The concept of mimesis has a rich, complicated career in the history of aesthetics, philosophy, and theology. Plato and Aristotle both make much of it. Later, Lessing, Kant, and the Romantics draw heavily upon it as well. More recently, so too have René Girard and Heidegger. The term’s power to compel widespread attention is due in part to its fascinating ambivalence. As the existentialists noted famously, imitation (a core notion at the heart of mimesis) can be pernicious, “a mysterious force animating masses of people to uncoordinated collective common action,” a source of “dissolution of differences leading to normative uniformity,” a “spontaneous reflexive process” responsible for “marginalizing the value of human individuality, the meaning of subjective experience, and the role of passion and faith” (1). At the same time, imitation is fundamental to the artistic representation of beauty, the creative and ethical tasks of grappling with ideality, and, of course, the theological notion of imitatio Christi. In the human search for meaning, mimesis is thus both fundamental and inescapable. And to be sure, modernity’s “way of thinking about […] the role of authority and institutions in humanity’s orientation in the world” (2), entails a reconceptualization of mimesis itself, and how in turn it shapes the distinctly modern pursuit of an authentic human existence. According to Wojciech Kaftanski’s study Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity, it is Søren Kierkegaard who “offer[s] us one of the most comprehensive and profound accounts of modernity” (1). “What, then,” Kaftanski naturally asks, “are we to make of Kierkegaard’s understanding and use of mimesis?” (7).
Mimesis can be variously defined, as Kaftanski observes. It can designate “emulation, mimicry, dissimulation, doubling, theatricality, realism, identification, correspondence, depiction, verisimilitude, resemblance” (7). In the classical world, it typically denoted “faithful imitation of a model” (7). In the modern context, it is has come to be associated with creativity, “as originality, genius, individuality, imagination” (7). It is thus “ambivalent, inconspicuous, and in many ways blurry” (7). For as Kaftanski notes, mimesis also admits of a “pharmacological” meaning—it is “both a problem and a cure for the maladies of the modern individual” (7). Realizing it is futile to give the term any single concrete and exhaustive definition, it is better to approach the term by treating its cluster of concepts along the lines of Wittgenstein’s theory of family resemblance.
This polyvalence of mimesis is apparent in Kierkegaard’s own handling of the term. Contrary, then, to what one might initially expect from a study of Kierkegaard, Kaftanski’s interest in the term extends beyond “simply imitation, or the imitation of Christ” (7). As he notes, Danish does not provide “a direct translation of the Greek mimesis into a noun” (9). The key term is Efterfølgelse (which can be literally translated into English as “following after”), a translation of the Latin term imitatio, itself the translation of mimesis (9). But Kierkegaard’s linguistic repertoire for mimesis is expansive and multi-layered, an “impressive and far wider” vocabulary than has been acknowledged (9). As Kaftanski says,
Kierkegaard uses a variety of terms to refer to the broad mimetic sphere in his corpus, such as Gjentagelsen (repetition), Ligne (likeness, and to liken, to resemble), Lighed (similarity and equality), Sammengligning (comparison), Eftergjøre (going and doing after), Efterabelse (aping or parroting), mimisk (mimic or mimical), but also Fordoblelse (redoubling), Reduplikation (reduplication), Dobbelt-Reflexion (double-reflection), Dobbelthed (doubleness or duplexity), Dobbelt-Bevoegelse (double-movement), Billede (image or picture), and Forbillede (prototype, model, tyfpe, pattern) (9).
In addition to the linguistic complexity of the phenomenon, there is the further fact that mimesis also reflects the multifaceted aesthetic, scholastic, economic, political, social, and religious context in which Kierkegaard was living and writing. Human beings orient themselves in place. And in the modern period, the city is central to that place. As Kaftanski says, the reinvention of Kierkegaard’s own Copenhagen was itself undertaken in mimetic fashion, by architecturally and culturally emulating Belin, Paris, and London (3). According to Kaftanski, the becoming of the modern city is a “macro-representation of the becoming of the individual […] the city and its inhabitants mirror one another” (4). How so? Part of it is that “mimesis entails both retaining the old and assimilating the new” (4). Copenhagen accordingly transformed itself into something new by reworking its past. But such reworking was not so banal, but in many ways radical. At the time, nineteenth-century Copenhagen was a city indelibly shaped by the formation of mass society, as well as class struggle. Consequently, a tendency emerged among its lower-classes to attempt to “imitate and appropriate” the standards, values, and tastes of the bourgeoisie (6). However, dissatisfied with their economic and political conditions, “an age of revolution” (2) quickly swept across Europe beginning in France and Germany, eventually finding its way to Copenhagen too. This “revolutionary mass action” exhibited a “mimetic-affective crowd behavior” (6)—a force of “mimetic magnetism, fascination, somnambulism, scapegoating, and violence” (12), which Kierkegaard himself was keen to resist, and led him to coin the pejorative terms “the public” and “the crowd.” Thus, as a modern critic of modernity, Kierkegaard’s account of becoming a single individual was deeply responsive to the interlocking mimetic structures of his economic, social, political, and religious milieu. Assuming a countercultural role resembling his philosophical hero Socrates, in this way the “gadfly of Copenhagen” was born.
As Kaftanski explains, Kierkegaard’s literary output reconceptualizes mimesis by creatively appropriating a variety of both classical and modern sources. At stake in doing so, is a conception of mimesis that shifts from “the ideal of representation characterizing pre-modern and the early modern” to an understanding that sees “humans as radically imitative creatures” (5). Mimesis, in short, is not simply an aesthetic phenomenon pertaining to the realm of artistic representation, but a fundamental feature of human existence as such. As Kaftanski says, “Representation is among the three fundamental meanings of mimesis conceptualized in classical Greece. The other two are ‘imitation’ and ‘expression’” (15). On such a view, mimesis is a process of “making present,” one guided by the goal of achieving “similarity and truth”—an artwork sets its vision on replicating “morally desirable objects,” aiming to reproduce something guided by “normativity and correspondence, form and mode” (15).
But whereas for classical art mimesis is “about representing some original, hence producing copies” (19), modern artists sought instead to create “new originals” (19). For the moderns, art should not merely seek to copy reality, but instead express something original or novel. Art, so the thought goes, “should not serve any other purpose but itself” (20). Here Lessing’s influential theory of aesthetics proves illustrative. “Lessing,” says Kaftanski, “asserts that the goal of art is to display beauty; hence, art is irreconcilable with suffering. Second, aesthetics is its own goal; it does not serve other ends” (21). Indeed, according to Lessing, art and religion have their distinct and largely “irreconcilable territories” (20). As is well-known, the Romantics consequently “tended to consecrate art as a religion” (19). Kierkegaard seizes on Lessing’s view, turning it to his own purposes. For according to Kierkegaard, if art and religion are in some way incompatible, this underscores the essential fact that art is said to be unable to express the religious dimension of suffering (15) which so interests Kierkegaard. Religious suffering, as Kaftanski says, is something Kierkegaard sometimes appears to maintain cannot be represented in the arts (20). If the goal of art is depicting beauty, then the ugliness and horror of the crucified Christ eludes its power of portrayal. For Kierkegaard, that art is unable to capture the inner truth of religious suffering in turn suggests that the religious life is itself irreducible to, and indeed higher than, the aesthetic life. For whereas a strictly aesthetic existence remains characterized by “human indecisiveness and a sensuous and disinterested attitude toward the world” (16), religious striving concerns “the pursuit of […] absolute fulfillment that the world cannot provide” (17), a “becoming an individual before God” (17). If art is undertaken simply for its own sake, it would appear to be irrelevant to the kind of authentic human existence Kierkegaard is so interested in expressing.
And yet, as Kaftanski notes, some of Kierkegaard’s own writings indicate a more ambivalent relationship to the value and function of both art and aesthetics. This becomes apparent when one considers the concept of ekphrasis important to Lessing himself—as Kaftanski says, “Ekphrasis is at work when a physical object of art, such as a painting or a sculpture, gets its written account” (21). Because ekphrasis uniquely “engages the subjectivity of the recipient” (21), it has the power to transform the viewer in ways that have implications for religious transformation. Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous author Anti-Climacus says as much. “The synergy of word and image,” Kaftanski writes, “can be seen in cases where Anti-Climacus refers to the activity of telling a picture, or describing what is represented in the picture, hence following the classical definition of ekphrasis, of re-presenting in words what already has a visual representation” (24). “Anti-Climacus,” says Kaftanski, “believes that if one can ‘be’ moved by the image of the suffering Christ to the imitation of His sufferings into one’s life, then one is becoming a genuine Christian” (25). In short, the experience of viewing the picture has an existential and mimetic dimension (27). Although, then, for Lessing, “the guiding task of aesthetics is to represent what is beautiful and harmonious, ‘the image of the crucified Christ’ is ugly and represents violence and chaos” (27), in Kierkegaard, because an artwork is not reserved to one particular medium, but instead consists of various media, it is possible to create a “spoken picture or, one could argue, a visualized narrative” (27). Such a work could in principle serve a mimetic function, by in effect calling the viewer to change.
Kierkegaard, thus, is neither a classical nor a full-fledged modern thinker (40), as his idiosyncratic view of the relationship between art and religion attests. For one thing, Kierkegaard is deeply suspicious of the modern ideal of human autonomy. Whereas the Enlightenment was wholly critical of classical mimesis, which it viewed as incompatible with the values of originality and creativity, Kierkegaard finds certain aspects of the modern conception of mimesis objectionable. For Kierkegaard, the modern ideal of an anti-mimetic, self-sufficient existence is a myth to be rejected (28). And yet, although the Enlightenment ideal of self-sufficiency is primarily hostile to mimesis, Kaftanski notes that it is actually Kant who in a way formulates a number of mimetic concepts that are relevant to Kierkegaard’s own attempt to work out a mimetic account of human existence. For Kant, the open-endedness of artistic production entails that aesthetics becomes a “judgment of taste” (30). Central to aesthetic production and valuation are four concepts of imitation: “copying [Nachmachung], aping [Nachäffung], imitation [Nachahmung], and emulation or following [Nachfolge]” (30). For Kant (and the Romantics too) who “cherished the ideal of mimesis understood as originality and criticized forms of art that aim to represent reality and hence were related to a pre-given existing model” (37), this modern criticism of classical mimesis led to the rejection of the mimesis-imitation of an artist to the elevation of the creativity of a genius (32). If for Kant, “genius cannot be taught and learned” (129), previous works of great art serve as exemplars “not for imitation” but “for emulation”—in encountering such a work, “another genius is thereby awakened to the feeling of his own originality, to exercise freedom from coercion in his art in such a way that the latter thereby itself acquires a new rule, by which the talent shows itself as exemplary” (127). Kierkegaard follows the Romantics in valuing originality over realistic representation of a model, but he “maintains that the Christian existential creation is in fact in relation to a model […] the model is transcendent” (37)—namely, Christ the prototype. Romantic anthropology, which takes autonomous agency to mark the human essentially, fails to provide the conceptual resources necessary to depict “the representational dimension of Kierkegaard’s own presentation of the ideal self” (33). As Kaftanski explains, “the aesthetic-religious puzzle of the representation of the suffering of the crucified Christ” (39) in turn leads Kierkegaard to formulate philosophical and literary works whose mimetic idioms seek to present an adequate picture of ideal Christian existence.
To do so, Kierkegaard begins by taking up existence in its “time-oriented and concrete, but also mundane, ordinary, and recurrent” everydayness (44). It is here that a pair of key Kierkegaardian notions, repetition and recollection, enter the picture. “Repetition—this is actuality and earnestness of existence,” says Kierkegaard (50). Repetition’s experiential task is to “recognize continuity in time” (45). In thinking about the drudgery of modern factory work and life, for instance, it is easy to understand how the banality of such an existence could lead to despair. One way it might do so is by leading those crushed beneath the weight of existence’s apparent absurdity and emptiness into substituting reality for a realm of ideality, of imagination. This is what happens in the aesthetic life, as Kierkegaard understands it. In this “hyper-reflective existence fueled by and lived in imagination” (51), there is a “lack of commitment to one’s life possibilities” (51). For the aesthete, “life splits up into a boundless multiplicity [held] within the sphere of reflection” (61). “Devoid of the ethical component,” the aesthete’s reflective “system” is not a life-view (61). The danger of imaginary dispersion in hyper-reflection is manifestly apparent in the theatrical. When producing or viewing a performance in the theater, one “entertain[s] a number of self-representations, which [Kierkegaard] calls ‘possible variations’” (52). The trouble is that, by doing so, one fails to actually be oneself, and instead loses oneself in imaginary characters and situations that have no real bearing on one’s real life. “This mimetic mirroring of the theater,” says Kaftanski, “constitutes a type of a private laboratory where one can fragment oneself” (52). Suffice it to say, if the dangers of idle escapism attending aesthetic enjoyment and diversion were already pressing with nineteenth-century forms of entertainment such as the theater and the newspaper, today that is only more so the case, given the advent of television, film, and the Internet.
According to Kierkegaard, however, the aesthete’s fragmentary response to existence is not the only possible form a response to the spectacles of the modern milieu may take. The key to appreciating the alternative Kierkegaard envisions lies in the concept of mimesis itself, which, according to Kaftanski, Kierkegaard himself sees “as embodied and performative” (44). Repetition as a mimetic concept entails “movement, imagination, and time” (45). And if this mimetic process is put in the service of a model truly worthy of imitation (60), then instead of remaining trapped in an imaginary world of ideality, ethical transformation and religious awakening is achievable.
If “life emulates art,” such emulation should “contribute to the becoming of a self in actual existence” (72). Here Kierkegaard exploits the mimetic power of texts themselves. For according to Kaftanski, Kierkegaard’s notion of repetition is a forerunner of Ricoeur’s refiguration. “The textual extension of real life,” says Kaftanski, “becomes mimetically re-appropriated back into real life and, essentially, becomes a part of it” (73). In a word, “the self emerges from the text. In effect, the text contributes to the creation of the self” (74). It is possible to actualize the ideality contained in a text. In this way, a text can function as a mirror of one’s existence, as a basis through which to pattern one’s own life. This becomes particularly salient in cases in which a text serves as a form of self-examination, not for any reader only, but especially for the author himself. Like Rousseau, whose Confessions were meant to be an exercise in self-judgment, so too Kierkegaard’s own partly autobiographical texts become an occasion for narrative self-examination (78). As Kaftanski says, “Kierkegaard’s autobiographical narratives participate in a formative process of the self—hence, the formation of the self—through a continuous and repetitive procedure of self-recognition, self-interpretation, self-understanding, and self-creation” (78). Writing becomes an extension of life, by enacting a process of “life-development,” through which Kierkegaard reworks himself “in and through his own literary production” (81). Rather than remaining a merely aesthetic pursuit, literary and philosophical production perform an ethical, even religious, function. “Autobiography,” so Kaftanski concludes, “is a peculiar mirror that allows the author to see oneself as another, to correct oneself, and, paradoxically, to correct the mirror” (82).
