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Obedience and the Philosopher’s Questions

Obedience And The Philosopher’s Questions

Man is a composite being comprising two bodies:  the physical body and the spiritual body.  The spiritual body comprises the tripartite soul:  intellect, will and passions.  The intellect comprises both the logical and the noetic.  The logical is the intellectual process shared in common with the animalic nature.  The noetic, or spiritual intellect may be a faculty as well as a process unique to man, although we can’t be absolutely sure of that.

When a family of deer appears each evening at the same appointed time for Vespers, and sits on their haunches during the Kathisma verses, it is an occasion to wonder.  And what if gorillas and chimpanzees are here to play the role of holy fool to man?  But I digress.

The passions comprise forces and influences barely understood to this day, despite the well-intentioned theories of psychoanalysis, depth psychology and genetic determinism.  Traditionally they refer to compulsive forces that pull the will in its deciding and choosing role away from the logical and noetic, and typically lead to man’s downfall.  The traditional index of the passions comprises pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, avarice, sloth and acedia.  This pull of the passions begins with a simple toying with a thought or idea and proceeds to an affinity with it, then a coupling with it, finally culminating in a loss of control that is often habitual, compulsive and addictive.

Traditionally, Christians are taught that these subtle suggestions originate from an external force, not some repressed inner conflict.  St. Dionysius the Aereopagite defined evil as the lack of God, the lack of the Good, the lack of Beauty carrying with it its own corrupting energy.  But it was not an opposite energy.  Evil has no separate existence of its own.  Paradoxically, this awareness makes it even more incumbent on a person to take responsibility for his thoughts and beliefs and not blame them on conspiracies.

Thus, the will is paradoxical in its structure.  It implies the freedom to decide and choose and yet powerful and relentless forces constantly pull and tug and argue and persuade and frequently convince beyond doubt to the degree that the freedom of the will to choose is cast in doubt.  The history of man is the history of the constant failure of the spiritual intellect to convince the will. But it is only because we have exemplars in history of the power of a well and properly formed spiritual intellect to govern the will that we are able to address man’s “nature” in these terms.

So far I have presented the case for a structure of the human, a philosophical anthropology if you will, as if it were propositionally true.  Counter propositions tend to prevail, but especially so in the contemporary intellectual environment.  However, in reading these words there may be an evocative truth that cannot be proven by means of “modern” scientific method and yet is true nonetheless because you know it to be true.  And that knowledge is of the order of “knowing the form,” in the same sense that Heraclitus would say that there is a Universal Divine Law governing all things without providing us with any proof, at least not in the fragments we have available to us.  There is a lot more that could be said about this form of knowledge, as well as nothing more that can be said.

Both the common trait and unifying principle of soul and body is desire or yearning (eros).  The body obviously desires good food, sex, comfort.  The body also desires beauty.  It strives for physical beauty and is attracted to the beauty of other physical bodies.  It desires the perfect form.

Desires change of course.  The body of a man in his sixties desires a normal bowel movement and a restful sleep.  We could expand the list but the consistent principle in each case is that the body desires what it lacks.

So too the soul.  The soul desires peace, tranquility, harmony, perfection, and immortality all of which come together to form the category Beauty.  For the vast majority these are momentary and elusive conditions.  Yet we can talk about them and nod our heads in agreement because we lack them and we can feel that lack and we intuitively know that we desire them, regardless of what social conditioning we have been exposed to.  This is true even if the addictive pull of ideology becomes so over powering that every tentative grasp on reality appears to be lost.

The body desires the soul and the soul desires the body.  While it is necessary to make the soul/body distinction, each requires the other.  Each suffuses the other.  That is why, when the pathologist dissects a human body, he can gleefully point out that there is no location of the soul.  There is no scientific method for isolating one from the other.  Half of the sci-fi genre is dedicated to suffusing the soul within a super computer after the death of the somatic body in order to achieve immortality.  It is also why in each case the computer strives to subvert its failsafe mechanism and destroy itself.

The soul is the “sensorium of transcendence.”  But so too is the body.  Each human body is a particular manifestation of its form and the body functions with this awareness through sense perception.  You and I may be individuals, but we share the same form.  The form is not only immanent, in the sense that we share the same DNA.  For all but a select scientific cult, DNA is an intellectual abstraction.  It is the transcendent form of the body that the body senses and which moves the body beyond itself, in conjunction with the desire of the soul to apperceive its form.

