A Philosophy of Personalism

Prior to the 17th century, the prevailing view among natural philosophers was that the world was a meaningfully ordered whole. This world-view was shared by many ancient pagans (such as Plato), medieval muslims (such as Averroes), and early modern Christians (such as Copernicus).

During the 17th century, however, there was a pronounced change. Increasingly, people began to think of the world as matter in motion, and nothing else. That is: all the stuff we see around us is composed of inert and powerless atoms bouncing around in the void of space according to certain laws that were arbitrarily imposed from without by a distant God.

To be sure, it was still thought (at least for a a couple more centuries) that God had given man something additional: a vital soul. Nonetheless, all other things (sapphires, dandelions, hummingbirds) were just matter in motion: machines having varying degrees of complexity but no discernible intrinsic significance. The question is: were these so-called "scientific revolutionaries" correct? As Erazim Kohak puts it:

shall we opt for the model and posture of a meaningful cosmos ordered by a moral law, or shall we opt for the model and stance of a chance aggregate of matter? Is the Person or is matter in motion the ultimate metaphysical category?


At LARGe this week, we continue our discussion of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars. The reading this week is from the section titled A Philosophy of Personalism.

Humans and Persons

What does it mean for a tool to be "my tool"? For a house to be "my house"? For a body to be "my body"? For a spouse to be "my spouse"? For a family to be "my family"?

Last week, we enjoyed a lively discussion of the concept of property and its ownership. Erazim Kohak, in his book The Embers and the Stars, suggests that we should have no more than we can love. This mandate tacitly assumes that if we own property, that is—if it belongs to us—then we should love it. But what does it mean to love a thing? And is this antithetical to the Epistle of John, which states that we should not love the world or anything in the world?

In any case: this week, let's continue our discussion of Erazim Kohak’s book The reading this week is from the chapter titled Of Humans and Persons.

A Human's Place in Nature

By surrounding himself with the work of his own hands—technology, such as alarm clocks and artificial lights—modern man has become confused. He has lost sight of the distinction between art (techne) and nature (physis). More precisely, man no longer understands nature as it presents itself to him.

The antidote to this modern confusion, according to author Erazim Kohak, is not to abandon technology, but rather to recognize how all technology points toward, and is predicated on, a pre-existing natural order. This natural order is both moral and discernible by carefully observing the world. (Yes, David Hume would be dismayed at Kohak for rejecting his now-popular "is-ought" distinction.)

But what, then, is man’s particular place in nature? If man is special, then what justifies this special place in nature? This week, we begin the second section of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). The first part of this section is titled A Human's Place in Nature.

The gift of moral law

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Until modern times, the existence (and the truth) of a moral law was understood as being discernible from observing nature—just as discernible as the phases of the moon or the law of gravity. In other words: to deny the moral law was as implausible as to deny the phases of the moon.

Today, the moral law is understood rather differently by many. The moral law is understood as (i) an arbitrary set of human rules that is imposed by an act of man’s will, or else (ii) an arbitrary set divine rules that is discernible only by studying the Bible (or some other sacred and revealed text).

This week at LARGe, let's plan to finish our discussion of chapter two of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). The present chapter has dealt with the topic of Physis, which is the greek word for "Nature". In the reading selection for this week, Kohak will be dwelling on "the gift of moral law” (pdf available here).

The gift of the word

This week at LARGe, let's continue exploring Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). Last week, we discussed the gifts of solitude, night, and pain. This week, we will look at The Gift of the Word.

Physis

This week at LARGe, let's continue exploring Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984). Last week, we read the Prolegomenon and the First chapter. This week, we can continue our discussion of the first chapter (there is a lot in there) and perhaps move on to the next chapter, titled Physis.

The Embers and the Stars

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Here are a few reviews of Erazim Kohak’s book The Embers and the Stars: a philosophical inquiry into the moral sense of nature (University of Chicago Press, 1984)

"It is hard to put this profound book into a category. Despite the author's criticisms of Thoreau, it is more like Walden than any other book I have read. . . . The book makes great strides toward bringing the best insights from medieval philosophy and from contemporary environmental ethics together. Anyone interested in both of these areas must read this book."—Daniel A. Dombrowski

"Those who share Kohák's concern to understand nature as other than a mere resource or matter in motion will find his temporally oriented interpretation of nature instructive. It is here in particular that Kohák turns moments of experience to account philosophically, turning what we habitually overlook or avoid into an opportunity and basis for self-knowledge. This is an impassioned attempt to see the vital order of nature and the moral order of our humanity as one.”—Ethics

Let's plan to look at the Prolegomenon and the First chapter over the next week or two.