Central to this mimetic interplay between text and life is what Kierkegaard calls a “psychologiske Experiment” (82). The author invents various characters (which may or may not be versions of one’s actual self) that in turn serve as a source of ethical and religious self-assessment. Far from aesthetic production serving as an escape from reality, it can thus serve as a means of perfecting it, by cultivating an “authentic existence” (82). It does so by individuating the author (and its other readers) from the pernicious influence of social contagion and conformism. Due to the sociality of mimetic desire, “herd behaviors in humans include panic and rioting” (83), as such mimesis involves “affective and visceral mood-sharing” (84). While Plato’s conception of mimesis was focused on representing objects, and Aristotle’s at representing action (88), Kierkegaard’s coordination of action and fiction is not then simply about realistic representation, but demands an authentic existence—providing “templates of existence” (90), the resulting literary figurations are designed to be taken as existential prescriptions (90). Kierkegaard recognizes that stories needn’t be mere fictions, for poetic depictions of life can serve to perfect human life and transform it (89). By means of the text, mimesis effects a transition from literary representation to representation in action in real life. Informing us “about the world as it is and as it could be, or even sometimes as it should be” (90), they are not “simply fantasy or, for that matter, corrective mirrors” (91). They issue “blueprints” for existence, prescriptions for selfhood (91). These literary “experiments” (91) are exercises in life itself, for “writing and reading is a process of self-understanding, encapsulating oneself, and self-formation that is stretched between two worlds: the actual and the fictive” (91).
In Kierkegaard’s own case, the highest “poetic possibility of himself” (92) is to be a genuine Christian. At stake in his literary production is expressing a self-ideal of himself (“Kierkegaard the martyr”) and hence a “picture of the ideal Christian” (91). Thus, as Kaftanski notes, “Following Ricoeur’s mimetic arc, we can understand Kierkegaard’s ‘real’ life as dependent upon, or mediated through, a textual representation of himself” (91), and it is this tension between poetic and actual existence and the issue of translating a prescribed ideal of life into reality, that constitutes “the conundrum running through his authorship” (92).
How, then, can an “imaginary construction” (94) assist the process of becoming a single individual, an authentic human before God? It is necessary to reduplicate, through action, the ideality embodied by Christ. Whereas the aesthete is one for whom his “life has no history, no unity, and no continuity to it,” the life of genuine faith “has a beginning, is organized around a unifying idea or a goal, and has a telos” (93). In reading Kierkegaard’s portrayal of such a life, one is called to undertake the task of becoming an individual, a form of existence itself “represented in descriptions of the imaginary characters’ wrestling with suffering, love, death, finitude, freedom, and time—but also with God, despair, and sin” (95). If the ideal expressed in the text is ever to be truly understood, it must be appropriated by a reduplication in the actual existence of the reader. When it comes to faith, this reduplication requires a far more earnest and serious effort than what in Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was taken to suffice. As Kierkegaard says,
No, Christ has not appointed assistant-professors—but imitators or followers. When Christianity (precisely because it is not a doctrine) does not reduplicate itself in the one who presents it, he does not present Christianity; for Christianity is an existential-communication and can only be presented—by existing. Basically, to exist therein, to express it in one’s existence etc.—this is what it means to reduplicate (99).
Imitation, we see, is an experiential imperative for Kierkegaard’s account of the development of a life-view. As Kaftanski notes, a cluster of concepts—Eftergjøre, Efterligne, Lighed, and Ligne—are operative in the Dane’s account of existential redoubling and reduplication (113). “Eftergjøre,” Kaftanski explains, “refers primarily to a sophisticated human capacity for imitation that is has mostly secular application” (114). When, then, writing of the ideal of “Being like Christ, or resembling Him” (115), Kierkegaard sometimes uses the term Ligne, which, like Efterfølgelse (“following after”), is to be contrasted with Eftergiore and Efterligne, meaning “to counterfeit, to mimic” (118). He chooses Efterfølgelse to account for this task. While Kierkegaard frequently contrasts Efterfølgelse with Efterabelse (“mimicking” “aping”), towards the end of his literary production he attributes pejorative connotations to Eftergjøre and Efterligne. In any case, the point for Kierkegaard is that the individual ought to find a way to incorporate the ideality of authenticity into actuality. For in doing so, the authentic human being, which Kierkegaard names “the single individual” (122), transcends mundane “social expectations” (120), and, overcoming the tug of conformism and mediocrity characterized by a kind of “levelling” rooted in a pernicious perfectibility entailing a “certain plasticity, malleability, or moldability of human nature” (121), instead emulates the image of Christ genuinely, in what Kaftanski terms Kierkegaard’s “existential mimesis” (123). Here again, Kaftanski finds it fruitful to turn to Kant. Kant notes four types of imitation in the Critique of the Power of Judgment—“Nachäffung, Nachmachung, Nachahmung, and Nachfolge” (125).
The first word has been translated into English as ‘aping’ or ‘parroting’; Nachmachung has been translated as ‘copying;’ ‘imitation’ is the usual translation of Nachahmung; Nachfolge has been translated as ‘emulating,’ ‘following,’ but also as ‘succeeding’ (125-26).
Reworking Kant’s own conception of “exemplary originality” (127), Kierkegaard articulates a form of existential emulation whose ideal entails an “interpretive duty [with] an individual and subjective character, in contrast to imitation that follows a preset standardizing pattern that can be adhered to on a mass scale” (130). Whereas patterning oneself on societal everydayness “produces in individuals the feelings of estrangement and alienation, who then seek the remedy to these negative feelings in mimetic collective behavior” (130), Kierkegaard’s imitatio Christi is meant to produce an integrated, authentic individuality. In doing so, such existential mimesis “does not place the imitator in an elevated position based on their functions and education, as it is in Plato and Aristotle, nor based on their extraordinary skills or moral merits, as in Kant” (130). Rather, Kierkegaard’s existential mimesis is an egalitarian project (130), for everyone is able, if he is so willing, to follow after the pattern of Christ.
Of course, this is not to say that doing so is easy. As Kierkegaard himself notes repeatedly, many people fail to do so successfully. What particularly interests Kaftanski is the complex mimetic imagery Kierkegaard develops in the course of developing an account of how this process of becoming a single individual is supposed to work itself out in actual existence. As Kaftanski says, “Kierkegaard’s Forbillede denotes that which represents an idealized and hence ‘prototypical’ quality of someone or something. The Danish Forbillede, also translated into English as ‘pattern,’ comes from Billede, which stands for ‘image’” (133). These terms are roughly Danish equivalents to the classical notions of “figura and exemplum” (133). “Forbillede,” says Kaftanski, “the prototype—plays an important role in Kierkegaard’s Efterfølgelse—imitation” (133). At stake is a “movement from the ideal to the actual” (134), a “creation in reference to a model” (133) that captures for Kierkegaard what it “means to be and become a genuine Christian” (134). Because “figura denotes something material and visual, but also formal and structural” (135), not only does such a figure “already embody and determine modes of interpretation, appropriation, and representation” (135), it sets “an ideal that an individual should internalize” (137). It is an ideal that many fail to ever internalize—negative models, for Kierkegaard, include “pastors, assistant professors, journalists” (137). But there are examples of those who do accomplish it (or come close)—Abraham, Job, the sinful woman, even the lilies and the birds! Job, for instance, represents the “ideality” (151) of the biblical criterion for being human as a single individual—for in the “existential redoubling” (152) by which Job enacts the ideal of faithfulness to God, by “actually relating himself to the ideal” (153), he finds himself persecuted by all of those he knows, including his friends. Job becomes an offense. Unlike the hero who achieves the admiration of others, Job is scorned and hated. As Kaftanski recounts, “What follows is the public condemnation of Job, disapproval of his person, mockery, insults, and ostracism. This social phenomenon of universal punishment represents ‘the scapegoat mechanism,’ and Job is the scapegoat” (144); “The friends contribute to the suffering he experiences. Instead of soothing his pain, they condemn him and amplify his misery” (147). Depicting the suffering of Job, Kierkegaard expresses his own ideal of Christian martyrdom, of the idea that to be a true Christian is to suffer. Recollecting the life of Job in literary form in turn serves as an injunction to reduplicate that same suffering in one’s own life. As Kierkegaard says, “My entire work as an author has also been my own development” (141).
But as Kaftanski notes, if “Forbillede designates a perfected or ideal representation of someone or something” (150), for Kierkegaard, existential reduplication in the case of ideal Christianity is impossible. The Christian is always “a being in becoming” (155). This means that the typical view of Kierkegaard, which interprets him as straightforwardly recommending the imitation of Christ as prototype for human existence, must be modified. Kaftanski, rather audaciously, claims that, for Kierkegaard, “Christ as the prototype is not sufficient with respect to guiding would-be Christians to successfully imitating Him” (154). This is so, says Kaftanski, because according to Kierkegaard, “[Christ] is not a human being as we are” (157), but is rather “a God-man” (158). Paradoxically, then, Kierkegaard’s “ideal picture of being a Christian” (158) requires acknowledging that Christ himself is not a Christian. “Jesus Christ,” says Kierkegaard, “it is true, is himself the prototype, and will continue to be that, unchanged, until the end. But Christ is also much more than the prototype; he is the object of faith” (156). In depicting the ideal picture of being a Christian, Kierkegaard intends to show others, particularly his complacent fellow Danes, that exposing “themselves to the mirror of the Word” (162) involves “perpetual self-accusation” (161).
Consequently, “an authentic Christian existence, which demands from Christians not admiration but imitation” of Christ (179), must navigate the reality of human frailty. This means, first, recognizing the pitfalls of admiration itself. As Kaftanski observes, “admiration is collective and contagious” (179), “is not powerful enough to motivate us to do the good” (182), and “is suspiciously like an evasion” (182). As an affective phenomenon, admiration is subject to “magnetism” and “prestige” (185), the “power of opinion” (186), a morass of “shared feelings, emotions, passions, and affects” (186), which, typified by the “readership of a newspaper” (188) only forms a contemptible “collective identity” (189) that stunts the individual’s becoming. That alone would be bad enough! Yet admiration, which lies at the root of social conformism, is also prone to violence and irrational upheaval. Here Kaftanski exploits the insights of Girard. For if, as Kierkegaard would say, “the public is a phantom” (192), this is because the “deindividualization created by mass media and public opinion” (193) is susceptible to dynamics of “social pressure, human collectivity, and affective contagion” (204) which for Girard culminates in violence and scapegoating. This is powerfully apparent in the horrific death of Christ himself, who the crowd turns upon. The Messiah, who was initially hailed as a King upon entering Jerusalem, is shortly thereafter handed over to the Romans in lieu of Barabbas—“crucify him!” As Kaftanski says, “The quickness and the spontaneity of this altering reaction of the crowd suggests a kind of affective independence of that swing of valences on the pendulum of affectivity” (196).
Given the fraught nature of such mimetic behavior, there is an admitted oddity in “Presenting mimesis as a remedy to the problems caused by mimesis” (215). But this is precisely what Kierkegaard’s account of existential mimesis aims to do. The important difference between good and bad mimesis, Kaftanski notes, lies in the “non-comparing” and “nonimitative” nature of the former. Here, “indirect prototypes” can be useful—as Kaftanski observes, “one can become a Christian by living as the lily and the bird live” (222). Such “icons” or “middle terms” are necessary in the process of becoming an authentic self, argues Kaftanski. For again, if “Christ is a God-man,” and thus “not a Christian” (227), this means that the ideal of being like Christ is one for which we will always fall short. In some sense, emulating Christ entails being left to one’s own self—“In walking alone, one is deprived of the direct resource of the visible model” (229). I should note that, although Kierkegaard was highly critical of what he perceived to be the superficiality, insincerity, and hypocrisy of the Danish Lutheran Church, his attack on Christendom often remained largely beholden to the theological dogma inherited from Augustine and Luther. Kierkegaard for much of his career, like Luther, labors under the idea that human depravity essentially prevents one from ever measuring up adequately to the ideal of authentic Christian existence. In effect, one is never truly a Christian, because being a Christian involves a kind of perpetual incompletion, or, better, imperfection. However, it should be noted that, in his very last journal entries, Kierkegaard at times expresses discontent with this Augustinian and Lutheran conception of human depravity and weakness. Such an anthropology, Kierkegaard notes, unintentionally leads to the same mere admiration of Christ he criticized so adamantly, for it eliminates the sort of “primitivity” Kierkegaard comes to view as essential to New Testament Christianity. This is all to say that some of Kierkegaard’s more pessimistic remarks concerning the supposed impossibility of ever emulating Christ genuinely should perhaps be tempered by his own later comments on the subject—remarks which, abandoning Lutheran orthodoxy, underscore the legitimate possibility of emulation. Such a view, as it happens, would be more in line with a strand of optimism apparent in the New Testament itself, which frequently mentions the possibility of obeying God, insofar as God’s commandments are not burdensome and provide joy, peace, and rest.
Having traced the various shades of mimesis, their pertinence to modernity, and their relevance for the project of human authenticity, Kaftanski at the work’s conclusion can rightly conclude that, “Just as Kierkegaard is not perceived as an important theoretician or critic of mimesis, so Kierkegaardians do not seem to find mimesis to be of much importance to Kierkegaard’s thought and authorship” (238). Kaftanski’s book corrects both these errors by convincingly (and engrossingly!) reconstructing Kierkegaard as a thinker “contributing to the modern shift in appraising mimesis from artistic representation based on the ideals of similarity to mimesis as a human condition underpinning the individual and social aspects of human existence” (239).
Needless to say, philosophers of religion, readers of Kierkegaard, and scholars of post-Kantian European philosophy more generally, will benefit from Kaftanski’s text immensely. Everyone knows that reading somehow changes us. Kaftanski in effect provides us with a powerful account of how exactly the art of reading does so, by shaping and transforming the individual who authentically encounters a text. Of course, no work is flawless. Others will object to some of the things Kaftanski says. At this stage of the review, it would be customary to list the potential objections. Instead, however, I should like to emphasize that Kaftanski’s work is an important contribution to an influential body of works that has taken up the issues of authenticity and identity in modernity—to wit, Charles Larmore’s The Practices of the Self, Stephen Mulhall’s Inheritance and Originality, Claude Romano’s Être soi-même, and Charles Taylor’s Sources of the Self. While reading this text, one’s mind frequently will inevitably turn to Heidegger, a figure who looms large in such a context. Fitting, then, that Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity’s very last line should mention Heidegger by name. The concluding reference to Heidegger proves timely. It is no small thing that, by the work’s end, Kaftanski has shown how it is Kierkegaard, not Heidegger, from whom we have the most to gain when reflecting upon what it means to live an authentic human existence. As for the significance of Kaftanski’s own text’s contribution to that task, it bears returning to an earlier moment in the text, in which Kaftanski examines Kierkegaard’s remarks from a book review of the nineteenth-century Danish novelist Thomasine Gyllembourg-Ehrensvard. In his review, Kierkegaard is very complimentary of her work for many reasons. As Kaftanski says, chief among them is the fact that Kierkegaard found writing the review of Gyllembourg-Ehrensvard’s book to not only serve as an exercise in recollecting what the book contained. More importantly, Kierkegaard found himself “changed in the repetition” (57) of writing it. I have had a similar experience in writing this review. Having thought about what Kierkegaard, Mimesis, and Modernity gives to think in the course of writing this review of it, I have been reminded of what an extraordinary gift existence is, and how invigorating it is to feel the possibility of being able to continue the task of actualizing the ideal of becoming a single individual through Christ. No doubt other readers will have the same experience. For, more than just a theoretical meditation on existential mimesis, Kaftanski’s account is a call to it.
