Dostoevsky sought to portray the “person in the person.” His “higher realism,” rooted in his Christian faith, sees visible, finite reality as bearing an analogical relationship to an invisible, infinite reality. An analogical imagination recognizes that human persons are creatures, both like and radically unlike their Creator. Created in God’s image, persons are like God in their rationality, freedom, and capacity to create and love. But God is one and persons are many; God is unchanging and persons are mutable; God is infinite and persons are finite. Above all, persons are dependent as their existence is contingent upon God’s. God is not simply another being, but Being itself, the One in Whom all persons live and move and have their particular beings. Our existence as beings does not place us in the same ontological category as God. But the divine is not so utterly transcendent that our own rational conceptions of the good and true and beautiful bear no relation to God. They bear an analogical relation.
Christian faith understands God not only as Being but as Love. God is a unity of three persons bound in infinite, inter-relational, self-giving love. God’s love overflows to form creation and, in time, enters history and a particular place in the person of Christ. In Christ, the believer sees most clearly the image of God’s beauty, goodness, and truth. The infinite Word takes on creaturely flesh and finitude. But Christ’s descent into finitude and death brings forth resurrection, ascension, and the gifts of the Holy Spirit. As Trinity, God is both One and three differentiated persons; Christ is both God and man, “without confusion . . . without separation” (Dogmatic Definition of Chalcedon). The analogical imagination is built upon the two doctrinal beams that undergird the Christian faith: Trinity and Incarnation. Analogy recognizes the unity in our human plurality: for all our particularity and diversity, we are each persons, and, in analogy to God’s Trinitarian nature, created to be in integral relation to other persons. Analogy recognizes that human love is both like and—given our creaturely, fallen frailty--unlike the Creator’s love.
The second doctrine we find builds upon this notion of educating the soul: ‘learning is recollection’. This is an early theory of innate knowledge. When Meno (Meno 80e) poses this paradox – how can you know or find out about what you have no idea of? and if you did know of what you didn’t know, how would you even recognise this unknown? – Socrates presents an uneducated slave boy with a mathematical problem. After providing him with the tools to solve the puzzle, upon his success, Socrates declares that the knowledge must have been in him all along. The truth “has been in the soul forever… and that means that if there’s something you do not happen to know about right now, or rather, happen not to have remembered yet, you mustn’t be afraid to try and find out about it” (86b). This opens up Plato’s mysticism: Plato argues that the soul is imperishable and lives outside of the material world, until it is born into the body with innate knowledge of truths seen outside worldly experience. Knowledge is therefore recollection of the soul’s past experience.
If we apply this idea back to Plato’s dialogues, we find that innate knowledge does not simply concern arithmetic, but also knowledge of moral virtue, and of goodness in itself. Perhaps you noticed that in steps 1 and 3 of the dialogical pattern I gave, it was not Socrates but Laches and Nicias who proposed definitions of bravery. And step 4’s definition is a combination of Laches and Nicias. So this definition would come from them, not from Socrates, who only claims to be a midwife to their knowledge. So where did this definition come from? Plato would argue that these answers come from the souls of those open to philosophy, and that their wise discussion triggered the remembering of the innate idea.
The essential truths Plato is interested in knowing are what we translate as ‘Forms’ or ‘Ideas’ (eidon in Greek). Put simply, the Forms are objective eternally-existing templates of all that can be known about. But we live in a world of particulars, and what we experience everyday is an imperfect mixture of the Forms, so obscuring them from us, so that we must seek them. Plato would expound on this idea most clearly in the Symposium, with his ‘Ladder of Love’ analogy, where he describes the search for true beauty as a continual process, experiencing a multitude of associations and discarding the naive aspects until reaching a core of truth. Seeing beauty in bodies moves up to seeing beauty in minds; which moves to art; and communities; finally arriving at knowledge of the Form of Beauty ‘in itself and by itself’, whereby “gold and clothing and good-looking boys and youths will pale into insignificance beside it” (Symposium 211 b-d). The lasting impression I obtain from this, is that we can aspire to transcend the here and now in knowledge, since even flawed dreams draw us closer to the truth.
The truths remembered may not be perfectly-remembered truths. However, a theory of recollection demonstrates that all individuals, regardless of gender or social position, have the power to vanquish falsehood with reason, and so all are capable of becoming virtuous. However, Plato’s ethics cannot flourish in a world of commercial needs and political realism. For education to transcend the particular and aspire to grasp the essential truths of existence, a reconstruction of society of utopian proportions will be required.
