Miscellany: “Happy is he who knows the causes of things”

Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas… fortunatus et ille deos qui novit agrestes.

  “Happy is he who can learn the causes of things… also fortunate is he who knows the gods.”

—Virgil, Georgics

One way to think about the two forms of understanding is that human understanding begins from effects and attempts, piecemeal and through inference, to arrive at their causes. Divine understanding, by contrast, immediately grasps the causes in themselves and, by extension, the effects of those causes and it does this comprehensively, or all of a piece. What do you think of this? Perhaps is analogous to an email exchange: one party begins with letters and tries to work its way up to the meanings that the letters are meant to express. This is the “humanoid” party. The other begins with meaning and translates it into letters in an email. This is the “divine” party as the analogy goes. Do you know Thomas Aquinas? He has a beautiful way of describing these two forms of understanding. Vespertina cognitio is earthly (“evening”) knowledge; matutina cognitio is divine (“morning”) knowledge. 

***

I’m not sure if I followed you but maybe this observation will be pertinent. Descartes is famous for sounding the keynote of modern philosophy with his notorious enunciation “cogito ergo sum.” That is an appeal to rationality and the attempt at “definition” that you alluded to. If he instead had written, “I am, therefore I think,” he would have been appealing to the immediate intuition of Being that was taken by all Platonist, Peripatetic, and Christian thinkers before the Renaissance to be a participation in the divine intellect or νοῦς. It’s not right, in this paradigm, to think of the intellect in a sort of cranial quarantine from which it peers out onto objects which it subsequently tries to represent to itself. Instead, the divine intellect relates to beings as light source to projections, or as cause to effect. And human reason may participate, by degree, in the divine intellect. Have you ever encountered Aristotle’s De Anima? I am specifically thinking of the notoriously enigmatic III.5.

I agree with you about the absurdity of religion in the “divine man in the sky sense.” In fact, anyone who believes in this is an idolater, very technically speaking. By that I mean he is worshiping an image or icon which he has mistaken for the being or essence that the image is meant to represent. Back when God was less forgiving they would have been smote down with a pestilence or cloven with a thunderbolt hurled by a wrathful deity. It might seem rather modest that their punishment today is merely to be rendered into insufferable fundamentalists. But its not so benign as it seems. The days of tribalism and nation-states are behind us. We are all brothers and sisters now (as Coronavirus demonstrated). So the punishment of the few—for their pathological literal-mindedness—is also a thorn in the side of the many.

***

On triangles versus the Triangle, or triangularity as such. By analogy to “the triangle question”, think about the number 3: suppose I have three eggs in a basket. The basket has three eggs in it but the threeness is also mixed with eggs and baskets, etc. and moreover soon they may not be three eggs at all but a single omlette, or perhaps chicks, etc. and there was a time before they were three because the hen hadn’t laid them so they did not exist at all. On top of this, think about 3 again: that is a glyph on the computer screen. What relation does it have to the meaning that 3 is meant to convey to us? Where is that meaning and how do we perceive it? Not through our eyes, obviously. 

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Thank you for submitting your reflection. I think you brought up an excellent point about “actually listening to the person who is talking” as a condition for thinking critically about what he or she said. It should go without saying but the practice is not especially common today, to say the least. You suggested that the purpose of listening is to discern whether you agree with the speaker or not but I think that one’s eventual agreement or disagreement is not the most important thing to begin with. We should care more about discovering the truth of what the person is saying than with whether what he or she is saying confirms our beliefs.

***

I would like you to develop some of your ideas through critical thinking and by engaging with counterarguments to what you have affirmed. I have a couple of questions that I hope can help guide you. For instance, what would you say to someone who argued that what you believe to be “love” is just the experience of the brain being flooded by neurotransmitters like dopamine and oxytocin? Many scientific people firmly believe this based on evidence from neuroscience.

And what would you say to the person (as per the prompt for this week) who argues that all love ultimately stems from the selfish desire to experience personal pleasure? Someone who took this position would say that even altruism or self-sacrifice is the result of a secret enjoyment of feeling oneself to be “an altruistic person.” Nietzsche argued very adamantly, for example, that the ascetic impulse that Christian monks display is really a kind of egotistical sanctimoniousness: they enjoy feeling “holy.”

I think you made a very intuitive and significant connection between the essence of love and Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity. Contemplating the Trinity is notoriously regarded as one of the most lofty subjects that the mind is capable of approaching, and it is perhaps only by a sort of divine illumination that we are able to apprehend even brief visions of it. Just as we can only grope in darkness unless the sun deigns to shine on the Earth, so our minds rely on a kind of grace to achieve insight into reality beyond our senses. It is impossible to force an epiphany; one can only prepare oneself in mind and soul to receive it if it comes. I would like to share a few comments about the connection you suggested between Christ and love and freedom with the hope that they can spark further insights for you. Just as a father may or may not have a son, but every son of necessity had a father, so Christ makes manifest the aspect of freedom within the Godhead. Nobody and no principle compelled Christ to incarnate. From the ground of this perfect freedom, the only possible motive for action is love because nothing else is compelling one to act. Saints have described this experience as a participation in God. Saint Maximos the Confessor for instance described the replacement of the gnomic (i.e. “personal” or “deliberative”) will with the natural (i.e. “essential) will which is a direct outpouring of the divine nature. One may allow oneself to be inspired by this essential will that comes from God, but only after a self-sacrifice of the personal will that is bound to one’s egotistical desires. What do you think of this connection between freedom and love and Christ?

***

My question follows a statement you made: “Selfless love is impossible because love is just a feeling.”

On one hand, I think this is an immensely perspicacious insight. We should not expect to see without eyes and neither should we expect to give love without being selves. On the other hand, the eye alone does not see, but it is rather the instrument of vision. We see not so much with our eyes as through them. We know this because we don’t see anything without attention or consciousness or awareness even if our visual organs are in perfect function. By analogy, the self might be a condition for love, but I wonder if it is also the final end and cause of love as well. We love through our selves but does it follow that we love for them alone?

On the other hand, I am curious about the proposition that “love is just a feeling.” Without a doubt, one medium in which love expresses its presence is in our feelings. But I’m not certain that this expression of love is the same as the essence of love. By analogy, fire is both warm and bright. In other words, fire expresses its presence to our sense of touch and also to our sense of sight. But it would be a mistake to reduce fire, in its essential nature, to its expression through one or another of these sensory media. Instead, fire is itself and we experience it in different ways according to our nature and condition. I wonder if love is not similar. What do you think of this? I recognize that these are very challenging questions but you can be comforted to know that you are cultivating virtue by wrestling with them and moreover, what we contemplate also transforms us into its likeness, as Plato says:

“Or do you suppose there is any way in which someone can contemplate what he admires without becoming like it? … Then the philosopher, contemplating what is divine and orderly, becomes as orderly and divine as is possible for a man” (Republic 500c2–d1).

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