The year 529 is a semi-arbitrary but convenient milestone, with Emperor Justinian’s shuttering of the philosophical schools in Athens ushering in a millennium of intellectual somnambulism. The Sleeping Beauty version of this narrative says philosophy pricked its finger on Christianity and awaited an awakening buss from its aforementioned French rationalist Prince Rene in the 17th century.
Looking back from then, Francis Bacon would complain of “cobwebs of learning” and Thomas Hobbes would say the problem was Roman religion’s sponsorship of “Aristotelity”-which is is not Aristotelianism but its unthinking authoritarian parody, made to conform with Church dogma and stripped of curiosity.
It needn’t have been so. A respectful Aristotelianism fused with theology might have had wonderful discursive results, with talk of soul and sin leading seamlessly into fruitful reflections on mind-body and free will. Instead, “Christians were required to believe, for example, that a piece of wafer could become flesh… and that God could become three persons at once.”
“By the year 1000, medicine, physics, astronomy, biology and indeed all branches of theoretical knowledge except theology had virtually collapsed. Even the few relatively educated men, holed up in mosasteries, knew markedly less than many Greeks had done eight centuries earlier… In short, Christendom was colossally ignorant.”
The cult of Aristotle was sloppy, and inattentive to their nPhilosopher’s actual views. Medieval Christians “knew” that the soul survives death. Aristotle said it didn’t, his God was disinterested in humans, and he was dubious about that wafer. We must not forget that “he himself was animated by the spirit of open-minded inquiry,” which at its best uses the spoken and printed word to fuel passionate curiosity-not shut it down. So, “the real problem with medieval learning is that the medieval professors allowed themselves to be tyrannized by books… Instead of putting ideas to the test of new experience, they… put them to the test of old books.” Old books are great, but they should never have the last word.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Hint: How many bodies do you need to dance? Call this the Caspar the Friendly Ghost Problem: how can Caspar move through a wall AND catch a ball? Dan Dennett is “convinced that Descartes’ dualism — the idea that an immaterial mind interacts with a material body — was a ‘cul-de-sac’… ‘There was a latent contradiction built into the very idea of Casper the Friendly Ghost and basically that’s what’s wrong with dualism. Nobody’s ever solved that problem remotely satisfactorily.'” It was an entertaining show, but I recall being perturbed when they interrupted it one day to break the news of President Kennedy’s assassination.
I want to get a word in for Philo
of Alexandria, the millennial philosopher with the perfect name who nowadays gets little attention or respect. He began, and a pagan teacher named Alcinous continued, “a tradition of marrying holy scriptures to Greek philosophy” with the claim that the God of scripture is identical with the Good of Plato. (“Plato himself would have insisted that they were utterly different.) Like many arranged marriages, these were often bereft of passion and hard to sustain. But it was, and for some still is, a popular tradition.
Another Diogenes (not the Dog Philosopher) created “the strangest document in the history of philosophy” (c.120 AD) with a huge Vietnam Memorial-like colonnade inscribed with Epicurean wisdom updated to catch the zeitgeist of “salvation” through philosophy. That’s not really what Epicurus was talking about.
This is another arranged marriage likely to founder, unless we understand that those who’ve attained ataraxia
consider themselves already “saved,” not lost. They aren’t looking to go anywhere. As Jennifer Michael Hecht
says, Epicureans aren’t looking for a path out of the forest. They just wanted to hang a “Home Sweet Home” sign on a tree” and chill. “…pick some blueberries, sit beneath a tree, and start describing how the sun-dappled forest floor shimmers in the breeze… Just try to have a good time.”
Plotinus’s “Neoplatonism” was trying to eff the ineffable, to describe the indescribable. Futility, thy name is Plotinus. It all comes down (or goes up?) to The One, for him. But it’s all the same, isn’t it, in this Heraclitean flux? But The One is beyond being. Doesn’t seem like there’d be much more to say. Just, “withdraw into yourself and look.”
When he withdrew and looked, Plotinus claimed to see that “the world is finite, harmonious, and good,” that it possesses a purchase on divine perfection by virtue of the continuous “emanations” therefrom that reach even us. How does he know that? “The stars are like letters that inscribe themselves at every moment in the sky. Everything in the world is full of signs. All events are coordinated. All things depend on each other. Everything breathes together.” Yes, but… You really get all that from a sweep of introspection, Plotinus? Why don’t I? Why doesn’t everyone? Is it possible you’re reading some things into your account, engaging in a bit of wishful thinking? And engaging in a bit of corporeal revulsion, “almost ashamed of being in the body”? But how, except with your body, are you going to hammer up a HOME sign, sit under a tree, and chill?
“Proclus of Athens
(*412–485 C.E.) was the most authoritative philosopher of late antiquity and played a crucial role in the transmission of Platonic philosophy from antiquity to the Middle Ages.” He was a magical thinker, holding that “the job of philosophy was merely to explain spiritual truths which had already been arrived at by other means” and “treat[ing] the basic premises of his theology as if they were beyond question.” Magical thinking endures in our time. Fortunately, questioners do too.
Lots of good questions suggest themselves today. How do we respect and revere books without being “tyrannized” by them, for instance? How should we think about Caspar? What is “salvation”? What’s the job of philosophy? My answer to the last: to help us figure out how not to be tyrannized, how to think about Caspar, how not to think of ourselves as “lost” so we won’t have to be “saved.”
Amy Krouse Rosenthal has died
. She was not lost. Her remarkable viral essay
bespeaks a love of life that was its own saving grace. “Her favorite line from literature, she once said, was in Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town,” as spoken by the character Emily as she bids the world goodbye: ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?’
When she reached 40, Ms. Rosenthal began calculating how many days she had left until she turned 80.
“How many more times, then, do I get to look at a tree?” she asked. “Let’s just say it’s 12,395. Absolutely, that’s a lot, but it’s not infinite, and I’m thinking anything less than infinite is too small a number and not satisfactory. At the very least, I want to look at trees a million more times. Is that too much to ask?”