Rendering Unto Caesar’s Palace

                                            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.

On the Act of Understanding the Other

On the Act of Understanding the Other

            “…we must remember this, that the art of understanding adversaries is an innovation of the present century, characteristic of the historic age. Formerly, a man was exhausted by the effort of making out his own meaning, with the help of his friends. The definition and comparison of systems which occupies so much of our recent literature was unknown, and everybody who was wrong was supposed to be very wrong indeed.” (Dahlberg-Acton 1906:202 [1895]).

                The great challenge of our own age, that which imagines itself as verging upon post-historical, remains an historical challenge. The shock of the other, her very existence, both promotes this challenge into an orbit that appears dauntingly distant, but also demotes the value of taking up this challenge as something unworthy of our collective efforts. For the other is at first no friend. And yet the stakes could not be higher. Even in Lord Acton’s period, which is still very much our own as modulated from imperial colonialism to economic neo-colonialism, from biopower presumed to biopower desired, from sex to gender, from race to ethnicity, from labor-based classes to those status-based and so on, people were well aware of the historical cost, not so much of misunderstanding, but of deliberate disagreement for the sake of political opportunism and messianistic adoration. Like moving to the relative minor from the nineteenth century’s dominant major key, our own time has been modulated by these structural forces so that the otherness of the other is much more apparent to us, and much more troubling. There no longer is a ‘white man’s burden’, and if anything, fashionable discourse says to us the opposite: that the white man has imposed a burden upon the world that reaches out from beyond his own recently dug grave. Yet it was this very personage who invented the concept of understanding, after many painstaking millennia. Almost all of our philosophical ideas which aid us in coming to both the understanding of the other and what is also of the utmost, one’s own self-understanding, emerge from the ethics of the West, authored and thought out loud by the best of what is often considered a bad lot.

            If this sounds apologetic in any way, it is because abandoning this discourse means that we are thrown back over into a pre-modernity that is too sure of itself; its religious beliefs, its sense of social order, its political reason, its morality. The Enlightenment, the penultimate fruit of the tree of reason that was first planted some 2.6K years ago in Greece, is the source of historical understanding and also that ethical, for it goes beyond the sense that tolerance alone is a good enough showing to otherness as a principle, just as it makes larger the compassion that was to be shown, in Christian ethics, to the other as an individual. This is one of the reasons why Acton refers to understanding the other as an ‘art’. Art simultaneously participates in the universal and the individual. It brings the cosmos to the person without presuming to personalize it. It allows the intimate to experience the infinite without aggrandizing what occurs between persons into a universal force. Similarly the art of self-understanding, which too must attain a new intimacy in the face of an overwhelming and anonymous world, let alone the incomparably larger cosmos.

            If this is an ideal, let me suggest that before one can attain art, one must task oneself with the more modest act. The act of understanding the other is a beginning, but in our own day, even this appears to be often absent. We hear popular writers speaking of ‘reaching out’ to one another, of tolerance, compassion, even acceptance, but are any of these, or can any combinations thereof, truly generate an authentic understanding of the other as a vehicle for otherness? Here, I am using the term to connote neither the untoward nor the uncanny as such. Yes, both are present in the encounter with the other insofar as the first may be the case if we fail to understand something of her – she may end up presenting a threat to our own parochialism, which is not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself – and the second occurs simply because of the shock of realizing that another human being can in fact be so different from me that I am stretched to recognize her as human. The untoward is what we seek to avoid, but the uncanny cannot be expunged. We simply have to accept this in ourselves through the other as part of the act of understanding. For otherness also resides within, from the metaphoric rhetoric of the unconscious life, to the role stress and conflict that occupies our waking hours. It is quite enough most of the time and for most of us, to nod again to Acton, to ‘make out our own meanings’, oft enough without any help at all, from either friend and certainly not from foe.

            Just so, just now, we see that friend and foe are becoming all too clear, so much so that if one is not the one, one is the other. This is the very essence of pre-modernity in all of its diverse organizational forms. From hunting and gathering, through horticulture and agrarian means of production, the stranger could not be one of us. It is a long-germinating resonance of the second Great Awakening period (c.1790-1840) in the USA that American politics – ironically heralded as the most ingenious, reasoned and liberating if experimental dynamic in world history by De Tocqueville at the very moment it was about to turn inward and fold back upon itself – has seemingly regressed into a bipolar pre-modernity; one is either friend or foe and there is nothing, and more importantly, no one, in between.

