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Introduction to Poetic Heroism

In the opening paragraphs of his renowned After Virtue (1981), Alasdair MacIntyre shares with us the vision of a world in which discourse has been disconnected from reality, or where the conceived meaning of words has become, for the most part, arbitrary.  Words might very well be used, to be sure, in a systematic and self-consistent manner, but they stand de facto as mere impositions upon real problems.  MacIntyre is especially sensitive to the moral dimension of the alienation in question and to the fact that contemporary “analytic” scholarship is so wrapped up in its own discourse that it has all but smothered doubt concerning the problems in the face of which words are first proffered.

The dawn of moral discourse—of good and evil and of their various synonyms—remains obscured by a discourse that is imagined and abided by as its own creator, that is as the creator of its own origins.  Where origins are explained in terms of a discourse taking itself for granted, origins are not questioned, but merely imposed—professed, rather than unearthed.  What would their thorough unearthing entail?  How “deep” would we need to dig in order to transcend the boundaries of the moral-conceptual “bubble” in which we might have unwittingly fallen?

According to MacIntyre we have lost sight of the original historical contexts or conceptual frameworks of our moral discourse.  The solution to our current moral crisis is supposed to lie in the refining of our appreciation of the historical logic relating various contexts or frameworks to each other.  In other words, MacIntyre is not trying to exit the “Cave” of our discourse (to speak Platonically), but to rise to full awareness of the History of our discourses, thereby allowing us to value the historicity of all discourse.  The Platonic and Biblical turn to the mystery of divine providence in human life and action (in our world and in our shaping of it) is discarded in favor of the laying bare of a historical logic, a telos necessarily, if only unwittingly entailing a mechanistic anthropology.

MacIntyre’s proposed therapy, as well as any underpinning conception of man as a machine (no matter how “spiritual” the machine may be), is shaken to its foundations by the thought that the notion of “historicity” could be part and parcel of a barrier preventing us from “reconnecting” present-day discourse to its origins—to what MacIntyre speaks of as “the real world”.  What if the real obstacle to our freeing ourselves from our moral-linguistic blinders were a bad idea distracting us from the original link between all discourses, on the one hand, and Reality, on the other?  MacIntyre might be right in objecting to “an evaluatively neutral chronicle” of the variety of our discourses following each other throughout the ages (3).  Yet, would the (re)discovery of a logic supposedly tying all discourses into a single discursive web help us transcend the delusion characteristic of a people wrapped up into their discourse?  Otherwise stated, would the pinnacle of Hegel’s History provide the best perspective on the nature of things?  Or would it provide the greatest distraction from things themselves (and thus ironically the worst perspective), by obscuring its foremost classical alternative, namely a Socratic/zetetic doubt purportedly capable of “distracting” us from any and all “perspectives” understood as distractions from things themselves?

Although we might be prone, even all-too-prone, today, to rise into a universal society dominated by “consciousness” of the diachronic interconnection between discourses and their respective ages, it is not clear that we have always been so prone.  What makes us believe that our progressive propensity to cherish Hegel’s “end of History” as our proper end, is a natural propensity?  The habit of projecting our own propensity upon all previous generations would hardly yield a proof of the self-evidence of the legitimacy of our own penchant.  What if, for the sake of transcending the contemporary moral (perhaps even intellectual) disastrous state denounced by MacIntyre, we stood in need of bracketing, if only phenomenologically, our historicist prejudice concerning the measurable link between the present (the living) and the past (the dead), which is to say, our belief in the autonomy of human life from the otherworldly?  What if what has been decried as the present crisis of modern democracy,[1] were the result of the rise to power of a “bad idea” that we have grown to take for granted to the extent that we see no sense in questioning it?[2]

The historicist prejudice stands on the shoulders of a fierce ally, the notion that the fundamental political problem is the conflict between “the individual” and society—a conflict that comes to be viewed as fundamental where the social world is conceived as superimposed upon an essentially asocial man, a man naturally alien to any notion of divine authority.  As a doctrine exposing the “logic” of human existence, historicism is inseparable from the notion that human life is originally cut off from an essentially mysterious (not absurd) divine intervention, or providence.[3] For the historicist there is nothing of ultimate significance, nothing ultimately desirable in political or civil life: Aristotle’s “animal by nature political” (φύσει πολιτικόν ζώον), or nature’s political impulse, is to be overcome as an illusion, an error, if not an outright evil.[4] If the only and indeed primordial authority is bound to human consent, so that prior to that consent man must know nothing about divine transcendence, then ethics must have no metaphysical grounding: ethics can, or even must be undone, overcome as Nietzsche expected to overcome good and evil, namely via a “revenge” of apolitical nature absorbing back within itself any and all “value”.  Historicism stands or falls on the principle that there is no authority or right (jus) in and by nature: what is “hidden” to our experience must be either a senseless res extensa (evidently subhuman), or an “ideal” in need of being discovered, or invented.  In either case, there would be no authority serving as backdrop for any “reason of State”.  The divine hiddenness of any law in human nature is rejected in favor of the emerging of human laws out of a subhuman nature.  Hence the contemporary replacement of classical doctrines of creation (where man is originally shaped, i.e. separated from the subhuman, by a divine mind) with evolutionary doctrines on account of which man is shaped mechanically out of a subhuman context devoid of any mind, or thought.[5]

For the evolutionist, meaning is a mere “idealization,” or reification of the physical, so that, to speak bluntly although not misleadingly, we are expected to understand speech by looking at the subhuman (“stones”), rather than the super-human (Gods)—a subhuman realm read “materialistically” as devoid of divine mystery or ground.  Thus language is no longer understood as mediating the Lower and Higher, but as constructing the Higher out of the Lower, the subhuman that evolutionism assumes to constitute the asocial basis of society.  The key to the human is “asocial material” that has presumably evolved mechanically, or thanks to mechanisms serving the interests of complex being, even as complexity is likely to be fated to relapse into simplicity.  The most authoritative science or discipline of knowledge is, now, not theological (pertaining to the divine), but physical.

