St. Justin Martyr

Wonders, Transcendences, Domains and Wisdoms

The initial concern, leading me to articulate these related but not entirely coincident triads, regarded the positioning of the love of wisdom – what we traditionally call philosophy – in its relation to three kindred domains: 1) within its nurturing matrix in the world of the humanities and the arts, 2) its relation to the modern sciences, and, above all, 3) its ultimate ordination and subordination to theological and mystical wisdom. That concern has expanded into a broader consideration of the notion of transcendence in its three principal instances. Although this division is easily traceable in the formulations of the Western philosophical and theological traditions, I owe this more accentuated profile to a conversation with Cornelio Fabro some 40 years ago.

This manner of contrasting and comparing the levels of transcendence can only be properly understood after we have clarified the nature of wonder, which I have attempted here: On Wonder. The character and structure of the three cognitive domains of human transcendence, especially regarding philosophy’s age-old dialectic with the sciences, is likewise presupposed; I explore that here: Cenoscopy and Idioscopy. The notion of wisdom itself will be the last to be developed, as its even approximate charaterization requires the context of the domains and, most especially, the notion of the three transcendences and the respective wonders that they evoke. Of these I will treat in the present essay.

  1. First Transcendence

Even as infants we already notice that the physical world extends far beyond our bodies, in all directions, exceeding our grasp – both manual and cognitive. This inspires in us the first experience of wonder. The world is big and beautiful, but also strange and dangerous. We inhabit a particular time and place, but our memories slowly register the existence of an unlimited past stretching long before our present moment, along with the promise of an unpredictable future just out of view; our senses further register the four directions into which the world stretches, incalculably engulfing the tiny portion of it we encounter. We begin to engage with all of this through the language we learn from our fellows. Our history, our geography and our language are givens. We don’t make them, we discover them.

With literature there is a slight difference. To some extent it is also a given, since we learn the poems, hear the stories and sing the songs already produced by those who have gone before us. But poetic and narrative creations go beyond registering the factual given (as do history, geography and our day-to-day use of language). Passing into the spacial and temporal unknown, and beyond the mere appropriating of the grammar and vocabulary of the language we inherit, they mimetically explore the possible. They prefigure the fine arts in providing vicarious experiences of that which lies beyond our immediate perception.

The traditional nine Greek Muses straddle the humanities and the arts. Over half of them are dedicated to poetry. Dance and drama, however, take them also into the fine arts. The visual arts, which are to be seen rather than said, remain too linked to the materials they fashion to open themselves so readily to musal inspiration. They still rely heavily upon the servile arts to provide their materials. Accordingly, it is the arts that produce works in the spry world of language, rather than that in the ponderous realm of matter, that hold pride of place. Still, the performative arts set it all in motion with music, dance and drama.

The so-called humanities (or humanistic studies) live up to their name by rooting us in our humanity. The study of history, geography (with observational astronomy) and language do this by further establishing our pre-given roots in the time, place and language into which we are born. Literature then takes us and our language on our inaugural explorations of genuine transcendence.

The five Muses of poetry, the two of Comedy and Tragedy and the Muse of dance all either produce or rely upon music in the strict sense of the word. Even the Muse of astronomy cannot be separated from the stellar score of the “music of the spheres.” All this reliance on music keeps the Muses well within the oral and aural realms.

As already suggested, it is not enough to know when we live, historically; where we live, geographically; how to speak, linguistically and how to hear and recite the poetry and literature of our culture. Even the oral and written traditions of the humanities require complements from our eyes and our tactile senses. We are not disembodied ears. The visual and performative arts invite us to transcend what we happen to see and experience in our immediate environs. They summon us to step beyond our everyday motions and ego-centered engagements by offering means of participating in what others see and what others do.

As Aristotle teaches, we are not only rational animals, but also political/social animals. It is of natural interest to us, and of the essence of any true education, that we seek to know what others of our kind have seen, said and sung. As social animals, our reason impels us to enlarge our lives beyond our ‘I’ and ‘me’ into the widest field available of the corresponding horizons of our ‘we’ and ‘us’.

As our bodies open out to the world around them, our minds progressively discover their own mode of openness. That’s why we keep asking questions with our intellects, beyond our current cognitions, and wanting more with our wills, beyond our present possessions. We live in a cognitive and volitional parabola, one point of which we occupy, but the partner point of which is infinity. That awareness makes us hungry for knowledge, and of a knowledge of what lies beyond the severe limits of our own bodies, our own sense experience, our own time and space. Our wills, in turn, begin to long for what is yet only surmised, as we are never completely satisfied with what we already have. Thus are born, in addition to the four humanistic studies, the fine arts.

I say “fine” only to distinguish them from both the servile arts in the service of our material needs (like agriculture and carpentry), and the liberal arts in the service of our pursuit of speculative thought in philosophy and science. Their ‘fineness’ also includes the popular, amateur arts, and not just operas and string quartets. Most importantly of all, the fine arts, strictly speaking, serve no one. They bring us vicarious contact with worlds of the concrete beyond our own limited individual experience. But they do this not in the line of duty, but in the expansiveness of play. Comedies and tragedies both are called plays. And the instruments of music are not ‘used’, like the tools of the carpenter, the scalpels of the surgeon or the gear of the mechanic. They are played.  

If they serve anything at all it is only our memory. They provide us with looks into times, places and situations beyond our own experience (in the visual arts), movements (dance) and narratives (drama) beyond the twists and turns of our own daily theater. And the music takes us into even more mysterious dimensions underlying the surfaces and resounding beyond our limited circle of sensory and affective experience.