            The art of understanding is the culmination of a series of acts which direct themselves toward a sense of self-recognition, thence further, toward a more risky comprehension that the other really is her own person who is under no obligation to agree with me about anything at all. Coming to terms with the other is at first a mere political exercise, but right now we appear to be lacking even this. Such terms are necessary in order for a society to function in its basic sense. We do seem to be starting at a zero point, or rather, restarting. This is due to the fact that what were originally very small populations west of the Alleghenies – it is important to note that the first railhead through this range was only accomplished in 1857 – grew at a rate similar to their political disenfranchisement. When agriculture and ranching became themselves marginal to the emerging industrial economy, these Americans had already girded themselves with a century of ‘awakened’ ideas. If the Puritans were intolerant and neurotic, those whom they pushed westward were idealistic and victimized. This victimology, present from the moment the new republic recognized itself in a post-colonial core, urban, commercial, capitalist, and seeking its own culture, has come down to us as a wider Western culture as the song of all those who suffer from yet larger forces; chief amongst them, globalization. But while Western economies are downshifted by the intense competition afforded by yet further others – those yet more distant and far more strange than even the neighbor who votes for the other party – the deeper source of marginality is the very history of internal colonization and the sheer geography of a land unlike anything one’s ancestors could have imagined. A big land required a big god, required a big man, required a big stick. But did it require a big State, a big heart, a big purse? Perhaps in contradiction with itself, the USA got all of those aspects of largeness, amongst others. ‘Very well, I contain multitudes’, Whitman famously writes at the moment the Alleghenies were pierced by the new industry. Whitman is known as the first truly modern American artist precisely because he recognizes the other inside of himself. In our own age, and contrary to any idea that emanated from that previous, otherness is not something distant, obscure, inhuman, and necessarily defined by existential threat, of whatever nature the corresponding variables may have been in one historical context to the next. But both the language and the countenance of this Great Awakening promoted the old ideas once again to the fore. With just as great an irony, the nation that was once the radical hope of the enlightened world in two centuries would risk becoming a caricature of itself.

            This is why the act of understanding the other must come before that very other, in reaction to our malicious mocking and vindictive vitriol, makes herself into the very caricature we had all along presumed her to be. The rioters at DC were the self-fulfilling prophecy imagined by all those who had marginalized them over the decades. We tend to make our own enemies, most especially, of ourselves. This is why the act precedes the art, just as an apprenticeship comes before any supposed mastery. We are not asking each other to become such masters overnight. Rather, we are proposing the modest endeavor of authentically trying to comprehend what the other really needs, what they think of the world, who they imagine themselves to be. That this is the essence of any human relationship should not be lost on us. For the others are also married, are also working, are also trying to ‘make their own meaning’ in the face of powerfully anonymous forces which are far beyond any individual’s control. The sense that globalization is alone the wedge that drives the West apart from itself is simply another way of pushing off on a yet stranger other the responsibility for self-understanding. If my neighbor is, after all, not my enemy, then the Chinese person is, the Indian person, the Muslim. These ‘strangers at the gates’, to allude to Kipling once again, have, like the rioters, found their way into our way of life. But they are who they are, and not caricatures, not neighbors in the narrow sense. So we must extend the sense of self-understanding, and the only manner of doing so is by augmenting what was originally a religious ethics with that of post-religious thought.

            In book three of my new trilogy, the newly conjoined Queen Guinevere’s final words to the major narrative heroine, telling her at once of the state of her own lover as well as the state of our contemporary love in general, are as follows: “She is alive but you must not delay. The power she has is munificent, but the power they have is not based on one soul, however great. It is known that Dvorak said of Brahms, ‘such a great man, such a great soul, but he believes in nothing.’ Take heed of this mischance, modernity, and choose carefully your nothing.” Our conception of love, and who is worthy of it, are endangered. It is because we have severe doubts regarding our own worthiness and on both counts; are we deserving of love and our we the ones who can love? ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ always carried this deeper caveat: it assumes one can love oneself. This is the ‘as’. Then again, to imagine that only we are worthy of love, our own or that of another, is to conflate the abstract ethic with the practical act. It is to submerge a revolutionary sensibility back into a revelationary discourse. What is appropriately ‘revealed’ by relatively freeing ethics from metaphysics is not religion but rather otherness, both internal to self and external in the other to self. Loving oneself includes the task of understanding that we are not one thing, singular, stable, secure in our knowledge of the world. Our global rivals have shed their own parochiality enough to step onto the world stage. Is it either reasonable or ethical that we shrink back before their example and turn inward, replacing what they were with ourselves?

