Sunday, June 03, 2007


It seems to be one of the long-standing self-beliefs of our Western culture that reason as we come to know it has been inherited from Greek philosophy, and revelation has been inherited from the Bible, and that the particular genius of the West in its creative periods was that it was able to take account of both of these sources and to a degree, reconcile them.

Like any long-standing belief, this viewpoint carries a great deal of truth. One of the people who made this viewpoint something of a catchword or perhaps even something of an educated clich̩, was Leo Strauss, one of the founding fathers of neoconservatism. My post today aims to discuss what I think are some of the problems with this viewpoint. It is not solely motivated by my animus against neoconservatism and all of its works, but certainly I admit to having this animus Рfor I consider neoconservatism a bad tree that has produced rotten fruit. But before neoconservatism there was St. Thomas Aquinas, who labored mightily to define the respective spheres of reason and revelation.

So, my point being that the reason-revelation divide goes a long way back into Western history, and there could be little debate in asserting that the pillar of reason exemplified in the Dialogues of Plato and the works of Aristotle – and the pillar of revelation of the Bible, form the major signposts through which Western thinking has always navigated.

Yet there may also be a sense in which signposts can become blockades that squeeze the unwary navigator, asphyxiate and choke, prevent movement, subvert development, and sink the vessel. The image of shipwreck has long formed a sober reminder of the perils of the voyage, and I have always been fond of quoting Ortega y Gasset about this, where he said, "I am only interested in the thoughts of shipwrecked men."

Perhaps every culture has thrown up reminders in its own way – Ortega y Gasset, the Spaniard, was alarmed by the decline of Spain, and thus chose to unfold his reasoning powers to the revitalization of the Spanish – and ultimately European – intellect. Herman Melville, the American, on the other hand, wrote an epic about a shipwreck, at the end of which his hero-martyr and witness, Ishmael, floats to safety by clinging to a coffin. At its depths this profoundly Christian image of life-through-death is borne by the narrator, Ishmael. Ishmael in the Bible was the first son of Abraham who was cast out, and who became the progenitor of the Arabian peoples. To take a leap: one could say that true Christian revelation in America is "Ishmaelitic" – that is, "cast out" by the Puritanic, and later Judaic, image of the "chosen people" or "favored land."
Perhaps Melville had a deep sense for the "Ishmaelitic" character of true Christianity in America – something quite other than its public doctrines. For genuine Christianized thinking has barely been able to establish itself in America, and to the extent that it has, it has always had the character of a "dispossession" or "unbelonging." Southerners at their heart know this, as well as Catholics. The thought was epitomized in the title of Albert J. Nock’s Memoirs of a Superfluous Man – the "visionary intellect" is, in America, "superfluous," super-added, super-natural, not in line with the American pragmatic vision and craving for efficiency.

Well, perhaps I stray from my subject, and must needs return to the matter at hand – the polarization of intellect into a ‘reason’ and a ‘revelation’ component. In a certain sense I believe this idea is a myth that has outlived its usefulness. In my view, reason and revelation exist on a continuum which can be, as Coleridge put it, distinguished but not divided. Revelation comes from higher plane of inspiration, but it is nevertheless the source of all intellectual understanding. There is no case of people learning to reason spontaneously, just as there is no case of "spontaneous language." Both faculties of speech and reason imply imitation, instruction and teaching.
Likewise with "natural reason" or "unassisted human reason." In acknowledging the Greek source of this kind of reason, we tend to overlook how Greek reason was born and developed out of the Mystery tradition. It developed from the "revelatory" tradition.

Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) emphasizes this qualitative or revelatory aspect of reason. And yes, I think that Pirsig was one of those "dispossessed Ishmaelites" who challenges the American hostility to metaphysical thought. It is not so essential that such a challenger call himself a Christian. What matters is that one develop the capacity to perceive the christianizing impulse in thinking. Anyhow, Pirsig was in hot pursuit of the trail of the ancient Sophists, who, he thought, had received a bad press in Plato’s dialogues. According to Plato, the Sophists claimed to "teach virtue," or to claim that "virtue can be taught" and they were dismissed - in centuries forever after - as "ethical relativists." But what, Pirsig asks, if this is not the case, and that in fact the Sophists were in pursuit of the Good? The Sophists were concerned with quality – and quality has to do with man’s primordial response to the cosmos.

