The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 2 of 5

Continued from Part One.


Institutions to Preserve Accumulated Historical Goods

Perhaps –only perhaps– John’s comment, and the example of Plato’s Socrates, are unfair to this crypto-Christian community, because neither allow room for the high value of contingent and historically-acquired goods. The goods that Socrates acquires might be acquired by anyone, because the Λογος is immortal, and determines all things — through discourse and thought and virtue, anyone of well-tempered soul might soar to the heights, and those of lesser-tempered souls can soar quite high, too. No one needs to await the right time, the contingent and determinative event, the moment of decision, the καιρος. Although Plato very clearly has a sense of time, he does not quite have a sense of history (and would have rejected it as holding final significance).

This is not surprising. The modern idea of history arguably has roots within the chasm opened up in the Jewish tradition through the experience of the Babylonian exile. Like all early Mediterranean cultures that I know of, Israelites had a calendar that reflected the cycles of the agricultural year. It was cyclical. Jewish mythology has the creation of the world climaxing in the building of a temple atop the cosmic mountain: this is repeated annually within the rites of the temple. When that temple is broken, the myth cracks, and an opening yawns, ever-widening, between the beginning of this myth and its climax, creating space for history.

I was turned onto the inescapability of secularity and secularism, as something other than an ideology, by a former co-worker and friend, Ray. (I had thought, 12+ years ago, as a fresh convert to Orthodoxy, that I could have one foot in the Orthodox world, and another in the secular world; Ray gently informed me that this was a delusion, and that both feet were squarely in the secular world, no matter my religious practice.) At one point Ray was reading the Bible, and I asked him what he thought. “If there is a God,” Ray began thoughtfully, with furrowed brow, “he is like this. ‘Go here, do this’; all for reasons whose end lies out of sight.” Ray was finishing Genesis, and I am sure he had in mind the many stories about Abraham, especially the seemingly jarring introduction of God’s call to Abraham (when he was still “Abram”) in Genesis 12:

“Go forth from your country, / And from your relatives / And from your father’s house, / To the land which I will show you; / And I will make you a great nation […].” [NASB]

This passage in Abraham comes just after mention of the mythical Tower of Babel, which looks very much like a cosmic mountain myth (linked to above, also). In ancient Near Eastern cultures, there are rituals that re-enact or re-touch mythical events that happened “in illo tempore“; things might get better or worse, but they do so as falling away from, or recapitulating, primordial events. I know of numerous temple rituals across the ancient Near East that recapitulated primordial mythical events and were thought to stabilize the cosmos, or else which were microcosmic reflections of the macrocosm of the world, the performance of which ensured its stable functioning; I do not know of an early ancient Near Eastern temple ritual that does not do this in some sense. The Babel myth upends this pattern: this temple/tower does not seal a primordially won cosmic order, but signifies its breakdown. Abraham is ejected from his home by the divine call, just as history is ejected from this cyclical loop. The history here in the Abraham story is not cyclical, however, and the goods found and lost within time are here singular: there is something being divinely promised that has never appeared or happened before. The Abrahamic hope does not look to the securing or recovery of something primordial, but to the acquisition of something promised. The call to Abraham and the divine promise to him and his posterity may not be a secular thing, but it is historically contingent, unlike the cycles of the seasons, and could be forgotten — and unlike the seasons, it needs to be remembered to persist, like any historical contingent. Habits are not secure enough to preserve such a thing: it requires institutions. 

There have been many times in which people have thought that this promised future (a) would soon arrive or (b) was then arriving or (c) the sign of which had appeared, inaugurating the promise but not completing it; Christianity is built atop something like an inaugurated eschatology, a belief that, in Christ, a new age has dawned, and that we live in the interval between its inauguration and its completion beyond the horizon of time, space, and history. During the period of the Theodosian excitement about the Christianization of the Roman Empire, some thought that this promised age was dawning in history; even Augustine of Hippo was caught up with that fever, though he soon rejected it. Augustine’s mature teaching is that we live in the saeculum, a period of time between Christ and the end of time, a protracted interval in which everyone shares the same sufferings and joys, and in which real progress of knowledge can be made for understanding the world. Augustine disenchanted history.

Within time, there are goods that can be lost; there are also arts that are discovered, and honed, the mastery of which is necessary to the flourishing of human life, the perpetuation of which requires institutions to preserve across generations. These institutions, like these arts they transmit, can be lost. In the late Middle Ages, this was brought home for many in powerful ways. The recovery of Justinianic law was profound, and legal professions were flourishing for the first time in some time; schools –universities– were flourishing in a way that they arguably never had; texts of Aristotle that had been lost to the Latin West were being translated and read; the disjunction between and within collections of historical legal and religious texts was being hashed out in attempts either to resolve the contradictions or else upend current institutions.

Marsilius of Padua, in his work Defensor Pacis (“Defender of the Peace”, appearing A.D. 1324), notes the need to preserve such accumulated goods as are necessary to human flourishing within the world. Plato had taught, in the Republic, that it was mutual need and mutual benefit that brought together the earliest community; Aristotle, Plato’s best-known student, taught that we are political animals, that our common nature is naturally fulfilled in political life. Political life requires arts, however. Marsilius, who was writing in the wake of the translation of Aristotle’s Politics into Latin ca. A.D. 1260 by the Dominican William of Moerbeke, engages with Aristotle. Cities have not “come about for the sake of living, but […] for the sake of living well”, Marsilius states. This requires “having leisure for the liberal activities that result from the virtues both of the practical and of the theoretical soul.” [Marsilius of Padua, Defensor Pacis, transl. Annabel Brett (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 18 (I.iv.1)] Because of the friction and disharmonies in human nature, and between humans and the natural environment, however, we are constantly prone to falling apart:

man is by nature composed of contrary elements, and as a result of their contrary actions and passions is almost continually losing something of his substance; and again, because he is born naked and undefended against the excesses of the air which surrounds him, and of the other elements — passible and corruptible, as they say in natural [20] science; therefore he stood in need of arts of different kinds and types in order to resist the said damage. And since these arts could not be practised except by a large number of men, nor retained except by their mutual communication, men needed to gather together to secure the advantage to be had from them and to avoid disadvantage. [Defensor Pacis, 19-20 (I.iv.3)]

Marsilius was trained as a physician, which may help the reader frame the specific sense that these images likely had for him. Here, he (mis)interprets Aristotle, suggesting that the arts in question are for preservation against dissolution; we might as well extend these to the liberal and theoretical functions he stated, above.

Of course, we do not seriously doubt the value of remembering our accumulated scientific knowledge, nor of any worldly crafts such as would fulfill the preserving and flourishing functions that Marsilius mentions. Yet just as there are arts that are necessary to the flourishing of human life, so too is a sense of place and belonging necessary for flourishing – and in the end, this seems to extend into a shared sense of a common heritage. It is here, under this aspect, that the rub between what is good and what is toxic can occur when dealing with historically-accumulated goods.

One thought on “The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 2 of 5

  1. Pingback: The Flags of the Dead and the Promise of the Future, Part 3 of 5 | Into the Clarities

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