The assumption that the social (moral-political) and conscious universe is the superstructure of an asocial substructure is reflected directly in our approach to the study of the social, in the context of which the fundamental social problem appears to be the one between the so-called “individual” and the “collective” (especially as represented by the State).  The classical conflict between “natural reason” (ratio naturalis) and “Reason of State” (Jus Civile)[6] is replaced by the conflict between, on the one hand, selfish, even brutish feelings or passions, and on the other hand, legal strictures mechanistically imposed upon the self so as to compel it to fit into a “society,” a world wherein collaboration saves us from violent death.

From the standpoint of our subhuman nature, the constitution of political order must appear as an injustice, not to speak of a supreme act of violence, even as we might come to see the political world as a fatality.[7] For the consummate historicist, political action is at once an evil—insofar as it represses man’s original impulses—and a necessity, a stepping-stone in the greater context of nature’s substantively unforeseeable evolution.[8]

If the conflict between the “individual” or “self” and society is not the fundamental political problem, then what is?  Our classical and medieval tradition points to the conflict between Gods and men, between men forgetful of their divine origin and Gods forgetful of their human “creation”.  Where do men and Gods meet, if not in politics, the arena where the Hero first arises—half man and half God?  Now, this politically spirited hero mediating the merely-human and the purely-divine, becomes, in modernity, the foremost public enemy.  For he reminds everyone that, contrary to what the prophets of modern freedom have taught us, we are all naturally and divinely called to stand, not as “individuals” before a society (if only one we try to conform and assimilate to), but as mediators between the divine and a humanity forgetful of its divine origin.  The modern rejection of classical heroism is first of all a rejection of a classical conception of politics, or of classical idealism, for which all men are, in principle, called to be heroes, which is to say, public-minded/spirited witnesses of the divine ground of humanity.

The classical hero invites us, above all, to doubt the “noble lie” (γενναῖον ψεῦδος)[9] we tell ourselves to make sense of our political allegiances: we pretend that we are naturally of this or that nation or tribe, as if anyone who was against our own nation was eo ipso an enemy of humanity; as if anyone who contravened our laws, were unqualifiedly unjust.[10] Our lie is “noble” in the respect that it binds us to our laws (the “noble lie” responds to the “materialist” suspicion that things themselves are nameless and thus godless); it is a lie, however, in the respect that neither our laws, nor our earthly society are the end for the sake of which we are born.  The classical hero discloses a “new” horizon of politics, a horizon that had hitherto remained tacit in old politics, as the Second Adam is tacitly present “behind” the First Adam.  The new heroic politics is a politics taking its bearings, not from humus or soil, but from a transcendent divinity.  The hero discovers and shows us in the mirror of his own way of life, that there is no direct correlation between law and truth, after all: law is an imitation of truth, if only a divine imitation inviting us back to truth by prompting us to rise to the heights of law—to discover law as our own life and so as the hero himself.  Once the merely-human has risen to the plane of law, he fulfills the law in his own way of life, testifying to the absolutely original nature of politics as arena of poetic recollection of divinity.

As (classical) heroes we make laws as “poetic” mirrors of our divine origins, rather than accepting laws as mere boundaries of our own lives.  Not law, but thought or mind (mens) constitutes the proper boundary of our lives, even as laws can be justly thought of as inhering in our nature as ideas (prior to appearing outside of thought, laws are “ideas” in thought).[11] Insofar as the primordial form of our lives is hidden in thought, the Hebrews conceived that form’s revelation in terms of a hidden law.  The Hebrew Bible reveals, not a hidden law as such, but the hiddenness of law; as a “map,” it reveals that law is originally hidden in thought, or that it is originally not buried in the bodily (i.e., bound to finitude): in its primary instantiation, law is not a determination of nature (as a “law of physics”)—so that our bodies are not (originally/properly) bound to any fixed “laws”—but a form of thought, a hidden form, the secret/sacred form of a thought at work in the shaping of nature.  Where does law come from?  The Bible answers by pointing to its hidden God, whose name is unnamable and whose being is undetermined (Exodus 3.14).  God is the form of all forms, the law of all laws, the unlimited limit of all limits, the hidden name presupposed by all manifest names.  As the “names” of ordinary discourse, manifest laws do not belong to bodies, but to thought, or minds.[12] What are bodies governed by?  Not laws, but minds making use of laws to awaken themselves to their own virtue, their own governing faculty, their own justice.  Now, this is a “Greek” answer perfectly compatible with the Hebrew Bible’s revelation of the hidden or sacred unity of law.  God may be said to speak eminently through man as his enigmatic mirror/image.  To be sure, without God there would be utter chaos, but that is because then Adam would not name anything (without Adam there could be utter chaos).  Adam must have a share in God’s legislation, as some names must be given by man as man (First Adam); not all are given by God, or man as God (Second Adam).[13]

Man’s participation in divine legislation opens the door to a reading of divine legislation as proceeding through a hidden dimension of man.  Is God’s biblical invitation of Adam to “name” (and govern) inferior living beings not eo ipso an invitation to think about legislation in general, or to consider the possibility of naming everything?  In naming living beings below him, the First Adam begins his poetic education, gaining a fair taste of divine art, even if this exposes Adam to the temptation of impiously mistaking names for things themselves—a temptation he shall regret falling into, upon experiencing truth aside from the mirror of logoi; whence Adam’s dreadful discovery of the abyss separating him from God (Genesis 4).

