent tendency in Christian thought and one that has caused a lot of untold harm especially with regard to the Christian understanding of man.

Machialvelli, when it came to institutions, was fond of making a distinction between the "formal" and the "real".  The formal being that which was publicly expressed and the real was what actually happened.  Now Christian, especially Catholic theology, tends to be a formal acknowledgement of the goodness of the created world but in practice there tends to be strong suspicion of it.  The Christian "tradition" itself, tends to have a strong Platonic bent to it, emphasising a the flesh/spirit duality, with this duality having an implicit hierarchical aspect to it: the spirit being "higher" than the flesh.  Giving weight to this view are certain oft quoted texts in the Bible. So when JG states that a disparaging of the body is one of its strengths he is certainly justified by "tradition" for his view.

Certainly the Bible cautions about following the ways of the flesh, but I really can't find an endorsement of neglecting it entirely or pretending that it doesn't matter. Much like the rider of horse, the role of the spirit is to guide the flesh and not let the horse lead the way. Platonism certainly doesn't dispute this, however the way it approaches the subject it's as if the well being of the horse doesn't matter at all. In fact, especially among the religious ascetics, there seems to be a certain notion that treating the horse badly or neglecting is a virtue. Chesterton recognised this as well;
This Platonic influence could be seen particularly in the fact that "the earlier school of Augustine and even of Anselm had [treated] the soul as the only necessary treasure, wrapped for a time in a negligible napkin." Chesterton even detects in the Greek theological tradition "a sort of dried-up Platonism" that translated into "the last indeed noble abstractions," but too far removed from the concrete world, the consequence being that the Logos of the Byzantine Greeks "was the Word, but not the Word made Flesh." As a result, "the earlier Christian ages had been excessively anti-corporeal and too near the danger line of Manichaean mysticism."
and;
The truth is that the historical Catholic Church began by being Platonist; by being rather too Platonist. Platonism was in that golden Greek air that was breathed by the first great Greek theologians. The Christian Fathers were much more like the Neo-Platonists than were the scholars of the Renaissance; who were only Neo-Neo-Platonists. For Chrysostom or Basil it was as ordinary and normal to think in terms of the Logos, or the Wisdom which is the aim of philosophers, as it is to any men of any religion today to talk about social problems or progress or the economic crisis throughout the world. St. Augustine followed a natural mental evolution when he was a Platonist before he was a Manichean, and a Manichean before he was a Christian. And it was exactly in that last association that the first faint hint, of the danger of being too Platonist, may be seen.
This Platonic tradition had caused serious problems in the Church that there was a serious danger of incursion of Islamic philosphy into Christiandom (I don't want to go into to this now for the sake of brevity). Theologically, the real blow to this NeoPlatonistic view of the person was dealt by the work of St Thomas Aquinas who was able to reconcile Aritistolean hylomorphism with Christianity. i.e  the Man was both spirit and flesh. Again, quoting Chesterton,
In a word, St. Thomas was making Christendom more Christian in making it more Aristotelian. This is not a paradox but a plain truism, which can only be missed by those who may know what is meant by an Aristotelian, but have simply forgotten what is meant by a Christian. As compared with a Jew, a Moslem, a Buddhist, a Deist, or most obvious alternatives, a Christian means a man who believes that deity or sanctity has attached to matter or entered the world of the senses.
I really want to emphasise this point, Christianity emphasises that sanctity and matter are conjoined.  The view espoused by JB is explicitly rejected by Aquinas. This is why actions of the flesh impact upon the spirit, it's because you dealing with one thing possessing two different qualities rather than two separate discrete things. What we do with our bodies affects our souls. Matter has some dignity.

Now while Christianity, Catholicism in particular, may affirm the teaching of St Thomas, the manichean Neoplatonist tendency is still strong in the Church. Historically, the Church has been quietly supportive of mortification of the flesh in the pursuit of sanctity but has remained rather silent or very hostile on the subject of the perfection of the flesh in pursuit of sanctity. Fasting for Jesus is good but doing reps for Jesus is suspect. But why is fatness less an evil than fornication? Why is the prudent pursuit of physical perfection a morally suspect thing?

Even in the understanding of evil, the tradition of the Church still operates on Neoplatonist lines. The sin of gluttony is "abstracted" into the broader sin of excessive sensuality. Maybe I've not read a lot but I've never seen gluttony pointed out as an offence against the body, a mutilating sin. For a Neoplatonist it doesn't matter since the body is not important. And that's the problem with Neoplatonism it neglects realities for theories. The idea is more important than the substance.

And yet the logical consequence of a Thomistic theology is that prudent perfection of the body should be spiritually beneficial.  If the object of Caritas is to perfect the form of the thing considered then its operation on the flesh is to perfect it. Now, for the spergs out there, I'm not advocating bodily perfection at the expense of the all the other facets of life a man must attend to, rather there needs to be a prudent balance, with the recognition that the neglect of the body is a sin. Doing a few reps for Jesus is a corrective.

8 comments:

Goldeneye said...

Slumlord,

I remember looking up the influence of Neoplatonism after reading your comments, and from what I found was that the influence of Neoplatonic thought on early Christianity was uncontroversial.
So it looks like Plato was wrong again. Since I prefer Aristotle, this is fantastic news.

