More on Abiding in Hope

Abiding in hope…

Ed Mooney, over at Mists on the Rivers, has been mulling over the Heidegger passage I posted yesterday, as have I.  The passage fascinates me in part because so many paths intersect in it:  one from Socrates and his avowal of ignorance, one from Eckhart and his working-out of contemplation, one from St. Thomas and his condemnation of curiositas as a form of cognitive intemperance, one from Neitzsche and his linking the will to knowledge to the will to power, one from Husserl and his plying of the reduction, one from Marcel and his ideal of secondary reflection, and one from Wittgenstein and his contrast of explanation and description.

I cannot rise to the level of Ed Mooney–but let me say a bit more about the line from Marcel.  Marcel distinguishes primary from secondary reflection by distinguishing between what we might call their ‘objects’, problems and mysteries.  There is a lot to say about that distinction, and I have toyed with it on the blog a time or two (here for example).  But a key idea is the idea of investigations that are, as it were, self-willed, where the investigator stands above, over and against, what he investigates, and one where the investigator is ‘object-willed’, moved to consideration of what she stands enmeshed in, alongside, and which calls out to her for consideration.  We might say that in the first case, the investigation proceeds in light produced by the investigator, in the second, in light produced by the ‘object’ investigated.  (Marcel works a far-reaching change on the popular understanding of mystery, which he regards, not as a darkness that overwhelms, but as a light that is blinding, –at first, but that becomes eventually the light in which we see light:  think of Christ on Mount Tabor.)  Heidegger seems to understand some things as worthy of thought, as calling out to us to think them, and to think in relationship to them.  Curiosity all-too-often is something that we project upon the world–we think about what we regard as worthy of thought, instead of what calls us out of ourselves and into thought.

There seems to me little doubt that Walden (to hook up with Ed’s reflections) is not only a book about but a book that exemplifies secondary reflection.  And I think that secondary reflection is at play too, albeit in different ways, in Socrates’ unknowledge, Echart’s contemplation, St. Thomas’ studiositas (the contrast to curiositas), Husserl’s reduction and Wittgenstein’s descriptions.  It seems likely true even in Nietzsche’s transvalued knowledge.  For all of these, the relationship between the investigator and the investigated transforms the investigation, and that must always already be on the mind of the investigator.  The world does not bumble around us, a flattened pother of objects indifferent to their investigation and that we investigate willy-nilly as we choose, but  instead structures and variegates itself around us, featuring objects that call us to thought and objects that do not.  And what they reveal to us is not a matter of what we take from them but of what they give us, sometimes only after we have earned it by abiding in hope before them, listening even to their silence, waiting for them to speak. What we ‘know’ of them in such moments is not something that we can commodify, something that we can learn by banking on our own conceptions of reasoning about them, our own ability to wring answers to our questions from them.

Didn’t Aristotle push us this way, too, long ago, when he noted that the problem of method is entirely (note that word) determined by the object?

The Silence of St. Thomas (Josef Pieper)

Mention is rarely made of the fact that the teaching about God in the Summa Theologica begins with this sentence:  “We are not capable of knowing what God is, but we can know what he is not.”  I know of no textbook of Thomistic thought which contains the notion expressed by St. Thomas in his commentary on the De Trinitate of Boethius, namely that there are three degrees in our knowledge of God:  the lowest, the knowledge of God as he is active in creation; the second, the recognition of God as mirrored in spiritual beings; the third and loftiest, the recognition of God as Unknown, tamquam ignotum.  Or consider this sentence from the Questiones Disputatae:  “This is what is ultimate in the human knowledge of God:  to know that we do not know God.”

Taking it Personally

(A piece of protreptic for my Seven Deadly Sins students.)

I know some of you are struggling with the Aquinas.  That is to be expected; it is hard.  But too many of you have, I worry, lost sight of something that can make the reading easier and more gripping–namely, many of you have lost sight of the fact that Aquinas is telling you about your life.  All that he says may sound academic, in the pejorative sense, with all his complicated talk of potency, act, complements and mastery–but it is not academic:  it is existential.  What he is telling you about are what we might call the necessities of human action, about its general structure, and about the ways in which understanding that structure makes you better at concerted, focused and responsible action, about the understanding necessary to become a virtuoso at living itself.  Since that is what he is doing, your own life plays the role of touchstone for and testifier to the claims he makes.  That is, your own day-to-day living needs to be responsive, and properly responsive, to the claims he is making.  You should be able to see whether he is right or wrong, on to something or whistling in the dark, by examining what he says in the light of your own living.  True, what he says sounds unfamiliar, but he is talking about familiarities, about general structures that are often closer to you than you are to yourself.  Paradoxically, it is the very familiarity of what he is talking about, its closeness to you, that accounts for it seeming unfamiliar and distant.  You do not want, and unfortunately show no tendency to want, to suffuse your own life with reflection, to explicitate what is implicit in your days, day in and day out, day after day.  But today is the day of explicitation; tomorrow may be too late.  Take what he says personally, not in the sense of an affront to you, but as aimed at who and what you are and understand yourself to be.  If you can’t take Aquinas personally, you may as well leave him alone.

Prospect Park–Poem (David Schubert)

I would like to ask that dumb ox, Thomas
Aquinas, why it is, that when you have said
Something — you said it — then they ask you
A month later if it is true? Of course it is!
It is something about them I think. They think
It is something about me. It adds up
To my thinking I must be what I don’t
Know . . .

— The park is certainly
Tranquil tonight: lovers, like ants
Are scurrying into any old darkness,
Covert for kisses. It makes me feel
Old and lonely. I wish that I were
All of them, not with any one,
Would I exchange my lot, but the entire
Scene has a certain Breughel quality
I would participate in. —

Do I have to repeat
Myself. I really mean it.
I am not saying it again to convince myself
But to convince the repressed conviction
Of yourself. I think. I think. I think it.

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