There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 2

[… continued from last post]

Hutton, Sarah, Anne Conway : A Woman Philosopher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).  I referred to this book in my entry for David Byrne, whose work is in many ways comparable.  Both authors have written an intellectual biography of Conway but, as I indicated earlier, they used different approaches.  Hutton’s book was reviewed in 2005 by Karen Detlefsen for Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (the full text of her review is available, here).  Detlefsen writes:

The Principles is, according to Hutton, “constructed on an a priori model” (127), and Conway’s mode of argument is “by logical deduction” (214), thus suggesting its suitability to analytic, logical treatment.  The reader of Hutton’s book on Conway, however, will not find such a treatment, for the Principles do not serve as the spine of Hutton’s book; rather, Conway’s life and intellectual development serve as that spine.  There is some helpful skeletal information on Conway’s philosophy provided in the opening pages (2-9 passim), and a more thorough summary of the arguments of the Principles outlined in the final chapter (220-5) concerning Conway’s legacy.  These sections of the book aside, the crucial elements of Conway’s philosophy emerge slowly as the chapters of her life unfold, perhaps in much the same fashion that her philosophy developed in Conway’s own mind.  Hutton has done a superb job at reconstructing that life and providing exhaustive contextual background to Conway’s intellectual development.  This is an immensely learned book which will appeal to the historian of culture and ideas of the seventeenth century, to one already familiar with the arguments of Conway’s text and wanting more context to that terse and complex book, or to one interested in gaining an understanding of the context in a lead-up to an intensive study of the Principles.

Detlefsen here puts her finger on, and gently exposes, the weakness of Hutton’s otherwise excellent book: it lacks “an intensive study of the Principles.”  But, if I may switch to a broader level of criticism, I think both Hutton and Detlefsen practice a subtle form of chronological snobbery.  Underlying both the book and the review there seems to be an unshakable presupposition that only now is it possible to properly evaluate and “place” Conway’s thought.  So, if Conway’s Principles had fallen into the hands of some visionary thinker from a century ago – say, Henri Bergson (there is no reason to think that he knew of Conway) – said thinker might have had some interesting things to say about Conway’s work, but because he or she would not have had access to the kind of bone-scraping “archeological” history written by more recent scholars, such as Nicolson and Hutton, it would have been largely for naught.

I respectfully disagree.

It is not the case that we cannot readily understand a centuries-removed author unless the residual, dead weight of the writings approximates the original, live weight of the writer, or until modern historiography has thoroughly weighed in.  Martin Luther’s works, in German, fill sixty-five volumes.  Would it be better, all the way around, if we had even one-twentieth of that quantity of writing from Anne Conway?  Certainly, but the mere sixty-two pages that we do have in Conway’s Principles (in the translation by Coudert and Corse) is enough for us to fathom her as a philosopher.  I’m not suggesting that Hutton’s book isn’t essential for Conway students or that it’s not outstanding scholarship – it’s clearly both.  But am I not permitted to be both grateful to a historiographer and annoyed with her at the same time?  Hutton’s barely concealed attitude seems to say, “Anne Conway lived in a century so intellectually distant from ours, and she left behind such scant traces of herself, that you shouldn’t expect to understand her thought without expert help.”  I beg to differ.  Distant though Conway’s time is from ours, the essentials abide.  Do any of us today – who are reasonably educated – really need a thirty-page essay, bristling with footnotes, to understand Shakespeare’s sonnet 116 that begins, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments…”?  Prithee, no.  I realize that philosophy and theology are inherently less accessible than literature, but if you have at least some knowledge of these subjects, and some understanding of the history of ideas – trust me – you should be able to “get” Conway, or at least begin to, within the first ten pages of picking up her book.  This endless specialization and expert-itis in modern academia reminds me of a stiflingly hot room in summer with the windows tightly shuttered.  To the scholars, slaving away in such rooms, I say:  Open your windows!  Admit some fresh air!  Look into the distance!  After all, it was that rogue Russian, Rozanov, who prophesied the “stupendous truth” that

private life is above everything else.  . . .  Just sitting at home, and even picking your nose, and looking at the sunset . . . this is more universal than religion.  . . .  All religions will pass, but this will remain: simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance.  (Cited and translated by George L. Kline in Religious and Anti-Religious Thought in Russia, p. 70)

Who was, is, or will be, unable to understand this, unaided, from whatever century?  Hutton derides philosophia perennis (albeit with the usual academic qualifications and “sensitivities”) in her book, but here – “simply sitting in a chair and looking into the distance” – is philosophia perennis simpliciter, destined to last ’til the crack of doom.  It can certainly outlast scholarly derision.  I can already hear the protests: “This is all very well, but it’s hardly philosophical.”  But the protesters rarely talk about the surprising trendiness of what they call philosophy (surprising, because philosophical truths are usually assumed to be immutable).  Hutton informs me that Platonism, of whichever flavor, is out of fashion and has been for a very long time.  And this affects me, how?  Am I incapable of making up my own mind about it?  Were I, now, to put on the philosophical garments that Conway spun it would apparently be a horrible faux pas and make me a laughingstock in the eyes of the haute couture set in philosophy.  Thoreau was thinking of real garments, not philosophical ones, when he wrote the following, but I don’t see much difference:

