Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Logos, face, śūnyatā

This is another stop along my stumbling path towards a "renewed Platonism," as I try to hold in tension some claims by Levinas and Badiou, informed by my own poor struggles to understand Buddhism (a la the Kyoto school and with some help from Morton's recent object-oriented take on it), and the sixth-century theology of St. Maximus the Confessor.

There is a difference "between me and myself." This is not just the difference between who I was and who I am, but between who I am and who I ought to be.

To be sure, the former difference is already difference enough. I both am and am not "the same" person as I was in high school, or earlier this week, or when I was dreaming this morning. I am and am not the same person I "would have been" had I been adopted by different parents, or moved to Chicago, or not left the religion of my youth; perhaps even if I had missed a bus one day. What "I" means in regards to these counterfactuals is hard to specify, but to say of them that "I would have been..." is not nonsensical.

When I deliberate about a choice to make (and it can be an ethically neutral choice), I can feel (sometimes) a pull, the bearing of some rightness trying to make itself clear. I don't want to make this purposely obscure--I am not talking about a mysterious destiny (though I do think of it in terms akin to Spinoza's use of conatus), or a hunch that whispers to me like an angel on my shoulder. I mean only that one struggles to find the right thing to do, appealing to some sense (not always well-defined) of what is appropriate, of what the circumstance "calls for." Some people claim to have a sense of teleology at such times, of heeding a daimonion, but whether or not such a sense is right is not at issue here. I am interested in the space in which ethical considerations play.

Badiou holds that "differences are simply what there is," and so there is no philosophical interest in difference qua difference. This is what grounds his identification of ontology with mathematics, as well as his strong critique of Levinasian ethics of obligation to the other qua other. I am fairly sympathetic to Badiou's critique of the "politics of difference" for those who are not ready to follow the way Levinas' metaphysics opens up onto religion. I will leave aside the degree to which Badiou condemns Levinas' project as a whole. What concerns me here is Badiou's argument that difference is simply what there is, and what follows from this. For Badiou, there is no greater, and no less, difference between me and an oyster-bed or a telegraph line or the Pharaoh Akhenaten than there is between me and myself. This means, for him, that difference per se is no basis for ethics.

I do not think this follows. If there is a difference between me and myself, surely this means simply that I can have an ethical relation with myself, as well as with the whole network of circumstances, even though this is not really the way we usually frame ethical considerations.

Levinas was fairly critical of the notion of auto-affection, pure self-relatedness, a critique he passed on to Derrida; but the notion of auto-affection, best articulated by Michel Henry (cf The Essence of Manifestation), need not mean a pure self-coinciding. To affect oneself calls for a space in which this happens, and this space is empty, sunya; for indeed, "difference is what there is." This gap is what I see as the sunyata of form-- except of course that I do not see it, because "it" is not there.

In Levinas' thought, it is the encounter with the Face of the Other that is the occasion for ethics. Levinas has often been criticized for anthropocentrism on this count. Does a dog have a face? A snake? a butterfly, a tree? I think these questions miss the point, even once we give them their due (i.e., that Levinas does not elaborate a robust ecological ethics). In fact, Levinas quite expressly holds that it is not the empirical physiognomy that constitutes the ethical "call." The face is not seen; it is apprehended.

I have noted before that Levinas called for a return to a sort of Platonism. This aspect of his thought always seems to get left off to one side by those who came to his work via Derrida. For postmodernism, Plato was bad, reification, absolutism, etc etc. But Levinas saw quite clearly that Plato's apprehension of the Good as beyond Being was a sine qua non, and actually a way around the straw Platos we had been scared by.

