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Do you believe in a higher power, something that transcends the “human organism”? If this question is trivialized or ignored, we enter the very sound and soul of despair…

Anthropology is the scientific study of human beings. Philosophy, literally translated, is the love of wisdom. Philosophical anthropology, then, is the scientific study of humans for the purpose of achieving wisdom. In short, it is the study of ourselves in an effort to realize the Greek notion of arête, or excellence in being human, with an emphasis on being.

“To know thyself,” as the Delphic maxim aptly put it—if knowledge is endowed with wisdom through its knowing of the subject that seeks through self-reflection—is the basis of philosophical anthropology. Furthermore, this kind of knowledge, knowledge that may evolve into wisdom, to paraphrase Socrates, begins in wonder. Wonder, then, is the seed of wisdom which germinates under the heat of knowledge processed through self-reflection. For Plato, this process leads to contemplation of Eidos or Forms and serves as the taproot of Western metaphysics. Today, the emphasis is no longer on ultimate being found in concepts such as Plato’s Forms and the God of Aquinas, but rather on having, where to have is to grasp the illusion of control. Seeking control has become the anthropological hallmark of our species; the scientific study of human being has stripped away individuality in favor of the “highest organism,” that is, human being as collective; it seeks to control human being, and, in doing so, abandons the highest ideal of the ancient Greeks, arête.

For the ancients, contemplation was a means to arête. Boethius, who attempted to synthesize Plato and Aristotle in his masterwork, The Consolation of Philosophy,[1] paints Lady Philosophy with her head touching the sky. This can be seen as a symbolic rendering of speculative contemplation of those things under the heavens or, for Boethius, an outline of natural theology based primarily on Aristotle.[2] Thomas Aquinas, who was familiar with Boethius,[3] in agreeing with both Plato and Aristotle that it is natural for man to seek happiness and that true happiness lies in contemplation of the truth; he complicates matters when he writes,

If man’s ultimate happiness does not lie in those external things which are called goods or fortune, nor in the goods of the body, nor in the goods of the soul whether of the sensitive part or in the intellectual part, in the acts of moral virtue, nor in any intellectual activities pertaining to action, namely, art and prudence, it remains that man’s ultimate happiness lies in the contemplation of truth.[4]

What, however, as Pontius Pilate hazarded it, is truth?[5] If, as Aquinas insists, we cannot know God through reason alone, how—if the ultimate truth is God, and truth is reasonable in the same sense that logos, being inherent in the universe, renders it knowable to man—can we come to know truth? For the ancients, contemplation was seen as a high expression of arête, the ultimate act of excellence that may lead to what reason alone is unable to provide.

What is truth? This same question haunted both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, the two fathers of what would come to be known as Existentialism. Kierkegaard, of course, was fiercely religious while Nietzsche claimed to be an atheist and was commonly labeled a nihilist. Yet the two men held something in common: They both sought to tear down the edifice of Western metaphysics: Nietzsche that of the architect Plato (Nietzsche claimed to stand Plato on his head[6]); Kierkegaard that of Hegel, the culmination of Enlightenment thinking that maintained reason, via logic, was the vehicle that might lead man to understand God objectively.[7]

What is truth? In current times, this question is paramount, considering the claims of “fake news” and “alternative facts” bombarding the mass media. Many people literally do not know what or whom to believe. It would seem that Nietzsche’s claim, “There are no facts, only interpretations,”[8] and with it the accuracy of his prediction of the “advent of nihilism,”[9] are at hand. And with the common knowledge that both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche have been labeled by some as irrationalists, reason, in the traditional sense, is unable to provide a pathway through nihilism to the other side, where, Nietzsche contended, the “free spirit,” however undefined, holds sway.[10]

Is there truth? This is the question that plagues postmodernism. Might we all have our own truths, our subjective perspectives on reality that cancel out those of our neighbors ad nauseam until there is no truth at all, leading to the nihilism that Nietzsche predicted? For if we all have our own individual version of truth, then there can be no real truth to be had; truth becomes a mere shade, a whisper unreal, in the mind of the seeker. A solution? The individual must be eliminated so the collective can establish the truth of human being through scientific means.