 The clear resonance between Kierkegaard’s notions of “imaginary construction” and “psychological experiments” and Husserl’s phenomenological technique of eidetic variation is not coincidental. As Shestov reported, Husserl once confided to him that a secret inspiration for his phenomenological method was Kierkegaard.
 According to Kierkegaard, in the New Testament, Christ is represented strictly in the mode of being, rather than becoming. For this reason, any strict emulation of Christ is rendered impossible for us, since as mere human beings we find ourselves in a contrasting process of incessant becoming. Without at all meaning to suggest that Kierkegaard is wrong for emphasizing the uniqueness of Christ as the God-man, I do think it is worth noting that there are apparent traces of Christ’s own process of becoming in the Gospels, a becoming that accentuates the humanity of Christ. For example: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man” (Luke 2:52).
 Interestingly, Nietzsche says exactly the opposite: “There has only been one Christian, and he died on the Cross,” The Anti-Christ, §39.
“It is,” writes Steven DeLay, “a serious responsibility to be human” (125). Whatever else one thinks philosophy is, one of its tasks is undoubtedly to figure out what our human responsibility is. And that responsibility must be connected in intelligible ways to the reality of what we are, the nature of the world at large, and what, given our powers, we are supposed to achieve. If goods and evils do exist, and if it lies within our powers to introduce or eliminate them, philosophy should have something to say about what those goods and evils are, and how to do that. As Augustine puts it, “to obtain the supreme good and avoid the supreme evil–such has been the aim and effort of all who have professed a zeal for wisdom in this world of shadows” (Augustine 1958, XIX.1, 428).
DeLay certainly has a “zeal for wisdom,” and his book is, ultimately, about how to identify and obtain the “supreme good.” The short answer lies in the title: we should live our lives “before God.” The long answer can only be acquired by reading the book. For what DeLay offers is a series of powerfully written and insightful reflections on what a life lived before God looks like for the one who lives it. It is an “exercise in subjectivity,” not in the Cartesian sense, but in the phenomenological sense—an exercise in how human life and its responsibilities manifest themselves for one who lives in the confidence of the immense value of the human person and in God’s redemptive plan for us. It is phenomenological in a further sense, insofar as it spells out intelligible and in many cases essential connections among the beliefs, attitudes, and actions of one who lives their life before God. DeLay’s analyses draw heavily on the phenomenological and existential traditions, and his insights into some of the classics of those traditions are genuinely eye-opening. Many of DeLay’s insights are novel, especially those he applies to contemporary life. And many are knowingly part of a long spiritual and philosophical tradition, whose central point can be expressed by saying that to live before God is to repudiate the values and the invidious distinctions lying at the basis of nearly all worldly life and its political, social, and institutional expressions and manifestations. It is to take up a radically different form of life, one in which selfless love extends beyond one’s family and friends to one’s neighbors and even one’s enemies. At the same time, it is to look to God, and not to power, pleasure, prestige, or group membership for redemption. It is to “grow in doing good,” which is “to want what is good for others” (62), even those who do us wrong. It is to regard God as “the living One to whom we owe all” (3).
At the heart of DeLay’s exercises lies a contrast that hearkens back to Kierkegaard’s contrast between being a self and being part of a crowd, Augustine’s contrast between the City of God and the City of Man, and, of course, Paul’s contrast between a life of the spirit and a life of the flesh. “We are most defined,” DeLay writes, “by our capacity to decide whether we will an existence of being-in-the-world, or one instead of being-before-God” (124). The choice of being-in-the-world has a familiar outline, and DeLay allows the existentialists to describe much of it. It is, as Heidegger says, in large measure the customary, conformist, inauthentic way of doing what “one” does, thinking what “one” thinks, and feeling what “one” feels. On this point Kierkegaard agrees. This world is, moreover, widely agreed to be a place of immense pain and disappointment and despair, most of it caused by humans themselves. Here too Kierkegaard agrees.
But against Kierkegaard, and DeLay, the atheist existentialists more or less agree that the natural and human world is all there is and, most critically, that whatever redemption we can fashion must come from willing or resolving upon a certain order of values for and by ourselves. Our lives are essentially bound up with those of others and their self-centered projects, and our relations with them are for the most part instrumental or adversarial. From the point of view of being-before-God, others are made in God’s image, and we are required to treat them as such (see 76). From the point of view of being-in-the-world, as Sartre famously characterizes the matter, other people are hell with the magical power of defining, in their total freedom, who and what we are, and the best we can hope for is to stop serving them and to fashion and define ourselves. The task for the atheist existentialists remains what it was for Kierkegaard: to become a self rather than a crowd. But whereas Kierkegaard says in a thousand different ways that one can only be a self in relation to God, the atheist existentialists hand what they can of God’s powers over to us. At its height (or depth, as the case may be) this involves becoming creators of value or, perhaps even more absurdly, of our own essence or nature. Failing that, it is to at least live “authentically.” In any event, there is little recognition that anything we have, including life itself but also our powers of mind and body, is a gift, or any acknowledgment that these gifts are to be received in gratitude, held with humility, and employed in a life of service and love.
Does this mode of thinking and living exemplify a “zeal for wisdom”? If DeLay is right, it is the opposite, a view that “leads whomever follows it badly astray” (6). All of its proponents declare God to be dead far too hastily and, in many cases, too eagerly. For Heidegger, with whom DeLay engages most closely on this point, the reason is putatively methodological: the philosopher must practice “methodological atheism.” DeLay has a great deal to say about the questionableness of that methodological choice. But, more importantly, as DeLay notes, it is obviously quite more than a methodological choice. Heidegger’s analysis of Dasein as being-in-the-world is not supposed to be an account of what we would be if there were no God, but what we are. As DeLay puts it, Heidegger’s decision to characterize Dasein as “anxious fundamentally” is “not at all to bracket the question of God, but to reject directly the idea that we are made in the image of God” (6).
For DeLay, this is both catastrophic and philosophically irresponsible. Indeed, in the very first page DeLay rejects the traditional distinction between philosophy and theology. “Are philosophy and theology really so distinct” (1)? To affirm that they are, for DeLay, is to carve up disciplinary boundaries that do not correspond with the things themselves or the structure of our concern about them. “If it is impossible for any individual life to evade the question of God entirely forever …, how could a philosophy that aims to understand human existence do so itself” (3)? Well, quite simply, it can’t. One must, in one fashion or another, come to terms with the question of God. If philosophy is to speak to our condition, to aid us in identifying and seeking the highest good, it cannot simply bracket God as beyond or beneath its concern.
That philosophy cannot responsibly evade the question of God through mere methodological means seems rather clear. So what are the alternatives? DeLay writes: “where Heidegger recommended methodological atheism as philosophically crucial to transcendental phenomenology, why cannot we claim the opposite and insist on a methodological theism” (27)? Well, I think there may be an answer to that, and one that rules out both methodological atheism and theism. In transcendental phenomenology, we are concerned with essential relations among acts, their objects, and their contents. “To elucidate [the] connections between veritable being and knowing and so in general to investigate the correlations between act, meaning, object is the task of transcendental phenomenology” (Husserl 2008, 434). We bracket the factual existence of the world, for instance, not in order to doubt it, but just to prevent irrelevant premises from being imported into an eidetic investigation. It’s really no different from bracketing propositions about empirically real shapes when doing geometry, a procedure compatible with the absolute certainty that such shapes exist. Comparing the two disciplines, Husserl writes: “Geometry and phenomenology as sciences of pure essence make note of no determinations about real existence” (Husserl 2014, 147).
Now it would be objectionable to bracket God if that meant that in phenomenology we can say nothing about God or the consciousness of God. If phenomenology deals with what we are conscious of and the nature of our consciousness of it, then “by what authority can God’s phenomenality be discarded as illegitimate, as unimportant to phenomenological philosophy’s concern” (27)? That’s a great question, whose answer is, I think, just what DeLay thinks it is: by no authority whatsoever. This does not, however, amount to methodological theism. Nor is it methodological agnosticism. It is, well, bracketing—simply not considering the matter within the context of phenomenology, in the same way that a geometer brackets the color of shapes without thereby confirming, denying, or even remaining neutral on the question of whether shapes have colors. Bracketing the existence of God is compatible with phenomenological inquiries into the nature of the consciousness of God and the form of a life lived before God. We can talk about God and a conscious life lived before God all we want in phenomenology, as DeLay insists. And—here I think I may disagree with him—we can do so without violating any of Husserl’s strictures regarding the phenomenological method. The reason is that provided there is a consciousness of something, the nature of that consciousness is fair game for phenomenology. And you cannot discuss the nature of the consciousness of something without saying quite a bit about the nature of that very something: “the description of the essence of consciousness leads back to what, in consciousness, one is conscious of” (Husserl 2014, 254). (And I hasten to add that “what … one is conscious of” when one is conscious of God is God, and not, say, a God-noema.) Since people, including methodological atheists, are obviously conscious of God, that consciousness is a suitable topic for phenomenology, in all of its various forms of love, hate, and indifference. In the same way, phenomenology can talk about the nature of perceiving a physical thing, even without positing the actual existence of a single physical thing. The reason to bracket God—or trees, tables, or anything else—isn’t because their existence is dubitable. It’s because phenomenology is an eidetic discipline that posits the existence of no actualities at all.
From the beginning, as at all later stages, its scientific statements involve not the slightest reference to real existence: no metaphysical, scientific, and, above all, no psychological assertions can therefore occur among its premises (Husserl 1970, 265).
This—and the whole process of bracketing—has exactly nothing to do with epistemic caution. It has to do with the fact that phenomenology does not posit the existence of a single real thing. Indeed, among the things we don’t posit in phenomenology are individual acts of consciousness themselves (see Husserl 2014, 102). This partly explains why believers and unbelievers alike can learn a great deal from works like DeLay’s. Even without positing God, one can grasp, in some fashion, the nature of a subjective life lived in the consciousness of being before God.
Clearly, however, DeLay is right that philosophy as a whole cannot simply proceed on the assumption that God does not exist, or go on bracketing God’s existence indefinitely. Not, at least, if its task is to provide a metaphysics, an ethics, a proper ontology of the human person, and, finally, a path toward a good life. Now I don’t think this quite means that philosophy and theology are not distinct or even that they overlap—though, of course, they might. But in any case, I think this division is not what’s really at stake in DeLay’s view. For there are reasons to think that, at least on one conception of what those disciplines are about and what they require in terms of our wills, and despite the fact that both disciplines must address the question of God and the nature of a life lived before God, they cannot lead us all the way to God anyway. The reason is that knowing God is not principally a matter of how smart one is. As Delay puts it, “if God will be known, he must be loved” (18). Since a love of God is necessary for a knowledge of God, but is not necessary for doing philosophy or even theology, doing philosophy and theology cannot be sufficient for knowing God.
Before moving on, I should point out at once that DeLay addresses the worry that this is circular. His response is that the kind of knowledge at stake is knowledge by acquaintance rather than a deductive proof (18-19). A life lived before God is not the same thing as a life lived with a convincing argument for God. I think the point could be summed up by saying that surely one must have some conception of God in order to love and desire to encounter God, but that this conception and love does not presuppose the knowledge of God that it itself makes possible. Simply put, we all have some conception of God as an all-powerful and morally perfect spiritual being, one who meets human wrongdoing with mercy. Some of us love and desire to know God, and hope that this world could somehow be redeemed by him. Some of us, by contrast, would be quite relieved if God did not exist, since his ways and our ways do not agree. In fact DeLay very artfully turns the tables on those who charge the believer with “wish-fulfillment.” As he puts it, “the denial of God’s existence might equivalently be interpreted as someone’s not wanting to love what is there” (19). The prelude to acquaintance is loving, or at least not resenting and hating, the object of this conception. The principal problem for the atheist, on DeLay’s view, is that “he persists looking in a way that guarantees he will come up empty-handed inevitably, so long as he wants to” (19).
But why should a love of God be required to know God? Might we at least secure an argument for his existence if an encounter is out of the question? Part of DeLay’s answer seems to be that this is just a special case of a more general principle. It is, as DeLay points out, a familiar fact that while ordinary physical objects show up to anyone with properly functioning senses, many things do not. A hardened heart will not detect kindness or love when others exhibit them, or the beauty that lies in a piece of art or music (17). Nor is our will inoperative when we grasp arguments outside the “terrain of certainty” (19). “Knowing is entwined with what we want to know, or want to be. In a very subtle yet relevant way, just affirming an argument’s conclusion takes an exercise of love” (19).
I am not confident that this last claim is quite right. Many scientific theories, for instance, are uncertain, but we affirm them without any detectable exercises of love. But even if it is right, there may be a different reason why God, in particular, will only show up for those willing to encounter him. It is that God “does not impose an encounter with himself, because to do so would be incompatible with the love defining him” (18). And here, I think, DeLay’s work can be profitably supplemented with insights from, among others, Max Scheler and Paul Moser. God is a person, and as Scheler points out, persons, and only persons, can be silent (Scheler 1960, 335). Now Scheler is quick to add that it would be incompatible with the goodness of God to remain silent for all people and forever. But he may well decide to be silent for some people some of the time. And as Moser points out, his reasons for doing so would be motivated by and intelligible in the light of his perfect moral goodness. As he puts it, “God typically would hide God’s existence from people ill disposed toward it, in order not to antagonize these people in a way that diminishes their ultimate receptivity toward God’s character and purposes” (Moser 2013, 200). That is, the issue isn’t that certain spectacles will only appear to those favorably inclined. Rather, it is that God isn’t available via “spectator evidence” at all. Because he is a person, and a person primarily concerned with our moral characters rather than our beliefs, “God would not use spectator evidence for self-authentication” (Moser 2013, 105).