Thus, the Sophist aimed to teach awareness of the "quality-event," the encounter with quality, that underlies the act of cognition. Arete, virtue or excellence, is the prerogative or privilege of man, who is thus dignified by virtue of his response to quality.

There is a sense in which "quality" may be understood as the "revealed cosmos" – and here I am building on Pirsig, not quoting or paraphrasing him. But in any case, subject and object are the results of the encounter with "Quality." Here we see the outline of a basic threefold dynamic, which is the idea in which Christianity was born, which it developed and elaborated – the threefold being the indispensable concept which enables us to navigate between the pillars of reason and revelation. In one sense the quality-event may be viewed as the ground of the Father, that is, ultimate Reality. In another sense it may be seen in the work of the Holy Spirit, that which enables human beings to respond to one another, the "quality of responsiveness." And in still another sense, "Quality" may be seen as Christ, the "I Am" as the cognitive principle.

There may be such a thing as "natural reason" or "unassisted human reason" (i.e. not revelation-dependent) but insofar as it is "natural" it is not reason, or not much to get excited about, and to the extent that it is reason it must participate in the quality-event – which is to say, it must be based upon something originally disclosed or revealed to us.
Perhaps the divergence between reason and revelation has outlived its natural life. Modern reason is apparitional. Having been free for so many centuries to develop itself apart from the last Platonic resonances of the Good and the Beautiful, modern reason has become a demonstration of the deterioration of standards. And this, in essence, is my critique of neoconservatism: it subverted Reason to become an enabler of Human Power instead of faithfully adhering to reason’s historic vocation as limit and check to Human Power. Or, as Chesterton put the logical case against fascism, “...that it appeals to an appetite for authority without very clearly giving the authority for the appetite.”

For there is a great difference between Divine and Human Power. Divine power creates by renunciation, leaves an opening for the future. Human power refuses to renounce anything, and moreover seeks to add to its domain by sheer accretion. But ultimately nothing grows by accretion, which is why modern reasoning (and its correlates in art, manners, buildings, statecraft, education, landscape, etc.) is a garrulous, garish, structureless monumentalism – as if by sheer will power men could obliterate within themselves that tiny infinity, that infinitely small opening, granted by the Creator, that enables them to reason.


Ahmed Ismail said...

Miss Johnston, wow!!!
I really liked what you wrote in this post. You shared a part of your mind with us.I totally agree with your opinion about neo-cons.
I want to ask you how old you are. You may not answer my question as women tend not to talk about their age. I just wanted to know how old this enlightened lady is.

Caryl said...

Gosh, Ahmed, I was born in 1947, thanks for asking. And thanks for your fine site, by the way! (My picture was taken at an earlier time-
that privilege of vanity being small enough to ask, God wot.

Andrew said...

I'm not sure I agree with Pirsig's assessment of Plato. Or at least it seems that Josef Pieper for one has a different take (see “Leisure, the Basis of Culture”). Plato would certainly not, on Pieper's account, be a proponent of natural or unassisted human reason. On the contrary, Plato seems to have a firm belief in the priority of revelation, as a foundation of reason. So, in the "Philebus" he states that the wisdom of the ancients "is a gift of the gods, which, as it seems to me, came down to us, thanks to some unknown Prometheus, along with shining fire, and the ancients, who were better than we are, and who lived closer to the Gods, handed down to us this revelation".

According to Pieper, there exists against the dialectical philosophizing of Plato a "theological backdrop". "If one is seriously inquiring into the roots of things... then one cannot, at one and the same time, reject (for the sake of some kind of "methodological purity") that previously given religious tradition and its teaching, which concerns expressly the very roots of things..."

This has to do with "the essential relationship between philosophy and theology as Plato and ancient philosophy as a whole understood it.... philosophy is essentially bound up with theology; no philosophy is in existence which does not receive its first impulse and impetus from some previously existing, uncritically accepted interpretation of the world".

I suppose that what Pieper speaks of is not the same as the participation in the “quality-event” you have in mind. But is there not for Plato also something originally “disclosed” or “revealed” which makes knowledge possible?

Your discussion of the threefold dynamic of the Christian idea also reminded me of Pope John Paul II’s description of faith and reason: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves”.

Abellio said...