Adam needs God in order to name, just as he needs to name in order to return to God; God is the necessary, eternal point of reference of Adam’s legislation.  Not law, but its hidden standard, has the last say when it comes to distinguishing right from wrong; law stands as a mere reminder.  If something is wrong, its being wrong is not ultimately a matter of not conforming to a law, but a matter of not conforming to the nature of the thing in question, or the thing’s place in the divine mind.  In legislating poetically, Adam does not bind things “upward” to laws, but back to God (if only through laws), discovering himself between God and “creation”: what he had formerly seen as divinely created before man, now appears created after man, by a man who is at home in God (prior to being at home in Creation)—the human being that is not “created,” but generated, as thought by thought.  The First Adam’s poetic creation of things (his creation within Creation) is then the sign of the Second Adam’s creation of things themselves in God.

Prompted by the First Adam’s Orphic sign, we “sons of Man” do not try to legislate over everything, but merely over what is given below us (not sought above), by way of humanizing, or opening to the divine, as opposed to reducing the lower to the higher.  In legislating the Low, we invite it to reflect the High, letting it serve the human function of mirror of divinity.  As artists we are not called to be or replace the Second Adam, but to mirror his activity by carrying out the poetic task God laid before the First Adam, giving human dignity to what is below us, which is to say, letting our own “lower nature” reflect our “higher nature,” even as we stand in the middle, or “hide” in our very mediating activity, as imitatio Christi.

From the First Adam we learn that our lower nature, our “flesh” can bespeak our higher nature, or the divine only through poetic legislation, where the flesh is “dressed” in a conduct or ethos, as we see so emblematically in Sandro Botticelli’s so-called Primavera painting.  There, a mysterious wind (Zephyrus) blows life into a pure, yet wild maiden (Chloris), who thereupon mutates, first into a graceful lady (Flora) gracing us with “flowers” as with Dante’s poetic fioretti (Dante, Inferno 2.127), and then into an immobile statuesque Venus, whose person displays poetic flowers crystalized, so to speak, in a single brooch, a floral jewel appearing near the center of the painting.  The central “statue” of beauty stands as the consummate “flower” of human ingenuity—Nature adorned as Law, prompting the thoughtful viewer to ask how a civilization could ever emerge out of wild nature.  The “how” is signaled by the dance of three maidens clothed in veils on the right-hand side of the painting.  The maidens, usually considered to be Graces, are not naked as Graces had been usually represented since antiquity, but veiled as the Hores of classical lore—the “Hours” (Dike, Eunomia and Eirene, namely Justice, Good Legislation and Peace), daughters of Zeus and Themis, goddess of order.  Is Venus, then, at once, or more importantly, Themis, an order emerging out of natural wilderness through the dance or scanning of the “hours”— leading us to interpret the heavens as Mercury does on the far-left side of the painting?

Botticelli’s Mercury is not simply after the heavenly fruits of wisdom; beyond the fruits already in reach, he seeks to disperse clouds.  If these clouds do not conceal heavenly wisdom, then what do they conceal?  Are the clouds directly related to the cloth covering Cupid’s eyes, or to Love’s incapacity to determine the outcome of the dance of Hours?  There is a direct, glaring correspondence between Botticelli’s winged Cupid and Zephyrus, even as the former is blind and aloft, whereas the latter has a personal contact with his object.  Cupid casts his arrows from the heights of a divine wisdom represented by fruits (peaches) left hanging in the dark.  Is armed Mercury—whose wings lie low just above his feet—investigating a truth loftier than heavenly wisdom? The young man clad in red is juxtaposed to “cold” (blue) Zephyrus, even as both have a personal relation to their object.  Mercury turns upward to touch his object with a wand, whereas Zephyrus flies downward to clasp his object with his bare hands.  Mercury is a “fruitless” philosophical seeker, while, as a brutish finder, Zephyrus impregnates his object: he fertilizes her, allowing her to bear fruit, albeit surely not a heavenly one (earthly flowers are no heavenly fruits).

Now, to return to concordances, Cupid and Mercury have this in common: they are both “warm” and artful, relating to their object in mediated fashion, or through art.  Yet, Cupid takes his bearings blindly from heavenly wisdom, whereas Mercury appears to call that wisdom into question, which is to say that he seeks its reason.  Now, this is a main “theme” of the Renaissance, a problem that Giambattista Vico would spell out systematically, after Dante Alighieri:[14] there is a contemplation that rises in some sense higher than the one of the divine as such, namely contemplation of the divine within the divine, as it were, or vision that, while taking place in the mirror of the divine, seeks the divine within human production.  Botticelli’s Mercury would then be looking deep in the divine as mirror, by way of discerning the divine as the truth about what is happening in the human world, which is to say, of the birth of the human world.  Now, this birth related to the Hores is “cyclical” in the respect that it points back to its wild conditions.  The human world is not characterized by unqualified progress towards the divine.  Instead, it ends in Venus-Themis, civil order as riddle.  There is something profoundly enigmatic about the emergence of moral-political order, something that neither Zephyrus, nor Cupid can account for, since one is blind to what is above, whereas the other—as “blind providence” or fortuna—is blind to what is below.  What is Mercury after, then?  He attempts to discover the crossroads of humanity and divinity, of ethics and metaphysics.