To the contrary, consider Kierkegaard’s portrayal of Abraham and Isaac in Fear and Trembling?[11] Does Kierkegaard, or rather the narrator Johannes de Silentio, expect to put us at ease with the contention that we can never understand Abraham’s decision to sacrifice Isaac, that there is a realm beyond the ethical (and by implication the reasonable), that of the Knight of Faith? Of course not! The work is called Fear and Trembling for a reason, even if that reason is wholly ironic in its argument for the absurd transcending the ethical, a type of divine madness that makes perfect sense to the those experiencing it, akin to that found in Plato’s Phaedrus.[12] If this is the case, then the collective must be cast off because only the individual can transcend reason into the realm of the divine.

With this in mind, consider Heidegger’s contention that the poet may be better equipped to plumb the depths of the ineffable (which in Silentio’s estimation is the ineffability of faith) than the purely subjective or the purely objective. According to Bennett-Hunter, Heidegger leads us “through the implosion of rationality and the limit of the subject-object distinction, to a kind of phenomenology which is, at the same time (as it was for the later Heidegger), a rhetoric of the poetry of the ineffable.”[13] The dichotomy between subjective and objective, in other words, must maintain the kind of equilibrium where homeostasis is maintained if the question of truth is to be approached at all; it is neither purely subjective nor purely objective. Might, then, the novel be a better means of balancing out the dichotomy than poetry, the latter of which all too often veers too far to the subjective? The inherent rationality of prose (where meaning is dictated by the logic of grammar), coupled with the imagination of the creative writer, may be a fruitful approach to exploring the concept of truth in an era where, all too often, terms such as fiction and nonfiction lose their distinctions.

Walker Percy, who was primarily a novelist but also the author of philosophical essays, was prescient in his novel The Moviegoer.[14] If the novel is juxtaposed to the philosophical essays in the collection The Message in the Bottle,[15] the story takes on added significance where the subjective mind of the creative writer is distilled by the objective mind of that same writer. In the novel, Binx Bolling, the narrator, is adrift. The objectivity of science has left him detached, wandering from movie to movie to catch glimpses of treasurable moments that the age of scientific objectivity has stomped out of his everyday life. He has flings with secretaries but they come and go like actresses in movies, never quite real, never quite authentic. He lives in an age when the phrase, “hopefully awaiting the gradual convergence of the physical sciences and the social sciences” (philosophical anthropology) becomes “the very sound and soul of despair.”[16] His is an age in which objectivity squelches subjectivity until the dichotomy is neither dissolved nor balanced but rather becomes a one-sided nightmare where human actions are scripted as if all of it—war and peace, love and friendship, faith and family—were a film being watched by the actors therein.

Binx’s aunt, in a rant for the return to the moorings of tradition, sums it up aptly:

Oh I am aware that we hear a great many flattering things nowadays about your great common man—you know, it has always been revealing to me that he is perfectly content to be so called, because that’s exactly what he is: the common man and when I say common I mean common as hell. Our civilization has achieved a distinction of sorts. It will not be remembered for its technology nor even its wars but for its novel ethos. Ours is the only civilization which has enshrined mediocrity as its national ideal. Others have been corrupt, but leave it to us to invent the most undistinguished of corruptions. No orgies, no blood running in the streets, no babies thrown off cliffs. No, we’re sentimental people and we horrify easily. True, our moral fiber is rotten. Our national character stinks to high heaven. But we are kinder than ever.[17]

Hyperbole aside, what Percy uncovers is a loss of any sense of arête held so dear by the Greeks. The question then becomes: In our postmodern technological society are people doomed to a technologically-imposed homogeneity diffused only by trivial distinctions such as basic sexual urges and entertainment? Does identity become, in our postmodern technological age, superficial, related only to the politics of identity, which is far afield from the authentic? In the essay “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy writes, “As Kierkegaard said, once a person is seen as a specimen of a race or a species, at that very moment he ceases to be an individual. Then there are no more individuals but only specimens.”[18] Has anthropology, the scientific study of human being, stripped of us our individuality so that our subjective selves are unmoored and cling to superficial distinctions spurred by a politic that falsely identifies individuality by blurring the lines, for example, between gender and biology so that where there were once two genders, male and female, there are now sixty-three, including a gender for not being a gender?[19]Has the convergence of the physical and social sciences so abhorred by Binx Bolling come to pass?

If the answer is yes, and many indicators on the contemporary scene point towards this conclusion, then our alienation in not that of that of a wayfarer along life’s way, but, rather, that of a rat in a cage where sixty-three classifications of gender comes to be taken as a scientific fact to be transported to the political stage for all to see. We have made specimens of ourselves and, in doing so, alienated human individuality. We have been reduced to grasping at ghosts of what was once individuality in a desperate effort to escape “the very sound and soul of despair.”