Caryl, Thanks for another interesting post, and the weaving of so many disparate strands! I agree with Andrew, and recommend as well Pieper's commentary on the Phaedrus, "Enthusiasm and Divine Madness" wherein he gives a very interesting take on the Sophists. about Plato's understanding of sacred Tradition he says, that for his Socrates,"...knowledge has come down from the 'Ancients'; it is echoed in the poets; the vessel of the mind has been filled by hearing, that is to say not out of personal experience and personal observation, but from external sources...." I also recommend Algis Uzdavinys' book "The Golden Chain" on the whole Pythagorean/Platonic tradition. He offers this characteristion of Greek Philosophy: "...Hellenic Philosophy in general differed from the earlier traditions of wisdom precisely by its developed set of formal logic and dialectic, along with its abstract technical vocabulary, as well as a new type of rationality of a more or less 'scientific' character. But this additional edifice was built on the ancient metaphysical superstructure itself--supported by certain divine revelations, cosmogonical myths, and rituals aimed at establishment of cosmic order and judgment, as well as the transformation and elevation of the soul by a restoration of her true identity."
I think the difficulty with Plato maybe more in his modern interpreters and translators than in him. But there is at least one translator, Thomas Taylor, ( who seems to have understood him better, although I have not read his translations. But even with a proper understanding of philosophia’s connection to the mystery tradition, that tradition is unable to lead us beyond the Cosmos, as St. Paul says in 2nd Colossians 2 “For I would have you know, what manner of care I have for you and for them that are at Laodicea, and whosoever have not seen my face in the flesh: That their hearts may be comforted, being instructed in charity, and unto all riches of fulness of understanding, unto the knowledge (gnosis) of the mystery (musterion) of God the Father and of Christ Jesus: In whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom (sophia) and knowledge (gnosis)…. As therefore you have received Jesus Christ the Lord, walk ye in him; 7 Rooted and built up in him, and confirmed in the faith, as also you have learned, abounding in him in thanksgiving (eucharistia). Beware lest any man cheat you by philosophy (philosophia), and vain deceit; according to the tradition of men, according to the elements of the world (i.e. the angels that rule the Cosmos), and not according to Christ: For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead corporeally; And you are filled in him, who is the head of all principality and power (again the angels)”

Greek philosophy and the mysteries providentially prepared the way for the coming of Wisdom Himself and his Eucharistic mysteries.

(See Dom Odo Casel’s book “The Mystery of Christian Worship”, and Jean Borella’s comments on it in his book “Guenonian Esotericism and Christian Mystery.” The present Christianity (as opposed to its completion in the New Creation) is built on the cosmological truths of these things but it surpasses them. The reopening of mankind to the wonders of the cosmos including most importantly our reawakening to the wonders of the subtle domain after the night of enlightenment materialism is a reawakening to the angelic. But there are both holy and unholy angels, so that only by putting on Jesus Christ can we navigate these perilous seas. Speaking of Borella, in my comment on your post “Hysteria” I referred to one of his books as “The Sense of the Sacred” actually it is called “The Sense of the Supernatural.”

One more note: You say quoting Pirsig (whom I haven't read), " Quality, he says, is "the event at which subject becomes aware of object." It is that which makes possible the act of knowing, that is, subjects and objects: "… at the cutting edge of time, before an object can be distinguished, there must be a … nonintellectual awareness, which is Quality…" This reminds me of the distiction between ratio and intellectus in St. Thomas Aquinas that Pieper brings out in "Leisure the Basis of Culture" which is parallel to the Guenon's distinction between intellect and reason, that is, the pure intuition of truth and its discursive composition and division.

Thanks again for such fine posts and such fine thought.

Caryl said...

Thanks Andrew and Abellio for the great replies!
Of course Plato was connected with the metaphysical-Mystery tradition and indeed speaks of the truths of vision in addition to logic and dialectic. I did not mean to suggest that he wasn't, nor do I think Pirsig meant to suggest that. I believe Pirsig's intuition of 'Quality' is a modern intuition of the metaphysical Tradition. He has no other way to describe it, but even so, it seems to me remarkable that it should appear in a saga about a man and his son on a motorcycle trip through N. America some 2,000 years after the ancient Sophists - who have become his passion, his consuming quest!
I think his saga is something like "moving the goalposts." Platonic inspiration has been a source of spiritualizing light in Western culture for 2,000 years. But only today, with the metaphysical tradition in ruins (I mean in terms of the general sense of life) where are we going to pick up the scent once again? How can we renew platonic inspiration without engaging in discussions about the value of thinking? Or, how can inspiration help unless one can already think? So "moving the goalposts" is moving the discussion back to a more "primitive" or "basic" level. So I think what I was trying to write, and maybe Pirsig too, is not that Plato wasn't "spiritual" but the logic and dialectic he developed has led us to a certain place, from which we need to make a "re-turn" or "re-volution" - analogous to the one described in my post.
It is interesting that Pirsig picks up the trail before Plato - and comes with a critique of the logic/dialectic that in some ways was like Nietzsche's - only better, I think.