In hearing by the "ethical demand," as Knud Ejler Løgstrup names the imperative, I am not just addressed; I am constituted. This call is a call to be, to live into (even impossibly) who one is; this telos of self, different both from the empirical self and from the transcendental ego or any Absolute Subject. The call comes not from any empirical object, but also not from a beyond as if the concrete other before me was a mere loudspeaker or object lesson; it comes from the full ordinary miracle that the real object is. This is so even when-- and this is important--even when the issue is not about what we usually think of as ethical deliberation. E.g., when the issue is not, Do I tell the checkout guy he gave me too much change?; or even, Do I smile at the guy or just stay closed up in my own preoccupations?; but more something like, "Wow, that guy has a gorgeous smile." That this does not arise only vis-a-vis human beings, or even animals, is not, I think, necessary to argue. All of us have known moments when there was a clear "right way" to comport oneself with regard to a room, a piece of music, a distant mountain, a forest path. (Alphonso Lingis is very good on this in The Imperative.) It is not merely a question of not inflicting suffering and indeed need not be a question of affecting at all; at the risk of portentousness, it is a matter not of doing but of being; of "rising to the occasion;" of who one will be here and now.

From Longinus on down, the sublime is connected to greatness of soul. One of the moments that confirmed the spiritual kinship between myself and my best friend and I was after we had stood dumbfounded before a mountain bathed in golden sun and framed by a shocking blue and white sky. Later, in retrospect, we tried to put into words a kind of helplessness we had felt. "Because," I started, "there's nothing--" "--that you can do about it," he finished; and we both grinned with a stupid relief. To the almost shockingly frequent question I have repeatedly heard --"Why do you have to do anything?"-- I have nothing to say. If you don't get it, you don't.

The question of megalopsychia opens onto a specifically salvific dimension. My own approach to Platonism has been via the expressly religious thinking of Maximus the Confessor, a thinker about whom one could hardly say enough-- he is my own nominee for the currently most underrated ancient/medieval philosopher, though I am glad to note a renewed attention to him. Maximus articulated a hugely coherent body of thought, always centered upon the revelation of God in Christ, the Logos of God, in whom the reconciliation between me and who I ought to be, between the "law in my members" and the "law in my nous," is accomplished.

Here, of course, Maximus passes beyond philosophy proper. His philosophy is in fact intended, like Wittgenstein's, to be surpassed; it is meant as a way towards an experience that is salvific, not just theoretical. Maximus articulates a recognizably platonic or neo-platonic account of entities, whereby each being has what he calls (following the Stoics) a logos. (There is debate among scholars about just how far Maximus' "christianizing" of this metaphysics goes.) These logoi are, as it were, thoughts of God--Platonic Ideas, or expressions of God's will and purpose; and although contemplating the logoi of created beings gives only a relative knowledge, they function as a training-ground which enables the mind to eventually ascend past sensible things to "the intelligible economy of God."

Maximus is often noted today for his death after having been tortured for his refusal of monotheletism (the doctrinal position that Christ had only a divine will and not also a human will). This is the sort of thing that makes our modern eyes glaze over, and it is hard to want to have sympathy for those who were ready to have their hands cut off and tongues cut out (this is how St Maximus won his title "confessor") for the sake of a theoloogical formula. About this I will only say here that if we imagine this did not occur to Maximus as well, we are naive.

Here, though, I am drawing upon another part of Maximus' thought. It is very possible I'm getting him wrong, or at least reaching conclusions different from his own. I am not a scholar of Patristics or Byzantine theology, and aside from translations, I am depending on Andrew Louth, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Lars Thunberg, and others. (For the record, I am not claiming to be completely true to Levinas here either). But I read Maximus as saying that every entity has its logos, all of which are "contained" as it were in the Logos, Who is Christ. What's important or my purposes here is that in meeting any particular entity, I encounter also its logos, what Levinas would call its face. This is not an encounter with a what, but with a who, which is a hard thing to wrap one's hear around when talking about a light bulb or a pop song or a flock of birds or the gulf stream. The encounter is not just with an "ideal"; it calls me to a new ascetic [=disciplined] openness to the being encountered. The point being that it is not just about a difference between the horse and the "ideal" horse, but about a difference between me and myself. This difference, I claim, is readable as sunyata.

And this dovetails very precisely with another principle of Maximus' inverted platonism. For Maximus states unequivocally that God created every being in the universe out of nothing. Here Maximus at least, departs clearly from all of his Greek antecedents, whether Platonic, Aristotelian, or Stoic. It's also here that one discerns a hinge that might connect the covers of a Buddhist cosmology and discipline with the pages of Christian vision and eschatology.

