Archive for January, 2015


January 31, 2015 Leave a comment

A recurrent question in my life, lately, has been the nature of hope.  It is something with which I am moderately familiar from an academic, intellectual standpoint, but not something which has often occupied my mind, until late, in praxis.  Not to say that my life has been “hopeless” or that I have lived in despair, but it has, for the most part, been an abstraction or considered in terms of the transcendental and not an immanent reality.  In the terms of phenomenology, it could be said that I have a sense of the content of hope, but little lived experience of it.

But I am not writing this to share my personal experiences; I am reflecting upon their significance in illuminating what hope means, both in the theoretical and in the concrete.

We tend to consider hope from two perspectives.  The first is that wherein we discuss it as a theological virtue, situated between faith and love, ordained to eternal happiness.  This is a hope for some end that we cannot attain ourselves but which can be given by another.  The second is that which belongs to common, ordinary life, and which has for its object those things that we can obtain by ourselves—meaning not things that are actually within our individual grasp, necessarily, but those things which can possibly occur through the exercise of the natural powers of human beings.

We could talk, therefore, about ordinary hope and theological hope; but it would be somewhat mistaken to completely separate the two, or even to completely separate the objects.  The first is a gift, a virtue infused from divine grace; but grace always builds upon nature.  My concern here, therefore, is principally to discuss ordinary hope, i.e., the objects which pertain to our daily lives, but also to consider the subjective element of hope, the nature upon which that grace builds, which provides the continuity between the ordinary and theological objects.

Václav Havel once wrote in an essay that “The kind of hope I often think about (especially in hopeless situations like prison or the sewer) is, I believe, a state of mind, not a state of the world.  Either we have hope within us or we don’t.  Hope is not a prognostication — it’s an orientation of the spirit.  Each of us must find real, fundamental hope within himself.  You can’t delegate that to anyone else.” (Esquire 1993).  What Havel said about hope is true and gives insight about the subjective aspect.  Hope is most definitely not something that the world itself gives to us, nor is it something we can really give to another.  At most, we can give an opportunity in which someone else can find hope—just as we can give someone an opportunity to become educated—but hope about the world always comes from within.  It is, indeed, a state of mind.

But like all states of mind, hope is an intentional state, meaning that it is of or about something else.    Hope requires a object, something towards which it is ordered, regardless of whether that object is something that we can attain by ourselves or not.  Thus hope is not a merely subjective phenomenon—it is not something which simply happens within us—but is a tending towards; it is a motion outwards towards something we do not possess, with which we are not united.  As Thomas Aquinas says, “hope denotes a movement or a stretching forth of the appetite towards an arduous good.” (Summa theologiae IIa-IIae, q.17, a.3, c.).  Hope is a state of mind; but it is not a passive state.  This does not mean that we are always acting for the which we hope to attain, only that it is something towards which we, in some way or another, are striving.  Sometimes this striving takes the form of wishing—that is, wanting something outside of our present power; sometimes, it takes the form of prayer—that is, beseeching God that its attainment is His will; and sometimes it entails strenuous effort—as when I spend hours upon hours working on my dissertation, or when a charitable organization seeks out sufficient funds to give to those who have not.

Moreover, we do not hope for things easily attained, but only for goods not readily grasped.  What makes something an “arduous good”, bonum arduum?  Obviously, it is a good for which we must struggle.  Obstacles impede our attainment of it.  These obstacles can be either something internal, our own deficiencies and weaknesses, or something external, from financial duress to a corrupt system or the whim of another human being.  The external obstacles can feed the internal, and the internal can magnify the external; seldom, if ever, is an object of hope an arduous good solely because of external impediments.  The greater struggle is in our own disposition towards such goods’ attainment: our tendency to give up, to doubt, to pursue lesser, more easily attained goods.  We overcome these internal impediments only, on the one hand, by being aware of them, and on the other, by knowing as much as possible the true good of the object sought.