All of that seems perfectly in line with DeLay’s own claims about the conditions for encountering God. Like appreciating a work of art or recognizing nobility and excellence in another, it requires a certain loving attitude on our part. But unlike those cases, it also requires that God voluntarily reveal himself in ways suitable for our moral development. If we persist in the “wisdom” that characterizes being-in-the-world, we can expect God, out of love for us, to remain out of reach, just as DeLay says (19). But it does put pressure on DeLay’s framing of the relation of philosophy to theology. Much of the content of those disciplines is available to “spectator evidence.” They call upon powers primarily of intellect rather than of character. But the encounter with God does not. He will hide from the wise and manifest himself to children (Matthew 11:25). And given God’s personal prerogative to remain silent, and his reasons, grounded in love, for doing so, establishing the reality of God is quite possibly where both philosophy and theology stop short. I think that almost certainly follows from Moser’s position, and I suspect that it follows from DeLay’s as well. The alternative is that philosophy and theology do require a love of God to be done properly—a position that, I think, DeLay might endorse when he favorably characterizes the “ancient schools” of philosophical thinking for regarding philosophy as a partially “therapeutic” activity designed to “elevate those who pursued it above the quotidian life,” and which “requires more than conceptual clarity” (33). In either case, the important point of DeLay’s work stands: not just anybody is going to encounter God, and there are powerful reasons lying in both the subject and the object why that is so.
Whether that is so, a further and related point is amply substantiated by DeLay’s book, and that is that philosophy conducted “before God” can arrive at insights that would escape a philosophy of being-in-the-world. Or, more precisely, actions and attitudes that might look absurd from the perspective of being-in-the-world take on a whole new character of obviousness when viewed from the perspective of being before God. “A faithful life, led by its distinctive form of evidence, involves a comprehensively new way of seeing things in their totality, one with wide-reaching implications for how we grasp everything…” (28). So, for instance, Nietzsche accuses Christians of denying life, and bills his own philosophy of will to power as an affirmation of life. But what is being affirmed here is not life per se, nor a good life on any defensible understanding of it, but being-in-the-world with all of its brutality, arrogance, egoism, exploitation, and needless suffering. From the perspective of being-before-God, hatred of “the world,” so construed, is the very opposite of a hatred of life. “To the contrary, hatred of the world affirms life” (159). DeLay’s book is full of such insights.
Here is another example that, I think, goes straight to the heart of contemporary life. Being-in-the-world is marked by conflict at every level of human interaction, from the personal on up. That conflict often erupts into violence. And it always involves an enemy. One’s attitude toward an enemy might involve “rancor, resentment, hatred or even wrath” (103). But that, typically, is not how enemies are made. Enmity is normally, rather, the “bad fruit of egoism” (103). My enemy is my enemy because, originally, “he simply stood in the way of my desires” (103). Once this opposition is established, the “bad fruit” of enmity begins to grow. Far too often, the result is violence, followed by more violence, in a brutal cycle of retaliation and revenge. Hence the religious prohibitions on lust (103), which, judging by the widespread efforts to provoke it, much of the contemporary world seems to find arbitrary. Political solutions to these problems often simply substitute personal violence with institutional violence which, again, is typically born of people trying to get what they want, and coming to hate and oppress those who stand in their way. “Violence, when it concerns the lack of peace with others, originates in the strife produced by the desire to get what we want, sometimes at any cost, even should the cost mean the horrific suffering of others” (109). Following Dostoevski, DeLay insists that political solutions to violence do not get to the root of the problem: “true change would require everyone first beginning by revolutionizing themselves” (112).
For DeLay, this personal revolution means living before God. When I regard others as made in God’s image, I will never consent to harm someone for the gratification of my desires, or especially for vengeance. And, given the normal way in which enmity arises, this means that I simply won’t have enemies. As DeLay puts it, “There can be no peace until we learn to live without enemies” (110). Now of course DeLay knows and insists that enmity is not always reciprocal (102). We cannot control whether others regard us as their enemies. And, of course, we might all have unwilled enemies, otherwise the commandment to love one’s enemies would make no sense. But we can control whether we regard others as enemies, whether we are the ones who will the harm or destruction of another. When we love others, we would never want that. Alice von Hildebrand writes:
A fundamental characteristic of love is that all the good qualities of the beloved are considered to be a valid expression of his true self; whereas his faults are interpreted as an unfaithfulness towards his true self (Hildebrand 1965, 57).
And that is exactly the vision that DeLay shares. From the point of view of living before God, not only will we not regard others as enemies, but it will be obvious that we cannot so regard them. Defense of self and others might be called for in certain dire circumstances. But mowing down others or destroying what in their lives is precious in the pursuit of pleasure, power, or revenge for past harms would be out of the question. What is natural and obvious from the point of view of being-in-the-world, namely the genesis of violence in uncontrolled desire and its perpetuation through hatred and retaliation, is nearly unimaginable from the point of view of being before God.
It is in this light, I suggest, that we read one of the more puzzling features of DeLay’s view. In his discussion of lying, DeLay claims that there is no explanation for why people lie (129). And that is because, like Kierkegaard and Henry, DeLay thinks that this is true of all sin and evil (129). Now I admit that lying often involves a kind of bad faith, that “To lie is to trust that I, and not it, am in control. But I am not, and so to breathe it into being is to make myself its dupe” (131). But it is rather implausible, for instance, that there is no explanation for why a criminal on the stand would lie. He doesn’t want to suffer. Lying to avoid great suffering or death is about as intelligible as things come in the sphere of human motivations. Maybe such a liar wrongly thinks that he is in control of the consequences of his lie. But more likely, the explanation is more mundane: telling the truth means certain suffering, and lying means, well, maybe not.
More worrying, though, is that the claim that sin and evil are without explanation entails that the repeated and depressingly similar patterns of wrongdoing that we find in the world have no explanation, that it is a gigantically improbable and horrendous miracle. But DeLay’s own book succeeds in showing, again and again, that being-in-the-world has an inner logic of its own that makes wrongdoing almost inescapable. Equip some very finite but rather clever beings with pride and lust and the will to power, give them contingently limited physical resources and essentially limited funds of prestige and social status, and one might hazard a guess at how things will unfold. And so they do unfold, much as DeLay describes and explains in each chapter of his book, and as other insightful people (Plato, Paul, Hobbes, Nietzsche, Veblen, Murdoch, to name just a few) have described in theirs.
How are we to reconcile DeLay’s position that evil does not make sense with the fact that it does make sense, and that he himself makes sense of it? The answer, I think, refers us again to the contrast between being-in-the-world and being before God. Evil might make sense from the perspective of abandonment, despair, and self-sufficiency that characterizes being-in-the-world. In fact, it makes enough sense that with minimal premises we could deduce it a priori. But from DeLay’s own perspective, that of being before God, doing the right thing is not only possible, but natural and obvious—so much so that evil must, from this outlook, genuinely be unintelligible.
But DeLay makes, and repeatedly illustrates, a further point about evil. Not only is it profoundly irrational from the point of view of living before God, but is so even from the perspective of being-in-the-world. The reason lies in its typically self-undermining character. To return to the lie, the lie has, as part of its own nature, something paradoxical about it. “A lie,” DeLay writes, “is something one assumes will not be identified for what it is … yet what makes it what it is (a lie!) is precisely that it deceives, first and above all else, the one that it has assured it cannot (or probably will not) be discovered” (130). This is the “existential” paradox characteristic of the act of lying. A lie has logical and practical consequences that exceed our intentions, our grasp, and our control. To utter one is to lose control in an attempt to exercise control.
We find the same internal tension in other cases too. Evil, as DeLay points out, is often silent, both in point of fact and more broadly by way of a life shrouded in “a fog of evasions and obscurities” (118). The absentee father, to give one of examples, becomes increasingly silent in this way as his failure at parenting becomes increasingly conspicuous. “Phone calls are left unmade, birthday cards unsent” (118). But the silence intended to cover over this failure makes it all the more evident. “As with the adulterer, the conman, or the spy, the silence required to conceal the double life eventually becomes bizarre; in turn, it only arouses the suspicion of guile it was meant to dispel” (119). Or again: “Undermining itself, the silence not only has failed to hide what it hoped it would. It has disclosed that it has something to hide” (121).
Another, but by no means the final, example is violence itself. Its goal, ultimately, is to put an end to conflict. But it almost never manages to do this. Not only does retaliation typically provoke further acts of retaliation, but the act of violence nearly always leaves the perpetrator of it damaged—especially, we might add, when retaliation amounts to annihilation. Even in those cases which seem most obviously justifiable—the United States’ role in World War II, for example—violence harms everyone, including the victors. This isn’t just because, say, it led to the horrors of Nagasaki or Dresden, in which “to do violence to others is also to have done harm to ourselves” (104). It’s also because the many consequences, both seen and unforeseen, of that conflict. Now DeLay does say that “A purely philosophical justification for unconditional pacificism is admittedly elusive” (106). At the same time, his chapter on “Making Peace” reminds us of the horrific consequences of violence, quite contrary to whatever legitimacy might appear to characterize violence in the first place. Furthermore, according to DeLay, violence is exacerbated by the very worldly attitude of regarding the individual as unimportant and viewing political entities as the really important agents of power and change in the world. This perspective is itself self-undermining because “It worsens the violence it hopes to ameliorate by ignoring the depths of the problem’s source” (109). It is a recurring feature of DeLay’s book how often self-defeating the world’s solutions to its own problems are.
This brings me to an important point about DeLay’s method of philosophizing. In the examples above, DeLay provides empirical evidence for his assertions. But he does not characterize his claims to be empirical only. Regarding the consequences of war, for example, he writes that “empirical reality concerning historic facts confirms the original claim of phenomenological essence” (106). And so it is with each of his analyses. I can imagine some readers being suspicious of these claims of “phenomenological essence.” DeLay does not employ the familiar strategy in philosophy of wandering to the remotest of all allegedly “possible worlds” to see if his claims don’t hold up in some of them. Might there not be some possible world where violence succeeds in putting everything right, where the proud and the self-centered never become enemies, where the power of the State puts an end to all conflict while leaving our inner lives untouched, and where the lie and its offspring have all been tamed by the liar? Well, maybe such worlds are “conceivable,” at least in some empty or inauthentic way. So construed, maybe these aren’t claims of “essence.” But between what is true in every far-fetched possible (or, more often, inauthentically conceivable) world and mere contingency there is intelligibility. The connections among evil and its consequences, and between living before God and its consequences, are not brutely empirical. They make sense, including phenomenological, motivational sense. And DeLay’s method is to make sense of them, within the constraints that reasonable people will probably recognize as framing human life. I imagine that some readers will find this realism to be a refreshing aspect of DeLay’s work. I know I did.
This leads to one final point, however, one where my own doubts run deepest. A strong interpretation of DeLay’s position is that living a life before God is both sufficient and necessary for genuine moral goodness, the kind of robust moral goodness needed to transform human life in the ways so desperately needed. I will leave to the side the question of whether it is sufficient, in part because I think DeLay makes a very strong case that it is—though, and as I suspect DeLay would agree, learning to live before God might be a long road that cannot be travelled by a mere change in belief. But is it necessary? There are, after all, more sober conceptions of a godless and finite life than the being-in-the-world of the existentialists, and it would have been helpful to see DeLay exercise his considerable philosophical skills against some more credible opponents. Iris Murdoch’s philosophy, for example, presents a diagnosis of human wrongdoing very much in line with that of the Christian tradition, and recommends a partially similar and non-legalistic cure of selfless love, “attention” to the real, and humility (see Murdoch 1970). And even when the similarities don’t run as deep, there is a considerable overlap between many secular and religious conceptions of the good person and right action. Seeing the other as treasured by God, for instance, is certainly helpful to seeing the other as a bearer of dignity and rights. But it does not seem to be essential to doing so. Furthermore, as flawed as we and our world may be, normal human life contains goodness too. Love, care, mercy, honesty, courage, self-sacrifice, and mutual respect are familiar aspects of human life which, again, might be strengthened by faith in God, but do not seem to require it. Is there an alternative, then, on which people could be genuinely and profoundly good without faith in God?
DeLay addresses this issue directly, but rather briefly:
…if living a maximally upright life without faith is possible, if caring for the well-being of others is one’s real priority, and if one hates suffering and evil, how does one exist in a world so broken and not die of grief? If anyone can live a comfortable life, relatively apathetic in the face of the supposed knowledge that this is the only world there will be, that there will be no judgment in which good is rewarded and evil punished: can we take this attitude’s declarations of sensitivity and clean-heartedness seriously (144)?
Well, maybe we couldn’t take such claims seriously from the comfortable and the apathetic. But between them and those who die of grief, there remains room for those who do hurt, who do care, but who find that there’s enough goodness in the world—including the intrinsic goodness of doing good—to get by. Perhaps such people would not allow themselves to die of grief, because that would constitute an additional triumph of evil. They might, additionally, recognize in humility that their own powers of healing the world are profoundly restricted, and that they are—like, I suspect, all of us—simply psychologically limited in how widely they can distribute their heartfelt care. I just don’t think anyone has the psychological or spiritual resources to shed a tear for every act of injustice on their block, let alone in the world, no matter how much each one of them warrants it. Extending effective love and care to our “neighbor”—who may also be our enemy—is as much as we can normally do, whether or not we have faith. In any case, I not only think that deeply moral agnostics or atheists are possible, but I am rather confident (one can never know for sure) that I know such people. Many of them are sincere, and their unbelief is founded in genuine difficulties, especially the problem of evil. I don’t pretend to know what resources they draw upon to sustain themselves—perhaps it is God and they don’t even know it—but virtue and unbelief do not seem incompatible. As Dallas Willard puts it, God’s kingdom is wherever his will is done, “the domain where what he prefers is actually what happens” (Willard 1998, 259). And I am confident that there are many more participants in this kingdom than the faithful alone.
That being said, I do think that DeLay’s account of a life lived before God succeeds in its task of shedding light on the world from the perspective of faith. This is in part because while the existence of God might not be a matter to be settled by description or argument, DeLay does provide a rich phenomenological characterization of what living with a secure faith and trust in God involves. It is a work of immense wisdom, compelling arguments, and rich phenomenological descriptions. It is, finally, a refreshing reminder of what draws most of us to philosophy in the first place: to grapple with ultimate questions of human existence, with clarity of thought and expression, and without methodological evasions.
Augustine. 1958. City of God. Translated by Gerald G. Walsh, Demetrius B. Zema, Grace Monahan, and Daniel J. Honan. New York: Image Books.
DeLay, Steven. 2020. Before God: Exercises in Subjectivity. New York: Rowman & Littlefield International.
Hildebrand, Alice. 2017. “Hope.” In Dietrich von Hildebrand with Alice von Hildebrand. The Art of Living, 61-77. Steubenville, OH: Hildebrand Press.
Husserl, Edmund. 1970. Logical Investigations. Two volumes. Translated by J.N. Findlay. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Husserl, Edmund. 2008. Introduction to Logic and Theory of Knowledge: Lectures 1906/07. Translated by Claire Ortiz Hill. Dordrecht: Springer.
Husserl, Edmund. 2014. Ideas I: Ideas for a Pure Phenomenology and Phenomenological Philosophy. Translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom. Indianapolis: Hackett.
Moser, Paul K. 2013. The Severity of God: Religion and Philosophy Reconceived. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Murdoch, Iris. 2001. The Sovereignty of Good. New York: Routledge.
Scheler, Max. 1960. On the Eternal in Man. Translated by Bernard Noble. London: SCM Press Ltd.
