03 July 2012

Maritain & St Dionysius on Poetic Knowledge

In this post, I already mentioned James Taylor’s citation of a piece from A Maritain Reader—‘Creative Intuition & Poetic Knowledge’. Here is the passage as quoted by Taylor: 

As Jacques Maritain observed, ‘the natural inclination was so strong in them (the ancients and medievals) that their proofs of God could take the form of the most conceptualized and rationalized demonstrations, and be offered as an unrolling of logical necessities, without losing the inner energy of that intuition.’ [1] 

Unfortunately, it appears to be miscited. The passage does not, so far as I can tell, appear in the essay named, but is taken from Maritain’s work, The Range of Reason. At any rate, I found this quote rather compelling despite our common Orthodox tendency to disparage such scholastic demonstrations. While it is by no means Taylor’s only reference to Maritain on the subject of poetic knowledge, it appears to be the only citation of the Reader itself. Despite the mistake, however, the essay referenced remains a strong statement by itself of the nature of poetic knowledge, and Maritain makes in it a fascinating connection that I so far find nowhere in Taylor. 

First, Maritain sets out Aquinas’s distinction between what we usually think of as knowledge today, which might be called ‘scientific knowledge’, and what he calls ‘connatural knowledge’, of which ‘poetic knowledge’ is a species in Maritain’s use of the terms. The latter writes: 

I used a moment ago the expression ‘knowledge through connaturality’. It refers to a basic distinction made by Thomas Aquinas, when he explains that there are two different ways to judge of things pertaining to a moral virtue, say fortitude. On the one hand we can possess in our mind moral science, the conceptual and rational knowledge of virtues, which produces in us a merely intellectual conformity with the truths involved. Then, if we are asked a question about fortitude, we will give the right answer by merely looking at and consulting the intelligible objects contained in our concepts. A moral philosopher may possibly not be a virtuous man and know everything about virtues. [2] 

Taylor draws on an oft-quoted passage from Dickens’s Hard Times to illustrate the distinction. In this passage, scientific knowledge seems to be well-represented by the definition of ‘horse’ given by young Bitzer at the prompting of the infamous teacher, Thomas Gradgrind: 

‘Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely, twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.’ Thus (and much more) Bitzer. [3] 

By contrast, here is Maritain on connatural knowledge: 

On the other hand, we can possess the virtue in question in our own powers of will and desire, have it embodied in ourselves, and thus be in accordance with it or connnatured with it in our very being. Then, if we are asked a question about fortitude, we will give the right answer, no longer through science, but through inclination, by looking at and consulting what we are and the inner bents or propensities of our own being. A virtuous man may possibly be utterly ignorant in moral philosophy, and know as well (probably better) everything about virtues—through connaturality. 
In this knowledge through union or inclination, connaturality or congeniality, the intellect is at play not alone, but together with affective inclinations and the dispositions of the will, and as guided and shaped by them. It is not rational knowledge, knowledge through the conceptual, logical, and discursive exercise of reason. But it is really and genuinely knowledge, though obscure and perhaps incapable of giving account of itself. [4] 

This description, of course, naturally echoes the position of Sissy Jupe in the episode referred to from Hard Times. She is, according to Gradgrind, ‘unable to define a horse!’ [5] Yet, her father breaks horses for a living, and as Taylor observes, it is cruelly ironic ‘that no one in the class except Sissy knows what a horse is, least of all Gradgrind and Bitzer’. ‘The One Thing Needful’ of chapter 1, ‘is what Sissy could have told the class about horses.’ 

That would have been her intimate knowledge of their habits and personalities, the do’s and don’ts of their care and training, and her love. Her knowledge would be something closer to the essence of horses because of her simple familiarity with their wholeness as an animal, rather than Bitzer’s facts most likely memorized from a textbook. [6] 

Anthony Esolen, in his earnestly Screwtapean, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, has cited the same example to illustrate the kind of knowledge he values. He says of Sissy, ‘She has ridden upon horses, seen them give birth, combed them and curried them, and watched as her father salved their sores or rubbed them with liniment. She knows them in a way that only life with them reveals.’ [7] She is a perfect mirror of the virtuous man who ‘may possibly be utterly ignorant of moral philosophy’, but who knows ‘as well (probably better) everything about virtues—through connaturality’. She possess real and genuine knowledge, without being able to give an account of it. 