But what makes these things truly good, that is, good for us as human beings?  Someone could hope for unlimited wealth, unfettered opportunity for promiscuity, or the death of an enemy.  There is a part of each thing which is good—the means to some other end afforded by money, the pleasure of sex, the lack of disruption caused by an enemy—but on the whole, these things are bad.  What makes a good worthy of our ordinary hope, ultimately, is its subordination to the highest good, the eternal happiness which we all desire and which is the object of the theological virtue of hope.  The goods we desire, be they arduous or not, are desired because we believe, fully consciously or not, that being united with them will result in a greater perfection for ourselves.  Since our highest perfection is completed only in unity with the Divine, through the Beatific Vision, it follows that all of our hopes are justified in their subordination towards this end.

The preeminence of the Beatific Vision as an object of hope does not mean that ordinary hope or the objects of it are worthless or insigificant; for the instruments whereby God directs us towards Himself are multitudinous.  On the side of the objects hoped for, these can direct us towards Him inasmuch as they reflect in some finite way His infinite goodness.  On the subjective side of ourselves, they direct us towards Him inasmuch as we are made virtuous, and thereby better lovers of the good, in their pursuit.  Most especially, the things for which we hope in this life give us ample opportunity for humility.  As aforementioned, unity with the things hoped for in this life, while they are within the reach of natural powers, are not always within the natural powers of the one hoping.  Very often, almost all the time, really, we need the help of others to attain them.  Sometimes, they are entirely beyond our reach.

This teaches us one final thing about hope: namely, that it is not the same as expectation.  The phrase, “don’t get your hopes up” is really inaccurate as to the meaning of hope, for what is meant is “don’t set your expectations too high” or, often, “don’t expect this to actually happen.”  No one can expect salvation or unity with the Beatific Vision; no one can expect the world, as Havel rightly said, to give us the things for which we hope.

Both hope and expectation are anticipatory, true; but expectation is the anticipation of the person who looks to have control over the object desired.  Hope, genuine, rightly ordered hope—both theological and ordinary—is the anticipation built upon faith which looks towards love.

Categories: General


January 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Anyone who has used social media often enough and for long enough has doubtlessly seen the “What People Think I Do / What I Really Do” memes.  The typical format includes a header stating the occupation (be it a profession, vocation, or hobby), along with six captioned photos, usually along the lines of 1) what my friends think I do, 2) what my mom thinks I do, 3) what society thinks I do, 4) what [insert random relevant person] thinks I do, 5) what I think I do, and 6) what I really do.  They seem to have been made for just about every occupation under the sun or moon, from “science student” (the apparent origin) to “stay at home mom” and, of course, “philosopher”.  Like most memes, they are stupid.

Why do I mention this?  Well, about a month ago, someone—who will remain nameless—offered as an explanation of philosophy that it is “the soft stuff between the hard stuff.”  I looked at him and said nothing.  What was I going to say to that?  It’s a very cute answer; he jumped to defend it, as, in a paraphrase of his words, it is necessary to have the soft stuff to keep the hard things from damaging each other.

It did get me thinking, however, as to how to explain to someone who is not a philosopher what philosophy really is; or, since “philosophy” is always going to remain a concept somewhat too large to explain to someone who is not a philosopher without using highfalutin flowery language which amounts to nothing more than a pretty abstraction, what it is that a philosopher really does.  The best way I could think to do this is by contrast with what the professor of philosophy does.  Now, while this is technically my job title—okay, well, at the moment, “adjunct professor of philosophy” is my job title (and the “adjunct” part is important; that’s Latin for “wage slave”)—I do not consider myself a professor of philosophy.  A professor is one who professes.  He takes something as given and then communicates it to others.  The professor of philosophy reports on the philosophical thought of philosophers.

