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The necessity for a new life

January 6, 2014

After two weeks of holiday traveling sans computer I’m finally back at home and to work. I have a number of posts I want to make about various topics; first, briefly, I want to talk about papa Benedict XVI’s 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi (that is, “hope saves”), which I’ve been reading, and need to re-read (even if I am seven years late to the party). It’s an impressive document, and an erudite one–he engages not just the usual suspects (Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, etc), but also secular figures like Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Adorno.

And also Plato and Fyodor Dostoevsky–specifically, the Gorgias and the Brothers Karamazov. Perhaps it is these presences that make me think that Benedict asks his question in a way of particular interest to poets. Poets–at least, the kind of lyric poets I like–are disciples of eros, in the sense of desire, and so explorers of the imagination: what may be desired–for our society? for our loved ones? for ourselves? Benedict, meanwhile, asks: “What may we hope?” And his concern, fundamentally, is with eschatology: where do we hope, and where are, we going?

The encyclical is wide-ranging, and, like I said, I need to re-read it; but for now, I want to quote two passages, one long, one short, that bring out two of its key concerns. First, politics: Benedict quotes so many Enlightenment and Communist thinkers because he’s contemplating what we can hope for from a secular (this-worldly) government. Unsurprisingly, the answer is anti-Platonic–though perhaps pro-Plato, depending on how you read the Republic‘s Socratic irony. Surprisingly, the reasoning is Dostoevskian. Key passages bolded.

24. Let us ask once again: what may we hope? And what may we not hope? First of all, we must acknowledge that incremental progress is possible only in the material sphere. Here, amid our growing knowledge of the structure of matter and in the light of ever more advanced inventions, we clearly see continuous progress towards an ever greater mastery of nature. Yet in the field of ethical awareness and moral decision-making, there is no similar possibility of accumulation for the simple reason that man’s freedom is always new and he must always make his decisions anew. These decisions can never simply be made for us in advance by others—if that were the case, we would no longer be free. Freedom presupposes that in fundamental decisions, every person and every generation is a new beginning. Naturally, new generations can build on the knowledge and experience of those who went before, and they can draw upon the moral treasury of the whole of humanity. But they can also reject it, because it can never be self-evident in the same way as material inventions. The moral treasury of humanity is not readily at hand like tools that we use; it is present as an appeal to freedom and a possibility for it. This, however, means that:

a) The right state of human affairs, the moral well-being of the world can never be guaranteed simply through structures alone, however good they are. Such structures are not only important, but necessary; yet they cannot and must not marginalize human freedom. Even the best structures function only when the community is animated by convictions capable of motivating people to assent freely to the social order. Freedom requires conviction; conviction does not exist on its own, but must always be gained anew by the community.

b) Since man always remains free and since his freedom is always fragile, the kingdom of good will never be definitively established in this world. Anyone who promises the better world that is guaranteed to last for ever is making a false promise; he is overlooking human freedom. Freedom must constantly be won over for the cause of good. Free assent to the good never exists simply by itself. If there were structures which could irrevocably guarantee a determined—good—state of the world, man’s freedom would be denied, and hence they would not be good structures at all.

Perhaps because I’ve been married for a year (as of yesterday), I’m suddenly struck by the application of this reasoning to the raising of children. Which itself would be a Dostoevskian insight, I suppose.

This second passage makes a point both Platonic and Dostoevskian; in fact, it is immediately followed by the citations from Plato and Dostoevsky. Yet I can’t help but think the point is also anti-Platonic, in a way. The subject is the hope for eternal life, and how we cannot imagine that life as simply erasing past wrongs, but as, in some unimaginable way, setting them right–resurrecting the dead:

[43…] For this reason, faith in the Last Judgment is first and foremost hope—the need for which was made abundantly clear in the upheavals of recent centuries. I am convinced that the question of justice constitutes the essential argument, or in any case the strongest argument, in favor of faith in eternal life. The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.

Pro-Platonic, because Plato argues for a final judgment on the basis of the necessity of final justice; anti-Platonic, because Plato’s proofs for the immortality of the soul are intimately bound up with its supposed pre-existence, which Catholics, of course, do not accept. Nor should we think that we are immortal; it’s incoherent, after all, for something immortal to be resurrected. I am not sure Plato could understand the Catholic claim that the Last Judgment goes along with a Resurrection of the Dead.

The significance of this distinction has grown for me over the last year or so (over which I’ve been reading a lot of Plato). I’m still puzzling over how exactly to express what Plato (or a bad reading of Plato) gets wrong. Perhaps this: the immortality of the soul can, perhaps, be proven through reason alone, but even if so, that ought not offer us any consolation, for it does not mean that I am immortal; it means only either a) there is an eternal principle, manifest in each of our lives as our ability to reason, which our death does not destroy; or b) there are facts about my life, about whether I was just or not, that do not cease to be true when I die. Neither of those is cause for comfort. Something further, some promise religious rather than philosophical, is required.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Wolfe permalink
    January 6, 2014 11:05 am

    “Nor should we think that we are immortal; it’s incoherent, after all, for something immortal to be resurrected.”
    -That’s an interesting point, and one that recalls to my mind GE Anscombe’s essay “Immortality of the Soul” from the “Faith in a Hard Ground” collection. Anscombe argues there that at the end of the day, none of what Aristotle or Plato says about immorality of the soul need be true for Christian resurrection of the dead to be true. I think that was an important argument for her personally to make, considering that many of her friends and colleagues at that time were skeptical about universals and metaphysics generally.


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