But for those who find themselves alienated by Aquinas/Maritain, and not caring much about Dickens, Maritain cites a very interesting connection indeed. He writes: 

St Thomas explains in this way the difference between the knowledge of divine reality acquired by theology and the knowledge of divine reality provided by mystical experience. For the spiritual man, he says, [8] knows divine things through inclination or connaturality: not only because he has learned them, but because he suffers them, as the Pseudo-Dionysius put it. [9] 

This last allusion, to the Corpus Dionysiacum, took me awhile to track down. I recognised the idea as Dionysian, but the first actual quote that sprang to mind turned out to be St Gregory of Sinai—‘A true philosopher...does not simply learn about divine things, but actually experiences them [ou monon mathon, alla kai pathon ta theia].’ [10] Although I expected I would have underlined such a thing, a skim through my annotated copy of Luibheid’s translation yielded nothing, nor did the index help at all. I also tried Google, both a text search in Books and a general internet search for some of the possible key words. 

At last, I found it in Fr Louth’s Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition, in the chapter on St Dionysius. Fr Louth writes: 

So Denys speaks of his teacher Hierotheus as one who ‘did not so much learn about divine things, as suffer them and through his sympathy with them, if I may use such terms, was perfected to an untaught and hidden faith concerning them and union with them’ (DN II.9, 648 B). In union with God the soul is passive, and suffers or finds a certain sympathy (literally, suffering with) the divine. It is not something it learns, and indeed it is unteachable (adidaktos), rather it is, as Roques says, ‘contemplation due purely to grace, of a type at once unitive, ineffable and beyond the realm of the discursive understanding, something no longer distinct from ecstasy and pure love.’ [11] 

The passage Fr Louth cites is found on p. 65 of Luibheid’s translation. Here is that rendering with a bit more of the already quoted passage’s context: 

I have said enough about this elsewhere and my famous teacher [St Hierotheus of Athens] has marvelously praised in his Elements of Theology whatever he learned directly from the sacred writers, whatever his own perspicacious and laborious research of the scriptures uncovered for him, or whatever was made known to him through that more mysterious inspiration [eite kai ek tinos emyethe theioteras epipnoias], not only learning but also experiencing the divine things [ou monon mathon, alla kai pathon ta theia]. For he had a ‘sympathy’ with such matters, if I may express it this way, and he was perfected in a mysterious union with them and in a faith in them which was independent of any education. And I would like to present in the briefest way the many wonderful visions of his outstanding judgment. [12] 

My first observation about this is that the line I quoted from St Gregory of Sinai is obviously a quotation from St Dionysius—the wording is exactly the same. Both the Philokalia’s ‘does not simply learn about divine things, but actually experiences them’ and Luibheid’s ‘not only learning but also experiencing the divine things’ are simply translations of the same Greek phrase: οὐ μόνον μαθών, ἀλλὰ καὶ παθὼν τὰ θεῖα. Interestingly, Luibheid has a footnote to the statement which refers the reader to Aristotle’s Fragment 15 (he also mentions Heb. 5:8—‘Although He was a Son, He learned [emathen] obedience through what he suffered [epathen]’). I have been unable to produce, either in my books or on the Internet, a simple text of this fragment, but on Google Books I find the following summary in Daniel Greenspan’s The Passion of Infinity: Kierkegaard, Aristotle & the Rebirth of Tragedy

Fragment 15 (Rose) of Aristotle’s alerts us to his awareness of an alternative form of education—competitive with philosophy—bound still to the archaic religious power of katharsis: initiates in the mysteries ‘educate’ and purify themselves through the ritualization of suffering. Like the Oedipus of tragedy they do not learn (mathein) anything. They experience or suffer it (pathein). Undergoing this experience transforms their disposition (diathesis) spontaneously. [13] 

Of course, this becomes more intriguing when we note that while according to Greenspan such education is for Aristotle ‘competitive with philosophy’, according to St Gregory’s explicit statement, not only learning but experiencing is characteristic of the ‘true philosopher’. Here we are adding to the subject I explored in my post on St Cyril’s definition of ‘philosophy’. [14] 

My second observation is that this is clearly a statement of what Metropolitan Hierotheos, following a favourite theme of Fr John Romanides, calls the ‘empirical’ nature of the Fathers’ theology. In His Eminence’s words, ‘This means that the Holy Fathers theologised not in conjecture and philosophy, but through experience, through the revelation. God revealed His truth to the Prophets, Apostles and saints, and through this revelation they guided the Lord’s people.’ [15] His Eminence goes on to discuss the normal Orthodox terms for the faculties by which two different kinds of knowledge are attained: 

