12 December 2007

A Cause of Hope?

It is striking that the most influential instance of philosophizing today, or what is likely to be such, strongly promotes the study of Greek philosophy. This is good news, I think, for the field of ancient philosophy.

To give a baseline for a comparison: John Rawls' Theory of Justice is one of the most influential and widely-read philosophical texts in our time, with 300,000 copies sold since 1971. (Some more recent works may have a chance of being more popular, such as The Simpsons and Philosophy, 200,000 copies sold since 2001, or On Bullshit, 150,000 copies since 2005, yet these have a frivolous aspect and are unlikely to be deeply taken to heart by readers.)

However, in contrast, within 10 days after its release, already 1 million copies have been printed and distributed of Spe Salvi, the most recent encyclical of Pope Benedict, and doubtless tens of millions more copies have been either downloaded or read online. To compare: Theory of Justice's impressive numbers work out to 22 copies per day, or 220 for a similar ten-day period.

Spe Salvi
is pastoral and primarily theological, to be sure. Yet its tone and manner of presentation are philosophical in a broad sense. Indeed, it will surely serve for millions of readers as an example of how to be appropriately thoughtful about matters that are 'philosophical'.

What I wish to emphasize here is that readers who do regard it as an example will draw from it the lesson that classical philosophy and culture, especially ancient Greek philosophy and culture, provide the framework within which a thoughtful person should begin an investigation of deep questions of human life -- since this is the outlook that is presupposed in the encyclical.

To give only a few examples:

Benedict opens by citing a Latin inscription which captures, he thinks, the outlook with which he contrasts 'hope': In nihil ab nihilo quam cito recidimus ("How quickly we fall back from nothing to nothing"). The footnote, the very first of the encyclical, refers to Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum VI, no. 26003 -- and you can bet that thousands of readers (at least) will wish that they were in a position to consult and understand that source.

He then begins a discussion of a sentence in the Letter to the Hebrews and leaves the crucial Greek term untranslated:

In the eleventh chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews (v. 1) we find a kind of definition of faith which closely links this virtue with hope. Ever since the Reformation there has been a dispute among exegetes over the central word of this phrase, but today a way towards a common interpretation seems to be opening up once more. For the time being I shall leave this central word untranslated. The sentence therefore reads as follows: “Faith is the hypostasis of things hoped for; the proof of things not seen”.
This then leads to a discussion of how hypostasis should be translated, in which a comparison is drawn between hypostasis and hyparchonta (both left in transliterated Greek): "In order to understand more deeply this reflection on the two types of substance—hypostasis and hyparchonta—and on the two approaches to life expressed by these terms,..." etc. --Once again, there will very many readers who will say to themselves that it would be good if they could understand the significance of these words on their own.

The encyclical continues with other comments on Greek words ("The word hypostole, on the other hand, means shrinking back through lack of courage to speak openly and frankly a truth that may be dangerous. Hiding through a spirit of fear leads to “destruction” (Heb 10:39)"); an endorsement of the early Christian representation of Christ as a philosopher; and even, near the end of the encyclical, a lengthy quotation from Plato's Gorgias:
Here I would like to quote a passage from Plato which expresses a premonition of just judgement that in many respects remains true and salutary for Christians too. Albeit using mythological images, he expresses the truth with an unambiguous clarity, saying that in the end souls will stand naked before the judge. It no longer matters what they once were in history, but only what they are in truth: “Often, when it is the king or some other monarch or potentate that he (the judge) has to deal with, he finds that there is no soundness in the soul whatever; he finds it scourged and scarred by the various acts of perjury and wrong-doing ...; it is twisted and warped by lies and vanity, and nothing is straight because truth has had no part in its development. Power, luxury, pride, and debauchery have left it so full of disproportion and ugliness that when he has inspected it (he) sends it straight to prison, where on its arrival it will undergo the appropriate punishment ... Sometimes, though, the eye of the judge lights on a different soul which has lived in purity and truth ... then he is struck with admiration and sends him to the isles of the blessed”
Again, you can bet that thousands or even millions of readers will conclude from this that they should become acquainted with the Gorgias and other Platonic dialogues.

The encyclical even makes use J. L. Austin's notion of a "performative utterance" -- which we might claim for ancient philosophy also, on the grounds that Austin was trained as a classicist.

Take from this what you will. The observation I principally wish to make here is that, simply viewing the publication of this encyclical, as it were, sociologically, one should expect that it will have a widespread and long-lasting, positive influence in promoting the study of what you and I hold dear.

(Look: Do we think that the classics and ancient philosophy have as central a role in university education as they should have? But why do we suppose that things will remain that way perpetually, or get worse? This is exactly my point -- many readers of Spe Salvi, perhaps especially those who with a technical or scientific training, will implicitly draw a contrast and think that Pope Benedict is better educated -- in important respects-- than they.)


Anonymous said...

Perhaps there is some reason for thinking that because 1 million copies of Spe Salvi have been printed for distribution, this means that at least 1 million will actually be received. But it goes without saying that John Rawls is not the Pope and that a work intended mainly for a secular, scholarly readership cannot very usefully be compared to a papal encyclical of one of the most popular and powerful religious organizations the world has known. Isn't there some reason to suspect that many - perhaps most - of those who obtain a copy of Spe Salvi did so mostly - if not simply - because they believed they should have a copy, whether or not they will read it, or read it seriously, or take it to heart once read? Surely some will read it seriously and take it to heart. Surely it is good to see writers of such social stature referring to Plato's writing as a source of understanding. But one wonders how much this will actually induce his followers to pick up Plato's texts themselves (assuming that some of them read far enough into the letter to realize that Plato was even referred to). After all, millions and millions of people evidently own copies of the New Testament, but how many of these have read it in seriousness and genuinely take to heart some of its most basic messages. I don't know the answer. My point is that it's very difficult to tell just based on numbers of copies sold or in print and on the popularity of the author.

Michael Pakaluk said...

I hesitate to respond to your comment for fear of leading the blog into the proscribed areas of religion and politics. At the same time I do not wish to give the impression of ignoring a thoughtful comment. So let this brief reply suffice -- I doubt I'll wish to say more.

My idea, I suppose, had to do with what one takes as a reference point for thinking about something: Will Pope Benedict's teaching help to establish more widely ancient Greek and Roman culture as a reference point for intelligent thought about matters of philosophy and religion? I posed this question as a matter of 'sociology'.

By the way, the encyclical does not of course exist in isolation but should be viewed, I think, as of a piece with the ressourcement of the Second Vatican Council: to return to the Church Fathers is to return to a framework of classical culture.

Two observations: 1. An encyclical letter, such as Spe Salvi, is pastoral teaching intended to be circulated widely; it is not written for experts alone. Thus it de facto establishes a framework for discussion among Catholics and interested observers. 2. Uneducated and ordinary Catholics, who would never think of studying Greek themselves, might nevertheless draw the conclusion--from that fact that, if not familiarity, then at least a certain ease with Greek and Latin, and ancient culture, is, as it were, being presupposed for Catholics by Benedict-- that it would be desirable for their children to do so. They will consequently evaluate types of education differently.

At least, that's how it strikes me. And that's what I'm also hoping.