Abellio-thanks for your remarks, here and previous - esp. about Guenon's critique of Anthroposophy. I felt sure he must have one, and I'm grateful for your lead.
It's great having such thoughtful readers.
Thanks again.

PCJ said...

there may be such a thing as "natural reason" or "unassisted human reason" (i.e. not revelation-dependent) but insofar as it is "natural" it is not reason, or not much to get excited about, and to the extent that it is "reason" it must participate in the quality-event – which is to say, it must be based upon something originally "disclosed" or "revealed" to us.

I have to say, Caryl, that I just don’t follow this post very well. Why can’t reason be natural and still be reason? Seems to me that you have to define both terms (natural and reason) and then show how they are connected, otherwise you are just making an assertion.

Why must reason participate in the quality-event? You may be right, but why?

Why must something be first disclosed or revealed?

A more commonsense explanation would be to argue that reason emerges as a result of people having to deal with their circumstance. That is, people find themselves faced with problems, and they develope ideas about how to deal with them. (And to carry this out a bit: one of the ideas that they come up with to help them deal with their circumstance is the idea of revelation.)

As I say, I don’t follow this post very well, but insofar as I do, I think that it points in the direction of basic differences between you and me in our understanding of the world. My sense of this post is that there is a kind of disembodied quality to it. Who are the “we” to whom your points apply?

Caryl said...

PCJ-I am grateful for a brother who attempts, at least, to keep me intellectually honest!
While acknowledging my many defects in writing, and no doubt in thinking as well, it seemed to me interesting that the "quality-event" links up to something Ortega said about thinking- to the effect that it begins when we can no longer rely on something, e.g., I don't start to think about the table until it breaks down and I can no longer rely on it. In other words there is a primordial level of quality or encounter or disclosure. "natural reason," whatever that may be, presupposes this primordial level, and I think in some sense it has been led to "forget" about it, or "overlook it." Descartes for example begins right in the middle of adult age and postulates things about reason that presuppose enormous qualities(and quantities) of dependency, education, mimesis, learning, emotions, etc. But his reason has been "artificially" removed from all that. Granted, it's useful. Granted, it may have been necessary. But isn't it time to remember the other things and "flesh out" our view of reason with its whole context?
I think this is what you are also trying to do too. To bring reason back into response to circumstances I see as very compatible with thinking about the "quality event."
Still, there is a huge area of differences between us, and that is, I think you basically see religion and revelation as creations of man, whereas I see mankind as created by religion/revelation.
Subject for a huge future post!!

Andrew said...

Caryl, pcj's comment and your response reminded me of a passage in Newman - one sentence actually!

"To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle's words, 'having no hope and without God in the world,'--all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution".

Unless I'm mistaken, what you suggest, pcj, is that, confronted with such circumstances, men have invented a revelation which professes among its principal tenets the authorship of the universe by a benevolent, all-powerful being. This, to me, is beyond all belief.

JimR said...

You say revelation, RP says static quality. You say reason, RP says dynamic quality. "Tradition (belief)[latch] is the forgetting of the origins." Does everyone experience the latch simultaneously? Or is the belief (static) of some subject to the reason (dynamic) of others?

Isn't the essential aspect of revelation the receiving? Does it really matter whether the giver is the divine or the latched cumulative human reason? Or are they the same thing?

Just where on the continuum of human development did the divine judge us ripe for revelation and why would it not have been universal and undeniable? Certainly, we could use a little universal and undeniable revelation now (we always could).

"Learned men are the cisterns of knowledge, not the fountainheads"

This could all sound like a process of revelation, but what about revelation in the static cistern and reason as the dynamic fountainhead? We measure progress by what makes it (gets latched) from the fountainhead into the cistern.