Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Readings: from The Notebooks

When Kyle, the major-domo of Postmodern Papist quoted the French Catholic existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, here, it reminded me that one of my purposes in launching this blog was supposed to have been posting excerpts from notes I had taken in the course of my various readings. For the most part, however, new readings have prompted immediate postings, and the contents of my notebooks have gone untapped.

Well, Kyle reminded me that I had been reading Gabriel Marcel some months back, so I went to the notebooks to look for a pithy quote from Marcel in order to give it an airing here. I found several quotes, from two different texts, to choose from. As a consequence of the fact that I refer to myself as a “pilgrim” in the profile adorning Rodak Riffs, I offer the following from Marcel’s book, The Mystery of Being:

There is not, and there cannot be, any global abstraction, any final high terrace to which we can climb by means of abstract thought, there to rest forever; for our condition is this world does remain, in the last analysis, that of a wanderer, an itinerate being, who cannot come to absolute rest except by a fiction, a fiction which it is the duty of philosophic reflection to oppose with all its strength.

But let us notice also that our itinerate condition is in no sense separable from the given circumstances, from which in the case of each of us that condition borrows its special character; we have thus reached a point where we can lay it down that to be in a situation and to be on the move are modes of being that cannot be dissociated from each other; are, in fact, two complementary aspects of our condition.

There’s your pilgrim. And while looking for a good Marcel quote, I came across whole pages of notes that I had scribbled down while reading Kierkegaard’s Training in Christianity. I find the excerpts quoted below to have particular relevance to the rather heated disputation in which I was involved in the comments section of What’s Wrong With the World here. And so, Kierkegaard:

That an individual man is God, declares himself to be God, is indeed the “offense.” …Can one demonstrate that to be a rational reality which is at variance with reason? Surely not, unless one would contradict oneself. One can “prove” only that it is at variance with reason. The proofs which Scripture presents for Christ’s divinity—His miracles, His Resurrection from the dead, His Ascension into heaven--are therefore only for faith, that is, they are not “proofs,” they have no intention of proving that all this agrees perfectly with reason; on the contrary they would prove that it conflicts with reason and therefore is an object of faith.

…the certitude of faith is something infinitely higher [than a “proof” from history]

Everyone who has the least dialectical training can easily perceive that the whole argument about consequences is incommensurable with the decision of the question whether it is God…whether he will believe that He is what He said He was; or whether he will not believe.

…”History,” says faith, “has nothing whatever to do with Christ…”

Jesus Christ is the object of faith; one must either believe on Him or be offended. For to “know” signifies exactly that the reference is not to Him. …Knowledge demolishes Jesus Christ.

Given that the discussion got a little bit hot at WWWtW the other day, it is probably just as well that I didn’t come across the following Old Testament tidbit at the time:

May the Lord strike you with Egyptian boils and with tumors, scabs and itches, for which you will find no cure. [Deut.28:27]

I feel much better now.


Civis said...

RE the Marcel post:

I'll give him an "A" for style. As for content, what is he getting at? What is the "duty of philosophic reflection to oppose with all its strength"? What does he mean by "to be in a situation", "to be on the move", "modes of being", and that they "cannot be dissociated from each other"?

Rodak said...

"What is the "duty of philosophic reflection to oppose with all its strength"?"

I believe that which must be opposed is the lies we tell ourselves in order to create a comfort zone within which we hope to painlessly shirk our responsibilities to existence. If we pretend to have "arrived" (to be in a safe "situation"), we are refusing to acknowledge that each time we choose, each time we act, we are leaving behind the person who chose, the person who acted, and are inexorably moving on.
The challenge (which is a responsibilty relative to an authentic existence--as opposed to a merely contingent one) is to forge a unity of one's situation (existence) and one's mode of being (essence). To do this we must remain conscious.
To me, this is equivalent to St. Paul's admonition to "pray constantly."
(You will note that I have added my own additional overlay to my interpretation of what Marcel is talking about here. Marcel is not to blame!)

Civis said...

Hmm. You've just given me a several more terms that need an explanation. You also get an A for style, but are either of you saying anything?

Rodak said...

A hint at what I'm talking about can be found here, at the very beginning of my blog.
Another hint can be found here in the concept "Existence precedes essence". Being thrown by circumstances beyond our control into the world--into existence--our essence is created, or better, completed by the choices we makes. This is true within a Christian context, or without one.
Does that help at all?

Civis said...

If I keep asking you to define terms, I'm going to start sounding like a sophists.

Maybe it's my turn to play the foil: Reading these quotes appears to me to be a substitute for thought and reflection. It’s Rube Goldberg contemplation.

Rodak said...

If you want to contemplate and reflect upon these quotes, you need only follow the link in the original post to What's Wrong With the World, and read that post, and the following comments, with these thoughts of Kierkegaard in mind, as they apply to that discussion.
Then, since Kierkegaard is generally considered the proto-existentialist, and Marcel is a later Christian existentialist, come back to Marcel and see if anything in those quotes has become more clear in its application to the way you look at your own religious life.
It's all connected.

Civis said...

Wouldn't it be simpler just to define the terms in the quotation above?

Rodak said...

Okay. Which terms would you like to have defined?

Civis said...

See my first comment.

Rodak said...