Studying the patristic texts, we can verify clearly that there are two centres of knowing in man. One is the nous, which is activated in the heart, and the other is that of the mind and reasoning which is connected with the brain. Orthodox spirituality is supported by the noetic power of the heart, while the thinking power is supported by the brain. [16] 

Obviously, there is an issue about terminology here. It is easy to fall into the trap of treating these terms as though they are hard and fast, and universal. [17] The Faber edition of the Philokalia, which translates nous as ‘intellect’, carefully distinguishes this ‘highest faculty in man, through which...he knows God or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception’ and ‘understands divine truth by means of immediate experience, intution or “simple cognition”’, from ‘the dianoia or reason’, which functions ‘by formulating abstract concepts and then arguing on this basis to a conclusion reached through deductive reasoning’. [18] 

And yet, if we consult the Greek text of St Dionysius’s fascinating passage on epistemology (in DN 7.2) that I have quoted here, we see that while nous and its various forms are indeed the terms for ‘direct apprehension or spiritual perception’ there, it is not dianoia but logos diexodikos that is translated as ‘discursive reasoning’. [19] Dianoia is, however, found in DN 2.9, when St Dionysius mentions ‘the many wonderful visions [ta polla kai makaria theamata]’ of St Hierotheus’s ‘outstanding judgment [tes kratistes ekeinou dianoias]’. If it is a faculty for experiencing theamata, it does not seem that the Areopagite is here using dianoia in the sense given in the Philokalia glossary, but is rather using dianoia somewhat synonymously with nous. [20] 

At any rate, I begin to arrive at a series of connections. The ‘scientific’ knowledge of which Taylor and Maritain speak corresponds with the conceptual and discursive knowledge referred to by St Dionysius and the Philokalia glossary. The kind of knowledge that St Dionysius says in DN 2.9 is gained by experiencing ‘divine things’, and which in DN 7.2 he calls noesis (perception by the nous), is poetic or connatural knowledge (I have yet to read about the relationship between this and ‘intuitive knowledge’). 

This also brings up the question of possible connections between the names for the various faculties involved. St Dionysius in DN 7.2 speaks of the nous (translated ‘intelligence’ by Luibheid and ‘intellect’ in the Faber Philokalia) as the organ of this kind of knowledge by experience. The two English terms used to translate the term are derivatives of words used in Latin sources going back at least to Boethius to describe the faculty for the same kind of knowledge. [21] What St Dionysius calls logos diexodikos and which seems to be related to dianoia in the Philokalia glossary corresponds to the terms ratio and ratiocinari in the Western conception. (On these Western terms, see this post from April.)

Addendum: My goodness, I can't believe I hadn't thought of this before! I was just looking through some old posts, and I came across another 'return to books' post from 2009 (here), and I saw the following quote from Alan Jacobs's fascinating, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love:

At this point the English language, as it does so rarely, fails us: Whereas it enables, as French does not, Claudio's distinction between liking and loving [in Much Ado About Nothing], it cannot offer us what we need here, which is the distinction between connaître and savoir—roughly, 'knowledge of' rather than 'knowledge about'. One of the most important and productive elements of the work of Martha Nussbaum has been her insistence, deriving from Aristotle, that love—especially philia, the kind of love that Beatrice and Hero feel for each other—is productive of this intimate knowledge, this connaissance. [22]
There you go. Connaissance has got to be precisely what Maritain calls 'connatural knowledge' in 'Creative Intuition. The distinction here in Jacob is precisely the one I've been talking about.

[1] James S. Taylor, Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education (Albany, NY: SUNY, 1998), p. 8; mistakenly citing Jacques Maritain, ‘Creative Intuition & Poetic Knowledge’, A Maritain Reader, ed. Donald & Idella Gallagher (Garden City, NY: Image-Doubleday, 1966), p. 332, a chapter taken from Maritain’s Mellon Lectures, Creative Intuition in Art & Poetry

[2] Maritain, p. 332. 

[3] Charles Dickens, Hard Times (London: Penguin, 1994), p. 4. 

[4] Maritain, p. 332. 

[5] Dickens, p. 3. 

[6] Taylor, p. 7. 

[7] Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Wilmington, DE: ISI, 2010), p. 4. 

