Archives For Philosophy

“There are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.

Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.

Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.”

–Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

“Where there is a struggle, it is a struggle for power.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche

Path Lithuania

(Wooded Path in Lithuania, my photo)

The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche criticized Christianity for confusing weakness with power. He writes, “Christianity was from the beginning, essentially and fundamentally, life’s nausea and disgust with life, merely concealed behind, masked by, dressed up as, faith in ‘another’ or ‘better’ life” (The Birth of Tragedy, p.23). His analysis is telling because it is true. The highest symbol of the religion is the cross, an instrument of torture. The most important historical practicioners of the faith are martyrs. The figurehead of the belief system teaches that the greatest among us are the servants, not the masters.

Nietzsche puts us face-to-face with life’s fundamental choice: do you opt for the “way of nature” or the “way of grace”?

According to nature, the best among us will survive. We will keep evolving until we’ve achieved approximate perfection, won economically, politically, and biologically. We will have eliminated suffering. We will have destroyed death on our own. We will have made ourselves Nietzsche’s “supermen.” Is this your vision of the future?

According to grace, the least among us in this life will become the greatest in the next life. We humbly accept this truth in faith. We will seek to achieve perfection in this life, but we will fail…many times. We will look to the heavens and shout for mercy; God will hear our poor cry. We will die, but we will die in hope for ourselves, for those before us, and for those after us. No stone will be left unturned. All will be accounted for. Everything done in love will have meaning. Is this your vision of the future?

Both visions require faith. Nature’s vision requires faith in humanity alone. Grace’s vision requires faith in God, who enters into our humanity. Christianity is faith in a fused God-humanity. Let no one tell you that Christianity lacks faith in humanity. All the opposite! Christianity is faith in a humanity backed by the infinite power and possibility of God! Let no one tell you that Christianity prohibits human freedom. All the opposite! Since Christians have the freedom of God, our freedom is infinitely great!

I am a child of grace.

I can say with St. Alberto Hurtado, “The Church of God establishes itself and triumphs through the heroic work of her saints; through the parents who work in their homes with tenderness and with faith; through hours of manufacturing, navigating, and working in the fields; through the employer who fights against temptations to money or to dishonest actions; through the sacrifice of the ailing widow who leaves behind children and who unites her suffering with Christ’s; through the students who fight against injustice and oppression; through the donation that the poor person gives out of her/his indispensable income. In these moments humanity triumphs together with God” (paraphrased from Un fuego que enciende otros fuegos).

On the way of grace, whatever is done in love matters. On the way of nature, whatever is done for survival matters.

All things equal, take your pick.

Best wishes,

David J.W. Inczauskis, n.S.J.

“It is truly a sickness–and a tragedy–to have an appetite for knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself” (Miguel de Unamuno).

(Photo taken from http://www.pilaralmagro.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Miguel_Unamuno2.jpg)

Over the last three weeks I have been making my way through the Spanish philosopher and writer Miguel de Unamuno’s work Del sentimiento tragico de la vida. I’ll share a few of his insights and make some comments on them because they are worthy of attention and deep consideration:

1. “Nothing appears to me as horrible as nothingness itself.”

  • Existentialist tendencies were becoming more and more pronounced at the time of Unamuno’s writings; the concept of nothingness features prominently in this book in particular. Whereas fear of eternal condemnation motivated some conversions to the Catholic faith in the Middle Ages, in the post-modern era it is nothingness that pushes humanity to consider religion. The idea of our complete annihilation at the time of death tears us up inside. We can’t cope with the seeming reality of the end of ourselves, both body and mind. Modern scepticism has whittled away at the Catholic and Platonic belief in the eternal soul. We are left only with our existence here and now. (Note how much of our contemporary popular music contains this idea: YOLO, carpe diem, “there’s no tomorrow.”)

2. “A person is an end, not a means. Civilization strengthens the person, each person, each ‘I.’ Or what is that idol, called Humanity, to which each and every person must sacrifice him or herself? Because I sacrifice myself for my neighbours, for my compatriots, for my children, and these in turn for their children, and theirs for their children, and as such in an endless series for generations. And who will receive the fruit of that sacrifice?”

  • Unamuno is raising questions about the importance of the individual human person. Is society for the person, or is the person for the society? Likewise, he is challenging utopian visionaries who imagine a world without death, suffering, and selfishness. Doesn’t our freedom to choose entail the possibility of our failure? Can freedom and utopia coexist? (Unamuno is drawing from Kierkegaard here.)