That, obviously, is controversial, and way too much to even begin to sketch in a single post, even if I hadn't already gone on so much. But I am suggesting that in the ethical encounter, the encounter with the Face, the Thou inherent in human being or a landscape, a supernova or a sea slug, a painting or a power tool, one apprehends or intuits a right way to relate, and this way involves a letting be (a Heideggerian lassen) but also a response; and this response is one of being.

To close this long post, I want to cite a poem by Hopkins which I find frequently turns up in the secondary literature on Maximus (for instance, here. It's as if something in his thought calls it forth. It's also (fir me at least) a breath-stopping instance of the literary sublime.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme;
As tumbled over rim in roundy wells
Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s
Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name;
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves—goes itself; myself, it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.

Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;
Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.
The word "selves" here in the seventh line is a verb. And what Maximus says is: None of us yet self very well. We have none of us yet become who we are. We are too much in our own way; trying too hard to fill up instead of breathe through sunyata.


  1. Provocative post. I like the confused pedigree you claim for your thoughts in the first graf - I feel like any good cross-cultural philosopher these days will need to base her ideas on seemingly mismatched combinations like this one.

    Have you read chapter 8 of Śāntideva's Bodhicaryāvatāra? It moves from some relatively standard (though beautiful and evocative) meditations to an argument for ethical altruism based on metaphysical non-self; and from there takes off into a meditative exercise that is a kind of deliberate "unselfing," an attempt to visualize oneself in others and others in oneself in often shocking ways. It sounds like it has some strong kinship with what you're trying to do here, and would be valuable food for thought. And we're fortunate in that there are now two very good translations out there. The Crosby-Skilton (World's Classics) translation adds really good introductory material; the Wallace-Wallace (Snow Lion) translation is simpler and a bit more poetic (but still generally accurate) and also notes where the Sanskrit version differs from the Tibetan.

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  3. Amod,

    thanks much. I don't know how else to think about these things except as an ongoing conversation between all the sundry influences on me-- not all of which are what are billed as "philosophy," of course.

    At your suggestion, I looked again at Santideva -- it has been a long while and I no longer recall what version with commentary I read. The online version that I found is translated by Alexander Berzin, and I find it somewhat terse. However, there's a quite good commentary which you may know, in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, and following it I begin to see how one would possibly extend this from the mostly human others that (I think) Santideva has in mind, to "all sentient beings" and beyond. Thank you for this suggestion; I will be reading this again in dialogue with St. Maximus, whose ascetic exhortations often have interesting points of contact with Buddhist addresses to monastics.

  4. Whoah.


    Almost telepathic...

  5. Tim, I don't know where you will go with your critique of Burke/Kant via Longinus, but as for me, I sense a kind of ethical as well as aesthetic dimension to the encounter with the sublime. Also, credit where it's due, your claim emptiness = withdrawal, whether or no it is strictly the Dharma, was one of those connections that made me sit up and say Ah-- now I can see my way forward. The creatio ex nihilo angle that of course is crucial here for understanding this via Maximus (though I am not sure Maximus would approve). I am reading Nishitani again, and more thoughts will perhaps coalesce into another post. Any further thoughts of yours are most welcome. I think much better with dialogue.

  6. Thanks for that comment on mine. There's a whole lot of Levinas in The Ecological Thought. Happy to have company in all this.

  7. Thanks, Tim. I also hope you liked the Hopkins.

  8. Wow I'm getting into this now. The phrase "goes itself" is also rather wonderful no? Like "goes green." Fantastic post.

  9. I just found your blog as a result of a Google search for blogs that mention Maximus the Confessor. I thoroughly agree with you that he is terribly underrated as a philosopher. For me, he is a sort of touchstone thinker. You also mentioned Knud Ejler Løgstrup and Michel Henry - two others I'm quite familiar with. And, in another post here somewhere, I saw that you mentioned John Holt, another favorite of mine. I have a feeling I'll be spending quite bit of time here. My latest post on my blog, which has to do with Maximus' thoughts on the virtues, may be of interest to you.

  10. Hi Michael, & welcome. A perusal of your blog posts shows up a number of other thinkers we seem to esteem in common, including Shestov. Consider yourself bookmarked.