[8] Maritain cites Summa Theol. I, 1, 6, ad 3. 

[9] Maritain, p. 333. 

[10] St Gregory of Sinai, ‘On Commandments & Doctrines, Warnings & Promises; on Thoughts, Passions & Virtues, & also on Stillness & Prayer: One Hundred & Thirty-Seven Texts’, The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 4, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1995), p. 245; Grk text in Η Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος Δ΄ (Athens: Astir, 1961), p. 57. 

[11] Fr Andrew Louth, The Origins of the Christian Mystical Tradition: From Plato to Denys (Oxford: Clarendon-Oxford, 1981), p. 175. 

[12] St Dionysius the Areopagite, Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, tr. Colm Luibheid & Paul Rorem (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1987), p. 65; Greek text in Panagiotes Chrestou, ed., Διονύσιος ὁ Ἀρεοπαγίτης (Thessaloniki: Gregorios o Palamas, 1986), pp. 77-8. 

[13] Daniel Greenspan, The Passion of Infinity: Kierkegaard, Aristotle & the Rebirth of Tragedy (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2008), p. 92. 

[14] It is also interesting to note that Metropolitan Hierotheos specifically contrasts empirical with Aristotelian theology. After the comment I quote below, His Eminence writes, ‘St Gregory the Theologian says that the saints speak of God like fishermen and not in an Aristotelian way. That is to say, they speak of God in the manner of the Apostles, not in the manner of Aristotle through imagination and conjecture’—St Gregory Palamas as a Hagiorite, tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1997), p. 359. While the point is well taken, His Eminence is certainly expanding on and interpreting the actual passage from St Gregory’s Oration 23.13, which Fr John McGuckin translates, ‘[This discourse is a] brief synopsis of doctrine not dialectic; given not in imitation of Aristotle, but of the fishermen, not craftily, but spiritually; not as if I was in the market place, but as if I was in Church’—St Gregory of Nazianzus: An Intellectual Biography (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 2001), p. 263. 

[15] Met. Hierotheos, p. 357. 

[16] Met. Hierotheos, p. 365. 

[17] Fortunately, neither Fr John Romanides nor Metropolitan Hierotheos actually falls into this trap. See Protopresbyter John S. Romanides, Patristic Theology: The University Lectures of Fr John Romanides, tr. Hieromonk Alexios (Trader) (Thessaloniki: Uncut Mountain, 2008), pp. 19-20; and Metropolitan Hierotheos (Vlachos) of Nafpaktos, Orthodox Psychotherapy: The science of the Fathers, tr. Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1997), p. 118. 

[18] ‘Glossary’, Philokalia 4, p. 432. 

[19] St Dionysius, pp. 106-7; GT in Chrestou, p. 172. 

 [20] Another example of dianoia used in a sense that seems to differ to that of the glossary comes from the Philokalia itself. In the excerpts from St John Cassian’s Conferences 1-2, entitled ‘On the Holy Fathers of Sketis & on Discrimination: Written for Abba Leontios’, Germanus asks, ‘Above all, since God is invisible and incomprehensible, how can a man’s mind always look upon Him and be inseparable from Him?’ The word translated ‘mind’ here is dianoia. This would be an interesting passage to consider in light of this whole issue of the two kinds of knowledge. The passage is Conferences 1.12, found in St John Cassian, The Conferences, tr. Boniface Ramsey (NY: Newman, 1997), p. 50. The equivalent Philokalic passage, used for the quotation above, is in The Philokalia: The Complete Text, Vol. 1, tr. G.E.H. Palmer, et al. (London: Faber, 1983), p. 96; Η Φιλοκαλία των Ιερών Νηπτικών, Τόμος A΄ (Athens: Astir, 1962), p. 83. 

[21] According to Columba Stewart, the term St John Cassian uses to translate nous in Conferences 7.4.2 is simply mens (suggesting that the translation of mens back into Greek in the Philokalia as dianoia was a rather odd choice). See Columba Stewart, OSB, Cassian the Monk (NY: Oxford, 1999), p. 35. One wonders how St Cassian might have felt about using intelligentia or intellectus instead. Unfortunately, my St Cassian resources are weak, but I don’t find either of the latter two terms in Stewart’s index of Latin and Greek words.

[22] Alan Jacobs, The Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001), pp. 5-6.


kellydeanjolley said...

Reminds me of Dean Inge's comment (in his book on Plotinus) that mystics are the only thorough-going empiricists.

