06 September 2017

Pieper & Borges on Missing the Forest

Much like, I suppose, most avid readers, I can never read just one book at a time. For me, this problem may well be exacerbated by a deficient attention span, but I usually have at least 6 or 7 books going at once. Most of the time these cover something of the range of my interests, but as has been my habit here at Logismoi, I still come across intertextual connections with surprising frequency.

For the last week or so, I have been reading—among others—Josef Pieper’s illuminating introduction to Scholastic philosophy, Scholasticism: Personalities and Problems of Medieval Philosophy, as well as Jorge Luis Borges’s delightful Norton Lectures, This Craft of Verse (for more on my love for Borges, see this post). One might think that these volumes constituted two fairly unrelated conversations, but one would be wrong.

Just this morning, I was reading Pieper’s chapter on Aquinas’s polemics with ‘conservative’ Augustinian-Platonists like John Peckham on the one hand, and ‘radical’ Averroists like Siger of Brabant on the other, when I came across the following perspicacious comments on the latter. Allow me to quote at some length:

A word remains to be said about one peculiarity of this new rationalism which at first sight appears strange and positively irrational. F. van Steenberghen speaks of the ‘curious fact’ [chose curieuse] that ‘these bold and revolutionary spirits who did not hesitate to shatter the ideas they had received from their Christian environment should simultaneously have subscribed to a veritable cult of philosophical tradition’, so that philosophizing meant to them above all ‘to investigate what the philosophers thought about any particular question.’ As may easily be seen, this is something which we might call highly contemporary, for this sort of purely historical examination of philosophical questions is much the fashion nowadays. However, to my mind there is nothing curious about it; it is what one would naturally expect to happen. For the very moment anyone engaged in philosophizing abandons the guidance of sacred tradition, two things happen to him. The first is that he loses sight of his true subject, the real world and its structure of meaning, and finds himself instead talking about something entirely different: philosophy and philosophers. The second is that he forfeits his legitimate hold on the solely binding tradition, and must therefore illegitimately and—it must be said—vainly seek support in the mere facts handed down to him, in whatever historical ‘material’ happens to be at his disposal, following the ‘great thinkers’ whom he has encountered more or less by chance, or occupying himself industriously with the opinions of other people.

Here we must recall to mind the dictum of St Thomas, concerning this very matter, addressed in 1271-72 to Siger of Brabant, and since cited many times: ‘The purpose of the study of philosophy is not to learn what others have thought, but to learn how the truth of things stands.’ [1]

So Pieper accuses the Averroists of missing the point of philosophy because of their too keen interest in the history of the subject. They have become more interested in going over Aristotle with a fine-toothed comb than in wisdom itself.

Surprisingly, Borges says something very similar about poetry and literature in the lecture that I read from his book almost immediately after putting down my copy of Pieper. He writes:

I think perhaps we may be led astray by one of the studies I value most: the study of the history of literature. I wonder (and I hope this is not blasphemy) if we are not too aware of history. Being aware of the history of literature—or of any other art, for that matter—is really a form of unbelieving, a form of skepticism. If I say to myself, for example, that Wordsworth and Verlaine were very good nineteenth-century poets, then I may fall into the danger of thinking that time has somehow destroyed them, that they are not as good now as they were. I think the ancient idea—that we might allow perfection to art without taking into account the dates—was a braver one.

I have read several histories of Indian philosophy. The authors (Englishmen, Germans, Frenchmen, Americans, and so on) always wonder at the fact that in India people have no historical sense—that they treat all thinkers as if they were contemporary. They translate the words of ancient philosophy into the modern jargon of today’s philosophy. But this stands for something brave. This stands for the idea that one believes in philosophy or that one believes in poetry—that things beautiful once can go on being beautiful still. [2]

Notice that Borges seems to suggest that the awareness of literary history has had an opposite effect to the medieval awareness of philosophical history. Whereas the Averroists valued ‘the Philosopher’ more highly than the wisdom he sought, the modern literary man—on Borges’s estimation—seems rather to dismiss his writers, to miss their importance, because of his exaggerated awareness of their historical situatedness, and in the process to lose both the mediaevals’ ‘cult of tradition’ as well as their appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful. They end up valuing neither Wordsworth nor beauty.

[1] Josef Pieper, Scholasticism: Personalities & Problems of Medieval Philosophy, tr. Richard & Clara Winston (South Bend, IN: St Augustine’s, 2001), pp. 125-6.

[2] Jorge Luis Borges, This Craft of Verse, ed. Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2000), pp. 114-5.