The Decay of Words

The Bow and the Club, published by Arktos press in 2018, is a collection of essays written by Julius Evola (1898 - 1974). These essays present a criticism of the modern world from a so-called "Traditionalist" perspective. In one such essay, "The decay of words," Evola considers a number of modern words that are derived from latin, for example: labor, gentle, stipend, and fate. He explains how these words have acquired a very different meaning—and sometimes even a contrary meaning—than their original. Evola aims to show "how important and interesting an enlightened philology would be, since…words have a soul and life, and a return to their origins can often open up surprising perspectives. "

More Wendell Barry

This week in LARGe, lets look at another Wendell Barry essay. This chapter, available as a pdf file here, forms the second to last chapter of his Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. It is about the relationship between Christianity and our environment.

The Problem with Tobacco

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In tobacco country, the choice not to grow tobacco is tantamount to the choice not to farm.


This week, we will be reading an essay written by Wendell Berry in 1991. It is from his book: Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. The title of the essay is ``The Problem with Tobacco." It is available by clicking here.

Ancient Wisdom and Modern Misconceptions


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Fall begins in 2022 on September 22 at 8:04 pm—the moment of the autumnal equinox. Speaking of cosmology, let's plan to discuss Chapter 8 of the book Ancient Wisdom and Modern Misconceptions: A critique of contemporary scientism by physicist Wolfgang Smith. Here is a link to the chapter; it is titled Esoterism and Cosmology: From Ptolemy to Dante to Cusanus. Here, Wolfgang Smith explains what was lost when the traditional geocentric worldview was replaced with the Copernican heliocentric worldview. Here are a few teaser quotes from the chapter:

It is surely no accident that in the wake of the Copernican revolution, religious faith has visibly waned.


One needs to understand that geocentric cosmology is inherently an iconic doctrine.



And perhaps most significantly:

The modern sciences also know nature, but no longer as an icon. They are able to tell us about the size, weight and shape of the icon and even the composition of the various colors of paint used in painting it, but they can tell us nothing of its meaning in reference to a reality beyond itself.

Life!

This week at our Liberal Arts Reading Group, we will continue our discussion of Daniel Toma's Vestige of Eden, Image of Eternity. In Chapter 5, titled ``Life, flat or full? (click to download pdf)", Toma asked the question: What is life?

Moderns have struggled to define life. Things that reproduce? Things that eat and excrete? Things that metabolize? Things that have DNA? There are arguments, and counter-arguments for each of these definitions.

In the middle ages, the scholastics defined living things as those that have an immanent capacity of self-movement with the goal of self-perfection.

Vestiges of Eden

We have been looking at Daniel Toma's Vestiges of Eden. Here is Chapter 4, which is an Interlude on Reason and Faith.

Ferdinand; and Hemmingway's Faithful Bull

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This Friday for our reading group, let’s plan to look at two short stories. The first, Ferdinand, is a children’s story (broken into two pdf files accessible by clicking here: part one and part two). The second is Ernest Hemmingway’s The Faithful Bull; it is a kind of “response” to Ferdinand. They both deal, in their own way, with war and pacifism, societal expectations and individual priorities.

And here is a link to the youtube version of Disney's 1938 Ferdinand movie.

Personalism

Logia, the Journal of Lutheran Theology, has recently accepted for publication an article by our very own Paul Lehninger. The article is The Significance of a Theology of Personalism for Contemporary Confessional Lutheranism. Paul has kindly made a pre-print available to us, so for the next two weeks why don't we discuss this article. That way, if we find any errors, Paul can call the editors quickly and ask them to retract it. :)

In all seriousness, this is a very timely article, as it addresses— from a theological, a philosophical, and a historical perspective—the question of what it means to be a human. This is timely because there is a great deal of debate in our own society about whether human nature (if there in fact -is- a such thing as human nature) is infinitely pliable, or whether it is fixed and immutable.

