An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

We have now covered ten philosophical issues.  The choice of the content of these issues were

  • first, to provide you a sweeping survey of the 2,500 years of western philosophy, and
  • second, to provide you some exposure to those philosophical ideas which have been impactful upon or related to Roman Catholic Christianity.

Now we turn to contemporary western philosophy.  Here we are interested in three particular and important issues which have social and political ramifications for the world today.  These three issues are called material reductionism, the egocentric predicament, and the rejection of essence.

Contemporary Roman Catholic philosophy has taken notice of these three developments, seeks to understand them, and seeks to provide guidance in how to address and deal with them.  Specifically, it seeks to provide awareness of these issues for and to provide guidance on how to address these issues, to and for those who will be pastoral ministers, catechists, and homilists.

Deviating slightly from the outline I gave you originally, I will now treat these three contemporary developments as separate issues.  Issue #11 will be Material Reductionism.  Issue #12 will be The Ego-Centric Predicament.  Issue #13 will be The Rejection of Essence.

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An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #10

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

 

Let us now turn attention to the tenth issue: the rediscovery of Aristotelian Realism and Ethics

 

Aristotle:

The Medieval Period, the Middle Ages (c. A.D. 500 to 1200) ends with the rediscovery of Aristotle’s realism.

Due to Augustine’s appropriation of Platonic idealism, Christianity takes a neo-Platonic turn, developing social and political structures which emphasize an immaterial spirituality; things such as God and angels and heaven and prayer.

One manifestation of this neo-Platonic turn is the development of the monastic movement; which represents the choices of many to remove themselves from the work-a-day world to a world which is closer to heaven and God.

However, the occupants of the monasteries are still very much human and need to fill their time.  In addition to food production and prayer, many are involved in the discovery, repair, copying, and preservation of extant texts.

Among those texts preserved are the writings of Aristotle.  Christianity’s turn away from Aristotelian realism and toward Platonic idealism is the means by which Aristotle’s realism is saved for future generations.

 

Thomas Aquinas:

  • Rediscovers the writings of Aristotle
  • Thomas uses Aristotle’s methods and philosophical concepts to investigate theological matters.
  • The rediscovery of Aristotelian realism will lead to the birth of modern science.
  • Thomas uses Aristotelian social and political concepts to create new ideas and attitudes toward issues of political power, government, and law.
  • And very important is his use of Aristotle to expand upon ideas of Saint Augustine to formulate a Natural Law theory.

Natural Law theory

  • Consistent and compatible with a contingent view of human nature (down-to-earth)(feet on the ground).
  • Consistent and compatible with both the incarnation focus of Roman Catholicism and its faith based soteriological concepts.
  • There are four types of Law: eternal, natural, positive, and divine.
  • The manner in which Thomas discusses these indicates that he, Saint Thomas, fully believes that morality and politics must have human happiness as their focus and must always take into account the changing nature of human contingencies.
    • Eternal Law:  is the plan of God’s wisdom, found in the “mind” of God, by which God is involved in and directs all action and all motion of creation. 
    • Natural Law:  are fundamental inclinations placed by God in the minds of all persons.  Persons become aware of these good inclinations by means of reason directed by the Holy Spirit.  Natural Law is awareness of those aspects of eternal law which apply to human being and action.  Participation in and adherence to the natural law leads persons to their proper ends/goals.
    • Positive Law:  refers to the human ability to use reason to apply aspects of the natural law to social, political, and moral affairs.  (The word Positive is derived from the Latin word posit meaning “he puts/places”.  Sometimes Positive Law is called, somewhat inadequately, Human Law or Civil Law.)
    • Divine Law: refers to special announcements of revelation such as the 10 Commandments or Magisterial pronouncements which seek to fill holes present in positive law.
        • The need for Divine Law is exemplified in Jesus’ parable of the “Weeds Among the Wheat” (Matthew 13:24-30).  Along this line, Aquinas points out that if a lawgiver or law enforcer were too rigid, the application of law would do more harm than good.  Thomas points out that if every evil were legislated against, much harm would be done.  This is Thomas’ way of saying human nature is contingent, messy, broken, and that the lawgiver and law enforcer must make accommodations for those limitations.
  • Sensitivity to human nature as it actually is, will lead Aquinas to articulate (ST, I of II, Q19) his famous articulation of freedom of conscience; the right of the individual to follow his or her own well informed conscience, even when the dictates of that conscience are at odds with civil and/or ecclesial law.