How does Botticelli, Dante’s acute student, help us understand the First Adam’s task of turning the subhuman into a mirror of the divine?  To civilize our lower nature (and so to educate ourselves) is not to create heaven on earth (or to impose an abstract ideal upon our flesh), but to carry out a mandate disclosed providentially, to unearth the divine as pneumatic energy: thought at work at the heart of the physical.[15] Mercury’s heavens provide him with the blessed opportunity to explore the divine, not in terms of laws imposed upon nature, but in terms of thought allowing nature to bloom.  Yet, again, what does it mean to bloom?  It is not to replace the divine (poetic Zephyrus does not replace the Holy Ghost), but to bespeak it, to witness it, if only in the twofold Platonic manner suggested by Botticelli, after Dante.  In sum, it would be a mistake to conceive the divine as simply above us.  What we divine above us is inevitably mixed with our all-too-human projections.  We cannot transcend these by repressing or torturing our lower nature, if only in the name of purity of heart (or by pretending that, as a beautiful Venus, law deserves being upheld as consummation of humanity), but by cultivating our lower nature poetically, as Boccaccio would show with unsurpassed “sweetness and light”.

The Renaissance vindication of theologia poetica, or “imitation” of revealed theology, as eminently legitimate, finds its preamble in Medieval Christianity’s upholding of the categorical distinction between Sacred and Profane “history”: the Middle Ages show us that aside from revealing himself above the human, God must be at work within the human, or in nature (“the physical”) as understood teleologically in the light of human or political/ethical order.  For medieval Church Doctors, pagan Rome was prepared by Platonic philosophers to spontaneously welcome the Bible and its God.

When Aristotle had indicated that “nature” is to be understood according to art (rather than the other way around),[16] he had invited the thought that the divine is not merely a “Platonic” transcendent form, but also and perhaps more importantly an immanent motor at work in physical bodies, a “mover” that would account for the genesis or birth of man, distinguished from man’s creation: we are not merely “created,” but also born for God; we do not tend toward the divine merely by law, but also by nature.  The nature that pre-Socratic thinkers had invoked as a realm beyond legal retribution, was not, for Aristotle, devoid of providence, or cut off from politics and its Gods.  Aristotle’s “physical” bodies are inconceivable aside from “essential” or intelligible forms pointing back to an absolute end, both immanent and transcendent.  What remains to be seen is how the two modes of divinity converge, or how their interplay is to be understood and indeed lived out.  How is Aristotle’s hidden divine nous related to the divine as revealed publicly as presiding over the polis?  How does the impersonality of the divine relate to the divine’s personality?  Can the relation between the two be understood by taking our bearings from a corruption of civil religion on account of which what is revealed above us replaces what is hidden within us, if only where the latter is understood with Antigone in ancestral terms?

Early Christianity shows us that Aristotle cannot be reconciled with the polis as long as the city’s Gods are not “corrected” and “replaced” by a mysterious divinity that, governing the whole physical universe, is at work within us even prior to appearing without.  This is not to say that Christianity resolves Aristotle’s God in a new Revelation, or a new God, but that Christianity reveals God’s personality as compatible with God’s impersonality—God’s public manifestation as compatible with the hidden God that philosophy returns to in the medium of reflection.

Christianity shows us that the Hebrew God is indispensable to resolving the conflict between Aristotle’s divinity and a divinity that non-philosophers can believe in.  Christianity brings the Hebrew Revelation to the pagan world to save it and its philosophers, lest pagan civilization collapse into outright barbarism, or a wilderness in which all interiority (the private life) is banished as an evil.  Far from resolving philosophy into “faith,” Christianity defends a faith eminently compatible with philosophy, thereby inaugurating an age of fruitful collaboration between Man and God, against any temptation to conceive Man as a Cartesian-like ego, or a “windowless monad” (Leibniz), not to speak of a Hobbesian “evolved” brute.  Christianity’s Man is naturally open to a supernatural God naturally sustaining Man’s ascent toward the supernatural God: our creator-God directs us to (re)discover the God hidden in our nature as generating us to seek our creator-God above nature.  It is this quest for our supernatural creator that allows us to awaken to the God that generates us.  We need the divine revealed above us so that we may return to the divine hidden within us, albeit not where, as antinomians would have it, personal revelation is or can be supplanted by a hidden discovery (“natural theology”).  Christianity as such (Christianity that has not yet served as modernism’s vehicle) is incompatible with a historicism inviting us to relativize all personality in the context of impersonal, unconscious “historical forces” (where, Hegelian promises notwithstanding, the personal is reduced to fueling a person-smothering or tyrannical “ideal,” as opposed to ancient quietist or “escapist” dreams, be these Epicurean or Stoic).  Old Christianity binds the impersonal to the personal, so that the personal be bound to the impersonal in a dialectic conceivable in terms of a constant relation between Father and Son.  The personal Son, the personal pole of divinity, is upheld as key to any and all understanding; “way, truth and life” (via et veritas et vita—John 14.6), where the personal is at once the way we return to the impersonal, the truth/disclosure (ἀλήθεια) of the impersonal, and our very life, since we live back to the Father (life being “return”).[17]

The Renaissance testifies to the Christian announcement of the royal status of divine personality, not by forgetting the impersonal, but by investigating the personal back to its impersonal source.  In the context of Renaissance poetic theology, the personal Jesus Christ unfolds in terms of a universe of persons (poetic characters) guiding us heroically back to the impersonal, not as a replacement of personal life, but as ground of personality’s own disclosure.  Taking its cue from Christianity’s revelation, the Renaissance points us to the inherence of the divine in human personality, i.e., in the theatre of our political mask-making.  Not an absolutely transcendent God, but God as Man, a most-personal and present God, guides us poetically to discover God as absolutely immanent for us.