Aaron Taylor said...

Yes, this is something upon which the Greek theologian, Fr John Romanides, really insisted (though he wouldn't have used the term 'mystics', nor would he have acknowledged a similarity to Plotinus on this point). Some Orthodox think he took it a bit far, but he often went so far as to say that Christianity in its essence is more like an empirical science than like a (fundamentally speculative) 'religion'. I'm planning to post a rather interesting passage about this from his book of lectures called Patristic Theology.

Aaron Taylor said...

I'd like to post a couple of questions I received and answers attempted concerning this post on Facebook. So first, from Robert Fortuin:

'Aaron, how would you characterize the relationship between discursive and experiential, noetic knowledge? Can we draw any conclusions as to the nature of truth?'

My answer:

'I'm not entirely sure just yet. I suppose I would say that the latter sort of knowledge is more important and fundamental, and that without i the discursive is impotent and perhaps spiritually dangerous. But properly grounded in experiential, noetic knowledge, even perhaps of an elementary sort, discursive knowledge is capable of great flights.

'The nature of truth is, I think, best understood in terms of the nature of Truth, that is, as a Human Being [I meant to say 'Person' here]. The knowledge of the human, and especially of the Human, is experiential, noetic knowledge par excellence. Discursive knowledge, grounded in a minimum of experience, can brng us sometimes to its threshold, but it cannot lead us inside, to the true connaturality.

'That's just my stab at it. Confronted with the question about the nature of truth, my first thought actually as Johnson's observation, "Truth, Sir, is a cow which will yield such people [the vain] no more milk, and so they are gone to milk the bull."'

Aaron Taylor said...

A follow-up from Robert Fortuin:

'What I am wondering is that if our epistemology is fundamentally noetic, aren't we making it obscure, out of reach, esoteric, while yet claiming it is the more important kind of knowledge? How is a dimwit like myself to attain such knowledge?'

My response:

'It depends, I think. I think theologically speaking, our epistemology is definitely fundamentally noetic, and as such is not out of reach of most people's potential, just out of reach of where we happen to be spiritually [at the moment]. In other words, if we live the life of the Church, we can acquire such knowledge. But I'm drawing a connection here between the noetic knowledge of mystical experience, which is beyond the reach of those still dominated by the passions, and the ordinary knowledge of pre-conceptual experience, which is so simple even a child has it. That's basically what Taylor and Maritain are talking about when they talk about 'poetic knowledge' or 'connatural knowledge'. Sissy Jupe's knowledge of horses is a good example of this, as is the way that little children pretend to be something when they are interested in it--they try to get inside it, experience it directly. Now it's a legitimate question what relationship this has with noetic knowledge, but I'm starting to think there is a very close one.'

Aaron Taylor said...

From Joe FIscher:

'Would you say that poetic knowledge is essentially what the virtue of faith is?'

My response:

'I'm not sure what Aquinas/Maritain/Taylor would say, but as an Orthodox Christian, I could venture an answer. The Fathers talk about to kinds or levels of faith (this distinction is made most clear I think in St Peter of Damascus). One is the basic faith that most of us have which is based on trust in the teachings of the Church. We love and trust the Church to teach us the truth, so our faith is based on revelation which has been given to someone else. I think, however, that even this faith is based on what you might call a lower, or more basic 'poetic knowledge', gained through our experience and especially our experience of love and trust toward those who ahve passed the faith on to us.

'The other kind of faith is the higher kind which is a result of direct experience of God for oneself. This is the kind of faith that the Apostles and Prophets had. They believe, for example, in the Trinity because they have been taught by the Trinity Himself, they have received revelation directly. The Fathers say that this is the kind of faith that we all aspire to. This is an even higher kind of 'poetic knowledge', if you will. As St Dionysius says, we do not only learn about God (from someone else), we experience Him (for ourselves).'

Aaron Taylor said...

I just discovered a passage where James Taylor bears out my distinction in the above comment between 'the noetic knowledge of mystical experience' and 'the ordinary knowledge of pre-conceptual [or poetic] experience':

'Certainly, this mode of knowledge [the poetic] has a mysterious dimension to it, because, unlike science, which cannot enter into these depths, it is quite at home in these intuitive connections with reality that become connatural. But real mystical experience is the result of a grace from God usually given in mystical contemplation to souls in a high degree of faith and charity.' (Poetic Knowledge, p. 70)