 

Kant:

Five hundred years after Saint Thomas, Immanuel Kant will articulate ideas already percolating in western culture between the times of Aquinas and Kant.

Among these Kantian ideas is that morality should not be based upon nor accommodate the contingent, messy, incarnational, actual, down-to-earth, earthy ways of human nature.  Morality should be based on a priori synthetic propositions, which apply to all situations for all humans at all times.

Kant is a return to Platonism.  The un-earthly, non-human, ideal moral ideas of Kant bare a resemblance to the neo-Platonic Christianity of the Medieval/Middle Ages period, to the Platonism adopted by Augustine and to the idealism of Plato.

One manifestation of that Platonic adoption is that morality should be based on ideal concepts of law and morality.  Therefore, a Natural Law based morality, such as that of Aquinas, is to be rejected for two reasons (which we saw earlier):

  • Thomas Natural Law moral theory asks us to be realistic, down-to-earth, and to take into consideration the ever present aspects of human contingency.  Thomas’ morality is an incarnation reality.  Like Jesus, Thomas’ morality seeks to be fully immersed in the actual real human condition; not to have the human condition perfected as a condition for God to enter human history.  Kant rejects such a contingency based morality because such a morality can never be infallibly formalized.
  • Only ideal a priori synthetic ideas, like the algorithms governing an idealized right triangle, can obtain the necessary universality to be right in every instance.  To base morality on nature is to base morality on entities which, like the shapes of actual triangular forms, can never be universally uniform.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #9

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn attention to the the ninth issue:  Knowledge Acquisition

Earlier, in the third issue, I pointed out a contrast between Plato, with whom ancient/classical philosophy begins, and Rene Descartes, with whom modern philosophy begins.

With Plato, as exemplified by his Allegory of the Cave, we are introduced to the idea that the best path to knowledge acquisition is through the community activity of dialogue.

With Descartes, as intimated by the narrative of his winter bivouac, we are introduced to the idea that the only useful path to knowledge acquisition is through isolated activity which denies the value of community dialogue.

There are other aspects of this contrast to which I now wish to introduce you.

Augustine’s “I believe so that I might understand” and Saint Anselm’s advocacy of “faith seeking understanding”, provide us examples of a mind set that the best path to knowledge acquisition is through attitudes of faith, trust, and loyalty.

This communal dialogical mentality continues throughout the Medieval Middle Ages period, examples being the monasteries as places of knowledge preservation and the development of the universities in the later Medieval Middle Ages period.

But, at the beginning of the period of modern philosophy, around A.D. 1250, we see a contrary attitude arise which gives rise to what might be called causation-limited-science and to what is called, the technological agenda of modernity.

In the words of Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon, two of the greatest minds of modern mathematics and scientific method, we see a complete awareness of the previous faith based attitude and a complete rejection the trusting, loyal, faith filled based learning espoused by the faith based attitude.

We see this rejection of faith, trust, and loyalty as a sure basis for knowledge acquisition in the sixth part of Descartes Discourse on Method.  In the following quotation, Descartes rejects “the speculative philosophy taught in the schools”,   “The schools” refers to the birth of the universities in the late Middle Ages.  The phrase “speculative philosophy” refers to the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle.  Descartes writes, 

“I perceived it to be possible to arrive at knowledge highly useful in life; and instead of the speculative philosophy usually taught in the schools, to discover a practical, by means of which, knowing the force and action of fire, water, air the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, as distinctly as we know the various crafts of our artisans, we might also apply them in the same way to all the uses to which they are adapted, and thus render ourselves the lords [masters] and possessors of nature.”

We can also see this same rejection in the words of Francis Bacon where he writes, “The Research into final causes, like a Virgin dedicated to God, generates nothing.”  The “final causes”, which Bacon rejects refers to the internal causation ideas of Aristotle and to the Christian God who authors and stills goals and purposes in the things God creates.