How are we to understand this Christian “turn” away from the absolutely transcendent God?  Christianity prepares a return, insofar as the discovery of God at the heart of properly human life is at once the discovery of our lives as naturally oriented towards absolute transcendence, even if this transcendence is unattainable.  For absolute transcendence to really matter for us, it suffices that we be oriented towards it; not as towards a Kantian asymptotic ideal “as-if” (als ob), but towards what is offered to us freely (Grace) in terms of a supreme confirmation of the immanence of God.  Our openness to absolute transcendence is never a mere choice, insofar as it is constitutes the essential feature of our genesis, even as in our “fallen” condition we may have grown alienated from our genesis, or more precisely from what distinguishes categorically the human genesis from other forms of birth.[18]  For, if man is to be understood rigorously as man, rather than as any other life form, he must be recognized with respect to his peculiar openness to what is not given in his experience, but beyond or behind it, as hidden object of divination.  But as religious animal, man is at once open to a turn away from absolute transcendence, given that, faced with his incapacity to grasp absolute transcendence, man naturally tends to forge masks (personae) of divinity, images that at once inspire man to turn back to the principle of their creation, namely the divine at work in man.[19]  Thus it is that, while being naturally religious, every human being also naturally tends towards philosophy, or the love of what is divine within the human.  And this is what medieval schoolmen would refer to approvingly as paganism’s theologia naturalis, with the understanding that the discovery of the divine in man prepares us for the revelation of the divine above man, against the temptation of (mis)conceiving divine revelation as the revelation of a despotic deus ex machina.[20]

Boccaccio’s—and Dante’s—Platonic Renaissance refines the medieval approval of natural theology, showing us, not merely the legitimacy, but also the eminent desirability of a philosophical turn away from absolute divine transcendence.  No one better or more gracefully than Boccaccio testifies to the goodness of man’s desire to turn his back to authority, even and especially the highest authority, in order to rediscover it seated in his own nature.  Our desire can be so strong as to appear as an urge, even a dire need to seek ourselves independently of any acquired knowledge, or pretense thereof—not so as to determine ourselves in “atomic” solitude (even though we might end up defining ourselves thus), but so as to vindicate our genesis’ irreducibility to our being-created by an authority above us.

In appealing to a poetic theology, or theologia poetica, the Renaissance does not turn its back to the divine; nor does it originally call us to (progressively) absorb the divine into the human; rather, it calls us to the heroic quest of living out the nexus between the divine within the human and the divine above the human—between genesis and creation.  That quest entails by necessity a heroic descent in the underworld or infera of humanity, into the realm of the dead, the ocean of memories out of which we emerge into our historical-literary world of mortals.  Only thus can the connection between “the inner” and “the outer” be fully lived out; only then can our humanity be concretely fulfilled.

How are we to understand our life under God, without venturing into exploring our pagan death, the realm in which we are not blessed with God’s supreme assurance, as if we were forever abandoned by God?  He who dies a pagan death, he who enters into the pagan underworld to discover God at its heart, can readily understand the question proclaimed by the Jesus of the Gospels: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27.46).  Mark 15.34 suggests that the “why” (λεμὰ) is to be understood in terms of a causa finalis, as a “what for” (λαμὰ): for the sake of what does God let Man enter into the pagan realm of the dead?  The answer is not slow to come, if three days are not an eternity.  One must first enter into the past, so that the future may come to save the present: the three “days”.  Not only the third day (where the present is first and the past second), beyond the earthly “cave,” but the fullness or completion of the three, manifest in eternity as a divine promise, although “redescending” into the present for the salvation of all (the causa finalis).  For, as Socrates had taught, salvation is not a merely private matter: “the One” alone is not the last word.  So Christ returns from the heavenly future into the present, which the Gospels vindicate as a gift from the future.

If we are not born merely out of the past, the past cannot account for our birth, our entering into this world of mortals: a Christian lesson, to be sure, but also one that can make sense to pagans as pagans.  The pagan or common man experiences birth every morning, upon awakening from a long night’s sleep, sustained by a wave of “memories”—an ocean of souvenirs surfacing, as through an inverted funnel, into mortal life.  The “past” rushes through the funnel, propelling us into mortal wakefulness, or the dream we call our life.  Here we naturally set out to create something out of the ocean of memories our life presupposes, something that can serve as mirror in which we might understand death, or, more precisely, the reason why we are “born” into the present.

How can we account for the past surfacing into the present (for negation to convert into positive affirmation), which is to say in effect, for the past resurrecting?  Why is there a present, instead of everything being lost inexorably into the past?  Why this “resurgence” into the present, this renewal of the past?  Why awakening?  All we do or produce revolves around the problem of accounting for the present.  We are, in various ways, constantly asking “why,” and naturally we rise to wonder about that which “awakened” us; we begin thinking of ourselves as called, and of the present as a calling.  Yet, if we are “called” into the present out of the past, then what are we called for?  Is it to remain into the present?  No one can, of course, since the present is continuously dying.  What is more elusive, more fleeting, more Chimeric than the present?  If we do not live for the present, is it the past we live for: do we live to die?  Yet, the past as past explains nothing and especially not the present: the past as past knows not the reason why (“that for the sake of which”) we awaken.