            Enjoin then the act of understanding, which discloses to one’s own being not merely the presence of the other as if she were a distraction or an annoyance, a threat mortal or otherwise, but in fact the authenticity of humanity in its diversity and in its similarity. For in the end we are both like and unlike the other. We may also like and dislike them, just as we already know that we too are likeable on one day, the other on another. Choosing carefully our unbelief includes the ability to comprehend that belief of some sort remains relevant. Even so, of whatever ethic it may promote, the otherness of the other, the difference within, must become a part thereof. The currently faithless faith in ourselves travels with us only until we reach the limen over which otherness dwells. Today, that threshold is what separates the neighbor that must be, and not the stranger that she has previously been.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty 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 two decades.

The Religion of Criminality

The Religion of Criminality

            With the news that various faith-based organizations across the nation are flouting by-laws regarding mass assembly, the old tension between church and state has resurrected itself, apropos, given the time of year. For me, it was always to be expected that so-called evangelicals would be at the vanguard of this kind of passive-aggressive resistance to both civility and citizenship, but when Wheatley Ontario’s Mennonites began to jump in, my own quasi-ethnic background surfaced to bite on my own conscience. Not in a serious manner, but just enough to both condemn these erstwhile brethren as well as wonder why they might be engaging in what amounts to a public health menace. No true Christian would ever knowingly put his neighbor at risk. And while it is easier to dismiss the neo-fascist fake Christians as being simply that, when it comes to Menno Simons’ followers the issue appears more nuanced. Why so?

            My own father left home at seventeen, lied about his age and joined the RCN to fight in the Battle of the Atlantic. For the pacifist Mennonites this was more than a scandal. Not only was one engaging in violence but also doing so at the behest of the state, the historical victor over the church, all churches. This paradoxical effort at liberation in part allowed me, decades later, to become who I now am, a critical social philosopher, something that in the rearward facing climes of warmed-over old world beliefs would simply not have been imaginable. I owe my father much on that account. Even so, it is an odd paradox that the one who seeks freedom from the state shares much with the thinker, whose loyalty is also to something other than ideology and citizenship. The Greeks replaced myth with science, language transitioned from mythos to logos, and thus the gods were supplanted by thought itself. Sophia, herself the goddess of wisdom, was kind of like a mole in Greek mythology, unraveling the mythic tapestry from within, unlike Prometheus, who suffered endlessly because though he was also humanity’s ally, he pushed the revolution along from without.

            My father was an insider who went outside. I would never return to complete a personal circle, as it were, but at the same time, I understand the confluence that lies between those whose loyalty is to some higher being, however imaginary or no, and someone like myself, whose loyalty is to what I take to be a higher sensibility; ethics, rationality, reason, interpretation, reflection, critique. Philosophy is, after all, the child of religious thought, just as science is the child of religious myth. The Wheatley group have been engaging in the critique of the state even if they have also been engaged in unethical, even criminal, activity. This is no mere ‘civil’ disobedience on their parts. It is manifestly uncivil to place others at a health risk, especially those who do not agree to be so placed. Is it too much to believe that every single person in this or that congregation would only and ever associate with the remainder of said congregation, day in day out, forever and ever, or at least, until all are vaccinated? This kind of leap of faith is actually more of a chasm than even a belief in God, whose being, after all, is not disproven by science, merely rolled back, much in the same manner as is religious explanation curtailed in its territory by that scientific.

            It is not a leap that I am willing to make. The local public authorities must get much more serious about stopping such assemblies. They can even use Christian ethics to support their legal efforts. Why do the vast majority of churches meet on-line, when all of them would ideally meet in person? This alone dispels any far-fetched rationale that only a very few churches – say in the rural Fraser Valley of BC and in similar areas within Ontario and Quebec, for instance – have the ‘true’ message of their God in their hearts. No, these folks are simply using religion to commit a crime, and in doing so, have placed themselves on the same spectrum as the likes of the Taliban. How far will they go in their delusion of being persecuted? Maybe we should ask the average Afghani to predict what the thin edge of the wedge can really mean when people use their fraudulent faith as a cloak for their more naked desire for power.

            Social philosopher G.V. Loewen is the author of over forty books in ethics, health, education ,aesthetics and social theory, as well as more recently, metaphysical adventure fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for two decades.