We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion.  She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority.  The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.  . . .  Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.  We are amused at beholding the costume of Henry VIII, or Queen Elizabeth, as much as if it was that of the King and Queen of the Cannibal Islands.  All costume off a man is pitiful or grotesque.  It is only the serious eye peering from and the sincere life passed within it which restrain laughter and consecrate the costume of any people.  Let Harlequin be taken with a fit of the colic and his trappings will have to serve that mood too.  When the soldier is hit by a cannonball rags are as becoming as purple.  (Walden, “Economy”)

Indeed some of us seem to change our philosophies about as often as our shirts, a fact that did not escape the eagle-eyed Shestov, another Russian, who once wrote of it with insight and slashing wit, at the expense of his good friend and rival (both apply), Berdyaev:

As I have said, like any thinking person, Berdyaev has changed his convictions or ideas many times in the course of six years.  Of course, I mean his philosophical ideas.  In his political views he is incomparably more stable and consistent.  He was and remains a democrat and even, it seems, a socialist.  This is curious.  . . .  How can one explain the inconstancy of philosophical beliefs in people who are politically stable and unwavering?  Obviously, not by their character.  One cannot be at the same time of a firm and a changing character.

For the time being, let me leave this question unanswered and turn the reader’s attention to another peculiarity of Berdyaev’s intellectual development (and the same applies to Bulgakov).  As soon as he abandons a set of ideas for a new one, he no longer finds in his previous intellectual wealth anything worthy of attention.  All the old ideas are rags and good for nothing.  Take, economic materialism, for example.  At one time (in his first book) Berdyaev was excited with it – true, not in its pure version, but combined with Kantianism – and thought it contained the whole truth.  Now he no longer sees any truth in it.  So, let me raise the question: is a philosopher allowed to be so wildly extravagant?  Surely, the materialists had at least some grains of truth.  Why should they be scorned?  And later on, when the time came to get up and to leave old man Kant, Berdyaev left everything, took not a thing with him, as if the slightest luggage would weigh him down, and sprinted freely to metaphysics confident in advance that he would find there both fatted herds and wide fields, in a word, everything a man needs to make a living.  Then he dropped metaphysics and flung himself into the depth of religious revelation.  The saga of Berdyaev’s transformation from a metaphysician into a believing Christian was spread out for the reader on the pages of Problems of Life [Voprosy zhizni].  What was particularly impressive about the transformation was its impetuosity.  It was too fast even for Berdyaev.  He became a Christian before he even learned to pronounce clearly all the words of the confession of faith.  . . .

From what I have said, one can draw many conclusions.  First of all, it follows that intellectual evolution, which in the old days was so difficult and so extraordinarily slow and now takes place so easily and quickly, does not involve any deep internal changes.  Bulgakov, when he was a Marxist, was just as fine a man as he is now.  Berdyaev, whether he is a Kantian or a metaphysician, and Merezhkovsky, whether he is a Nietzschean or Christian – from the inside, there is no difference.  Cuculeus non facit monachum [a cowl does not a monk make].  Generally speaking, it is evident that the old thinkers were mistaken when they thought that philosophical ideas had to be carefully protected in a dry place from rust and moths, otherwise they would be damaged.  Political beliefs are another matter.  In politics if you change your beliefs then you have to change friends and enemies, you have to shoot people you defended with your own body and vice versa.  Here you have to think things over.  But to switch from Kantianism to Hegelianism and even, horribile dictu, to materialism, how will that affect anyone?  I do not even see any reason for a person who knows a number of philosophical systems well to evolve inevitably from one system to another.  It is permitted, depending on circumstances, to believe in one and then another.  In the course of a day even, one can switch systems two or three times.  In the morning one can be a convinced Hegelian, during the day hold firmly onto Plato, and in the evening…, there are evenings when one will believe Spinoza even: our natura naturata will seem so immutable.  (“In Praise of Folly,” translated by Taras Zakydalsky)