We are left turning to the future, which is, of course, something that comes, prior to our conceiving it as something we can create or build.  Does the future call us out of the past into the present, as the “Son” of John 15.16-19?  Does it “save” us from the dead?  If so, are we “meant for the future,” rather than being “condemned” to fall back into the past?

Modern man ceases to think of the future as coming and begins imagining it as something that we create by drawing “material resources,” our past, into the present, where our past is transformed, precisely into “the future”—a new past, as it were.  Whence the perplexity of modern man.  How is he to transform the past?  How is he to forge his destiny?  What future is he to aspire to?  What ideal is he to sacrifice his life, his present for?  The future becomes an “ideal” the moment we cease thinking of it as a divine gift and begin conceiving it as the product of human ingenuity supported by more or less favorable material conditions.  The modern “ideal” is, of course, not supposed to be concretely or substantively eternal; yet, neither does it point to eternity.  On the other hand, for pre-modern man, the future qua source of the present is a divine mystery: it anticipates, if it does not predict eternity.  Modern man reinvents the future as cut off from any reference to a divine “end of time” by way of being bound to chance and human calculation, respectively the new “past” and a new “present”.  To live in the present will mean “to calculate,” in a manipulative manner, taking as target the past conceived, again, as mere quantity (res extensa): death will mean nothing aside from its being transformed through the present, into the future.

What could it mean for us to live for an eternity that comes into the present by way of resurrecting the past into it?[21]  What is at stake is not a present using the past to create the future (modernity), but the past ushering into the present through divine intervention, whereupon the present turns to the future as providential source of life.  Pagan antiquity is constitutionally open to this problem, being capable of questioning the nexus past-present in search for the middle term.  Pagan man falls back into the past—he dies—but not without having asked as regards the reason why he was born in the first place and thus not without asking as regards the nature of divinity, that for which we ultimately die.  Pagan antiquity, in other words, never accepts the past as an opaque destiny, a destination autonomous of divinity, a sheer factum brutum.  Pagan man is a man, not a brute.  The past (or rather, the passing that is time, as in Phaedrus’s fable, Tempus) must remain an image of eternity, even as the future stands as promise of eternity.  The pagans contemplate the image in full openness to a future that, as a divine promise, descends to resurrect the dead, sustaining us into the present, without letting us be absorbed by the past—saving us from an otherwise ineluctable passing.  Pagan antiquity did not proclaim the divine promise, so that the “future” remained, for pagans, at least partially cloaked in darkness, even as pagans did divine a necessary bond between what is hidden above man and what is hidden within man—between the future and the present.  Virgil’s fourth Eclogue offers us perhaps the most glaring testimony of the pagan or common man’s sense that the fullness of time is not given by the past alone, that the present is not defined by mere genesis or birth.  Something other than the past accounts for the present, so that the past must be a mere image, or souvenir of our raison d’être, a reason enshrined in the mysterious future that is to come.  What is to come, or what comes, is the future saving the present from the past, sustaining it above the abyss of the past, rather than driving us into the temptation of falling back into the waters of time to reenact the prototypical Fall of the First Adam.

The “ne nos inducas in tentationem” of the Christian prayer to the Father is ill understood by critical revisionists who seem to underestimate the relevance to the Gospels of the biblical account of God driving Adam into the world of temptation as a result of Adam’s having failed to meet the challenge of legislating within the boundaries of his Garden.   “Do not lead us into temptation, but free us from evil”: the truth about the future is that it does not merely abandon us into a passing, but restores us into a present constitutionally open to the future.  For the future to save us from evil is for God to draw us out of “a world of passing” into which God had justly driven the First Adam—a terrible world dominated by fear (“the first fear made Gods on earth”)[22] and in which the challenge or “attempt” to govern, thus Adam’s freedom, appears as a mere temptation.

Christianity’s Second Adam calls us to recognize that what comes into the present is not the past as such, but the future that discloses the present, that awakens us out of the passing of things—even if the future turns out to be none other than the past’s secret identity, the God hidden in human nature.  As in the case of the Hebrew Bible, for the classical pagan the coming of the future can entail no more than a resurrection or restoration of the past in the light of eternal origins.[23] The “presencing” of the future—the future’s becoming present—does not mark a superseding of the past, but its consummate, nay only vindication.

To show that the same applies to Christianity would require a setting of Christianity free from subjection to modern progressive prejudices, or blinders.  It would be to show, first, that Christianity as such can be spoken of, and secondly that Christianity as such does not introduce a new truth, but a new vindication of truth.  To state that Christianity is Judaism for Pagans is not to state a self-evident matter.  At the very least, compliments of the empire of modern prejudices, the significance of the proposition is for us no longer self-evident, or even easily understood.  In an original political-theological context, “Judaism for Pagans” means that the “restoration” (teshuva) of the past (the underworld) is announced as such, or for all men, not as any one people’s special prerogative, but as a gift/present for all peoples.  Pagans are called to share the Jewish life as the life that they are not, or no longer are aware of: an obscured life irreducible to death, a present irreducible to the past, primarily because the past is irreducible to its passing.  The Christian revelation entails precisely the restoration of “the passing” as meaningful, of death as divine gift—for we die into the eternity that “incarnates” as present.  The Christian returns to a Second Adam “older” than the First, not newer.  In a Virgilian spirit, Christianity stands for renewal of origins, not elevation of origins onto new grounds, as modern progressivism would have it.  What does the Jew offer “Rome” upon speaking in the language of “Greece,” that is of paganism?  He offers himself as witness to the active inherence of the divine in ordinary human life; he offers an extraordinary reminder that the divine that appears above man is false as long as it is imposed ex machina, but true—as the Christian Apollo, Dionysus, Hercules, etc. in/as Christ—insofar as it vindicates the divinity or divine nature necessarily hidden in man, even as it has already been announced from above.  The Christian man is, then, a Jew for whom Law is unequivocally a divine echo of the voice of the divine in the human: the Christian is a Jew whose justice is established universally, among all nations, or tribes.