Willard, Dallas. 1998. The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco.
Is Catholicism a Religion?
Over the last decades, scholars have increasingly called into question the universal validity of the category “religion” as referring to a supposed ahistorical constant domain of all human mind and civilization, the domain of faith. The claim has characteristically been that, even though nowadays we often speak and think of religion this way, both in everyday life and in scholarship, in fact our notion of religion is a historical construct. This conceptual construct, so the claim, is fashioned after a specific cultural tradition, the Christian West, which, as part of obtaining or preserving its global epistemic hegemony, has asserted its own culture – Christianity – as a universal and superior feature of human nature as such: religion. Consequently, all cultures would have their religions: the Jewish, the Greek, the Chinese, the Indian, the Aztec, which could therefore be compared and evaluated in view of the underlying paradigm – and ultimate paragon – of religion, Christianity.
This sort of critique of religion is commonly deployed in postcolonial-like discourses, which confront the Christian West with its non-Christian others. Could the same critique apply within Christianity itself (West vs. East) or even within the Western? Wouldn’t the construct “religion” arise not only from a geo-political bias, i.e. the West, but also from a chrono-political bias, i.e. Modernity? And if so, wouldn’t it give effect and perpetuate a bias within the Christian West, namely in favor of modern Christianity, marked by Protestantism and Secularism, so as to undermine premodern, Catholic forms of Christian civilization? Is Catholicism a religion?
There is much in Baring’s intriguing new book to suggest that Catholicism is in fact not primarily a religion, but a philosophy, or even – philosophy. The main theme of the book is continental philosophy, whose center according to Baring is phenomenology. Its explicit concern is intellectual and institutional genealogy, “the Making of Continental Philosophy”, namely how a specific direction in 20th century philosophy, phenomenology, has been able to transform “from a provincial philosophy in southwest Germany into a movement that spanned Europe” (2), and so to become “continental”. Here and elsewhere in the book, Baring highlights the political significance of epistemic constellations, underlying the transnational, pan-European character of phenomenology as “continental” philosophy. His own historiography performatively turns away from national narratives (phenomenology in France, Husserl in Spain, Heidegger in Italy etc.) in search of a more transnational, universal ground. The movement that spread Husserl’s word among the nations (“the single most important explanation for the international success of phenomenology in the twentieth century”, 5), Baring suggests, is the one that goes under the name of the universal itself, the catholicos, Catholicism. Catholicism is the principal agent in this continental, transnational, catholic historiography of philosophy.
It is somewhat paradoxical that Baring’s professed transnational perspective nonetheless preliminary features phenomenology as belonging to “southwest Germany”, namely as originally particular, which accordingly begs the question of its continental success. According to this logic, this transnational success can only be accounted for by something beyond phenomenology itself, something more European, more universal, which would be Catholicism. However, in what sense would phenomenological philosophy itself not be sufficiently universal to account for its own universal spread? In what sense is Catholicism more obviously universal, and what explains its own international success, beyond the province of Rome?
Be that as it may, the notion of success, namely the ability of philosophy or thought, the ability of ideas, to obtain and expand their hold on the world, on reality, is central to Baring’s project. The primary transnational feature of Catholicism that the book foregrounds is its global institutional presence. Next to the transnational and universal, “catholic” historiographic perspective, Baring’s study accommodates Catholicism also in focusing on the worldly reality of the Church. The Catholicism that, as the book suggests, carried phenomenology across the continent is first and foremost a “network of philosophers and theologians that stretched across Europe” (7); “we can speak of ‘continental philosophy’ because phenomenology could tap into the networks of a Church that already operated on a continental scale” (11).
The story of “making” continental philosophy, as told in the book, is indeed concerned less with conceptual genealogy of ideas and more with how they spread. It’s a story of thought as an inter-personal, inter-institutional happening, where events of thinking take place between works, between thinkers. The great individual names of phenomenology – Husserl, Heidegger, Scheler, the “phenomenological trinity” Baring calls them (6) – are there, but they function as basic coordinates for describing the real plot, which is scholarship. Primary and secondary literatures switch here places. The main protagonists of this book are neither the great names nor the great book, but their less known scholarly recipients, the clerics, who read, translate, introduce, interpret, discuss and institutionalize ideas, convene conferences and found archives, journals and schools. Most importantly, and this is one of the great achievements of this book, the history of thought is told through formative debates, such that polemics – and with it politics – is posited at the heart of epistemology, a real at the heart of the ideal. Could polemics too – next to transnationalism and institutionalism – count as Catholic heritage?
At any event, Baring tells continental philosophy’s church history, and according to him the early church of phenomenology was Catholic. To quote some impressive facts:
“self-professed Catholic philosophers produced more than 40 percent of all books and articles on Husserl, Heidegger, and Scheler written in French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch in the period before World War II, making Catholic phenomenology by far the largest constituent part of the early European reception” (8-9);
“Within Europe, phenomenology has been most successful in Catholic countries, while tending to skip, at least at first, the Protestant strongholds of Scandinavia and the United Kingdom. Across the Atlantic, it has flourished in Latin America and at Catholic universities in the United States, such as Notre Dame, Boston College, DePaul, and Duquesne. The geography of phenomenology is best described, not by the contours of mainland Europe, but by the reach of the ‘universal Church’.” (11).
What is certain, in Baring’s account Catholicism does not just function as a contingent carrier of phenomenological philosophy, a vessel which would remain external to the content that it spreads. The Church is not simply a vehicle for Husserl’s word. The network of catholic intellectuals and institutions does not feature in this book as a mere logistical structure, but as the institutional embodiment of its intellectual content, of thought. Is Catholicism a religion? In this book, the Catholic emerges primarily as a philosophy. Insofar as Catholicism accounts for making phenomenology the philosophy of the European continent, Baring argues, it is because “before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (19)
What is Catholic philosophy? This question is not really developed in the book, which has a very clear answer: medieval scholastic philosophy as it has been oriented by the works of Thomas Aquinas, namely Thomism. In the relevant period for the book, the first decades of the 20th century, Catholic philosophy consisted in the attempt to renew Thomism, namely in neo-Thomism or neo-scholasticism, which according to Baring was in these decades “the largest and most influential philosophical movement in the world” (8). Neo-Thomism was global philosophy, which makes one wonder about the reason it was only able to turn phenomenology “continental”, but no more than that. Neo-Thomism, as Baring portrays it, had set to itself a daring task. It translated medieval philosophy into modern terms not in order to modernize this philosophy, but, on the contrary, in order to effect “a philosophical conversion of modernity, a movement from modern to medieval metaphysics” (14). Neo-Thomism was the Catholic mission to the Moderns, aiming to reconvert modernity “back to Catholicism” (ibid.).
“Conversion” is a key word in Baring’s book. It is the basic description of the intellectual event that it portrays, and the plot is articulated by the personal conversions – official or not – of the protagonists. What was the nature of the conversion “back to Catholicism”, which neo-Thomists were trying to generate? The answer to this question lies at the heart of Baring’s historiographic thesis: it designates the ultimate purpose of Catholic, neo-Thomist philosophy, explains why phenomenology was deemed useful for Catholic intellectuals to pursue this purpose and so would account for why Catholicism helped phenomenology to its continental and international success.
Were neo-Thomists interested in converting modernity, modern thought and philosophy, from secularism or atheism back to religion? Obviously, as already indicated, neo-scholasticism was not looking to promote “religion” in its modern, paradigmatically Protestant or secular sense. But furthermore, Baring most often does not describe Catholic thought in terms of religion or what is commonly – in modern discourse – associated with religion as a special domain, of faith, transcendent God, holiness, spirituality etc., in short, as a different domain than secular, atheological or even atheistic philosophy.
On the contrary: neo-Thomism was looking to renew Thomism, for which, as described by Baring, theology implied worldly thought. Catholic thinkers “were convinced that the world incarnated a divine order, and that the institution of the Catholic Church was the worldly locus of redemption” (14); God is present in “His effects in the world” (30), such that faith is deemed “the perfection of natural knowledge” (29). The goal of Neo-Thomists was accordingly, among others, to connect Catholicism to science, natural science: by going back to Aquinas they were trying to reconnect with Aristotle. In other words, whether or not Catholicism was interested, in the first decades of the 20th century, in renewing something like religion, in Baring’s book Catholic philosophy emerges as a powerful agent for the renewal of Aristotelian philosophy, which historically speaking is perhaps nothing but Western philosophy, or philosophy tout court. Just as philosophy’s first and ultimate concern is with Being, Baring’s Catholicism is concerned with “the Real”.
“The Real” is the central concept of Baring’s narrative, which thus connects the contemporary discourse on philosophy and religion with the contemporary philosophical conversation on realism. Explicating this connection may have been a useful way for Baring to provide a more precise explanation of what he understands by “the Real”. Considering the pivotal centrality of this concept for the book’s argument, it remains rather vague and sometimes ambivalent. In fact, its basic significance in this book seems to be above all polemic, in that it designates what neo-scholasticism, seeking to renew medieval, premodern philosophy, was asserting against modern thought. Indeed, throughout the book, Catholic positions are characterized in various ways as opposing the negation of realism by modern philosophy, namely as opposition to the idealism, relativism and subjectivism that would characterize modern thought.
That non-realism (a negation of or distance from the Real) is constitutive to modern philosophy, is a decisive presupposition of Baring’s project. The exact significance of this presupposed non-realism or idealism remains as much an open question as the exact meaning of “the Real”. If the supposed non-realism of modern philosophy means detachment from the worldly and natural order, in favor of some dimension of transcendence, of some supernatural or transcendental subjectivity, will or spirit, this would mean that modern thought, far from being secular and “worldly”, has rather become closer to religion, as a relation to the unworldly. This kind of analysis no doubt sits well with accounts of modernity, such as Hans Jonas’, as arising from man’s liberation from and subsequent domination of nature (NB: not against but precisely through modern, technological science), which would resemble or even be the avatar of ancient Gnosticism, religion of the Alien God. Neo-Thomism, working to effect on modernity a – as the title of Baring’s book reads – “Conversion to the Real”, which is actually a re-conversion, a movement back to the world, would accordingly be the modern permutation of the same anti-heresiological movement that for someone like Hans Blumenberg, for instance, accounted for the emergence of Christian doctrine. This movement may be described less as a conversion from philosophy to religion than as a conversion from religion back to philosophy, from faith back to reason.
Converting modern philosophy to the Real was in any case, so Baring, the missionary goal of neo-scholasticism in the first decades of the 20th century. It is for this mission that Catholic networks identified phenomenology as suitable and for this purpose they “made” it continental. The reason that phenomenology was found by neo-Thomist to be such a suitable discourse for deploying the conversion of non-realist modern philosophy to realism, Baring argues, is that phenomenological thought, to begin with Husserl’s notion of intentionality (consciousness is always of an object), was identified as an anti-idealist movement back to the Real within modern philosophy itself, so to speak a spontaneous movement of self-conversion: “phenomenological intentionality seemed to bypass the distortions of idealism and provide access to the mind-independent real. For neo-scholastics, phenomenology could help secular thinkers recognize God’s order in the world.” (14) How exactly neo-scholastic thinkers and institutions tried to achieve this goal, their more or less successful negotiations – and debates – among themselves, with phenomenology, as well as vis-à-vis other Catholic, Protestant and non-religious intellectual currents, and how all this contributed to the making of continental philosophy – this is the story told by Baring’s rich book.
One basic and far-reaching insight of Baring concerns the ambivalent nature of conversion: the shift from one conception to another at the same time connects both conceptions and thus opens the way to a counter-conversion, from the second conception to the first. Conversions work “in both directions” (16). This insight may be deemed as a structural principle that regulates – and complicates – basic dynamics in the history of thought, something like the Third Law of Intellectual Motion. It seems to be particularly significant in conversions that are not just spontaneous, but induced, namely in conversion projects, in missionary movements.With respect to the neo-Thomist mission to convert modern philosophy “back to Catholicism”, in order to do so it established “the Real” as a connection between modern phenomenology and medieval scholasticism, which would serve as a passage from the former to the latter. As Baring shows, however, this passage also facilitated the inverse movement, to the effect that the bridge built between Thomism and phenomenology also served Catholic thinkers to cross to the other side and to “break with Roman Catholicism” (15). The paradigmatic example discussed by Baring is Heidegger.
What is however the meaning of this counter-conversion, away from Catholicism, which according to Baring has become so prevalent in post-WWII phenomenology so as to completely obliterate its early Catholic years? Would it be that phenomenology, and continental philosophy, was moving away from religion, towards secular and atheistic thought? Is Catholicism religion? The question of religion, as already noted, interestingly does not explicitly frame the narrative of the book, which foregrounds instead the debate of realism vs. idealism. Catholicism is realism, but is it therefore more or less a religion?
It is only in the Epilog that Baring directly addresses the question of religion. “Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion” (343): the famous return to religion, a contemporary conversion – or perhaps even a contemporary mission? By whom – to whom? Is Baring’s book a part of this project, namely facilitating the passage from contemporary continental philosophy to religion by recalling how it was Catholicism that originally “made” phenomenology into continental philosophy? The “religious specters” that “haunt” continental philosophy today, Baring argues, indeed arise from its “family history”, namely phenomenology’s transmission to the world as it was “passed down through Catholic scholars” (344), so to speak phenomenology’s Catholic womb. The current return to religion in continental philosophy is connected to its Catholic heritage.
However, according to Baring’s further insight into the Third Law of Intellectual Movement, just as conversion is not only unidirectional, inheritance too is not simply linear. He points out that intellectual inheritance may pass on not just positive, affirmative doctrines, but also negative positions, what he terms “negative inheritance” (347). According to Baring’s analysis, it is by way of “negative inheritance” that phenomenology’s Catholic past, namely neo-Thomism, continues to operate within continental philosophy’s return to religion. In other words, Catholicism, as portrayed in Baring’s book, is present in this contemporary return to religion not as the positive agent, not as the agent of religion, but on the contrary in the negative, anti-religious positions – more specifically in their realism.
He brings the example of Quentin Meillassoux, who “presents himself as a rationalist ally to the natural sciences, seeking to reinvigorate realism after a period of idealist hegemony. Meillassoux is aware of his proximity to Thomism, which he defines as ‘the progressive rationalization of Judeo-Christianity under the influence of Greek philosophy’”. (348) Baring’s conclusion: “The atheist scourge of much contemporary continental philosophy appears as the inverted image of those Catholic thinkers who helped make philosophy continental in the first place.” (ibid.) It is not in the return to religion but rather in the resistance to this return that current continental philosophy would be inspired by Catholicism, which consequently operates, at least in this context, not as a religion, but as anti-religion.
Synopsis of the Book:
Baring’s story is told in three chronological parts, which concern three different periods in the early history of phenomenology in its reception by Catholic scholars: 1900-1930, 1930-1940 and 1940-1950. The narrative is organized by another triad, three main figures of early German phenomenology, the “phenomenological trinity”: Husserl, Heidegger and Scheler, and the debates around them.