As I read Yuk Hui’s enormously complex argument, he claims that we are now in a position where we can see what is of value in the Thesis only after we fully dwell within the Antithesis. This leads us to the generative idea of “multiple cosmotechnics.” First, what does Hui mean by the peculiar word “cosmotechnics”? “It is the unification of the cosmos and the moral through technical activities, whether craft-making or art-making.” That is, a cosmotechnics is the point at which a way of life is realized through making.
The point may be illustrated with reference to an ancient tale Hui offers, about an excellent butcher who explains to a duke what he calls the Dao, or “way,” of butchering. The reason he is a good butcher, he says, it not his mastery of a skill, or his reliance on superior tools. He is a good butcher because he understands the Dao: Through experience he has come to rely on his intuition to thrust the knife precisely where it does not cut through tendons or bones, and so his knife always stays sharp. The duke replies: “Now I know how to live.” Hui explains that “it is thus the question of ‘living,’ rather than that of technics, that is at the center of the story.”
This unification — of making and living — might be said to be the whole point of Daoism. Though the same theme is woven through certain Confucian texts and the I Ching, it is particularly notable as the incessant refrain of the Daodejing, or, as it is more commonly called in the English-speaking world, the Tao Te Ching. The title means something like “The Classic of the Virtue of the Way” or “The Classic of the Way and of Virtue.” In both cases “virtue” (Te) should be understood as something close to the Latin virtus or the Greek aretē, meaning a kind of excellence, an excellence that has power.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Art and Faith, and I would argue one of the most appealing aspects of Christianity itself, is the insistence that though the world is broken, its brokenness is the basis of its rebirth. Just as the resurrected Christ, resplendent in his perfected body, still bore the wounds of his crucifixion, and just as the kintsugi cup becomes brilliant with its gilded fractures, so the world is made perfect through its imperfection, not in spite of it. The very idea of “brokenness,” Fujimura tells us, implies a crass utilitarian dichotomy between useful and useless. “By honoring the brokenness,” he writes, “the broken shapes can somehow be a necessary component of the New World to come. This is the most outrageous promise of the Bible, which is at the heart of the Theology of Making: not only are we restored, we are to partake in the co-creation of the New.”
Although the experience of time’s duration is unrecoverable, its ghosts can be reanimated by the persistence, allure, and rediscovery of objects in space. A pressure cooker on a cabinet above the stove, unread books on medieval art from a university course stuffed into a childhood bedroom, the crockery set inherited from an aunt. But when such objects are gathered together without context, we perceive the absolute flatness of time lived and lost, of life displaced.
A perfect incarnation of one type of storage would collect together all the guilty, festering objects from all the spaces in one’s life and concentrate them in flat, spent time and neutral space. Many storage tenants do this, to some degree. It is a place that does not hold the past in some straightforward balance between preservation and deterioration. It can hold the past as well as the future—that is, a past life to which we may hope to return, or objects with little connection to our past lives but essential to an imagined future, to improvement, or at least to change. It is a place of aspiration.
John Singer Sargent was not Monet and he certainly was not Van Gogh. He doesn’t fit comfortably into the standard story of painting and its “advances” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He is neither of the avant-garde nor of the conservative reaction. He’s neither here nor there, neither fish nor fowl. Some would consider that an insult. But John Singer Sargent would, I think, have accepted the charge. He was happiest in the ambiguous places between things. His paintings continue to intrigue because that ambiguity is part of the nature of life. It doesn’t go away. It is real. And Sargent found a way to paint it.
When I was in the Army and stationed in Germany, I spent as many long weekends as possible in France and Italy. I would drive out of Bavaria, a wet emerald of farms and forests, through the unsettlingly long tunnels cutting under the Alps, and after what seemed like no time at all, find myself delivered to the low, brown plains of Northern Italy. My town was Jesolo. A packed beach resort during the Summer, Jesolo was mostly abandoned in the off-season, making me a familiar face to the locals working in the empty restaurants and wandering along the cool, wind-swept beach. A genial man selling roses from a bicycle had a bit where he would pretend to forget that he had already pitched me, even though we might be the only two people on the street. He would circle by, again and again, grinning. “Rosa?,” “No,” “Rosa?,” “No.” Until finally I bought one just to reward his wry humor and persistence. Being a tourist in the off-season, you felt like you were in on the joke. It was like going backstage at a circus. You were able to occupy some role halfway between audience and performer, granting you a privileged perspective on both.