Finally, we see this rejection of the Platonic Christian ideal of knowledge acquisition happening best within attitudes and institutions based on faith, trust, and loyalty, in the section of the Meditations and Discourse on Method in which Descartes writes his well known je pense, donc je suis, cogito ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”.  Descartes tells us that “I think, therefore I am” is only a broader example of his most central idea, which is, je doute, donc je suis, “I doubt, therefore I am.”  With his “I doubt, therefore I am” as the basis of his new infallible method of knowledge of acquisition, he tells us that the best way to acquire new knowledge is by doubting every assertion, being skeptical of every assertion until they are proven self-evidently or proven by mathematical consistency and/or logical support.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #8

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn attention to the eighth issue: the impact of Christianity’s appropriation and adoption of Platonic idealism.

Plato’s idealism stated that what was most real were immaterial things such as the forms of things and various immaterial categorical concepts such as treeness, and numbers.  Plato reasoned that the only way we have awareness and knowledge of the various material things we sense, is because of the immaterial categorical concepts of those same things which exist in our minds, and to which we can attach and sort those various material things we sense.

Saint Augustine and others noticed a striking similarity between Plato’s emphasis on the immaterial realities and those realities which Christianity highly valued; immaterial things such as God, angels, heaven, eternal life, prayer, meditation.

This attraction would cause Christianity to take a neo-Platonic turn in which the social and political structures of Christianity focus on the importance and primacy of immaterial things.  One of those things on which neo-Platonic Christianity focused were those institutions which took individual persons out of the work-a-day common world of man and woman, and placed them in monasteries dedicated to a focus on spiritual things, prayer, God, truths, ideas.

In the safe and quiet monasteries, space and time and resources were dedicated to scriptoriums; places where various texts were received, repaired, copied, and stored.

Among the writings which are collected, and repaired, and copied, and stored, are the many writings of the Greek realist, Aristotle.  

Because Aristotle’s writings focused primarily on real tangible contingent material things, though copied and preserved, Aristotle’s writings were not much read, consulted, or used.

But, they were preserved.

At the end of the Medieval Middle Ages Period, the brilliant Dominican monk, Saint Thomas Aquinas, will be introduced to, pick up, read and begin to redefine Christianity’s social and political structures in terms of the realism of Aristotle.

Aquinas’ emphasis on Aristotelian realism will be among and will cause others to look at Aristotle again.  Among those who reconsider the writings of Aristotle are those modern persons who will take Aristotle’s ideas on methods-of-acquiring-new-knowledge and develop these into modern scientific methods.

Saint Augustine’s neo-Platonism will preserve Aristotelian realism which will then be able to be rediscovered by Saint Thomas Aquinas which in turn will lead to the best aspects of the science, social, and political structures of the modern world.

An Introduction to Philosophy for Deacons: Issue #7

(The following are the written notes/texts of four, three hour, online session presentations given in the months of February through May in A.D. 2018.  A similar set of presentations was given to a previous group some years earlier.  The group consisted of diaconal aspirants, spouses, and diocesan officials of the Diocese of Pueblo in Colorado, United States.  The fifteen articles found here will include thirteen specific philosophical issues, covered in those four online sessions.)

Let us now turn attention to the seventh issue:  the beginning of philosophical anthropology

You may recall that the Ancient/Classical period of philosophy begins around 300 B.C. when Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle redirect the attention of philosophy to things human; specifically, human social and political structures and issues.  This classical period runs for about seven hundred years, until the arrival of Saint Augustine and another philosopher named Plotinus.

In the writings of Saint Augustine we see a definite refinement of the human focus of philosophy.  Saint Augustine takes the Socratic, Platonic, Aristotelian turn of philosophy toward things human, and redirects philosophy to a focus, not on the things humans do, but focuses on the human person her and himself.

We see this in his Confessions with his famous quaestio mihi factus sum, “A question to myself, I have become.”  And then he spends the rest of the Confessions, analyzing the human mind, heart, soul, emotions, drives, and spirit.

This is the beginning of philosophical anthropology.