Doing this is not philosophy.  Neither, for that matter, is teaching students to be “critical thinkers”.  Being a critical thinker, in the sense of one who is capable of solving problems without needing to follow predetermined or prepackaged solutions, is certainly a common consequence of being philosophically educated.  But “critical thinking” is not what philosophy teaches.  Courses in “critical thinking” are an abomination born of what Josef Pieper calls the “world of total work”, i.e., that attitude towards our daily occupations that everything we do or learn or practice is subordinated to productivity and efficiency; the attitude that everything we encounter in the world is a problem to be solved, so as to move on to the next thing; the attitude that mystery is an obstacle we’d rather not face.

When I asked my students what they thought a philosopher does, the answers centered around “studying”, “pondering”, “contemplating”, “philosophizing”, and, naturally, “sitting in a comfortable chair reading and thinking all day” (obviously none of my students have ever sat in the chair provided in my office).  All of these answers are at least true, but none of them get to the heart of the matter—aside from “philosophizing”, all of those things could be said about literary theorist, theologians, historians, theoretical physicists, biologists, and people in pretty much any academic discipline.  What is it that belongs singularly to philosophers?  [This is the part where I get to the point, for those of you who are too lazy to read the whole thing.]

The philosopher considers that which is encountered in human experience, and what can be inferred from that experience, according to the first and the highest principles of natural human reason.  Thus, the philosopher is not confined to the consideration of this or that particular subject matter; his subject of study is “everything”.  He may have an expertise within the realm of “everything”—ethics, for instance, which is right reason concerning human action; or philosophical physics (more commonly called “natural philosophy”), which considers the natures of and relations between beings which exist in the corporeal realm and therefore act and interact through motion—but the exercise of his office begins and ends with “being”.  Here we appear to toe the line of abstract language; but it seems this way only because “being” is an object that is mysterious.  The philosopher does not avoid the mystery.  Indeed, his task is to make the mystery intelligible, a task which never ends, which is not a problem that is “solved”, but which is nevertheless not a futile endeavor.  The task is endless not because it produces no result, but because the object considered, “being”, is infinite, and can therefore be unfolded for us infinitely.

So what do I do?  To put it in somewhat more concrete terms: as a professor, I philosophize with my students, meaning that we ask what things are, why they are, why they are what they are, how they ought to be, why they ought to be how they ought to be.  I might ask a student a question seemingly as simple as, “What do we mean by the word ‘one’ when we say that ‘this is one thing’?”—and you might be surprised how long and complicated that discussion can become.  I can ask, “Do we mean the same thing when we say that something is ‘good’ for a human being and something is ‘good’ for a dog?” and see that students, while they take it for granted that something is good for them and not for a dog, have never actually stopped to think about what the term “good” really means.  We get into these questions by reading texts—some as old as the mid 4th century B.C., some published just a couple years ago—written by very smart men and women who have also engaged in questioning the mystery of being; and in so doing, we see that the answers to these questions aren’t really answers if they are treated as facts to be memorized.  I, along with my students, enter into the mystery again, anew, and discover something new.

As a philosopher outside of my role as a professor, I try to push deeper into the mystery, both as discussed by other philosophers and from my own experience of the world; both as it appeared to them and as it appears to me.  Mostly, this means thinking; a tiny portion of it involves writing down those things that I have thought; an even tinier portion results in sharing those things written with others.  My own speciality is nuanced, pedantic, and is probably boring as hell to most people (“metaphysics” and “philosophy of knowledge” might sound really exciting, but if I start talking about things like “the principle of sufficient reason” as it applies to an understanding of the via resolutionis, the difference between Umwelt and the In-der-Welt-Sein specific to humanity, or the difference between species impressae intellectus as a “mere” quo and species expressae intellectus as an in quo… you’re bored already, aren’t you?  Plus, what jerk uses all these foreign languages?  This jerk, apparently).

At any rate, there you have it.  That’s what I do.  Oh, and I write things like this, instead of working on my dissertation.

Categories: General