3. “[Consolation] is not being possessed by God, but rather possessing Him, making myself God without discontinuing to be the self that I am now. Monist tricks don’t do anything for us at all; we want the full volume, not the shadow, of immortality.”

  • Deification is a central tenet of the Catholic Church, and Unamuno loves it. Catholic divinization (becoming divine) is not falling as a drop of water into an endless ocean; rather, we affirm that we retain our personality and our individuality in heaven. For this reason Catholics, including Unamuno, continue to insist on the existence of the soul. The soul is what makes us “us” even beyond our death.

(Pixshark)

Thanks for reading! I hope that these quotes and comments on Unamuno have been good sources for some reflection!

Best wishes,

David J.W. Inczauskis, n.S.J.

P.S. Below: Here is the painting that Unamuno considers to be Spain’s best piece of art–Velazquez’s Christ, which captures the humanity (flesh and bones) of God. Don’t we want the same…to be human (with bodies) and divine (with spirits)?

(Photo taken from the Telegraph)

Sartre vs. Kierkegaard on the Topic of Human Freedom

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A recent essay of mine compares and contrasts these two great men’s conceptions of human freedom:

Existence, at least in its derived etymological sense, does not mean “to be” or “to have being.” Rather, it denotes “standing out” or “being outstanding.” Not everyone has the privilege of ex-isting: only those who choose to exist are in a state of real existence. It is not enough to will. One must will to will. This insight is one of the foundational principles of existentialist philosophy, and it informs the thoughts of two of the movement’s most influential men, Soren Kierkegaard and Jean Paul Sartre. As the scholar John Killinger writes, “Existentialism tries to return man to himself as freedom, as possibility and openness to the future, as indeterminate potentiality” (Killinger 304). The return of man to himself necessitates an original exit from himself, a stepping-out of sheer being, a standing-out from the hum-drum of determinism, whether social or material. The initial self-exodus—the primordial entrance into the free realm of possibility, even the possibility of failure or death—does not paralyze these two philosophers; actually, it provokes a striving for selfhood that culminates in self-actualization. Although Kierkegaard and Sartre share the concept that freedom, in its highest sense, is the ability to choose selfhood in an act of commitment to a selected end in spite of dread over nothingness, Kierkegaard’s philosophy “stands out” from Sartre’s atheistic existentialism by contending that the only true way to alleviate despair is through the decision to have unconditional faith in and to be faithful to the God of the absolute paradox, the God of absurdity.

For Kierkegaard the relationship between freedom and dread (or between possibility and nothingness) finds its expression in the story of Adam in the Garden of Eden. The Dane claims that this tale is an allegory, so it really refers to and has meaning for all of humanity. Adam’s situation is indistinguishable from the situation of everyone. His possibility is our possibility. Timothy P. Jackson correctly notes, “All fall freely, as did Adam; we are radically individually responsible” (Jackson 244). Adam’s mistake does not fatalistically determine the destiny of every person, for every person engages in Adam-like rebellion at some moment in his or her life. The exact circumstance of Adam is as follows: confronted with freedom, with radical possibility, Adam grasps that he could fail to obey God and therefore “die,” and this potentiality produces dreadful anxiety. It is for this reason that Kierkegaard writes, “Dread is freedom’s reality as possibility for possibility” (38). Kierkegaard utilizes the word possibility twice because the possibility of Adam’s failure to comply entails the possibility of death, of nothingness. This set of double possibilities is the epitome of death, as it covers both levels of death—spiritual death in Adam’s lack of accordance with the will of God and physical death in Adam’s despair over nothingness. In the end Adam selects to disobey God, and this selection reflects the Kierkegaardian fact that all men and women sin and stand guilty before God. In his book about Kierkegaard and Freedom, Professor Gregory R. Beabout states, “The concrete situation is that human selves have misused freedom” (Beabout 145). The possibility of guilt is made actual in the occasion of rebellion. Overwhelmed by failure, the initial dread transforms into despair.