Who is, ultimately, Christianity’s “Jew”?  Who is the Jew who defends or “justifies” his way of life, as a Christian?  He is the man who retraces the divine echo that is Law back to the divine inherent in the human.  The Jew is then, properly speaking, the personification, if not incarnation of the political heroism of classical antiquity, the poetic heroism belonging to the act of interpreting the God standing authoritatively above us as at once poetic imitation of the God within us and that very God insofar as our poetic imitation is grounded in our own divinity.  Now, our poetic imitation begs to be fulfilled in the hero himself, as living law, poetic act, maker of mirrors, of signs reflecting the divine within the human.  The Christian hero par excellence—the Second Adam—lives through his personae, his imitationes Christi, makers of forms of experience organized hierarchically, as the forms that in Dante’s Comedy, serve the pilgrim as stepping-stones to his awakening at the heart of the divine.    What is Dante’s pilgrim achieving if not a retracing of the “outer” God to the “inner” God?  Must that pilgrim not be Christianity’s Jew?  And is Christ not a Jew, nay the prototypical Jew, the Jew who is awaiting his poetic brethren at the heart of the divine?

How does the Second Adam live at the end of the poetic journey—at the end that is the restoration of the beginning, the Alpha?  In inviting his interlocutors to give birth to true opinions, Socratic maieutics suggests an answer.  Man as man lives through discourses or logoi that, where properly understood, or well interpreted, lead us back into the mystery of the past, the depths of our underworld.  The Socratic “Orpheus” does not enter into death only to abandon his promotion of true opinions as forms of experience.  On the contrary, as Plato suggests (notably in The Apology of Socrates, 40e-41c), in the underworld Socrates is likely to engage in dialogue with the heroes of earlier ages, including Homer, the poet of poets; just as Dante would in the “Castle of Nobility” (the Nobile Castello of Inferno 4), realm of the dead heroes that Michelangelo, Dante’s acute student, represented for us in the heavens of his Sistine Final Judgment.

A dialogue that does not end among the living, entering as it does into the realm of the dead, is not a dialogue that tends to recreate, let alone replace, the divine world of the dead (as “secular” lovers of power would be inclined to believe), but prepare us for death itself.  It could do so by constituting a stage that imitates death, a stage suggesting that man’s most divine creation is a philosophical dialogue, a disinterested dialogue among men who are as dead to themselves as possible (not unlike the Rousseau of his Reveries) and for that very reason hated by lovers of power, people always prone to resent living reminders of the futility of their quests.

Philosophical dialogues in the Platonic tradition constitute exemplary stages for our divining what, in the best of cases, truly takes place in death, namely naïve, even playful dialogue unhampered by the ocean of worldly memories and so uncompelled by any passion/fear.  As we read the dialogues in question we are drawn, or we draw ourselves, to retrace all aspects of our lives back to their original abode in the “underworld,” where the universe of our earthly certainties or “answers” is disclosed in terms of a pantheon of permanent questions.  Yet, again, the classical heroic act is not complete in the otherworldly descent: the discovery of divinity within human nature calls forth the heroic act of binding the inner to the outer, of awakening all men to the inherence of the divine in the human by painting the divine above all men in “poetic imitation” of God’s own creative act as Second Adam.

 

Notes

[1] The Crisis of Liberal Democracy.  Edited by Kenneth L. Deutsch and Walter Soffer.  Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

[2] On “bad ideas,” see Arthur DiClementi and Nino Langiulli, Brooklyn Existentialism: Voices from the Stoop Explaining How Philosophical Realism Can Bring About the Restoration of Character, Intelligence and Taste.  South Bend, Indiana: Fidelity Press, 2008.

[3] The “divine” becomes absurd where, as with Heidegger, it becomes one with the historical.  On the distinction between classical mystery and modernity’s absurdity, see Guido Sommavilla, S.J., Il pensiero non è un labirinto: dialettica e mistero.  Milano, Italy: Jaca Book, 1981.

[4] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, 1253a1-4.

[5] Classical doctrines of creation yield to evolutionism where creationism is (mis)read as fulfilled in a fusion of horizons between the human and the divine: modern evolutionism’s obscuring of the division between the beastly and the human is retraceable to an “anti-Jewish” reading of Christianity as obscuring the division between the human and the divine.  Once the human loses the divine as transcendent point of reference, it tends to fall prey to the compulsion of merging with the subhuman.  In a similar way, upon seeking autonomy with respect to “theological” authorities, early modern authors are compelled to bow to the authority of “popular” senses.

[6] See Gai institutionum commentarii quattuor: separatium ex Iurisprudentiae anteiustinianae.  Edited by Emil Seckel and Bernard Kübler.  Leipzig: Teubner, 1936.  Much of Giambattista Vico’s 18th century work is dedicated to the interpretation and rediscovery of classical jurisprudence and thereby of the original meaning of jus, or “right” with respect to its various dimensions (notably, as natural, civil and divine).