Part I, “Neo-Scholastic Conversion. 1900-1930” deals with the immediate Catholic reception of German phenomenology. Baring traces back the initial reception to a specific current within neo-Thomism, “progressive Thomism”, promoted by the Louvain School of Léon Noël, head of the Institut supérieur de Philosophie. Progressive Thomism was oriented by the work of Cardinal Désiré Mercier (Critériologie), who translated Thomist realism into the discourse of epistemology. This anti-Kantian epistemology was the site of early Catholic reception of Husserl, as told in Chapters 1 and 2. The first reception referred to The Logical Investigations of 1900-1901 and was enthusiastic, as Husserl’s anti-psychological notions, such as intentionality (which goes back through Brentano to scholasticism) and categorical intuition, appeared to secure epistemic access to “the objective order of the world” (40). “For Catholics around Europe, reading Husserl’s Logical Investigations was a revelation”, Baring writes (48). Modern philosophy’s “conversion to the Real” was celebrated by scholars such as Jospeh Geyser, Erich Przywara and the Milan School’s Agostino Gemelli, and even existentially performed through a personal conversion, such as by Edith Stein, to whom phenomenology has showen “the way into ‘the majestic temple of scholastic thought’” (75). All the more disappointing was Husserl’s return to the transcendental consciousness in his Ideen of 1913. The second reception identified in Husserl a second, reversed conversion, from realism back to idealism, which “was experienced by neo-scholastics as a betrayal— both of Husserl’s earlier work and, by implication, of their own project” (61).
Chapter 3 follows the intellectual development of early Heidegger, a phenomenological convert away from Catholicism. Influenced by Joseph Geyser, young Heidegger, “a progressive scholastic” (88), in his 1913 dissertation embraced Husserl’s anti-Psychologism, and in his 1916 Habilitaiton on Dun Scotus, the “pinnacle of Heidegger’s neo-scholastic period” (97), formulated a meaning-based realism. The disengagement is signaled in 1917, as Heidegger stated that Catholicism “forgot religion for theology and dogma” and looked for religious experience in Christian mysticism, Augustine and Protestants from Luther, Otto, Overbeck, Kierkegaard, Dilthey and Schleiermacher. Being and Time of 1927, so Baring’s perceptive analysis, features a curious atheism based on “two confessional strands” (113): Catholic ontology, but no longer perennis, and Protestant Dasein-analysis, but indifferent to faith.
Chapter 4 traces a similar dynamic with respect to Max Scheler, extending the plot from theory to ethics and politics. Scheler’s 1913 Formalism in Ethics provided a phenomenological access (Wert-nehmen, axiological intuition) to an “objective order of value” (140) and his personalism, the notion of Gesamtperson, gave this ethics a socio-political embodiment. Both combined offered practical philosophy to Catholic social revival and anti-liberal, anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist corporatism. Carl Muth’s influential Catholic magazine Hochland celebrated Scheler as “Black Nietzsche” (124) and intellectuals followed him in his early WWI patriotism, growing distance from nationalism and anti-republicanism in Weimar, such as Paul-Ludwig Landsberg’s “conservative revolution” (137). Disenchantment manifested itself, on the Catholic side, in doubts raised by neo-scholastics, such as Przywara, as to Scheler’s too heavy reliance on human intuition and emotional intentionality, and on Scheler’s side, in the pantheistic turn of his late work (1928, The Human Place in the Cosmos).
Part II, “Existential Journeys 1930-1940”, describes how, beyond its initial reception by neo-scholasticism, phenomenology “became a privileged battlefield in intra-Christian debates” (152). The central intra-Christian tension in Baring’s narrative is between neo-scholastics and existentialists. Chapter 5 tells about the rise of “Christian Existentialism across Europe” by portraying the tension between two converts to Catholicism, Gabriel Marcel and Jacques Maritain. Marcel (Metaphysical Journal, 1927; Being and Having, 1935), influence and mentor to existentialists such as Nicolai Berdyaev, René Le Senne, Jean Wahl as well as Simone de Beauvoir, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Paul Ricoeur and Jean-Paul Sartre, criticized neo-Thomist intellectualism as “hubris”, and insisted on the “unintelligibility of existence”, its embodiment and “mystery”. Maritain claimed “existential philosophy” describes rather Thomism itself, which deals with esse and acknowledges its mystery, deems it nevertheless “open to intellectual understanding” (163).
Chapter 6 goes back to the Catholic reception of Husserl and how during the 1930s it was shaped by a division within neo-scholasticism, between progressive and strict Thomists. Baring portrays this division through the “Critical Realism Debate”, concerning the attempt of the Louvain School’s progressives, such as Léon Noël and René Kremer, to base realism on epistemology, namely on critique of subjective knowledge (leading to post-WII “transcendental Thomism”). “Strict” Thomists such as Étienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain rejected the notion of “critical” – Cartesian or Kantian – realism as self-contradictory, insisting on the primacy of metaphysics over epistemology. Baring shows how this debate pressed progressive intellectuals, such as Kremer, Kurt Reinhart and Sofia Vanni Rovighi, who initially embraced Husserl’s phenomenology, to reject and rectify his perceived idealistic tendencies, especially as manifested in the Cartesian Meditations of 1931.
Chapter 7 presents the 1930s’ reception of Heidegger as the battleground for the inter-confessional debate between neo-Scholastics (such as Przywara, Alfred Delp and Hans Urs von Balthasar) and Protestants, in particular Karl Barth’s Kierkegaard-inspired Dialectical Theology. Baring describes this debate as arising from “two diametrically opposed, if symmetrical, accounts of Heidegger’s atheism: Thomists explained it by the restrictions placed upon Heidegger’s ontology by his (Protestant) prioritization of human subjectivity; Protestant theologians understood it through his attempt to ground the analysis of human finitude in an ontology, which arose from an excessive and Catholic faith in our rational capacities.” (213) In other words, both (dialectical theology’s) emphasis on the unintelligible and (neo-Thomist) emphasis on intelligibility could be construed, from the opposite perspective, as subjectivist and so proto-atheistic. This leads Baring to the brilliant observation whereby “religious notes” of atheistic conceptions (he speaks of existentialism) may arise not from “uncomplicated inheritance of a believing antecedent, but rather as the reflection of a more distant voice, directed toward and bouncing of a common religious foe” (240), i.e. “negative inheritance”.
Chapter 8 returns to the reception of Scheler, “The Black Nietzsche”, in Catholic political thought. Baring shows how the Schelerian notion of social corpora as embodying spiritual order of values could support to conflicting conceptions of Catholic anti-liberal politics. Luigi Stefanini drew on Scheler to affirm a “hierarchical order of values” enacted by an authoritarian and totalitarian state, which led him to collaborate with the Fascist regime and even acknowledge “racial defense” as “an act of the sovereignty and transcendence of the spirit” (259). In contrast, for Paul-Louis Landsberg, as Paul Ludwig Landsberg was known in his French exile and anti-Fascist resistance, “the divine order is always to come and can never be fully worked out. For that reason, authoritarianism runs the risk of shutting down the process by which the true order is revealed” (263), which led him to reject Nazism and Communism. Baring exemplifies the same ambivalence in Scheler in the development of Emmanuel Mounier’s Catholic-Nietzschean magazine Esprit, from support of Vichy to Resistance and post-WII negotiations of Thomism and Marxism.
Part III, “Catholic Legacies 1940-1950”, discusses how after “the Catholics who had helped promote phenomenological ideas around Europe withdrew from the stage”, “[t[he script that they had written […] persisted, to be picked up and adapted by new actors.” (276) Chapter 9 is dedicated to the story of the Husserl Archives, famously smuggled from Germany to Belgium by the young Franciscan Herman Leo Van Breda, to be institutionalized within Louvain’s Institut Supérieur de Philosophie. According to Baring, after WWII Van Breda, who was looking for means to secure the archives’ further existence (which he obtained at last from UNESCO), realized that “the archives would flourish only if they became independent of the Church” (297). Catholicism, which made phenomenology continental, was now required, in order to prefect its own making, to retreat. Like the truth of Heidegger’s Beyng, the appearance of neo-Thomism in phenomenology was completed by the concealment of neo-Thomism in phenomenology’s Veröffentlichung. It is thus that the first volume of the Husserliana was dedicated to the Cartesian Meditations, “the text where Husserl distinguished his work most clearly from scholasticism” (300).
Chapter 10, the last one, indicates traces of neo-scholasticism in “Postwar Phenomenology”, once again through an intellectual tension, this time between the secular Merleau-Ponty and the Protestant Paul Ricoeur. Both of “Marcelian bent”, affirming embodiment and existence versus idealism, their diverging interpretations of Marcel reproduced the debate between Thomism and Existentialism, inasmuch as Merleau-Ponty emphasized the intentional order of perception and Ricoeur the mystery and the “fault”. The disagreement on Marcel was intertwined with a disagreement on Husserl, which reproduced the debate between progressive and strict Thomism: whereas Merleau-Ponty, like the Louvain School, strove to protect Husserl’s realism from his transcendentalism, Ricoeur, like Maritain, read Husserl as an idealist. Commenting on the Protestant philosopher’s surprising affinity to strict Thomism, Baring provides a precious polemic triangulation, which is perhaps the real glory of scholastic sophistication: “Against the Thomists, Ricoeur denied that Christians could use philosophy to defend religious dogmas. Against the Barthians, Ricoeur did think philosophy retained an important role. It could challenge the pretension of science to have provided ‘a final solution.’ Christian philosophy would thus be a ‘science of limits, an essentially Socratic, ironic position [. . .] forbidding all thought to be totalitarian’.” (327)
Three Concluding Reflections:
- The key concept of the book’s argument is “the Real”. Catholicism promoted phenomenology for the sake of converting modern philosophy to the Real. As noted above, however, realism signifies in this book primarily polemically, in contrast to the alleged idealism of modern thought. However, as Baring insightfully shows with respect to “atheism”, polemic meanings are unstable and easily turned around. Just like criticism of “atheism” can be found in any religious position against any other religious position, isn’t criticism of “idealism” as detached from the real, i.e. as false, inherent to the disagreement of any philosophical position against all the others? Wasn’t metaphysical dogmatism for Kant too disconnected from reality, as the Ptolemaic system for Copernicus? For Hegel, an arche-idealist, the real was the reasonable. Baring shows how neo-Thomism too deemed the real intelligible, whereas existentialism and dialectical theology experienced reality in unintelligibility.
- It seems that ultimately “the Real” for Baring signifies the limit of human autonomy and power, where reason means intelligibility of – and subjection to – the given, eternal, cosmic order (Thomism), in contrast to modern “self-affirmation of reason” (Blumenberg). Conversion to the Real means something like undoing modern hubris, disempowering the human. Baring portrays at least two divergent ways of doing so in Catholic thought, rationalism and existentialism, both inspired by Husserl’s phenomenology. One may wonder, however, whether both modes of “the Real” are equally defining for continental philosophy. The very term “continental” philosophy, determines reason by existence, i.e. actual geography, politics, history, which arguably condition more continental than analytic thought. It is rather Anglo-American philosophy that may be said to represent anti-idealist, positive rationalism, where reason is limited qua “analytic”. Wouldn’t this modern philosophy – which is closer to natural sciences, and arises from phenomenology only within its alliance with logical positivism against psychologism – be a more suitable ally for neo-scholasticism?
- There seems to be a third way of limiting or determining reason, which is very present in Baring’s study, albeit unthematized as such. Next to rationalism (reason determined by given logical order) and existentialism (reason determined by given non-logical being), his narrative centrally features also the determination of reason through the inter-personal plurality of thought: thought as a school, the institution that gave scholasticism its name. As such, scholasticism determines reason neither by the given intelligible, nor by the unintelligible, but by the overintelligible, namely by the open excess of thought as polemics. By choosing the debate as a primary figure of thought, Baring’s book manifests perhaps scholarship itself, next to analytic and continental philosophies, as a third post-modern manifestation of scholastic realism, and perhaps of philosophy überhaupt.
Lo scopo di questo volume è di mostrare il ruolo nascosto giocato dal cattolicesimo nel successo e nella diffusione della fenomenologia. Le connessioni e i rapporti tra la corrente di pensiero inaugurata da Edmund Husserl e i pensatori e le istituzioni cattoliche del Novecento, infatti, sono molteplici e di diversi livelli. Si pensi a Martin Heidegger e ai suoi studi di filosofia medievale e di teologia, o a Edith Stein, protagonista di un percorso per certi aspetti speculare: il primo procede infatti dal cattolicesimo ad una fenomenologia metodologicamente atea – per cui l’espressione “filosofia cristiana” è notoriamente un “ferro ligneo”; la seconda muove invece dalla fenomenologia – orgogliosamente atea – al cattolicesimo. Ma si pensi anche, ovviamente, a Max Scheler, che contemporaneamente alle riflessioni sulla fenomenologia sviluppa le sue prospettive religiose, gravitanti attorno alla chiesa cattolica, di cui si fa promotore e da cui poi si allontana. Oppure, per risalire sino alle origini e alla preistoria della fenomenologia, si pensi a Franz Brentano, sacerdote e studioso di Tommaso d’Aquino, oltre che ispiratore e maestro di Edmund Husserl. Ma si pensi anche a Karol Wojtyła, formatosi allo studio di Max Scheler e su cui giocò un’influenza rilevante anche il pensiero di Roman Ingarden.
Il rapporto prevalente che la fenomenologia instaurò fu quello con la cosiddetta Neoscolastica, ossia con la corrente filosofica e teologica volta al recupero e alla riattualizzazione del pensiero medievale ed in particolare del tomismo, sostenuta con energia dalla chiesa cattolica nel corso del ventesimo secolo e rilanciata in particolare dall’enciclica Aeterni Patris di Leone XIII (1879). La vicinanza tra le due correnti può apparire a prima vista sorprendente: la fenomenologia infatti si presenta come un pensiero privo di riferimenti storici, rifiuta qualsiasi tipo di presupposto extra-razionale ed è costitutivamente contraria alla metafisica, tanto che “metafisico” e “fenomenologico” vengono talora ad essere aggettivi usati in modo antitetico; la Neoscolastica, all’opposto, trova appunto nel pensiero medievale un riferimento privilegiato, è orientata al dialogo con la teologia e con la fede rivelata, e sostiene una ripresa della metafisica.