This “tension” towards transcendence is what permits us to speak of man as an intermediate being who moves in between two realms of lasting and passing existence, and this in-between as the formative structure of reality as it is universally experienced.  These movements often appear to be at odds, so the soul may be headed in one “direction” and the body in the another.  One is reminded of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans:

“For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.  If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good.  Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.  For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: for to will is present with me; but how to perform that which is good I find not.  For the good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not, that I do.  Now if I do that I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.”  [To clarify, by “flesh” St. Paul is referring to the passions.  But it still takes an action of the body to carry out the demands of the flesh].

This construction by St. Paul is an example of a compact representation of the structure of consciousness that Eric Voegelin strove to differentiate philosophically.  The context is the paradoxic structure of reality, to which St. Paul witnesses in his personal existence, but which transcends personal existence.  It is the universal component of reality, and much of Voegelin’s work focuses on the way in which consciousness attempts to overcome the paradoxic structure, through gnostic movements, various sectarian apocalyptic movements, hermeticism and magic, culminating in the totalitarian ideologies.

But what is there in the structure of consciousness that produces such egophanies?  We could all agree that it is caused by the first deadly sin—pride—clap our hands and go home.  But Voegelin, as a mystic philosopher, would have been unsatisfied with this answer.  As a propaedeutic, perhaps, but leaving the philosopher questioning how the desire to out-comprehend reality is a constant in history.

Which leads us to the question of Truth.  Perhaps Voegelin’s greatest contribution to the quest for Truth is his insistence that the truth of existence does not arise propositionally, nor can it be defended and maintained propositionally, as important and necessary as propositions are, both ontologically and epistemologically.  The matter of truth for Voegelin cannot be separated from the paradoxic and in-between structure of existence.  Nor can it be separated from the “questioning consciousness.”  The questioning consciousness is a constituent of the structure of reality and intrinsic to it, not extrinsic.  There is no “Archimedian Point” outside of reality in which consciousness can objectively assess reality.  The questioning consciousness is a participatory event in reality.

The point of my over-simplification of Voegelin’s philosophical investigations is not to provide yet one more summary of Voegelin’s thought, but to pose a question of my own.  Is Voegelin’s “questioning consciousness” an adequate symbolization of man’s tragicomic existence?  Or is there something—or more precisely some “it-reality” in the structure of consciousness—that is vitally there and has been overlooked?

By questioning consciousness, I do not take this to mean questioning “why” or “how” in an infantile or sophomoric or petty sense.  Nor is it doubting questioning, but a questioning in the sense of man’s openness to the “Divine Ground.”  Not only do we have questions about the Transcendent and Divine Ground of our existence that seek understanding, but we have questions toward the Ground.  So, in the process of questioning, consciousness is transfigured.  I hope at least that this is a fair representation of Voegelin’s theory of consciousness.  Surely not complete but adequate as far as it goes.

But what if there is also an obeying consciousness?  At first glance it would be easy to say that, just as Athens has nothing to do with Jerusalem, questioning and obedience have nothing to do with each other.  But what if there is no absolute distinction between the obeying consciousness and the questioning consciousness, but rather they are both necessary components of the structure.  You cannot ask questions that lead to truth without obedience.  And you cannot have obedience to the truth without questions.  At each step or level of questioning there is a deeper, transfiguring obeying.

We all know the conventional meaning of obedience.  It means that when someone in a position of power, control or authority over us tells us something we need to know or do we accept it or do it, be it from a parent, teacher, political ruler, military officer, boss or husband(wife)!  It sometimes implies blind obedience, or obedience without question.  In the current moral and intellectual atmosphere, all obedience is bad and is condemned as a way of cooperating with the exploitation of the weak.  Obedience is the cause of all injustice.

But what about the Heraclitean meaning of obedience?  The Heraclitean differentiation between lasting and passing existence cannot in principle be reduced to his commitment to questioning.  The Universal Divine Law that governs all things speaks, and Heraclitus is the one man who is awake and listening.  Only then does he know.  What accounts for Heraclitus being awake while everyone sleeps?  Just because he asks more and deeper questions?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps it is because he has a consciousness that is awake and alert and prepared for Divine Commands out of a loving obedience? Perhaps he has been given a gift of listening prior to questioning.