Under Which Lyre

This week's reading selection is the poem Under Which Lyre (A Reactionary Tract for the Times). It was delivered by W.H. Auden at the commencement of Harvard University in 1946, at the close of World War 2. Here is a short analysis of the poem, written by Adam Kirsch for the Harvard Magazine in 2007.

Domingo Gundisalvo

Is there a connection between theology and philosophy? Between grammar and astronomy? If so, what is it? Today, it would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that these disciplines are connected only insofar as they are all taught at schools. This is not how the ancients saw things. In fact, the ancients saw these as an organized and coherent whole. How did they classify and organize the sciences? Two important classifications were written down in the twelfth century: one by Hugh of St. Victor and one by Domingo Gudisalvo.

Let's spend a few weeks looking at a Gundisalvo's 1141 Classification of the Sciences. Gundisalvo's classification was influenced by (his own) recent translation of Arabic texts and commentaries into Latin and Castillian. Here is a pdf file of Gundisalvo's Classification of the Sciences that I photocopied from Grant, E., A Source Book in Medieval Science. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (1974).

Oh, and here is a bio of Gundisalvo from wikipedia: Dominicus Gundissalinus, also known as Domingo Gundisalvi or Gundisalvo (c. 1115 – post 1190), was a philosopher and translator of Arabic to Medieval Latin active in Toledo. Among his translations, Gundissalinus worked on Avicenna's Liber de philosophia prima and De anima, Ibn Gabirol's Fons vitae, and al-Ghazali's Summa theoricae philosophiae, in collaboration with the Jewish philosopher Abraham Ibn Daud and Johannes Hispanus. As a philosopher, Gundissalinus crucially contributed to the Latin assimilation of Arabic philosophy, being the first Latin thinker in receiving and developing doctrines, such as Avicenna's modal ontology or Ibn Gabirol's universal hylomorphism, that would soon be integrated into the thirteenth-century philosophical debate.

Don Quixote

In the coming weeks, we will be reading Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote.

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Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas is perhaps the most important Christian theologian. This winter, our little Liberal Arts Reading Group will be looking at a book by Edward Feser titled Aquinas. This short book provides an introduction to Aquinas' views on metaphysics, natural theology, psychology, and ethics. It is available through the publisher here. By clicking here, you can download the first chapter (and a bit of the second).

Kuyper's Convocation Address

Buy a fish in the store or receive one as a present, marinated in the finest sauce—that too is a treat; but for a real sportsman nothing can compare with personally angling for a fish in a stream or canal.

Poets and painters who are artists by the grace of God are those who write verse because they can't stop themselves and who create paintings because it is their passion.

Small wonder, then, that a real student does not make any progress until the study itself gives him pleasure.


These excerpts are taken from a convocation address given by Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) at the Free University in Amsterdam in 1900. In this address, he aims to focus his students on the goal of genuine study. A copy of the address in its entirety can be found here; we'll be discussing it in our little Liberal Arts Reading Group this coming Friday.

The Discarded Image

For the next few weeks, our Liberal Arts Reading group will be discussing C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Here is a review from the back cover:

C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image paints a lucid picture of the medieval world view, as historical and cultural background to the literature of the middle ages and the renaissance. It describes the 'image' discarded by later ages as 'the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental model of the universe'. This, Lewis's last book was hailed as 'the final memorial to the work of a great scholar and teacher and a wise and noble mind'.

As a supplementary reading, Paul Lehninger his kindly provided us with a copy of his 2004 Logia article titled Playing the Discarded Image. Also, here is an associated question sheet that Paul assigns to his honors students at the College.

A Guide for the Perplexed

This week at LARGe, let's finish our reading of E.F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed (1977). In discussing how we come to understand anything in the world—whether minerals, plants, animals or ourselves—Schumacher claims that

…we '"see" not simply with our eyes but with a great part of our mental equipment as well, and since this mental equipment varies greatly from person to person, there are inevitably many things which some people can "see" but which others cannot, or, to put it differently, for which some people are adequate while others are not.

Let's look at chapters three, four and five, in which Schumacher further develops this idea of adequatio—that "knowledge comes about insofar as the object known is within the knower," as Thomas Aquinas has said.