Jean Paul Sartre treats the topic of despair and nothingness with equal attention, but his analysis differs in method. Following David Hume, Sartre takes a strict phenomenological approach to nothingness. In Of Human Freedom he writes, “For the for-itself, to be is to nihilate the in-itself which it is. Under these conditions freedom can be nothing other than this nihilation” (Sartre 36). The in-itself is the substance of the self’s consciousness, yet phenomenology reveals that substance is nothing more than a collection of appearances that depend upon circumstance and perspective. There is no “thing” behind any object’s traits. This idea is not only true for outer objects like houses, tables, and chairs but also for consciousness itself. There is no human being behind the phenomenon of brain states. Thus, the for-itself’s being is the nihilation of the in-itself’s being which it is. The freedom of self-consciousness, expressed through the for-itself, comes to see that it negates itself, and this negation unmasks its own nothingness. Despair ensues. Nonetheless, Sartre does not succumb to despair through suicide or psychological paralysis. He offers a cure. Killinger explains, “Sartre…proposes to cure man of his ontological sickness by confronting him with nothingness” (Killinger 309). Confrontation with nothingness ferments into the remedy of freedom. Since human people are nothing, they are free to make their own reality. Their lack of grounded-ness leads to the possibility of authentic freedom. The scholar W.T. Jones writes, “It is only nothingness that is free to be anything and everything” (Jones 426). The self has no creative restrictions. Both Sartre’s and Kierkegaard’s ideal persons face the possibility of nothingness, yet they choose to overcome this initial state—though never fully eliminating it—in their pursuit of authentic actualization.

Despite the fact that both of these philosophers envision a world in which humanity has the opportunity to be free, they equally acknowledge that most people fail to appropriate their personal liberty. Kierkegaard observes that dread, the possibility of possibility, is intrinsic to the uniquely human mode of being, yet some avoid confrontation with this reality by hiding themselves from it. For example, speculators like Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel pursue systematic philosophy and so retreat from ex-istence by turning to the abstract realm of thought. Kierkegaard notes, “For [the speculator] has no fear of being under a delusion, if only he can get the system completed—by means of delusion” (Kierkegaard 346). From the Dane’s perspective, Hegel would rather pursue the illusion of pure, necessary, absolute idealism than choose self-actualizing, ethico-religious selfhood. Whereas Kierkegaard prefers the individual who makes an infinite move to God only to return to finite action, Hegel’s individual loses himself in the infinite never to return to finitude. Apart from the case of the speculator, a person can fail to face the facticity of the possibility of nothingness by losing himself in the crowd. This sort of person spends time chasing the latest popular novelties. He never makes a single choice because the crowd makes choices for him. He is lost in “group-think.” Additionally, a person may avoid the reality of choice by falling prey to idealistic romanticism of the adolescent sort. This individual claims that “everything is possible” without realizing that “in the world of the finite there is much which is not possible” (123). The young idealist does not comprehend the possibility of physical impossibility (such as death, sickness, etc.), so he never really experiences the full weight of freedom’s dread.

Sartre shares several insights with Kierkegaard on the theme of the avoidance of freedom. Like his philosophical predecessor, Sartre asserts that freedom is an inherent condition of human-ness, yet some decide to put off the will to choose. He writes, “We are not free to cease being free” (Sartre 37). Regardless, the vast majority of people live in a state of quiet, unconscious desperation. They “have dragged out their life in stupor, and semisleep, they have married hastily, out of impatience, they have made children at random. They have met other men in cafés, at weddings and funerals” (Sartre 94). Similar to the members of the crowd (I=We) in Kierkegaard’s philosophy, Sartre’s “many” go through the motions of the herd in order to put off any responsible, committed decision making.

As an alternative to the avoidance of the majority, Kierkegaard proposes a solution via the dictum acting over thinking. Once again, the Dane positions himself against the speculative philosophy of Hegel. Killinger states, “Kierkegaard turned on Hegel with a fine passion. Man is not primarily a thinker! he cried. He is a volitional actor, a being who makes choices and lives by them” (Killinger 306). Kierkegaard was to Hegel as Socrates was to Plato. “Socrates essentially emphasizes existing, whereas Plato, forgetting this, loses himself in speculative thought” (Kierkegaard 205). Hegel’s speculation especially misses the mark in its refusal to deal with dread and death in a consistent way. For Kierkegaard the possibility of nothingness is a constant threat, but for Hegel the master-slave moment negates death’s dreadful sting. The actuality of the possibility of nothingness does not play a major role in the development of Hegel’s thought, yet it is crucial to Kierkegaard’s form of existentialism. The latter goes so far as to say, “For the subject it is an act to think his death” (Kierkegaard 165). He elevates the willful thought of death to the state of action because confrontation with death always constitutes a real possibility. Death reminds humanity of its radical insufficiency to attain eternal happiness in and of itself. The action of thinking death leads people to the realization that they need help from a higher Power so that they can fulfill their deepest longing. God’s agape satisfies man’s eros.