A ben vedere, però, un orientamento marcatamente teoretico caratterizza anche la Neoscolastica, che si rivolge al passato medievale come ad una presunta “età dell’oro”, la cui validità teorica andrebbe riproposta con energia contro le derive e la crisi della modernità. Su questo piano dunque – ossia sul piano di un interesse speculativo scevro da pregiudizi – va compresa la possibilità di un primo, generico, punto di incontro. Un secondo, già più specifico, punto di contatto va rinvenuto nell’istanza fondativa con cui entrambe le correnti impostano il loro procedere, così che la fenomenologia, per quanto anti-metafisica, si presenta come una “scienza rigorosa” e come una “filosofia prima”. Ma il terzo e più preciso punto di incontro che ha condotto alla possibilità di dialogo tra queste due correnti va sicuramente individuato nell’approccio inaugurato da Husserl con le Logische Untersuchungen (1900-01): in quest’opera, infatti, si difende un‘impostazione che può essere compresa – ed è stato compresa effettivamente dai primi discepoli di Husserl – come realista. Husserl infatti propone una forte critica allo psicologismo, e molti allievi considereranno una svolta indebita da parte di Husserl l’impostazione idealista delle successive Ideen I (1913). Per la Neoscolastica era proprio lo psicologismo – e più in generale il soggettivismo – uno dei maggiori errori del pensiero moderno in generale, a partire da Cartesio e da Kant. La Neoscolastica proponeva quindi un ritorno al realismo metafisico che aveva caratterizzato l’epoca medievale. Così, il ritorno “alle cose stesse” propugnato da Husserl poteva certamente attrarre l’attenzione dei pensatori neoscolastici. La stessa fenomenologia, non a caso, venne accusata di essere una forma di “nuova Scolastica”. Proprio al realismo e alla necessità di “convertirsi” ad esso fa dunque riferimento il titolo del volume di Baring, che finalmente mette a tema questa importante relazione intellettuale tra due movimenti di pensiero protagonisti del secolo scorso.
Oltre alle figure più prominenti già menzionate in apertura, molti altri nomi sono emblematici del rapporto tra fenomenologia e cattolicesimo: Dietrich von Hildebrand, per esempio, altro giovane fenomenologo che conobbe la conversione al cattolicesimo in età adulta. Oppure Erich Przywara, che con curiosità di avvicinò allo studio del pensiero husserliano a partire da posizioni neoscolastiche. E poi, nelle generazioni successive di pensatori, si pensi all’importanza, per la diffusione della fenomenologia, di figure come Alphonse de Waelhens (Belgio), Sofia Vanni Rovighi (Italia), Joaquìn Xirau (Mesicco) o Herman Boelaars (Olanda). Fu un sacerdote cattolico, inoltre, Hermann Leo Van Breda, a porre in salvo i manoscritti husserliani e a fondare l’Archivio dedicato al padre della fenomenologia. E la diffusione attuale della fenomenologia in Francia – forse l’ultimo avamposto della corrente husserliana – è dovuta in buona misura a pensatori dichiaratamente ed esplicitamente cattolici, come Michel Henry o Jean-Luc Marion, ma anche Jean Greisch, Philippe Capelle-Dumont ed Emmanuel Falque: tanto che si è parlato, famigeratamente, di un “tournant théologique” della fenomenologia francese.
Mettere in luce questi rapporti rappresenta la mera esposizione di un fatto storico incontrovertibile. Tuttavia, a partire da ciò, prudentemente l’Autore non intende sostenere la tesi di un carattere cripticamente cattolico della fenomenologia – in quello che rappresenterebbe una sorta di ribaltamento della tesi di Janicaud sul “tournant théologique”. Infatti, egli scrive:
“By claiming that Catholics played an outsized role in the reception of phenomenology […], even in its atheistic versions, I don’t mean to argue that phenomenology is essentially Christian, and that the secular thinkers who have developed its claims in important and interesting ways were crypto-Catholics, blind to the true nature of their thought. First, the Catholic readings of phenomenology were in many ways expropriations. Husserl gave little encouragement to those who hoped to bend his philosophy to fit a Catholic agenda. Second, as we shall see, phenomenology’s compatibility with Catholicism was by no means assured, and it was the difficulty of aligning it with neo- scholasticism that made phenomenology attractive to other religious thinkers and, later, atheists. Finally, and most fundamentally, it is not clear on what basis one could declare phenomenology Christian or Catholic, because the concept of a ‘Christian philosophy’ is notoriously difficult to define. At almost precisely the moment when Catholics were shuttling phenomenological ideas around the continent, many of the same thinkers were also engaged in a Europe-wide debate about whether ‘Christian philosophy’ had any meaning at all” (11-12).
Il volume quindi procede prevalentemente su un terreno più solido e sicuro, che è il terreno storico. Tuttavia, con un’osservazione che può essere definita di “ispirazione” fenomenologica si deve rilevare come, evidentemente, non esistano “fatti” storici da poter cogliere in modo positivisticamente ingenuo e scevri da ogni carattere interpretativo. La buona “intenzionalità” dell’Autore, quindi, si perde almeno in parte nel corso del volume. Valutiamo come.
Nella prima parte vengono analizzati i rapporti di Husserl, Heidegger e Scheler con il cattolicesimo e la Neoscolastica, in quattro capitoli dedicati rispettivamente al rapporto, in senso generico, tra le due correnti di pensiero, e poi a ciascuna delle tre figure. La seconda parte si dedica a descrivere alcune influenze rilevanti che queste figure cardine giocarono sui rapporti con il cattolicesimo di alcuni pensatori al di fuori della Germania: nello specifico si analizzano sia figure quali Nicolai Berdyaev, Gabriel Marcel e Augusto Guzzo (definiti “esistenzialisti cristiani”); sia la corrente del tomismo qui denominato “cartesiano” – e definibile in senso più lato “trascendentale” – ossia Joseph Maréchal, Karl Rahner, ma anche Giuseppe Zamboni (nel meritorio ed informato ricordo di un dibattito molto interessante all’Università Cattolica di Milano); sia la ricezione teologica di Kierkegaard (soprattutto nella teologia dialettica); sia quella di Nietzsche nei fascismi, ed il loro controverso rapporto con il cattolicesimo impegnato socialmente e politicamente. La terza parte, infine, si dedica alla storia dell’Archivio Husserl e poi – ampliando la prospettiva al di là dei confini del cattolicesimo – prende in esame le vicende di Paul Ricoeur e di Maurice Merleau-Ponty.
Proprio questo allargamento finale di prospettiva – così come, più in generale, la vastità di questioni, correnti ed autori presi in considerazione – mostra forse quella che è una prima difficoltà del volume, ossia la tesi per cui il ruolo del cattolicesimo, nella vicenda fenomenologica, viene forse in alcuni tratti sovrainterpretato. Rispetto a Ricoeur o a Merleau-Ponty, infatti, non sembra che il rapporto con l’ambito di pensiero Neoscolastico o con la storia del cattolicesimo abbia avuto un’influenza così decisiva. Ma, a ben vedere, ciò non vale solo per questo capitolo. La tesi dell’Autore pare, a giudizio di chi scrive, dover essere ridimensionata in senso complessivo.
In ciascun passaggio, forse, Baring dona troppa enfasi al ruolo del cattolicesimo, come si può evincere in questo passaggio in cui egli riassume la sua prospettiva generale e che il lettore potrà valutare analiticamente:
“I argue that the neo-scholastic reading provided the impetus and stakes for the realism/ idealism debate that engulfed Husserl’s students in the 1910s and 1920s (Chapter 2); I suggest that Catholic debates lend context to the development of an existential version of phenomenology, both in Heidegger’s work (Chapter 3) and elsewhere in Europe in the 1930s (Chapters 5, 6, and 7); I show how the conflicts between religious thinkers furnished the means for non-Catholics to craft atheistic versions of phenomenology and existentialism (Chapters 7, 8, and 10); and I explain how Catholic readings helped imprint phenomenology with political meaning both in Germany in the 1920s (Chapter 4) and outside of Germany in the 1930s (Chapter 8), in a way that foreshadowed and shaped the emergence of existential Marxism in the 1940s (Chapter 10). The Catholic reception of phenomenology was a subterranean but massive structure, linking many of the most important developments in the history of twentieth-century philosophy. It could play this role because, before existentialism and before phenomenology, the first continental philosophy of the twentieth century was Catholic.” (20).
Su ciascun aspetto, si potrebbero mettere in luce anche dibattiti e contributi non solo di provenienza cattolica: il dibattito tra idealismo e realismo coinvolge tutti gli allievi gottinghesi di Husserl e il rapporto con i monachesi, ben al di là dei confini confessionali; l’esistenzialismo – categoria peraltro difficilmente applicabile al pensiero di Martin Heidegger – conosce uno sviluppo non solo marcato da influenze cattoliche, così come un esistenzialismo marxista ha una traiettoria anche completamente indipendente da matrici confessionali etc…
Le ultime righe del brano appena citato, poi, chiamano in causa una seconda difficoltà che ci sembra mostrare il volume di Baring, ossia una certa tendenza a sovrapporre troppo velocemente categorie ed etichette storiografiche: cattolicesimo e Neoscolastica, ad esempio, non sono sinonimi, così come evidentemente non coincidono nemmeno con l’idea della “filosofia cristiana”. L’Autore ne è consapevole, come abbiamo visto e sottolineato anche con una citazione esplicita, in precedenza; ma allora il rapporto della fenomenologia con il cattolicesimo in senso generale appare chiamare in causa figure e contesti anche molto (troppo?) diversi tra loro. Sull’altro versante, poi, l’equiparazione della fenomenologia con la “filosofia continentale” appare ancora più forzata. Se è vero che l’ermeneutica o l’esistenzialismo derivano o non possono prescindere dalla fenomenologia, il marxismo, il neokantismo, il neoidealismo, lo spiritualismo e il personalismo sono tutte correnti “continentali” che – sia pur entrate in qualche rapporto con la fenomenologia – hanno avuto origini e sviluppi da essa indipendenti e autonomi. Se negli ultimi decenni quindi la filosofia continentale è stata in larga misura almeno di ispirazione fenomenologica, evidentemente non sempre è stato così nel corso del Novecento e le due categorie non sono sovrapponibili.
Ciò che sta a cuore all’Autore, d’altronde, emerge nell’Epilogo, in cui egli afferma – forse con eccesso di enfasi:
“Continental philosophy today is haunted by religion. Whether they consider religion as something that needs to be exorcised, conjured up, or—and this is where my sympathies lie—mined as an intellectual resource, philosophers across Europe have returned insistently to religious themes and questions” (343).
Anche in questo caso, si sostiene un giudizio dalla portata molto vasta – e per farlo ci si deve riferire al pensiero “religioso” in senso generale; per poi concludere invece rivolgendosi nello specifico al Tomismo e affermando:
“Thomism is not the power house it once was. Still taught in Catholic universities and seminaries around the world, it rarely enjoys philosophical attention outside the Church. Yet when assessing its influence, we should not restrict our attention to those few who continue to bear its name. Whether passed on as a positive inheritance, or persisting as a negative imprint on other forms of philosophy, neo-scholasticism’s greatest legacy is the international debate between non- Catholic philosophers over phenomenology. And though this would be cold comfort to a Mercier, a Gemelli, a Przywara, or a Maritain, Thomism continues to deserve the title philosophia perennis, thanks to its contradictory afterlives in secular thought.” (349).
Queste osservazioni critiche, comunque, nulla tolgono al valore di un volume che molto meritoriamente evidenzia finalmente in modo diffuso e analitico, e con una erudizione sorprendente, un rapporto macroscopico e sinora sorprendentemente sottaciuto. Così come nulla tolgono alla precisione del testo alcuni piccoli errori o refusi (chi scrive questa recensione, ad esempio, viene talora confuso con Roberto Tommasi). Impostare il rapporto in modo più stringente sul rapporto tra Neoscolastica e fenomenologia – piuttosto che tra cattolicesimo e pensiero continentale – avrebbe forse potuto essere una scelta più efficace, ma il lavoro di Baring resta in ogni caso decisivo per comprendere una vicenda rilevantissima della storia della filosofia del Novecento e dunque anche – “Herkunft bleibt stets Zukunft – i suoi sviluppi futuri.
This is an inquiry into a specifically Christian ethics, one that at first sight looks multiply parochial. It is an extended argument for quite traditional Roman Catholic positions on moral matters. Moreover, it instances a more or less Augustinian approach to ethics and may thus represent a (large) minority position even within the Roman Catholic community, which has been dominated philosophically by Aquinas. And, its original polemical targets were particularly prominent a half century ago, and arguably reflected a zeitgeist that has withered on its own. Nonetheless it still has some bearings on persisting issues germane to any Christian ethic, protestant or Catholic, as well as on some more or less secular ethical views, and applications to current culture are readily available.
The principal aim is to lay out some of those features of a Christian ethic that distinguish it from “situation ethics.” Hildebrand insists that Christian ethics requires moral commands or general moral principles that are non-negotiable, that must be observed in every case without any modification in the light of possible consequences, or in light of the peculiarities of a situation, or of the person in the situation, or some combination of these. The prominence of “absolutism” or anti-consequentialism in specifically traditional Roman Catholic teaching is brought out in John Finnis’ introduction to this edition, where citations from papal encyclicals, most notably Veritatis Splendor, with its stress on intrinsically evil acts, figure prominently. Moreover, this edition includes as an appendix an address by Pope Pius XII on “moral law and the new morality” dating from 1952. The notions of law and of intrinsic wrongness thus figure prominently throughout, but there is no attempt to argue for the superiority of a distinctly deontological ethics over more teleological approaches to ethics and natural law. In fact there is no sharp distinction drawn in these terms; nonetheless the principal concern is with the idea that certain actions (or less commonly omissions) are always and everywhere impermissible. Although clearly wedded to Roman Catholic traditions and emphases, the analysis is deployed against a trend, againstthe creeping influence of situation ethics both in the culture at large and also among some Roman Catholic scholars and Catholic institutions.
That trend may have been particularly noticeable in the latter half of the last century, and it appeared to some as a capitulation to a more general spirit or trend, particularly prominent in the late 50’s and ‘60s, which opposed what was perceived to be a kind of legalism, a morally rigid stress on the letter of the law (the rule, the command, the principle), in favor of the idea that one should simply love or do what love, or some similarly strong pro attitude, required. One important source of situation ethics was the wildly popular Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1956) by the protestant theologian Joseph Fletcher. Many of that book’s readers, both devotees and critics, shared the sense that it summed up the antinomian sensibilities of the 60’s counterculture. Nonetheless it is not difficult to find applications of Hildebrand’s critique to the less optimistic and more ironical culture of today.
The notion of “situation ethics” is vague and some versions arguably contain inconsistent elements. Versions of relativism, non-cognitivism, and emotivism reside uneasily, not always with explicit acknowledgement, with act and rule utilitarianism in Fletcher’s work, to take one example. But clearly utilitarianism is cognitivist and rules out cultural or individual relativism.
However, Hildebrand is less interested in a direct analysis and critique of some version of situation ethics, than in an analysis of what it rules out, and why. There are I think no strawmen in his argument. He attempts to show how some of the motivations of the situation ethicist deserve careful attention and respect. In fact, he holds that by doing justice to some of the “valuable contributions” (p. 9) of situation ethics a clearer elaboration of Christian ethics becomes possible. Here the details are of general interest; Catholics, protestants, secularists, whether philosophers, theologians, or even novelists (sic!) may find in his detailed discussion of pharisaism, self-righteous zealotry, self-righteous mediocrity, the self-righteous timorous person, and the tragic sinner, significant distinctions and contrasts that are often mischaracterized or overlooked.