[7] In the context of modern immanentism it is the past understood in subhuman or “wild” terms that is supposed to call us, in the mode of compulsion, into the human present, where man is a beast that recognizes itself as a beast in a world populated by beasts cut off from any divinity falling short of the fetishes that “human” or “self-conscious” beasts make to conceal their beasthood.  On early modern thinkers’ deep sense of indebtedness to a primordial past, see Jacob Klein’s Greek Mathematical Thought and the Origin of Algebra.  Translated by Eva Brann.  Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1968 [1934, 1936].

[8] I know of no philosopher who defended this position more radically than Martin Heidegger.

[9] Plato, Republic, Bk. III.21, 414b8-415d5.

[10] Xenophon, Memorabilia, IV.4.xxiv.25.

[11] The classical Platonic problem of the inherence of ideas in the mind points back to divinity.  Where are ideas prior to inhering in my mind?  Christianity confirms Platonism beyond time, by appealing to the Bible’s God as purissima mens.  See Hyacinthe Chalvet (fl. 17th c.), Saint Thomas Aquinas from the Tribunes of both…Christian Organization and Government [Sanctus Thomas Aquinas ex Utroque Suggestu sive Theologia Moralis Angelici Doctoris in Conciones Digesta: De Œconomia et Politia Christiana], Q. 4.1 (De aliis virtutibus regiis: de regia temperantia), where “God is perfectly pure mind unhindered by any earthly obstacle”.  Compare Dante, Inferno, Canto 2.6.

[12] On law (νόμος) as “name” (ὄνομᾰ), see Plato, Cratylus, 388d12, 389a1 and 389d.  See also Richard Robinson, “The Theory of Names in Plato’s Cratylus,” Revue Internationale de Philosophie, Vol. 9.32.2 (1955): 221-236.

[13] Genesis 2.19-20.  Quran 2.31 “corrects” the Biblical lesson, denying to Adam the liberty/right to name.  All dimensions of law are assumed to be divine, so that an ordered universe is entirely conceivable without man: far from coinciding with man in his hidden essence, the divine logos is completely absorbed in the divine nomos, making it nonsensical to speak of the Logos as the Son of God.

[14] The problem is “announced” in the two opening paragraphs of Vico’s 1744 Principi di Scienza Nuova.  The first Canto of Dante’s Inferno points in the same direction.

[15] For a detailed exploration of Renaissance pneumatology, see my “Autobiography as History of Ideas” in Historia Philosophica: An International Journal, 11 (2013): 59-94.

[16] On the legal relevance of Aristotle’s lesson, see again my “Autobiography as History of Ideas”.

[17] To be sure, the Father must be personal to the Son who rises into the Father, thereby drawing personality back at the heart of the impersonal.  The Father may then be said to be personal through the Son.  Beyond the Son, the Father is a “Godhead”.

[18] Modern evolutionism is blind to the classical “Platonic” notion of man as defined by his own eternal idea.  Modernity’s subversive alternative contextualizes ideas, binding them to their material “realization.”  Thus, for instance, man is no longer understood as realized permanently in his own idea, since that idea is conceived as the formal self-projection of its realization (a shell of development, as it were): upon its being “realized,” the shell yields to a new one, a new “ideal,” or object of material (self)realization—all this in the general or universal context of the evolution of all forms.

[19] If the images we forge serve as stage for reflection back to divinity inherent in the human, then the philosophical discovery of that divinity must expose a hiatus between the divine and its image.  When that hiatus is publicly exposed, chaos may erupt prompting an Orpheus to intervene as musical moderator, harmonizing the undisclosed and the disclosed.

[20] Giambattista Vico highlighted the hermeneutical significance of the problem at hand by defending philosophical interpretation (logos/ratio) as the original articulation of the objects of philology (nomoi), as opposed to an articulation imposed upon those objects from without, if only via a pretention (Vico speaks of boria) of discovery of philosophers’ “abstractions” at the heart of things.  See my “Epistemology’s Political-Theological Import in Giambattista Vico,” in Telos, Vol. 185 (Winter 2018): 105-27.

[21] What is at stake is not a present using the past to create the future, but the past ushering into the present through divine intervention.

[22]Primus in orbe deos fecit timor,” reads the notorious fragment attributed to Petronius: pagan Gods are the masks of primal fear.  Its promises notwithstanding, modernity does not rid us of “primal fear,” but camouflages it.  Fear grounds the modern world even as fear is now projected into a new “love” (Machiavelli), a universal mirage, or “ideal” in which all self-forgetful fear is consummated: the “socialist” (Dostoevsky) nightmare.  A glaring example is given by the French Revolution, whose ideals of liberté, égalité and fraternité are entirely compatible with a regime of fear (such as Robespierre’s Terreur) and indeed require a leap to/of extreme violence for the sake of affirming themselves.  Socialists (in Dostoevsky’s sense) who assume there is no God (above man), sooner or later recognize extreme violence as the only means to establish their ideal, once and for all.  But what stumbling block could be more irksome to the socialist than the witnesses of the God socialists assume to be “dead”?  And among such witnesses, would the socialist not abhor above all those who bind their “flesh and blood” to God, thereby undermining the socialist call to bind flesh and blood to an ideal?

[23] See Leo Strauss, “Progress or Return?  The Contemporary Crisis in Western Civilization” in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss, edited by Hilail Gildin.  Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989 [1975]: 249-310.

Marco AndreacchioMarco Andreacchio

Marco Andreacchio

Marco Andreacchio was awarded a doctorate from the University of IIllinois for his interpretation of Sino-Japanese philosophical classics in dialogue with Western counterparts and a doctorate from Cambridge University for his work on Dante’s Platonic interpretation of religious authority. Andreacchio has taught at various higher education institutions and published systematically on problems of a political-philosophical nature.

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