For Sartre the dictum acting over thinking takes a slightly different form. (After all, Hegel was not in the mind of Sartre to the same extent that Hegel was in the mind of Kierkegaard). Instead, Sartre chooses the refrain acting over being or existence before essence. Jones summarizes this decision as follows: “Authenticity is not a category of being; it is a category of acting, of becoming” (Jones 426). The concept of being has plagued Western philosophy since the classical period, and its presence severely compromises man’s realization of his far-reaching freedom. According to Sartre, until being leaves the Western mindset, humanity will never nihilate the in-itself, the type of being that stands in the way of the freedom of nothingness. Without nothingness, there can be no autonomy of choice, and in Sartre’s thought free choice is “identical with acting.” World-creation involves an autonomous choice actualized in the “commencement of realization” (Sartre 59). Instead of conceiving a world given by God or by nature, Sartre strives to develop a world made by himself. He makes something from nothing, sui generis et ex nihilo.

Stated in negative terms, Kierkegaard seeks to surpass the rational necessity of Hegel’s absolute philosophy; stated in positive terms, Kierkegaard aims to encourage people to achieve self-actualization by giving themselves over to God, by becoming what they have always been: created in the image and likeness of the Lord. This movement, which is paradoxically both movement towards self and towards God, is not the product of human initiative alone. God’s grace helps each individual to make the leap of faith. Kierkegaard claims, “By relating itself to its own self, and by willing to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the Power which constituted it” (Kierkegaard 351). Informed by the witness of the apostolic tradition to the God-man, the existing human comes to place faith in Jesus’ triumph over death. He hopes against hope, regardless of any objective uncertainty about God’s existence and regardless of the absurdity of theological mysteries such as the Trinity and the Incarnation. Only by trusting in God, for whom there are no limits, is man able to do all things through Christ, including the actualization of the absurd possibility of personal eternal happiness.  In this sense Kierkegaard affirms the following biblical passage: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). Man’s freedom is goodness, so he does not experience the fullness of freedom until he experiences the fullness of God’s goodness (c.f. Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety, pg. 111). As Paul states that the Christian must stand firm, Kierkegaard states that the Christian’s commitment to God must be total, unconditional. The Christian appropriates God’s salvation in constant acts of re-commitment. Since the well of God’s freedom is infinitely deep, He never shies away from offering Christians the grace to persevere in their ultimate, yet absurd, choice. Beabout says concisely, “Christ is our freedom in the sense that He restores the self to right relation, making the freedom of self-actualization possible by divine grace” (Beabout 141). Only Christ is capable of elevating humanity to the completeness of eternal fulfillment. Individuals’ and society’s attempts do not suffice.

It is at this point that Sartre and Kierkegaard diverge irreconcilably. While the two might agree that action is the “free adoption of a project” of infinite scope, Sartre—in refusing to accept Kierkegaard’s assertion that God’s adoption of humanity via the grace-filled leap constitutes that very project—relies on himself alone for self-act-ualization (Jones 440). Since man is free to self-create out of nothingness, he has no limits. As long as a choice’s realization begins (in contrast to a mere dream or wish), it is unconditionally free (Sartre 59). Whereas Kierkegaard understands self-actualization in terms of self-striving as a redeemed creature, Sartre contends that man’s project is to become God Himself (Caponigri 290). Sartre creates himself in the image of God, while Kierkegaard’s God creates man in the image of Himself. Sartre’s self is self-sufficient.

Irrespective of the specific end that each philosopher selects for the purpose of self-actualization, the two thinkers agree that superior men will take responsibility for their choice to pursue a goal. For Kierkegaard, the ideal person binds himself “voluntarily to an integrated identity (libertas) such that there is no longer a question of raw choice (mere liberum arbitrium)” (Jackson 250). The leap of faith towards the absurd possibility of God—as Forgiver, Redeemer, and Life—involves a responsible commitment of the entire person. Though the step from the Knight of Infinite Resignation to the Knight of Faith may not take an entirely new form from the perspective of outward appearances, it is clear that the latter now lives with an inward joy. He becomes different because he acts differently and lives differently by virtue of his interiority. He qualifies the possibility of possibilities in his decision to dedicate himself wholly to The Possibility. Far from a simple turn of the intellect, his choice is characterized by the re-orientation of passions and desires (eros). Thought only takes man so far, but his infinite aspect resting within-yet-beyond his finite aspect carries him to the End.

