Ratzinger’s “as if” has the characteristic structure of the hermeneutic circle, the paradoxical idea according to which, in order to know something, we must already know it—in some implicit fashion. Aristotle faces this paradox in the third chapter of the Nicomachean Ethics when he muses that young people—young in age or young in terms of maturity—who do not act rationally will not profit from discussions of ethics: the theory both presupposes knowledge of ethical behavior and aims at it. There is an “interplay,” in Ratzinger’s words, between theory and practice, so that in the absence of practice, the theory cannot take hold.
The Platonic tradition, too, works with a version of the hermeneutic circle. In the Meno, the slave boy who, at Socrates’s prodding, is able to recollect the basic truths of geometry illustrates Plato’s claim that learning is a process of anamnesis, of recollecting knowledge hidden in the depths of the soul. In Christian Neoplatonism, anamnesis takes the form of a divine illumination theory. As Augustine argues in the De magistro, all human instruction does is make us aware of the Teacher who speaks within us, but whom we must learn to hear.
The hermeneutic circle continues to play an important role in contemporary philosophy, where it found an influential proponent in Martin Heidegger. Far from being “vicious,” Heidegger emphasizes in Being and Time, the hermeneutic circle describes the necessary structure of all human understanding. Metaphysics, as Heidegger conceives it in 1927, is a painstaking making-explicit of the implicit understanding of Being that belongs, part and parcel, to human existence. The issue, Heidegger remarks, is not how to avoid the hermeneutic circle, but how to enter into it in the right manner: how to “leap into” it, “primordially and wholly.”
This is precisely what, in his 1980 interview, Ratzinger invites the non-believer to do—enter into the hermeneutic circle of the Christian faith. At the beginning of this journey, there may be nothing more than curiosity, a vague attraction to the faith: to the beauty of the liturgy perhaps, or to the example of a friend’s Christian life—nothing amounting to firm belief in God’s existence and offer of salvation in Jesus Christ. Yet, this may be sufficient to gain entry into the circle, by beginning to act “as if” there were a promise of meaning. For Ratzinger, at the heart of this promise stands divine providence, that is, the sense that I am “wanted,” that my existence is not the result of a series of historical accidents but, rather, forms part of a larger plan that carries me. God bestows meaning upon my existence even in moments when I fail to make sense of my life. I will begin to see a pattern, new avenues will open up, and life will gain in richness and depth. The initial decision to enter into the circle will be validated in that my new way of life will bear fruit.
One may wonder how this journey continues. Is it possible to leave the hermeneutic circle behind, such that acting “as if” a divine providence existed is gradually superseded by certainty that my life is, in fact, carried by God’s grace? It seems clear that faith is able to grow, to progress in strength and depth. However, as Ratzinger writes movingly in the first pages of his Introduction to Christianity, the believer “has been assigned the ocean of uncertainty as the only possible site for his faith.” Indeed, he finds himself “choked by the salt water of doubt constantly washed into his mouth.”Remarkable words from the pen of a future pope. So, perhaps, the Christian is able to enter ever more deeply into the hermeneutic circle, in which repeated, more fervent attempts to live “as if” there were a divine meaning are rewarded by experiences that it all makes sense, that the “as if” grants access to truth. Yet, as long as this life lasts, the circle remains the fundamental structure of Christian existence.
From this point of view, we are not so surprised when we come to Paul Ludwig’s lucid essay on why Lucretius, a materialist, did not advocate the conquest of nature. Lucretius’ “epicurean” response to death, Ludwig suggests, is actually more consistent with finding happiness in a purely materialistic world than the scientific struggle. Lucretius is not trying to co-opt religion, and hence can claim to overcome all its hopes and fears. But seeking to replace the religious quest for immortality with a science- and technology- based quest, our modern authors have no way of avoiding, and indeed must depend on, those same hopes and fears. Until the moment that immortality were to actually become a reality, then, we experience not stoic detachment and calm, but the same old unhappiness and disappointment that our limitations necessarily create in the face of imagined possibilities of perfection.
Remarkably, neuroscience tells us three things about the mind: the mind is metaphysically simple, the intellect and will are immaterial, and free will is real.
In the middle of the twentieth century, neurosurgeons discovered that they could treat a certain kind of epilepsy by severing a large bundle of brain fibers, called the corpus callosum, which connects the two hemispheres of the brain. Following these operations, each hemisphere worked independently. But what happened to the mind of a person with his or her brain split in half?
The neuroscientist Roger Sperry studied scores of split-brain patients. He found, surprisingly, that in ordinary life the patients showed little effect. Each patient was still one person. The intellect and will – the capacity to have abstract thought and to choose – remained unified. Only by meticulous testing could Sperry find any differences: their perceptions were altered by the surgery. Sensations – elicited by touch or vision – could be presented to one hemisphere of the brain, and not be experienced in the other hemisphere. Speech production is associated with the left hemisphere of the brain; patients could not name an object presented to the right hemisphere (via the left visual field). Yet they could point to the object with their left hand (which is controlled by the right hemisphere). The most remarkable result of Sperry’s Nobel Prize–winning work was that the person’s intellect and will – what we might call the soul – remained undivided.
The brain can be cut in half, but the intellect and will cannot. The intellect and will are metaphysically simple.