But the best part of staying in Jesolo was leaving Jesolo and coming into Venice by sea. First you take the bus from Lido de Jesolo to Punta Sabionni, and from there the ferry slowly churns thick water past Sant’Erasmo and Le Vignole to disembark at San Zaccaria in San Marco, Venice proper. It is the same motionless sea and sky that lured Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach to sleep, an infinite refraction of gray and lime stillness. The city seemed permanently lodged between two complementary infinities. It felt ancient, abandoned and then recently reoccupied, oscillating between decay and reconstruction. Like Brugel the Elder’s Tower of Babel series, where you cannot quite tell if the towers are in the midst of construction or ruin, Venice has always seemed to me to fully occupy that liminal space between creation and destruction. In this sense, the city can be read like a physical synecdoche for the world itself. A symbol for what Simone Weil called the perpetually “shipwrecked” status of our human state.
A shipwreck—something that might once more be made to move but is at least temporarily a victim of contingency—feels like an apt symbol for Simone Weil as well. As she wrote in Intimations of Christianity Among the Ancient Greeks, “We are like shipwrecked persons clinging to logs upon the sea and tossed in an entirely passive manner by every movement of the waves.” Hers was a life abruptly cut short. When she died at 34 from tuberculosis while living as an exile in England during the Second World War, her work ceased at the very height of her abilities. And yet, by grace, it somehow survives to live on in our hearts and minds, aphoristically and half-finished in many cases, as if waiting for our attention to bring it to some fuller sense of life.
In our strange current times, we have people on one side of politics, supposed “conservatives,” critical of such dubious inversions, who yet disingenuously deny the realities of ecological crisis. On the other, “liberal” side, we have people happy to accept them, while claiming to defend the planet from its now dire human-imposed peril. But the latter group are incoherent as to how to do so. Purporting to extend rights to non-humans pathetically and fictionally grants to passive natural victims, whose inherent natural agency has been fatally depleted, the very active individualism that has led to their despoliation.
Likewise, advocating the hybridity of humans with machines and the altering of our biology in the name of non-anthropocentricity merely perpetuates the loss of a sense of natures as kinds and their limits (which, however, must be endlessly re-discerned) with a single and blank block of “nature” that means nothing in itself and can be endlessly manipulated. Foregoing in theory the role of humans as the foci and stewards of Creation thereby abandons it in practice to a loss of our necessary care and to victimage at the hands of our only alternative role, which will be that of despoilers.
For we cannot really unimagine our human nature as though it could really be lacking in intrinsic purpose and goals. If we deny these, then our anti-goal becomes empty freedom which means nihilistic power. So, in order to save nature we must also save ourselves, and recover our sense of our genuine human nature which means finally our pursuit of supernatural union with God, bringing the cosmos along with us. In the meantime, it means quite simply the pursuit of beauty: both civic and natural beauty—the beauty of cultivation in every sense—for our own delectation and the peace and satisfaction of all God’s creatures.
American conservatism, for Lasch, took the assumptions of economic liberalism for granted. In a late essay published in the journal First Things, he remarks that “if conservatism is understood to imply a respect for limits, it is clearly incompatible with modern capitalism or with the liberal ideology of unlimited economic growth.” The acquisitive individualism that is inseparable from this ideology instills a set of attitudes and expectations that undermine not only traditions and communities, but the institutions that the right historically revered as moderating influences against greed and excess: the family and small-scale property ownership. Lasch observes that “twentieth-century capitalism… has replaced private property with a corporate form of property that confers none of these moral and cultural advantages. The transformation of artisans, farmers, and other small proprietors into wage-earners undermines the ‘traditional values’ conservatives seek to preserve.” He concludes: “capitalism’s relentless erosion of proprietary institutions furnishes the clearest evidence of its incompatibility with anything that deserves the name of cultural conservatism.”
Taken as a whole, Lasch’s body of writing offers an account of the limitations of the American political panorama of his era. Conservatism, he suggests, tends to provide de facto ideological cover for the economic developments that have eroded the social values it claims to promote. Liberalism, for its part, has overseen the rise of a state bureaucratic apparatus that promises to compensate for the effects of this erosion. However, in the process, it further weakens the autonomy of individuals, families, and communities, and enables the substitution of democracy with technocratic elite rule. While the New Left of the 1960s rebelled against the expansion of corporate and bureaucratic power, the end result of its revolt was not a reassertion of the local and the communal, but the infusion of those structures with a new therapeutic sensibility.
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