Sartre proposes a similarly strong connection between responsibility and freedom. The historian of philosophy A. Robert Caponigri summarizes Sartre’s conception rather well: “Man is what he makes of himself in his fundamental project. He is free, but he also bears the full responsibility in this project” (Caponigri 291). As Sartre’s ideal person has no excuses for a lack of complete dedication to his created end, falling away from the plan is Sartre’s only type of “vice” or moral failure. Thus, when Zeus asks Orestes in The Flies if he feels guilty for committing murder, Orestes, in true Sartrian fashion, responds, “The most cowardly of murderers is he who feels remorse” (Sartre 116).  Orestes cannot feel sorry for a crime that his being-for-itself personally created in an act of sheer willpower. He accepts responsibility for his action’s consequences without a stutter or a second thought. In line with Nietzsche’s philosophy of the strong, Sartre’s Orestes ex-ists only through his will to power. He conquers the pitiful weakness around him by acting decisively for liberty, for the ability to choose from nothingness.

Stepping back from the intricacies of these two philosophers’ statements about freedom, it would be helpful to make some observations about a more generalizable ideal that they undoubtedly share: anti-determinism. In Kierkegaard’s Journals and Papers he criticizes certain Calvinistic and rationalistic doctrines of fatalism. He writes, “Subjectivity cannot be excluded, unless we want to have fatalism” (JP IV 352). Elsewhere, he claims, “The greatest good…which can be done for a being…is to make it free. In order to do just that, omnipotence is required” (JP II 62). One would be correct describe Kierkegaard’s Christianity as a philosophy of freedom. God, in all His power, makes His creatures free. Man’s freedom does not limit divine omnipotence; rather, it reinforces it, as only an absurd, yet potent Godhead could retain lordship over the universe while simultaneously allowing humans to choose ultimate Freedom for themselves. To some men this idea sounds like a scandalous paradox, but from the divine perspective it transcends all possible human quibbles.

Albeit from a set of more atheistic presuppositions, Sartre stands with Kierkegaard on the topic of freedom against determinism. His character Orestes declares, “I am my freedom. No sooner had you [God] created me than I ceased to be yours” (Sartre 117). Sartre abhors the fatalistic idea that God would have absolutely obliged every individual to serve Him. He values human freedom too much to limit man to a needy, jealous God. Likewise, Sartre shuns atheistic determinism by defining it as such: “The ultimate meaning of determinism is to establish within us an unbroken continuity of existence in itself” (Sartre 37). The person who never exits himself in order to return to himself—the person of the in-itself alone—lives a life of determinism in the form of an endless series of fluid events. However, the self-created man is no determinist: he seizes the possibility that finds its root in nothingness, and he commits himself to this free possibility.

It has become evident that both Sartre and Kierkegaard hold human freedom in high regard despite the differences in the methods by which they aspire to attain it. The Frenchman maintains that individuals become free by creating themselves: “Freedom is precisely the nothingness which is made-to-be at the heart of man and which forces human-reality to make itself instead of to be” (Sartre 38). The Dane holds that ultimate freedom resides in man’s choice to let “God be able to help him” (JP I 22). When stripped down to its bare necessities, Sartre’s Hume-like phenomenology and his ardent atheism prevent him from fully assenting to Kierkegaard’s philosophy of freedom. For Sartre God’s existence (whether subjectively certain or objectively uncertain) is irreconcilable with total possibility, yet for Kierkegaard the appropriation of God’s infinite power constitutes the very definition of free existence.

— David J.W. Inczauskis, n.S.J.

Works Cited Apart from the Course Materials

Beabout, Gregory R.. Freedom and Its Misuses: Kierkegaard on Anxiety and Despair.

Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1996. Print.

Caponigri, Aloysius Robert. A History of Western Philosophy. Vol. V. Notre Dame, Ind. [etc.:

University of Notre Dame Press, 1971. Print.

Jackson, Timothy P.. “Arminian Edification”. The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.