Percy, on the contrary, sees the alienation of the wayfarer along life’s way as authentic and meaningful:

By the very cogent anthropology of Judeo-Christianity, whether or not one agreed with it, human existence was by no means to be understood as the transaction of a higher organism satisfying this or that need from its environment, by being “creative” or enjoying “meaningful relationships,” but as the journey of a wayfarer along life’s way.[20]

In classifying ourselves as the “highest organism” on planet Earth, we all become one and not only strip ourselves of individuality but, in a kind of Freudian twist, repress the knowledge and experience of just how flawed we are. Subconsciously, however, as individual wayfarers, each with unique experiences along the way, we know how destructive, finite, trivial, and inferior humans can be. The psychological repression causes us to create absurd identities mainstream society deems to be scientific in order to cover-up our cavernous feelings of guilt, the same guilt that the Judeo-Christian tradition has called Original Sin for centuries.

Kierkegaard and Nietzsche were radical individualists and their philosophies are built around the individual and not the “human organism.” When Nietzsche wrote, “Mankind is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome him?”[21] the emphasis is on the individual overcoming the species and not visa-versa. Likewise, when Kierkegaard suggests the leap of faith into the absurd, the absurd acts as a barrier between species and individual, a jump into being where having and control lose meaning. Nietzsche, then, calls for the individual to be and in so doing to overcome Mankind, while Kierkegaard discards the scientific notion of “highest organism” or species by taking refuge in the notion of a God who is beyond the rational finitude of man.

But what is an individual? This is entirely another question. A good place to begin answering it might be with another question, the question where all individuals must begin: Do you believe in a higher power, something that transcends the “human organism”? This is the very question that allows us to be humans, individually, and the answer that will lead us down one of two paths: that of being or that of having. And contemplation of the question might, over time, bring about the highest expression of arête, the ultimate act of excellence that may lead to what reason alone is unable to provide. If the question is trivialized or ignored? Welcome to the very sound and soul of despair.

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Notes

[1] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts (London: Folio Society, 1998).

[2] Frederick Copleston, S.J, A History of Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, 2:I: Augustine to Bonaventure (UK: Search Press, 1950), 118.

[3] Logic Museum, Aquinas on Boethius and the Trinity. Accessed May 14, 2017.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentile, III, 37, 280.

[5] Holy Bible: International Standard Version. Accessed May 15, 2017.

[6] Claudia Crawford, “Composing the Soul: An Open Letter to Graham Parks.” Journal of Nietzsche Studies, No. 12, Nietzsche and Women, (Penn State Press, 1996), 85.

[7] New World Encyclopedia: Age of Enlightenment. Accessed May 17, 2017.

[8] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Portable Nietzsche, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1953),

[9] Preface, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kauffmann and R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Vintage, 1968).

[10] Ibid.

[11] Soren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, trans. Alastair Hannay (New York: Penguin, 1986).

[12] Josef Pieper, Enthusiasm and Divine Madness: On the Platonic Dialogue Phaedrus, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (South Bend: St Augustine Press, 1964).

[13] Guy Bennett-Hunter, Ineffability and Religious Experience, Pickering Studies in the Philosophy of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2014), 120.

[14] Walker Percy, The Moviegoer, (New York: Vintage: 1998).

[15] Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle, (New York: Picador, 1975).

[16] Walker Percy, The Moviegoer, (New York: Vintage: 1998), 191

[17] Ibid. 223

[18] Walker Percy, “The Loss of the Creature,” The Message in the Bottle, (New York: Picador, 1975) 58.

[19] “How Many Genders Are There?” Accessed May 23, 2017.

[20] Walker Percy, “The Delta Factor,” The Message in the Bottle, (New York: Picador, 1975), 24.

[21] Friedrich Nietzsche, “Prologue,” Thus Spake Zarathustra, transl. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Penguin, 1953).

 

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Published: Oct 19, 2017
Author
John M. Gist
John M. Gist's poems, creative nonfiction, short stories, and philosophical dialogues have appeared in publications such as Poetry Pacific, Academic Questions, New Oxford Review, Stoneboat, Wilderness House, Galway Review, Dr. T.J Eckleburg Review, Superstition Review, Gravel, Pithead Chapel, New Mexico Magazine, and many others. Dr. Gist is Chair of the Humanities Department at Western New Mexico University.
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