Michael Rothblatt said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

The perils arising from sensuality are emphasized more than the pursuit of health because they lead to sin; whereas not having sharply defined pecs does not. It is a sin not to take care of your bodily health, which is why drunkenness and drug abuse (among other things) are proscribed. See e.g. the Catechism of the Catholic Church at sections 2288-2301, which address among other things respect for bodies not only of the living but even of the dead.

The Social Pathologist said...

@Goldeneye

I don't think Neoplatonism has been fully expunged from the Church. In fact, I feel that the Platonists may have made a surreptitious takeover, with Aquinas himself being "Platonised."

@agellius

It is a sin not to take care of your bodily health

That's still a negative sentiment when to comes to the body. What I'm trying to say is that, is it a virtue to take care of your body? The first statement implies a neutral (at best) stance towards the body while the second sees bodily perfection is a positive light.

To take what I mean in another context. i.e. masculinity.

Which one is more masculine; A morally upright guy who is dweeby or a morally upright guy who is ripped? The neutral stance sees no distinction while the positive stance sees the latter as more representative of masculinity.

The perils arising from sensuality are emphasized more than the pursuit of health because they lead to sin;

That's interesting.

See how gluttony gets extrapolated into excessive sensuality. We start off by banning over eating and then, if we're not careful, we ban all sorts of pleasures which are licit. We end up being puritans. That's where crypto Neoplatonism leads us. Jansenism is the natural end point.

The other big problem with this approach is sets the "tone" for the understanding of sin. Fleshy and material sins are seen as far worse than spiritual ones. Yet, as C.S. Lewis and Aquinas have noted, the latter are far worse.

"The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport, and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. For there are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the Diabolical self. The Diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither."

MK said...

I'm critical by nature, but I can't find anything to critique on this post. Feel like I wrote it myself.

Much like the rider of horse, the role of the spirit is to guide the flesh and not let the horse lead the way. Platonism certainly doesn't dispute this, however the way it approaches the subject it's as if the well being of the horse doesn't matter at all. In fact, especially among the religious ascetics, there seems to be a certain notion that treating the horse badly or neglecting is a virtue.

I think the religious ascetic is simply obsessed with moving on into the next world. He would go with Paul when he says he could either live or die, they are equally good since he will be with Christ or serving Him either way. It's easy to fall too far on either side of the line, to worship this world and our bodies or to neglect them. I do agree this religious culture rejects the body, but I think it's in large part a "reaction" against a world that rejects the spirit.

which address among other things respect for bodies not only of the living but even of the dead.

Yes, this. We see this in the lack of burying in favor of cremation.

Fasting for Jesus is good but doing reps for Jesus is suspect. But why is fatness less an evil than fornication? Why is the prudent pursuit of physical perfection a morally suspect thing?

Even in the understanding of evil, the tradition of the Church still operates on Neoplatonist lines. The sin of gluttony is "abstracted" into the broader sin of excessive sensuality.


Damn, this is solid gold. I've tried to say this a dozen times, but stumble over the diction. I think I'll frame it and hang it over my computuer.

Goldeneye said...


I don't think Neoplatonism has been fully expunged from the Church.

I don't think it has either. From my admittedly shallow reading, Platonic philosophy was the dominant philosophy in the Church up until the Middle Ages. It's probably not easy to displace that kind of influence

In fact, I feel that the Platonists may have made a surreptitious takeover, with Aquinas himself being "Platonised."

I think we went right back to Plato as the primary philosophical influence when Reformation came about.

Goldeneye said...

Also, another random question. 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? And why does Eastern Christianity not have those parts?

The Social Pathologist said...

@MK

Thanks.

I do agree this religious culture rejects the body, but I think it's in large part a "reaction" against a world that rejects the spirit.

I'm less of the opinion that it rejects the world than the fact that it's a persistent natural cognitive bias. Unfortunately it has real world anti-Thomistic effects.

@Goldeneye

I think we went right back to Plato as the primary philosophical influence when Reformation came about

I think we've got to be very careful attributing cause to things. Plato gave a quite lucid account of the body/spirit distinction but that does not mean that those who also support that view do so from a considered rationality. The fact that Augustinians and Platonists have similar views does not necessarily mean that they share the same intellectual pedigree.

Part of the problem with trying to understand NeoPlatonism is the prior assumption that it is a rationally derived position.

Personally, I think a lot of the Neoplatonic tendency is intuitive(something conservative temperaments are particularly prone to) and has nothing to do with explicit Platonic argument. The reason for this is the traditional cultural baggage we have inherited with respect to our understanding of the human person. Traditionally, we have understood that human beings have operated on a rational/irrational dynamic. Whereas the emerging scientific data suggests that people are rational/intuitive/irrational, with rationality being a last choice option.

Neoplatonism, in this latter framework, is more a case of the "feels" rather than reason. Our culture's inability to recognise the intuitive element in reason therefore tends to misattribute intuitive grasp for rationalised principle.

I realized that modernity only appears to come from Western Christianity.

Whoa, that's a huge topic. I have to mull more about that one.