Situation ethics is sometimes motivated by an aversion to pharisaism, which may be construed as a thoughtless application of rules or principles to every morally fraught situation. But Hildebrand argues that the most essential ingredient in pharisaism is not a spiritless devotion to the letter of the law, but rather pride, the urge to judge others, the complete rejection of charity or mercy, and the use of moral principles as a means to self-glorification. The Pharisee is thus opposed to the spirit of the law, the spirit of repentance and self-abasement. The true pharisee (obviously an ideal type in Hildebrand’s taxonomy) is thus opposed to God as God, as infinitely above his creatures. It is, arguably, those features of pharisaism, rather than reliance on rules or principles per se, that accounts for the negative connotations of “pharisee” which the situation ethicist responds to.
The pharisaism of “the pharisee” can be usefully contrasted with the mitigated pharisaism of the self-righteous zealot or the self-righteous mediocre individual. The self-righteous zealot does not oppose the spirit of the law, but she is primarily concerned with the violations of other persons. She is a moralizer who focuses on moral wrong, the violation of a law, principle or code, rather than on the complexities of the situations within which all people choose, and regularly fail, when measured only by that law. The law is a blunt instrument in her undiscerning hands, and its being so serves her purpose, since use of the law as a tool in sensitive self-evaluation would disable her focus on the violations of others. Hildebrand mentions the main character in Mauriac’s Woman of the Pharisees as an instance of this type. She tends to mix social improprieties with moral failings; moral rules are just further specifications of “what is commonly done.” Thus she may even be suspicious of saints, since they seem to stand outside common norms. To the extent that the situation ethicist detects and rejects this banality and bluntness, he must get positive credit.
The self-righteous mediocre person, on the other hand, lacks the perverse focus on morality instanced by the self-righteous zealot. His principle concern is that he be morally secure, and his attempts to abide by the letter of the law enable the desired sense of security. Once secure, he can get along with the ordinary business of life, business, politics, family etc. in a favorable state of mind. He is not overly focused on others or heedless of his own failings, but his attempts at external conformity suffice for him. He does not attempt to edit away any of the demands of the letter of law, but he does not heed its penitential function. The important thing is to be correct, and he is, like the zealot or the true pharisee, intolerant of the failures of others with respect to the letter, and also tends, like the zealot, to mix moral with merely social correctness.
Both of these types of self-righteousness can be contrasted with what we find in a morally timorous man. He uses conformity to the letter of the law to avoid risk taking. His primary concern is with safety. He does not have the pride of the Pharisee, or the hardness of the zealot or the mediocre man in judging others. But the letter of the law shields him against any deep and sometimes risky investment in morally difficult circumstances. Typical proponents of situation ethics are particularly likely to contrast this feature of the timorous man with the kind of risk taking and deep responsibility of the truly moral man who on their view must dare to act for the best without guidance or guarantee.
The situation ethicist contrasts the “tragic sinner” with all of the types mentioned so far; although the tragic sinner does not deny the relevance or importance of principles or laws, she does not advert to them to establish moral superiority, or retreat to them to avoid risk and conflict. In fact she holds them in such high regard that a violation causes her great pain. But we can imagine a situation in which she can only achieve a great life good (for example the fulfillment of a great love) by violating a moral requirement. Her capacity for love, her earnestness in the face of her situation and the impossibility of achieving a life of deep fulfillment and even nobility without the violation makes her a “tragic” figure. It is easy to sympathize with the claim that she is morally superior to the self-righteous or the timid, and to infer that “rule worship” would constitute a personal failure in her situation.
It is even possible to have a kind of moral admiration for those who feel no pressure from rules or moral laws, and thus are anything but tragic, but who act spontaneously from motives of kindness, generosity, or fellow feeling. Tom Jones in Fielding’s novel may rightly get more admiration than the grim and judgmental legalists who surround him at church.
Finally, the situation ethicist may go so far as to accord some positive value to sin itself. There is a kind of sinning that expresses spiritual energy, a concerted rejection of self-righteousness, and may lead to various goods. On the one hand it may lead to a deeper recognition of unworthiness, of the sort unknown to the “correct” but self-righteous person. Or it may seem to function as a felix culpa, understood as calling forth of greater “soul benefits” than would otherwise have been possible. It is in relation to these ideas about the tragic sinner and the “happy fault” that Hildebrand’s discussion of situation ethics intersects with his account of “sin mysticism.” The two are logically distinct, but Hildebrand notes their confluence in the thinking of many, due to a shared detestadon of pharisaism in all its modalities and of spiritual sloth or merely conventional observance of moral principles, which figure prominently in both.
The foregoing summary does not, of course, do more than touch upon a few of the features of the detailed moral phenomenology explored by Hildebrand in his effort to credit the “valuable contributions” of situation ethics. It is easier to say briefly how situation ethics nonetheless fails to escape justified criticism from the absolutist. The principal criticism is simple; none of the praiseworthy elements in human moral struggle highlighted by the situation ethicist depend for their existence on the exclusion from full ethical life and deliberation of fundamental laws, principles, divine commands or any other deontological elements. This point is quite clear; none of the positive traits of the tragic sinner (to take the case most favorable to the situation ethicist’s position), her passion and multiform depth of character, would necessarily be absent from a person who flatly refuses to contravene a moral rule. Arguably such a person exhibits even greater depth of character. The ability to sacrifice a kind of self-fulfillment in obedience to moral law can bespeak a remarkable personal development and energy that logically requires the hardness of the rule. Variations in this basic critique are spread throughout the first nine chapters; though the basic critique here is worth emphasizing, and varies somewhat in sundry applications, this book ends up being somewhat repetitious .
There are other criticisms of situation ethics worth mentioning here. Consider Hildebrand’s attack on the relativism of situation ethics. Situation ethics is relativistic since it denies that there are any “values” that govern more than one case at a time. It thus endorses the most extreme form of relativism, individual relativism. A consistent statement of this view is very difficult to formulate, as the writings of Montaigne attest. It implies the claims that ideas of moral progress and moral advice are empty, and that there can be no moral exemplars or moral education (142). These claims arguably entail some version of non-cognitivism, but the situation ethicist does not endorse non-cognitivism. He may insist that one can know some such general principle as “always follow conscience” but this principle is empty, or in Hildebrand’s terms, merely “formal.”
The individual relativism of situation ethics also requires a denial of common experiences of the differences between cruelty and kindness, generosity and selfish hoarding and the like, which Hildebrand regards as pre-theoretical “givens” (cf. Charles Taylor’s notion of “thick description”). In fact, Hildebrand argues that despite the situation ethicist’s emphasis on the contingent multiplicity of ethically charged “situations” he in fact fails to appreciate the full complexity of ethical life. He may miss the way judgement on evil is ideally, at least in the Christian vision, combined with an appreciation for the complexities of human lives and the universality of moral weakness. The Christian is well situated to assert, with St. Augustine, that “man’s heart [is] an abyss” (quoted on 118). The dominical admonitions to refrain from judging (in the sense of assuming a Godlike ability to see everything that is in a person) respect that abyss, and are combined with the sense that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Thus situation ethics may itself be subject to a kind of simple mindedness, when it is not simply confused. These are not parochial criticisms.
Hildebrand also employs a tu quoque that has some force against the situation ethicist. A fundamental motive of situation ethics appears to be the desire to avoid judgementalism. But the situation ethicist often seems eager to dismiss as legalists, slaves to convention, hypocrites, cowards, or insensitive to context those who take seriously rules or principles (understood as more than rules of thumb) or who believe that there are real distinctions among virtues and vices. Thus, he exhibits thoroughly judgmental attitudes towards much of humanity, perhaps especially those who take moral matters seriously.
In ch. 10 Hildebrand sets out what he considers to be three “basic errors” of situation ethics, at least in its more extreme forms.
First, the situation ethicist ignores or tends to discount the force of the moral “ought,” which he may view as a mistaken importation of juridical notions into ethics. He tends to contrast the person acting under obligation with the person (much to be preferred on his view) who spontaneously does what is right or good. This contrast, between duty and sentiment or inclination, so prominent in arguments between Kantians and “sentimentalists,” is irrelevant on Hildebrand’s view. He contends that each and every “moral value response” including those in which a person acts with passion and enthusiasm, is experienced as “something that should be;” each “contains an element of obedience” (128).
Hildebrand’s language here is (as is often the case in this book) vague or slippery. Is loving ones enemies “obedience” to a command or law, or not? At first sight Hildebrand seems to discount any contrast between the deontic and the axiological, as we might now put it. We might expect the result to be anti-supererogationism, a view characteristic of the protestant reformers. Compare that to the contrast, found in Aquinas, between acting from principle or under a law, and acting for the good. Aquinas distinguished precepts, which are universal in their scope (like laws), from counsels, which are addressed to the few who have the capacity and inclination to pursue the life of perfection. For Thomas, the open-texture character of the counsels makes the morality of love superior to mere obedience to or conformity with divine law or commands. But Thomas does not draw a clear borderline between duty and supererogation. It is, for example, not clear whether “love thy enemy” is a precept or a supererogatory counsel. It is similarly unclear whether acts of charity (such as almsgiving) are duties or lie beyond duty, and so on for other cases. In view of the evident difficulty here we can appreciate Hildebrand’s apparent conflation of precepts and counsels and his treatment of the love commands (Mk 12: 29-31) as foundational for the entire “moral” (unexplained) domain. But there is a further related difficulty in this neighborhood.
The first edition of this book preceded the groundbreaking essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) by Gertrude Anscombe, who argued that the idea of a “moral ought” was a leftover from a time when divine law and divine commands were essential to ethics (metaethics). She argued that since the belief in the divine has largely disappeared, the notion of a “moral” ought, which elicits so much philosophical puzzlement, should be abandoned. The notion of the moral, with its lingering hint of something demanded (and thus perhaps of “obedience”) is now meaningless. That being the case she advocates a return to a more or less Aristotelian virtue ethics for the purposes of contemporary debates on ethics. Hildebrand makes unexamined uses of “moral” quite central to his discussion; such expressions as “moral demand,” “moral value response,” “morally relevant values,” positively clutter this book. It is of course true that he has not abandoned theism. It does not follow that he is entitled to a continued use of these expressions, since he refuses to make a clear distinction between obedience to divine commands or divine law and any other “moral” (unexplained) responses (cf. the discussion on p. 132 of “general morally relevant” values vis a vis “general principles and laws” and “positive commandments of God.”) Some such distinction is back of Anscombe’s critique. Otherwise put, he does not account for “moral obligation” by grounding it in a command issued by God or a standing obligation in natural law, but neither does he account for it some other way. Given his very heavy reliance on unexamined uses of “moral,” Hildebrand’s failure, in later (post 1958) editions, to respond in at least some minimal way to Anscombe’s critique will be considered a serious defect by many, including those who dissent from Anscombe’s view.
Secondly, situation ethics is criticized for eliminating the general (general principles or rules) from ethics. The situation ethicist’s motivation for doing so resides in his belief, which is surely widely shared, that it is obvious that there are situations which not only permit, but require (“morally”), violation of such rules as “promises are to be kept” or “one must not swear falsely.” Hildebrand considers the case of swearing falsely to a tyrant, perhaps in order to save a life. Rather than insist (as Kant might have) that even in such a situation one must not swear falsely, Hildebrand suggests that in some such situation the “oath” might lack “the intrinsic presuppositions” (131) for authenticity (and thus would not be a real oath) so that “swearing” falsely might be permissible or even required. Nowhere, however, does he say exactly what those presuppositions might be. This looks like mere evasion, and not just to a situation ethicist.
It of course does not follow that there can be no account of those “presuppositions.” Nicholas Wolterstorff argues (in Justice: rights and wrongs, 2008) that commands, standing orders or laws obligate if and only if they are issued by agents who have standing and its associated potestas. A sergeant’s order obligates only where he has standing in relation to those he commands. He has no such standing in relation to those not in his platoon, so his production of the locutionary act of uttering an imperative sentence does not constitute the illocutionary act of issuing a command, when directed upon, say, the army’s commander-in-chief (or the writer of this review). There are very plausible arguments for the claim that tyrants lack standing to issue some commands, extract oaths, et al, so those commands are not real commands, those oaths not real oaths (Hildebrand: not “authentic”). Hildebrand’s failure to respond to a quite compelling objection with little more than flat assertion will look serious to those seeking some philosophical illumination of the fundamental concepts in play here (obligation, command, duty, etc.). Wolterstorff shows just one way to respond.
Hildebrand looks to be on firmer ground when he criticizes the situation ethicist’s use of “conscience” to do all the moral work. The ability of conscience to warrant the very opposite of what morality requires is too well known (cf. Huck Finn’s misguided conscience, and “the Corsican Matteo Falconi” mentioned on p. 136). Conscience, Hildebrand rightly insists, only gets content by a struggle with precepts of some kind or other. But as already suggested, he does not give us an account of divine commands or natural law that shows how to sort the good precepts from the bad. Rather he alludes to features of a Christian life and Christian formation (the “imitation of Christ”, 142). Practically that might suffice. Philosophically it does not.
Thirdly, Hildebrand argues that the situation ethicist has a wrong conception of the relation of natural law to revealed law; he seems to assume that the latter invalidates the former. Hildebrand denies that natural law precepts can ever be invalidated. But there are special cases where a revealed call supersedes natural law. St. Francis disobeyed his father. His doing so was in response to a “call” which superseded, but did not invalidate, principles requiring filial obedience. The specifically Christian sources of Hildebrand’s ethics become particularly evident here. Once again someone who seeks philosophical illumination rather than Christian edification may feel shortchanged; are such natural law precepts as “parents are to be obeyed” binding always and everywhere, or not? If not, what considerations favor disobedience? Or are there cases of non-compliance that don’t amount to disobedience? Utilitarian or consequentalist reasonings would not be countenanced by Hildebrand. What then? Individual directives from the Holy Spirit? Is there some scale of higher and lower “moral values” that can in principle be accessed by any morally responsive person, or would specifically Christian formation be necessary to discern any exceptions or overriding factors?
In this book Hildebrand does not, so far as I can see, do what many Christian philosophers have tried to do, namely show in what ways an ethics devoid of theological reference must be defective, for example through failure to square with some widely shared ethical intuitions or beliefs. Hildebrand remarks that separation of morality from God causes it to lose the “breath of the eternal” (147). This idea from Kierkegaard challenges heart and mind when surrounded with the profound rhetoric and dialectic of his authorship. In Hildebrand it has only a faint appeal if any.
Thus the lingering parochialism of this work. Nevertheless, the detailed dissection of the moral simulacra that motivate some people to adopt situation ethics, or even attempt to abandon moral concerns altogether, will no doubt prove useful to many readers, and add to the substantial burden under which situation ethics already labors.