In my last post, I focused on what we might call the “objective” side of λόγος, that is the meanings of the word that have to do with the arrangement of elements into structured wholes “out there” in real objects in the real world. In this post, I would like to focus on the “subjective” side of λόγος, that is the meanings of the word that have to do with rational consciousness. Philosophers frequently refer to the objective side of λόγος by talking about the “intelligibility” of structures or patters that we find in the world, there to be discovered. Conversely, we frequently refer to the subjective side of λόγος by talking about the “intelligence” of rational beings who go around doing the discovering. Understanding the distinction between intelligibility and intelligence and especially the causal interaction between the two will prove essential for understanding the Christian Platonic tradition.
When I was a child I used to tell people that I wanted to be a cosmologist, but they frequently took me to be saying “cosmetologist.” The link between such disparate fields as astrophysics and hairdressing only became clear when I took Greek as a college student and learned that the verb κοσμεῖν means “to arrange.” It applies to the person arranging hair and makeup and to the Demiurge arranging the stars in the heavens. In both cases specific parts are given order in relation to one another in such a way that they form a beautiful whole.
The term “substance” functions as a key element in a number of important philosophical and theological arguments. At first glance, it appears to be a rather simple word that we use all the time, but this disguises several layers of complexity that often lead to confusion. “Substance” can have quite different senses in different philosophical contexts, sometimes directly at odds with each other. It will be helpful, then, to untangle a few of these different meanings so that we can keep our future discussions clear.
Right away, we can set to one side a couple meanings peculiar to the way that the word “substance” is used in English. Perhaps the most common is the use of “substance” to mean “stuff.” For example, we can imagine Star Trek characters finding a “strange substance” on the surface of a planet, which appears as a thick black goop. Philosophers will instead prefer the terms “matter” and “material” for this.
We can also set aside another sense of the English term that does not have a direct bearing on philosophy: in older English, “substance” can mean “wealth” or “livelihood.” One can read in Jane Austen, for example, someone described as a “man of substance,” meaning that he is rich.
Next, philosophers often use “substance” as a standard translation for Aristotle’s term οὐσία. This is not the place to give a full account of Aristotle’s philosophy of substance, but we can note briefly the way he uses the term in the Categories and the Metaphysics. In the Categories, Aristotle distinguishes between “primary” and “secondary” substance. Primary substance refers to a particular entity as the bearer of properties. Secondary substance refers to the species or genera to which these primary substances belong. For example, primary substance would refer to Socrates, while secondary substance would refer to Man or Animal. This simple distinction becomes much more complex in the Metaphysics, and there is scholarly dispute regarding how we are ultimately to interpret Aristotle’s view of substance in this work. We can gloss over these nuances for now, however, and say broadly that Aristotle comes to conceive of substance here as that which is most real.
As Jordan Peterson rose to popularity a few years ago, I noticed a corresponding rise in people talking about symbolism, archetype, and meaning. Peterson frequently talks about these issues in a way that appeals deeply to thinking Christians and especially Christian Platonists like myself. In important ways, however, the approach Peterson takes, based on Carl Jung, differs dramatically from Platonic realism. While I may be competent to give a brief outline of what I mean by Platonic realism, I consider myself very much a student in the realm of Jungian archetypes. If anyone can set me straight, please do so. I’ll do my best, however, to articulate an important bridge that I see between the Jungian understanding and the Platonic, while cautioning against an important contrast.
The last two weekends, I preached for both Lexington Christian Fellowship and Jessamine Christian Fellowship on the Kingdom of the Heavens in the Gospel of Matthew. You can find audio for the first week here, and audio for the second week here.
Suppose neuroscientists could pin down with a high degree of accuracy a particular region of the brain tightly associated with religious experience. Suppose the association between subjective experience and measurable brain activity goes both ways. Each time the region lights up the test subject reports having a religious experience, and every time he reports having a religious experience, the region lights up. (I know; I know. Those of you who actually pray will tell me that this is not really how “religious experience” works, but run with it for a second.)