Jones, W. T.. Kant to Wittgenstein and Sartre. 2d ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,

Inc., 1969. Print.

Kierkegaard, S. A Kierkegaard Anthology. New York: Modern Library, 1959. Print.

Killinger, John. “Existentialism and Human Freedom.” The English Journal 50: 303-13. JSTOR.

Web. 1 Apr. 2014.

Sartre, Jean, and Lloyd Alexander. Nausea. New York: New Directions Publishing Corp., 1964.

Sartre, Jean Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Vintage International ed. New York: Vintage

International, 1989. Print.

Sartre, Jean Paul, and Wade Baskin. Of Human Freedom. New York: Philosophical Library,

1966. Print.

Convocation Speech

February 25, 2014 — Leave a comment

“Broadening to Narrow: University’s Paradox”

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Last week, I presented the following speech at Wake Forest’s Convocation:

Children, for all their naiveté, are particularly astute. They are credulous when it comes to certain matters, yet they ask very difficult and honest questions. Above all, children ask questions that begin with the pesky word why. “Why is the sky blue?” they think. “Why do trees lose their leaves in the fall?” they wonder. Or, a much more typical one in my household, “Why do you always burn the frozen pizza,ma?” Anyways, children’s demands for causal knowledge—and their restlessness in the pursuit of it—never cease to catch us off guard.

But now, there comes a day when children fail to receive a satisfying answer to one of their questions or when they are given two seemingly mutually exclusive answers to the same question. At this point they begin to get a feel for the meaning of the word truth. Something inside tells children, perhaps now teenagers, that certain ideas are more intellectually satisfying than others. After some such experience, these older children start to look for not just any answer, but for theright answer. They don’t cease to seek information per se, and in that sense they are expanding; but they do cease to acknowledge the validity of everything they hear, and in that sense they are contracting. Notice that this process of expansion and contraction is not arbitrary. Actually, it has a purpose: the apprehending of what is true.

This idea is a bit of a paradox. Like a beating heart, we expand in order to contract. Without the expansion, there would be no contraction. We broaden our knowledge precisely in order to narrow it. It is as if we are sifting through the vast array of possible explanations available to us, but only certain explanations make it through the pores of our rational filter. This paradox is the very essence of a liberal arts education. For the rest of this speech, I’d like to share with you a few stories I’ve picked up from my time at Wake Forest that demonstrate this insight.

Let’s start way back with Socrates and the dialectical method of reasoning. Socrates is one of my personal heroes, not necessarily because he was right about everything but rather because of his approach to life. He was a rigorous pursuer of wisdom. His most famous ideas, written down by Plato, were not (like this one) expressed in long monologues or meditations: they were conversations. Socrates loved talking to people. He discussed philosophy with others in order to chip away at preconceived notions. Most of his conversations ended in confusion, without absolute certainty, but because of the perseverance of his disciple Plato, a handful of these dialogues did reach acceptable conclusions. Plato and Socrates knew all the arguments presented to them, but they only believed that certain ones were correct. They planted many seeds, but only a few of these seeds produced fruit. I hold that these two thinkers were college students par excellence: they aimed to move from many competing notions to one, to the type of notion that we commonly call “truth.” They expanded to contract.

Now consider the genius Rene Descartes, whose journey may more aptly be explained as a movement from expansion to contraction to expansion. Descartes, like Socrates, had a thirst for wisdom. As a young student, he took in the numerous possible explanations of reality that his scholastic professors offered him. However, these manifold accounts were not sufficient for him. Descartes wanted clear and distinct premises, indubitable premises. His expanding mind occasioned an abrupt narrowing. He questioned everything he had ever been instructed, but he did not question solely to question. He questioned for truth’s sake. His doubtful mentality constricted him at first, but he would later build upon the scant indubitable certainties with which he was left by the end of his skepticism to construct a formidable mathematical and philosophical methodology. Like the aforementioned child, Descartes was not content with dissonance: he wanted absolute clarity.

For a more contemporary example from my major, religion, let me share with you the ideas of Stephen Prothero, who came to speak to Wake Forest during my sophomore year. Arguably this scholar’s most famous work is God Is Not One, which, as the title implies, explains that the so-called eight major religions are, in fact, different. Dr. Prothero challenges the reader as if by saying, “Read this book, and you will see that these religions are not different paths up the same mountain. No. They are different paths up different mountains.” To the spiritual seeker, Dr. Prothero is the modern Socrates. He encourages the confused and the sure-footed alike to come to real conclusions, if there are any conclusions, by putting these major religions into conversation with each other. Dr. Prothero asks students to expand their views so that they can come to know what they may have formerly only believed. For brilliant minds, vagaries are not enough.

