Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace
Exegesis presents the reader with a fundamental problem in adjudicating between Phronesis and authority. At once there is the question of source, which is a modern question, and one that only became an issue in the eighteenth century. It is not surprising that the question revolving around the existence of the divine is said to be an ‘eighteenth century question.’ Only in Monty Python and in certain parochial college campuses would one ever find today a ‘debate’ with such a question at stake. At the same time, God’s death does not immediately or necessarily imply that God is now also non-existent. This is an imputation culled from our own mortal life and thus there is no basis to infer that what apparently happens to us has also befallen a deity. Further, just because one god is dead does not mean that all are, or perhaps the transcendental Being is in fact no more but Its emissaries live on in some manner befitting to their status as successors. For the evangelical, for instance, one might assuage but perhaps also caution, by declaring that though God is dead, it doesn’t mean that Jesus is.
The interpretation of text used to be understood as wholly a problem concerning scripture, but Ast and Schleiermacher, in the 1820s, generalized both exegetical and thence also eschatological work to include all texts, ancient and modern, sourced in every discourse and thus courageously following through on Kant’s refusal to stop writing about religion, as the Prussian state had demanded he do about a generation earlier. All of us are indebted to these three thinkers specifically upon this issue which is, at its heart, an issue of ethics. ‘Practical wisdom’, Aristotle’s ‘Phronesis’, is a working conception that includes the dialogue between interpretation and sense, both ‘common’ and scientific. What passed for science in the Hellenistic period was longer on empiricism than it was on rationalism, but it was a start. For the eighteenth century, vaulted into a new worldview thanks in part to the new sciences, from Galileo to Vico and onward, the career of interpretation was in some sense predestined to generalize itself, for who in their dignified and modern mind would care to admit, and thence to submit, only scripture to such a crucial process? Even in our own day, wherein print books are on the wane, one has to go a long way to encounter a household wherein only the Bible is present.
This said, one does not have to travel near as far to encounter a living human being whose sense of eminent and ultimate authority adheres to this or that holy book, whatever the credo involved. This, for me, is more a disconnect at the level of literacy than anything else. As such, it is not as serious a problem as it might at first appear. If the vast majority of interpretation occurs at the level of highly scripted popular culture and that in a very few genres of textuality – in fiction, crime or mystery, romance, fantasy-adventure; in non-fiction, popular economics and commerce, gardening, cooking; and finally, biography or memoir as an uneasy amalgam of the two – scripture takes on a more predominant role than it otherwise would. Given the beauty of its prose and the compelling character of its narratives, from the Gospels to the Upanishads and back again, such texts present to us not only world-systems and choate beliefs which hang together as long as their basic premises are accepted without too much skeptical scrutiny, but as well, a sense that something more noble is possible for human culture, it is easy to understand why they remain of interest to many. If all there were to textual life was a choice between Hollywood and the Gospels, Bollywood and the Bhagavad Gita, I myself would choose the sacred route every time.
But in fact this is a false dichotomy. And the fault lies not with either the producers of low culture in each social reality, whether America or India or elsewhere or the odd theologian who hopes to keep the ‘higher’ culture relevant, but rather within the systems of education that are supposed to provide a third eye, a third way, that threads the narrow needle between Hexis and Praxis, the other members of the Aristotelian trinity of ‘outlooks’ or ways of encountering the world. Regrettably, even the universities treat their knowledge as a mere extension of the Praxis outlined in the school system, rather than what it actually is: a radically different way of understanding that leads to practical wisdom. These three terms exist in a dialectical relationship with one another. Hexis, or custom, is the thesis. It is what is common to all members hailing from a specific culture and time period. Though this was more true in 1945 than perhaps it is today, Schutz was nevertheless near the mark when he commented that if one was living in a native English speaking country, one would be at a tremendous disadvantage if one was not ‘osmotically’ familiar with both the Bible and Shakespeare, if only through epigrams and ‘sound bites’. Even if the source of custom includes actual texts, these sensibilities have percolated into commonplace consciousness in a serious enough manner to have become one with it. Post-secondary education, especially in the liberal arts, is supposed to provide more than what a mere technical education is responsible for; more than a specialized Praxis, the antithesis. Increasingly, the entirety of the education system is geared into providing for young people only technique, and indeed, it was one of the variables that pushed me to leave the university behind. Concurrent with market pressures and the sense that one must work to live – ironically, a scriptural sentiment – students flock to these technical programs on the promise of a job, any job. The combination of the forces of globalization only make this mood more desperate. To be young today is to face a dangerous series of tests to this regard, without respect to the stressors that face any youth simply because of the life phase they are in. To this end, Phronesis is the ethical sublation of custom and practical theory. It takes from them the knowing of both and translates, uplifts, and transcends their respective limitations. It is the ‘sign’ which has been constructed out of, but also transfigured from, the signified of Hexis and the signifier of Praxis. Without the dialectic, the only signage available to us as interpreters of the world is that of Caesar and his palace on the one hand, and the prophet and his temple on the other. They are antinomous by nature, and cannot be reconciled let alone transfigured and put to creative use without the hermeneutics of generalized exegetical work.
Increasingly the difference between a school and a storefront is more difficult to discern. Perhaps a circle is closing in upon itself, as at first, the difference between a school and a temple was almost nil. The university is, in its origins, a child of the monastery and not the laboratory, which hardly existed, even though Mantua, Padua, and a little later, Cambridge and Oxford, were early on often centered around medical discourse. Even today, with a view to earning money beyond tuition, certain universities require their first year students to live on campus in dormitories, as if this were akin to a normal school from the Victorian era. The palace and the temple thus reassert themselves at the expense of the lab and the library. Each school maintains ‘codes’ of conduct for its students, which are supposedly only based on the wider legal system and civil behavior, but can be traced back into the murkier sign systems of both religion and capital alike. Our contemporary king is the king of diamonds, even if Phronesis still tells us that the elemental human condition is a dialogue between love and death, hearts and spades, and the wisdom that is at our disposal to adjudicate between them may be found under the rubric of the King of clubs, or knowledge. To abandon this exegetical work – its sacred character too was generalized by modern hermeneutics – in the pursuit of praxis alone is to deny one’s human character. Rendering supplication only to the palace or only to the temple requires of us not only the ‘sacrifice of the intellect’, as James pointed out, but as well the resignation that the world is itself nothing more than a conflict between the material and the supposed immaterial realms.
If there were Gods of custom, their vision encompassed each question of existence that could be imagined at the time. If there was a universal question regarding the meaningfulness of the human condition, there was a universal source from which could be understood some kind of response, if not necessarily an ultimate certainty. When the character of the conception of certainty was altered by the new sciences and the new philosophies, the new politics and the new mode of production, the authority of a new universal source of meaning did not follow along. We remain perplexed by this lacunae, which is something of an unexpected tear in fabric of the soul of humankind. We stare down at ourselves, noting this deep textile fluttering with each breath. It makes us blink, but raising our heads once again, we begin to understand that it is this very injury that has brought the world into a much more focused light. Though we must resist projecting our own distress into and onto the world at large, we also have an opportunity to empathize, not only with another like myself, oneself as another, but also with a cosmos, oddly familiar to us, that orders itself out of the happenstance of a disheveled deity and a half-knowing wisdom alike.
Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of forty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.