Let’s take an even scarier step: suppose that these scientists work out a way to stimulate this region of the brain in such a way that they can induce religious experiences. The scientists have a big red button on a console labeled, “TRANSENDENCE.” Whenever they push it, a man with wires running into his shaved scalp becomes a mystic.
Conservative Christians, with whom I am otherwise quite sympathetic, sometimes become skittish around philosophical ideas that I hold dear (Platonism). This fear often amounts to no more than an unarticulated worry about contamination from non-Christian, pagan sources. Better to stay on the safe ground of the Apostle than to wander off into those dark regions of thought where who knows what ideas might lie. Here be dragons. As a simple heuristic for those who don’t have the resources to be full-time readers, this approach isn’t so bad, and frequently their worry turns out to be justified. For example, I know mothers with children who began to experiment with New Age ideas or dabble in the materialistic syncretism that dominates our age. Since this dabbling was motivated out of rebellion rather than genuine philosophical inquiry it unsurprisingly led to the disintegration of the child’s already unstable Christian world-view. Such parents are right to be leery when they see others taking similar first steps down a road that all-too-often ends in disaster.
We have now to emphasize that the real antithesis to pharisaism and all forms of self-righteousness is to be found in the humility and charity that we find in a saint. The saint—and not the tragic sinner—is the antithesis to the pharisee and the self-righteous man. Humility necessarily implies a consciousness of our sinfulness and imperfection, but clearly it does not presuppose sinning, a blatant disobedience of any moral commandment. In the saints we find the deepest and most vivid consciousness of their unworthiness and sinfulness—notwithstanding the fact that they abstain from sinning. They clearly testify to the fact that humility in no way presupposes sin, and that it is a grave error to deal with sin as the antithesis of pharisaism and self-righteousness.1
Here we see drawn together several important observations about humility and sin. People often say that they are “only human” or that “nobody’s perfect.” The underlying thought is that humility requires this belief and that means they must accept the fact that they will go on sinning. Here, however, we have the important distinction between an awareness of our frailty and a complacency with our sin. The Christian ideal requires full repentance from sin and at the same time an awareness of our own weakness and former sin.
We will always find it psychologically impossible to hold these two ends together so long as we conceive the moral struggle in solitary terms. If I, like the ancient ethical Greek, attempt to train virtue within myself under my own power and with my own solitary resources, I must inevitably lapse into either despair (because I keep on failing) or pharisaism (because I convince myself that I am morally excellent in a way that others are not). Only by introducing a deep awareness of supernatural grace can the Christian saint simultaneously walk free from sin and walk in humility toward others. This awareness only becomes possible once we step out of ethical solitude into an I–Thou encounter with a holy and merciful God.
Dietrich von Hildebrand, Morality and Situation Ethics (Hildebrand Press, 2019), 92.↩
Several all-too-simple contrasts readily present themselves whenever we try to make sense of what is going on today: Liberal–Conservative, Secular–Religious, Relativist–Realist, Globalist–Nationalist, etc. You’ve probably heard by now that all of these are simplistic, but we need simple categories if we are ever to come to grips with a complex reality. As a starting point, they aren’t so bad.
Again and again in recent conversations, I’ve found the pair Modernist–Traditionalist especially helpful for understanding people’s basic orientations to a host of issues. I want to notice, however, a worse way and a better way of understanding this contrast, and make a plug for metaphysical realism along the way.
The worse way to understand the contrast views Modernism and Traditionalism as equal and opposite prejudices that have to do with time. Modernism begins from the idea that something is better because it is newer, and views with scorn all things that are out-dated or unprogressive. The Traditionalist, by contrast, tends to view new ideas or practices with a default stance of skepticism, sometimes eccentrically reverting to very old things just to register his disgust with the new-fangled. Hence we have a fight between the New Ways and the Old Ways, and the battlefield is the timeline of history.
Unfortunately, this way of characterizing the disagreement is typical of modernists (or better: post-modernists). It leaves out an essential third element that rises above the timeline and really cannot be understood in terms of Old and New. I mean, of course, the Truth.