Now I’d like to share something more personal. Most of my research while at Wake Forest has consisted of analysis of competing models of economic development in Central America. At first for me these competing models were like the beliefs of children: vague and indiscriminate. My situation was similar to a statement by Juan Luis Segundo, a prominent liberation theologian: “I had many ideologies in front of me, as available in a shop window, and I could choose the one I liked.” And isn’t there a great temptation to be like a child who chooses the flashiest shoes in the shop only to later find that they don’t fit?  And isn’t there a great temptation to blindly trust the appealing preference of a well-known public figure, perhaps a certain successful basketball player from the 1990s? And isn’t there a great temptation to walk out of the shop without any shoes at all, as one who finds comfort in indecision? Without a doubt, all these temptations weighed upon me. And without a doubt, I pondered these forbidden fruits in awe of their apparent splendor. But! Taking a hint from the likes of Plato, Descartes, and Prothero, I broadened to narrow, for I have never been satisfied until pillars of truth are built in the midst of the rubble.

I trust that these movements of expansion and contraction are familiar to all, especially to those of us who have an inexhaustible hunger for wisdom. We continue to struggle for more knowledge so that we can dismiss the fallacies and accept the truths. The human mind is like unrefined gold, good in essence yet indefinite in form. A goldsmith passes it through fire. It stretches and hardens. Once a dull heap of rock, it is now a wedding ring to be given to the beloved. We are the same. Although full of potential and grounded in our goodness as dignified human beings, we remain dull until we pass through the fire of expansion and the cooling of contraction. We allow ourselves to be molded into who we are. It is a dynamic process, and it makes for challenging and restless nights as we seek that to which we are oriented. Despite these trials, we become like the wedding ring, a gift to be shared. But this gift is not any gift. It must be tested, and it must be true.

Truth and Descartes

January 17, 2014 — 2 Comments

Truth and Descartes

“The power of judging aright and of distinguishing truth from error, which is properly what is called good sense or reason, is by nature equal in all men; and the diversity of our opinions, consequently, does not arise from some being endowed with a larger share of reason than others, but solely from this, that we conduct our thoughts along different ways, and do not fix our attention on the same objects. For to be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. The greatest minds, as they are capable of the highest excellences, are open likewise to the greatest aberrations; and those who travel very slowly may yet make far greater progress, provided they keep always to the straight road, than those who, while they run, forsake it.” –Rene Descartes

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There is nothing more intellectually dissatisfying than bracketing the truth in an academic discussion, yet the American Academy of Religion continues to mandate this limited, relativistic, empirical, polarizing, and totalitarian agenda. Why? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I have a hunch. Truth is scary for two reasons: (1) truth necessitates the rigorous and time-consuming task of logical reasoning, and (2) truth may necessitate the partaker of that truth to change his or her life in accordance with the truth. There may be a third reason that has to do with the influence of postmodern philosophy, but I am not entirely sure that anyone, in good faith, can thoroughly adhere to postmodern doctrine given its internal incoherence and its logical implications. After all, by saying, “There is no truth,” one is admitting a truth–namely, that there is no truth. I challenge a postmodern feminist to live in a culture that practices female, adolescent genital mutilation and to raise her children, if she has any, in that cultural context, which naturally, is just as valid a construction of society as our own. No one has taken me up on that offer yet. Morals are not mere preferences, as if choosing to kill a man were equivalent to selecting a flavor of ice cream at a local Baskin Robbins. Innately, humanity is not relativistic, so the imposition of relativism is the imposition of a system akin to the systems that relativists expressly condemn. Irony. (If you reject my claim that humanity is not innately relativistic, then I encourage you to find a place where it is common practice for one to commit mass murder for fun with no retribution.) It is no wonder that Pope Benedict XVI spoke against the dictatorship of relativism, a tyranny in which the adherents of moral absolutism and objectivity are systematically silenced for their desire to pursue truth, even within the context of a university. We could use a dosage of Descartes, who correctly maintained that a commitment to reason–the distinction of truth from error–is necessary for the thriving of humankind. We are in bondage to relativism. Only the truth can set us free.