I tried to respond to your first comment with my first comment. All of the words I'm using are being used in the usual way; there really isn't any kind of esoteric, specialized usage involved here.
Maybe it's the concepts that the words are being used to elucidate that need to be clarified more?
A negative *mode* of being might be continually lying to oneself in order to avoid responsibility. It is pretty easy to understand this in terms of religion. Do we lie to ourselves in order to excuse ourselves from acts of charity, for instance, that we know we should perform?
A postive mode of being would be struggling to stay fully conscious, not to daydream; to live fully in the present moment, rather than in the past, or the future; to "pray constantly", i.e. to remain fully aware that one is always in a direct relationship with God and God's providence, regardless of what *situation* one finds oneself in.
As we act, we move away from what we were before we acted, towards we will have become once the act is completed. Whether we are in the mode of daydreaming, or lying, or in the mode of consciously choosing the good, in a state of spiritual awareness, will determine what type of essence is crystallizing as a result of the acts which propel us through life. This movement and this mode of being *cannot be dissociated from each other* because they are contingent upon each other at all times. Your mode of being determines the direction in which you move; and the direction in which you move determines your (future or subsequent) mode of being. You are either moving towards God, or away from Him: this is the overall *situation*. A snapshot of where you are, and all the contingencies involved in that immediate position, is a specific *situation*, of which there is an endless series that you choose either more, or less, consciously, and gratefully.

Rodak said...

With regard to "they cannot be dissociated from each other" compare these words from G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy:

"Evolution is only good if it produces good; good is only good if it helps evolution. The elephant stands on the tortoise, and the tortoise on the elephant."

Civis said...

That sheds some light. It leads to two questions:

1) Where does he get this law of flux?

2) Where does he get this law of physics that what you do now makes you what you will be tommorow?

Rodak said...

1) The idea that all is flux goes back to the earliest days of Greek philosophy. We can't blame that on Marcel.

2) It's definitely not a natural law; it's a supernatural one. He is talking about the soul, not the the ego, or personality. Again, this is an ancient idea. It is not unlike the concept of Karma, for instance. Or the concept of Book of Days in which all of one's acts are recorded and will need to be answered for at the End of Time.
It is easier to see in a major, life-changing act: one moment you're not a murderer, and then you are. You can't go back. You will always, from that point on be a murderer. But all the little choices and acts we make work the same way. Jesus made this explicit when He said, "By their fruits you will know them." We are what we choose to do, even if we don't actually do it, for Jesus said that if we lust after a woman in our heart, we have already committed adultery with her: one minute you're not an adulterer, and then you are. And you can't go back. You must go forward from there. You can become a repentant adulterer, but you will always be an adulterer. Every choice we makes changes us a little bit, or a lot, depending on the magnitude of the choice.

Civis said...

Because they are ancient? Does he also believe in four elements earth, water, air and fire?

Being old does not make an idea correct. What is his foundation?

RE beind a murderer. How do you reconcile this with "It is not what comes out from a man that defiles him...."

Rodak said...

If a thing is ancient, yet remains usable, its antiquity is a value-added property of that thing. If, however, a thing is ancient and has long since been disproven, a modern person does not use it in argument. Contemporary physics has proven both the existence of the atom (also predicted by the ancients) and the notion of flux.
There is nothing unique to Marcel in any of this; he merely refers to a given.

As for the other point, I don't think that Jesus equated acts with words in a way that makes this particular saying applicable to murder. I think that the applicable saying would be "By their fruits you will know them."

Civis said...

Now you are adding one fallacy to another. That an idea is old does not make it true. That people still believe it, does not make it true. If it is both old and still held it still does not make it true.

Judaism, Hinduism and Buddism are all old and all have adherents today. One says there is no God, another says there are many gods and another says there is a single God.

Rodak said...

What I said was not that being old makes it true; I said that still being usable makes it true. A proposition is true until it's proven false, especially if can be seen that it fits in with our observations of the world.
This idea is not different from St. Paul's metaphor of shedding our old garment to put Christ on like a new one. Incremental progress towards spritual perfection is not contrary to it, either.
The key, to may way of thinking, is the attempt to remain fully conscious, as much as possible. We spend most of our time day-dreaming, often about spiritually counter-productive things. Flux happens; but if we are aware of it, as it happens, we can control it, rather than it controlling us.
Buddhism doesn't say there is no god. What is says is that god is so utterly transcendent that it is impossible to know god intellectually, and that men should, therefore, not waster time attempting an intellectual Way to the divine. Hinduism teaches also of a supreme and transcendent god of whom the other gods are aspects. The concept is not that different from the concept of the Trinity--it is just more complicated. Judaism and Islam have an incomplete concept of the Christian God.
I believe that all striving in the direction of God, regardless of the path taken, if they develop in the pilgrim a detachment from mere materialism, are spiritually beneficial.

Rodak said...

God in Buddhism

The Buddha of the Pāli suttas (scriptures) dismisses as “foolish talk”, as “ridiculous, mere words, a vain and empty thing” (Digha-Nikaya No. 13, Tevijja Sutta) the notion that Brahmins (the priestly caste), who according to the Buddha have not in fact seen Brahma face to face, can teach others how to achieve union with what they themselves have never beheld. This is not a denial of the existence of Brahma, however, but merely intended (by the Buddha) to indicate the folly of those religious teachers who would lead others to what they themselves do not personally know.

Brahma is, of course, the transcendent god of Hinduism, the root of Buddhism.

Rodak said...

NOTE: I forgot to put in the quote marks around the wikipedia excerpt that was my previous comment. It's all a quote except for the final sentence, which is mine.

Civis said...

"being usable makes it true"

"A proposition is true until it's proven false"

If this underlies your thinking, you've got bigger problems than I can deal with here. :)

Rodak said...

"If this underlies your thinking, you've got bigger problems than I can deal with here." :)

Put up a post about my manifold errors on your blog, and we'll discuss them in greater depth.
Please keep in mind that I read two very different books by Gabriel Marcel, well over a year ago. I am in no way an expert on his thought. I posted that quote to see if it would provoke any discussion, not in order that I should explain, or defend, Marcel's philosophy. I'm actually much more interested, personally, in Kierkegaard.