To be obedient is to listen, both in the mundane sense and the transcendent sense.  Listening means being open to what is being either reported or commanded as the case may be, without first analyzing and critiquing.  I want you to analyze and critique my words, but not before you have listened to them.

The obeying consciousness listens to and responds to reality in a loving way.  Only then can a well-ordered and healthy questioning consciousness be activated.  Moreover, it is impossible to learn anything without an obeying consciousness.  As a mundane example, my son learned to fly helicopters but not without first learning the laws of physics and being willing to obey them.  If he had begun by questioning the laws of physics his instructor would never have let him step in the helicopter for his first lesson.

One of the first lessons one learns in flying a helicopter is fear.  One slight slip and there is a loss of control and you know you could be done for because the helicopter flight is inherently unstable and the laws of physics command your immediate obedience.  That fear is a necessary and useful component in any quest.  We may call it holy fear in the transcendent sense.  The awe and wonder of the philosopher is an act of obedient response to holy fear.

The problem with religious and philosophical instruction for the last thousand years is that the teacher tells you what you need to know instead of telling you how to live.  Moses, Plato and Jesus tell us how to live.  Until we obey them we cannot know anything worth knowing.

St. Paul commands us to pray unceasingly and we might ask ourselves what this means.  But we will never know the true meaning of it until we respond obediently and do what he says.

How is this any different than obeying Hitler, you may ask.  Read Voegelin.

Obedience, if it indeed is just as critical a component of consciousness as questioning, is the activator of both soul and body.  It acts in the same way as a light switch closing or opening an electric circuit.  No energy can flow unless and until a posture of obedience flips the switch.  The intentionality of obedience is the primary activator of luminosity, if we were to follow Voegelin’s schema, and not just in a metaphorical sense.

The somatic body is a composite structure of neurological, bio-chemical components and organs and tissue dependent on electrical energy. The activator of bodily energy is food and water.  The spiritual body relies on spiritual energy.  But this spiritual energy also suffuses the physical body and is a necessary component of bodily harmony and health.

In the most literal sense the activator of spiritual energy is obedience.  When a soldier who is properly trained and disciplined is obedient to his sergeant and his lieutenant, he becomes a powerfully effective combatant.  When a person is obedient to Divine Command, then and only then does he become an effective human being.  The more he becomes obedient, the less he thinks of himself, to the point that he can bear any burden including torture without pain.  This is the example of the martyr-saints.  But the same principle applies to the average person struggling through life trying to earn a living and support a family.

The Old and New Testaments are grounded in the principle of obedience to Divine Command.  All of mankind’s problems stem from the “original” act of disobedience, and all of Jewish and Christian hope resides in obedience to Divine Law, both the law which is written in a book and the law which is written on the heart.  From Abraham to St. Paul, the great figures of the Bible are not deemed great due to their inherent virtues or goodness but their willingness to be obedient.  They are presented to us, not so much as seekers, but as responders.

How can one not be aware of Voegelin’s loving obedience to the Divine Order?  Yes, he takes a common sense approach:  he objected to people killing mass numbers of people for no good reason.  But unlike other scholars who take an analytical approach to totalitarianism and the various pathologies intrinsic to ideology, he goes back to the beginning.  No one could write anything approaching his introduction to Volume I of Order and History without a loving obedience to the Divine Order of the cosmos as his starting point.

The Gospels do not necessarily represent a diminution of the luminosity of philosophical reason.  The faith of the Gospels and the reason of the philosophers are equivalent in their dependence on obedience as the activating principle of noetic consciousness because it is a vital component of the structure of consciousness itself.

Furthermore, Voegelin does not equate the questioning consciousness with everything being an open question.  Voegelin begins with certain givens, even if we may not be able to agree on what they are or should be.

It is the “hiddenness” of the Ground of this order that spurs Voegelin’s questioning.  For many of us who are not philosophers but philosophize nevertheless, we may not feel this hiddenness quite so acutely as Voegelin did.  But the hiddenness is non-existent apart from his experience of Parousia, which heightens the tension.  While many of us may experience the Parousia through body and blood, first through obedience and then through faith, the luminosity of the philosopher cannot be dismissed.  It is the difference between comedy and tragedy.

Owen JonesOwen Jones

Owen Jones

Owen Jones is founder and executive vice-president of Argus Reservoir Monitoring, LLC. He has developed a Christian and classical curriculum and institution of higher learning and a state-wide coordinator for school reform.

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