It is no accident that for Plato and Aristotle wonder is the beginning of philosophy, for wonder is a type of reverence towards the real, a realization that things ought to compel us, that we ought to attend to them, given their own status, their own interior principle, and not simply their usefulness to us. Wonder is, in a strange way, a response of justice.[i] When the pre-Socratics sought for the origin of things (archê) they were looking for the ordered whole, and in fits and starts they discovered that this cosmos had a kind of cosmic justice or value to it—the intrinsically ordered cosmos had intelligibility, pattern, structure, integrity, and value.[ii] These early attempts reach a culmination in Plato and Aristotle and the neo-Platonists, for despite their differences they did agree that Being was not a mere fact of having existence, it was not just being there as a factical entity. To be was to be good, and the human was to live in accordance with nature by following right reason, especially the right reason enabled by theory.
However powerful, the ancient vision of goodness was constrained by its humility(!), for it simply could not comprehend the transcendent—everything that was dwelt within the cosmos, even the gods. There was no beyond. The Good of Plato was “not severed from the world; it remained immanent to it,” just as the One of Plotinus “stood at the head of an unbroken series,” and consequently every project of the classical, no matter how daring, ran its course within the arc of his world.”[iii] The medieval vision radically disrupts this with the insertion of the doctrine of creation into philosophy, borrowed from Hebrew Scripture. Now there is a God separate and beyond, other-than, completely transcendent, so transcendent that his Being is not like that of other beings, he is not just more, or bigger—he is not, as Zorba the Greek thought, “like me, just bigger and crazier.” Since the Christian God is transcendent and free, He needn’t create. Unlike the One of Plotinus, no inner necessity, and certainly no inner need or outer compunction, requires God to create. He need not, but He does, and the doctrine of creation ex nihilo provides a free God.[iv] Contrary to classical thought, it is the non-necessity of the cosmos which provides its value, for if something need not be, but is created out of free love and delight, then it is good, even very good. Now things are suspended between God and the nihil, between “everything and nothing, between glory and oblivion,” and were no longer just beings or entities, they were creatures.[v]
Grasping the created status of things, of creatures, allows us to recognize the utter value of these things. They are not simply the necessary products of world force, neither of Fate nor of Chance, but of Choice. As chosen, they are recipients, they receive themselves as a gift, and even their capacity to receive themselves is a gift of God: “the very character and status of things will reflect their giftedness in their radical contingency and the received generosity inherent in them.”[vi] They receive themselves as grace, as the very graciousness of Being which need not be but which was chosen of love and delight, and their being continues to be received, “borrowed,” since they cannot sustain or maintain their own existence without the sustaining work of God, in whom we live and move and have our being. But, note, the dependency on God does not reduce the value of persons and things—that we are gifts does not demean us or make us vassals; rather, we are given our own integrity, which is counter to the modern understanding that we begin with our own autonomy, and since God is transcendent there is no competition between his integrity and our own. God’s glory does not require our lack of glory, and our dignity is not a threat to God’s, for God’s own glory, in part, is us. Now, given this participatory relationship to God, we can claim that for the medievals, “all things, including physical things, is such that there is a great, even infinite depth present within them.”[vii] Since things are maintained by the ever-present gift of God, and the gift-ing is ongoing, God is most present to things, so present as to be the condition of their own presence to themselves. The glory of God is present to things, and in things, and so things are never just themselves, they carry the weight of God with them in a kind of broad sacramentalism pervading all that is. Things are not light, they are almost unbearably heavy—I think of that line from C. S. Lewis, “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship.…” Even more expressive of this weight is the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins:
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.[viii]
As each being deals out its own interiority it selves itself, but this is not in competition with what that being is in God’s eyes—Christ.
Whatever your own judgment with respect to medieval theology, we can agree that this world is unlikely to return. The medieval order began to dissolve already by the fourteenth century and was gone by the seventeenth. While the medieval mind was “immersed in the authoritative sources of truth,” the modern desire to know left authority for nature.[ix] One would expect that a turn towards nature and away from authority would result in a respect for the integrity of things, but paradoxically this is not the case. The turn from authority is rooted in an emancipatory claim—to be free from the church, from authority, from custom, from the tribe, from prejudice, from ignorance—and that emancipatory claim demands the violation of the integrity of nature so as to guarantee the final liberation.[x] Without the weight of God’s glory suspending and granting being to beings, things lose weight and become thin, bleached out.[xi]
For the medieval mind, all things are ultimately returned to the Creator as gifts received and returned. A lovely example of this is the consecration of the elements in my own Anglican Communion. God has given to humans the material and the skill to make bread and wine. These gifts are brought forward in procession on behalf of and from the people where they are subsequently consecrated as “gifts of God for the people of God,” and then received again by the people. So from God, back to God, and from God again. In the modern disenchantment, however, things are no longer thick “with their own depth” but are reduced to the qualities of bodies with extension and size—rather than allowing things to be—theoria—things are reduced to those categories of the objective method, things must meet the test of the subject; as Kant puts it, no longer will the mind correspond to the real, but the real will correspond to the mind. Humans, with their objectives and objectivity will define what is real, not giving way to the real with reverence and wonder. There’s a double meaning to objective here: (1) an intention or desire, as in my objective is to get a job, and (2) objective as in disinterested method, science. Wendell Berry describes the inevitable result:
Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.
I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.[xii]
Insofar as the modern reduces the world of things to objects out-there, and recall that the prevalence of the mind-body problem and the problem of other selves in modernity indicates that persons have also been so reduced, our stance towards the world has changed, and with the stance so too has the meaning of the world and the things of the world.
Objects. Things are now objects, and they are objects out-there, standing “over against the mind,” distanced and alienated from the mind, and that distance is a problem to overcome. Objects are problems, and these problems are solved with some sort of method, but the method is not theory in the old sense of the term. There’s actually a fairly startling reversal of the meaning of object and subject in the modern mind—for a medieval a thing known, a tree or cat, say, was a subject of being whereas for the modern mind it’s an object. As a subject, it has a thick interiority, a form or nature or essence, and there is a just relationship when that form is known. The medieval understanding is inverted. Things are now objects. Things are also now objects under the governance of a method, and that method is determined by the knowing subject. We are no longer bound by the thing. Now, if we are not bound by the things, but rather they are bound by us, what limits or orders our relationship to the things other than our own will? In what way can our desires be ordered so as to respect the integrity of things when the integrity of things is determined by our objectives—in fact, integrity is to have our objectives fulfilled, our wishes not thwarted. Objectives and objectivity are thus a kind of power, and a power rooted in our own freedom, a freedom unconstrained by the limits of things.
[i] Kenneth Schmitz, Recovery of Wonder: The New Freedom and the Asceticism of Power (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005), 11.
[ii] Ibid., 14.
[iii] Romano Guardini, The End of the Modern World (Wilmington: ISI Books, 1998), 3. Guardini’s claim is not self-evident or without its detractors, of course. Some commentators read Plato as attaining transcendence, particularly in the “beyond being” of the Good. For an example, see Eric Voegelin, Plato (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Press, 1966), 112–14.
[iv] Schmitz, Recovery of Wonder, 26–29.
[v] Ibid., 28–29.
[vi] Ibid., 31.
[vii] Ibid., 46.
[viii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” http://www.bartleby.com/122/34.html (accessed July 28, 2012).
[ix] Guardini, End of the Modern World, 28–29.
[x] Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995), 10–13.
[xi] Schmitz, Recovery of Wonder, 82.
[xii] Wendell Berry, “A Timbered Choir,” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-timbered-choir/ (accessed July 28, 2012).