There is undeniably much truth in the presupposition adopted by Hutton (and many others).  Human understanding clearly does evolve over time.  But there is a kind of lockjaw in the way this presupposition is usually applied, in the form of the argument against “anachronism,” that is deadening to the living suppleness that characterizes the evolution of human understanding.  Those who rigidly adhere to scholarly strictures against reading any “modern” thought back into the past implicitly deny the possibility that “past” thought might ever be able to anticipate the future.  In short, they deny the very possibility of prophecy.  It is true that present-day philosophers react to words like prophecy much like vampires react to holy water – it burns – although perhaps that’s only because, to paraphrase and quote Andrea Nye (whom I’ll discuss in the next entry), present-day philosophy sold its broad-minded “liberal art” soul to become narrowly “allied with linguistics and cognitive psychology.”  But, if we turn to theology proper, where words like prophecy are generally more welcome, we still find a curious and considerable fear of anachronism.  Joseph Sittler (1904-87), the visionary American theologian who was “green” long before that color had any association with nature or ecology, had to fight charges of anachronism after he constructively deployed the first chapter of Colossians in support of his ideas about “cosmic” Christology.  Critics cried, “The author of Colossians 1 didn’t intend that!  It is a fallacy (of anachronism) to “read back” into this ancient text anything of our modern understanding of the cosmos!”  Sittler, you see, had opened his important “Called to Unity” speech in 1961, in New Delhi at the World Council of Churches, by reciting and interpreting these five verses from Colossians 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him.  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  (Colossians 1:15-20, RSV)

It is noteworthy that Conway, who doesn’t cite the Bible all that frequently in her Principles, does cite a portion of this passage from Colossians 1 in her discussion of Middle Nature (or Christ) which in her system is what stands between (immutable) God and (mutable) Creation.  In fact, this pivotal aspect of her metaphysics seems to be founded upon her “constructive” reading of this passage.  Conway was thus doing the same thing – as a philosopher in the seventeenth century, when human understanding was first becoming aware of the true nature and extent of the cosmos – that Sittler would do as a theologian three centuries later!  That is, both thinkers were supposedly “guilty” of anachronism, and with respect to the same passage from Scripture.  Sittler responded to the charge, and his critics, in his 1972 book, Essays on Nature and Grace (like Conway, Sittler had the gift of brevity – this brilliantly argued book, so full of wisdom, weighs in at a scant 134 pages).  It is beyond the scope of this post to deal with Sittler’s whole argument and the various objections to which he responded.  Here, I simply want to highlight Sittler’s response to the specific objection regarding the presumed mismatch between what the (ancient) author of Colossians 1 may have intended for his text to mean, and the subsequent disclosure of the meaning of Colossians 1 for the (modern) reader.  On a literal level Sittler doesn’t dispute the fact that there is mismatch, but he chides his critics for using overly restrictive hermeneutical principles and for conceiving the question at hand so narrowly.  As to “current reflection about the reality of the cosmos in the determination of God,” Sittler admits:

It is not, I think, what the writer “intended”; for the writer did not look out upon a world as an organism, as an evolutionary ecosystem.  The writer was not an enthusiastic proleptic Teilhard de Chardin, or a Darwin, or a Niels Bohr.  But the writer does, from a faith that affirms the grace of God the Creator and the incarnated grace of God the Redeemer and the present working of God the Sanctifier, enfold within his vision of the new evolution a “horizon” of meaning and hope that cannot stop short of “all things.”  “Intention” is no adequate guide for biblical hermeneutics; to see the world as the text speaks of it is a constructive theological enterprise that must not be dismissed out of hand by the too easy demonstration that meanings in an ancient context are not identical with meanings in a present context.  (p. 42)

And, in a challenging passage that I think resonates well with Conway’s metaphysics, Sittler writes:

The Christian reality is not separable from the Scripture, and it is not identical with or limited to the Scripture.  Theological reflection is in continuity with themes, records, episodes, teachings, etc., as these meet us in Scripture, and has in these its engendering and controlling norm.  But hearing the Word and doing theology is an exercise in faithful reflection which, if it is to be intelligible, must partake of the dynamism of all historical, cultural, and experiential life.  In the evolution of man’s biological form and capabilities across the millennia of time, nature probed in an infinite virtuosity of effort the possibility for higher forms – some abortive, some rich with phyla that led to higher forms.  As from one strand among the very many, and that one not in its earlier stages notably different from others, nature fashioned the progenitors of man.  So the Christologies that emerged in the first several centuries, while certainly not “wrong,” do not in their number or structure actualize all the potentialities that lie resident within the magnificent doxological witness of the community to Christ.  (pp. 38-9)

To this I would simply add, and close, by mentioning that it is not anachronistic to interpret inspired speeches or writings from the past – which may indeed rise to the level of prophecy, or at least a kind of prophecy – in terms of the present, and in excess of what the speaker or writer may have consciously intended, if one believes in the saying of Maximus the Confessor that is on my blog’s masthead.  For what is prophecy, if it is not “the Word of God and God . . . accomplish[ing] the mystery of his embodiment”?

[Continued in next post…]

This entry was posted in Animal theology, Berdyaev, Nikolai, Conway, Anne, Maximus the Confessor, Philosophy (uncategorized), Rozanov, Vasily, Russian religious philosophy, Scandinavian creation theology, Science, History of, Shestov, Lev, Sittler, Joseph. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 2

  1. Pingback: There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 1 | Extravagant Creation

  2. Pingback: There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 3 | Extravagant Creation

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