There is nothing particularly Faustian, of course, about valorizing the search for truth: Aristotle notes it as a commonplace that, “All men naturally desire knowledge,” a statement Dante himself repeats at the beginning of his Convivio. And the trope of the greybeard pursuing wisdom even to his dying breath is at least as old as Plato’s Phaedo. Nor should we be shocked at the allure of Dante’s Ulysses. Like Milton’s Satan, few characters from Purgatorio or Paradiso are as memorable or as compelling as Francesca, Brunetto Latini, or Ulysses. We readers are taken in by their explanations and exculpations; perhaps Dante himself was too, at some level.
Despite the superficial appeal of an heroic reading of Ulysses, Dante complicates matters considerably in the Commedia itself, by presenting the Greek as tragic type of curiositas. As Dante depicts it, Ulysses’s passion for knowledge looks to be doubly deranged, so encompassing that it both blinds him to the ways he injures others, and leaves him indifferent as to its objects. To the first, Ulysses admits to Dante that his last voyage came at his family’s expense: neither “my fondness for my son, nor pity for my old father, nor the love I owed Penelope, which would have gladdened her,” could restrain his longing to know. Moreover, Ulysses is as happy to know “human vices” as our “worth.” Like Adam, he longs for knowledge of evil as well as good (cf. Gen 3:5).
Indeed, Ulysses is haunted by Adam: when he ignores the Pillars’ “ne plus ultra,” and takes his crew five months’ sailing into the empty northern hemisphere, he comes within sight of land which no mortal flesh had beheld since the creation: Mount Purgatory, at whose summit lies the earthly paradise whence Adam and Eve were driven. If this was not clear enough, Dante links the two figures verbally: in Paradiso, Adam tells Dante that his “great exile” came about, not from “enjoying the tree (legno),” but from “transgressing the sign (il segno).” Strikingly, Ulysses sought to cross “the high, open sea / with a single ship (legno),” and met his doom after passing the place “where Hercules set up (segnò) his warnings.” Having eaten, like Adam and Eve, from the tree of knowledge, they were preparing to storm Eden and eat from the tree of life as well, then truly to be gods (cf. Gen 3:22-24).
Even more unsettling is the reliance on foreign, and often adversarial, manufacturing and supplies. The report found that “China is the single or sole supplier for a number of specialty chemicals used in munitions and missiles…. A sudden and catastrophic loss of supply would disrupt DoD missile, satellite, space launch, and other defense manufacturing programs. In many cases, there are no substitutes readily available.” Other examples of foreign reliance included circuit boards, night vision systems, batteries, and space sensors.
The story here is similar. When Wall Street targeted the commercial industrial base in the 1990s, the same financial trends shifted the defense industry. Well before any of the more recent conflicts, financial pressure led to a change in focus for many in the defense industry—from technological engineering to balance sheet engineering. The result is that some of the biggest names in the industry have never created any defense product. Instead of innovating new technology to support our national security, they innovate new ways of creating monopolies to take advantage of it.
A good example is a company called TransDigm. While TransDigm presents itself as a designer and producer of aerospace products, it can more accurately be described as a designer of monopolies. TransDigm began as a private equity firm, a type of investment business, in 1993. Its mission, per its earnings call, is to give “private equity-like returns” to shareholders, returns that are much higher than the stock market or other standard investment vehicles.
It achieves these returns for its shareholders by buying up companies that are sole or single-source suppliers of obscure airplane parts that the government needs, and then increasing prices by as much as eight times the original amount. If the government balks at paying, TransDigm has no qualms daring the military to risk its mission and its crew by not buying the parts. The military, held hostage, often pays the ransom. TransDigm’s gross profit margins using this model to gouge the U.S. government are a robust 54.5 percent. To put that into perspective, Boeing and Lockheed’s profit margins are listed at 13.6 percent and 10.91 percent. In many ways, TransDigm is like the pharmaceutical company run by Martin Shkreli, which bought rare treatments and then price gouged those who could not do without the product. Earlier this year, TransDigm recently bought the remaining supplier of chaff and one of two suppliers of flares, products identified in the Defense Department’s supply chain fragility report.
TransDigm was caught manipulating the parts market by the Department of Defense Inspector General in 2006, again in 2008, and finally again this year. It is currently facing yet another investigation by the Government Accountability Office.
Yet, Trandigm’s stock price thrives because Wall Street loves monopolies, regardless of who they are taking advantage of. Take this analysis from TheStreetfrom March 2019, published after the latest Inspector General report and directly citing many of the concerning facts from the report as pure positives for the investor:
The company is now the sole supplier for 80% of the end markets it serves. And 90% of the items in the supply chain are proprietary to TransDigm. In other words, the company is operating a monopoly for parts needed to operate aircraft that will typically be in service for 30 years…. Managers are uniquely motivated to increase shareholder value and they have an enviable record, with shares up 2,503% since 2009.
"Luckily for us, liberalism won the ensuing conflict. But we ought not make the same mistake Constant did in the nineteenth century and throw Sparta on the dust heap of history. Something in human nature craves more than a sphere of rights, more than promises of nice things and free association. One need neither equate nor endorse the rise of democratic socialism on the left and of nationalism on the right to observe that each demonstrates, once again, that people crave more than individual liberty, full stop. People want actively to participate in the life of a community, too, and our politics ought to answer to that. While we should beware the Sparta myth, we would also do well to emulate the best that culture had to offer."
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