Today cinema occupies pride of place in the arts, although I would urge moderation in its enjoyment. It has a tendency of monopolizing our attention, and subtracting from time spent with the visual arts, and from the effort needed to truly appreciate (and to make) good music. Planning one’s viewing of films, selected from the proven masterpieces of the craft, rather than just “going to the movies” and consuming the latest product, is one way to keep this new medium in its place.

There are two points to be made about our experiences of penetrating into the first transcendence and its domains of activity. The first regards the particularity, individuality and concretude of the realities encountered there. It is the physical world of things, places, persons and events and despite the virtually unbounded character of that world as it reaches out into space, each of those components exists vigorously in their irreducible particularity. The humanities and the arts familiarize us with concrete reality, not with abstractions and inferences. Still, it is not an a-logical world, but rather a world we first encounter in a pre-logical way.

Our memories are furnished with its archetypes, protagonists, locales, stories, tunes, rhythms, frames of reference, angles, perspectives and movements both regular and irregular. Out of this abundance arise patterns, themes, even proverbs and fables. And the more one lives within its riches, another feature will rise inevitably,and increasingly to the surface: questions. Those questions will eventually grow out of our dramas and turn them into dialogues. Plato himself first wrote dramas and then, after meeting Socrates, morphed them into dialogues. The potpourri of the individual finally sent him off in pursuit of the universal.

The other point to be emphasized about the experiences we have in the first transcendence is that we gather here true knowledge. These are not just guesses and arbitrary symbols that the humanities and the arts bring to us. They bring knowledge. It is not scientific knowledge, and not really even philosophical knowledge, but it is knowledge of the things that science and philosophy will seek to understand in a new way. Our senses, and in particular our imaginations, are true organs of cognition. The knowing may only be of particulars, but it is of real, solid and deeply significant particulars. Those qualities will both presage and welcome the inchoate adventures of reason.

2. Second Transcendence  

As our sensory experience grows and our memories become treasuries of suggestive particulars, significant individuals, stories meaning more than their plots and tunes resounding beyond their measures, punctual wisdom often rises. It is usually in the form of aphorisms, fables and pregnant symbols. But more than anything else, questions arise. These questions, in turn, perch themselves, as it were, on the borderland between the concrete and the universal. They signal to our sensorium and imagination that the answers will require a look beyond any mere accumulation of further detail, or summing up of additional concrete experience.

In the best of educational worlds (not always available to be sure) these questions would invite training in the so-called “liberal arts.” They are called liberal because they are designed to free our thinking in two ways: both from the limits of mere sensation and imagination, and the resulting constraints of fickle opinion, but also for the exercises of theoretical reason. Independent of the opportunities we may or many not enjoy in terms of submitting to the full boot-camp of the Trivium and Quadrivium, reason should at this point begin to recognize its native abilities. It is here that our humanity becomes fully conscious of its power as incarnate spirit – that is, as that place in creation where sensation and reason happily cohabit and cooperate.

We begin to rejoice in intellectual flights as we transcend the particular, the concrete and the individual and lay hold of universal essences, properties and principles. In the arts and humanities our senses were primed by the world around us as a world that surpasses our bodies physically. Now in philosophy and the sciences our minds are primed by truths and values that far transcend even the most expansive of material contexts, or the most impressive of physical events.

The cosmos sovereignly transcends our bodies physically, but our mental operations soon have their day as they intellectually outdistance the cosmos – the whole cosmos. That was the second transcendence.

3. Third Transcendence

Only philosophy, an exercise within the second transcendence, is capable of fully opening the mind to the third transcendence (at least in formally intellectual mode). The individual sciences all come, sooner or later, to the limits of their relevance and to the end of their competence in staking cognitive claims. However, their tendency in the modern world is either to defer to another, supposedly higher-order science (physics to chemistry, or chemistry to biology), or, conversely, to a supposedly more basic science (curiously and — dare we say desperately? — in the opposite direction: biology to chemistry, chemistry to physics). Only too rarely do the modern sciences defer back to the mother that first gave birth to them: to philosophy.

Only philosophy offers intellectually executable discourses which point the mind with confidence to non-material reality. Plato calls this the mind’s ‘second navigation’ (deuteros plous, Phaedo, 99c), that is, the more strenuous exercise of intellectual investigation of a metaphysical nature (compared to manning the oars of a sailboat after the wind subsides), and thus transcending the ‘first navigation’ in physics (the easier one, carried along by the wind-filled sails of familiar sensorial experience). This was Western philosophy’s inaugural identification of the gateway to the third transcendence.

Following Plato’s navigational tips, Aristotle shows, in his Physics, how hard thought about material reality directs the mind towards an Unmoved Mover; in his De anima, how vital movement finally converges on an activity that is not by way of motion: that of the intellect; in his Metaphysics, how such activity is the only act that can ever rise to Pure Act, that of self-contemplating Intellection (noesis noeseos); and, in his Ethics, how all our purposeful actions suppose a final end that is never a means, but only pure and final Goodness.

Although well-conducted philosophy feeds by nature into the third transcendence, not all philosophers are good enough, or honest enough, to take to the oars of the second navigation. And even more to the point, not all are philosophers – in fact, very few are. So if it is not philosophical resolution that opens the way to the immaterial, more often than not it will be a non-intellectual, pre-rational experience: either of the miraculous, or of a life-changing testimony that cannot be explained away.

Whereas the liberal arts – or some decent approximation thereof – serve to carry us from the first to the second transcendence, the transition to the third will be more varied: for the few, a philosophical epiphany may serve as the bridge, but for the many, it will be an overwhelming experience of the reality of that immaterial world (be the encounter preternatural or genuinely spiritual – both point beyond the grossly material). But again, it may simply be the conviction of witnesses who testify powerfully to past events or to present ‘fissures’ in the fabric of the material world. In either case the third transcendence is breached and the two superior wisdoms begin to extend their invitations.

The domain of religion and theology concerns two human engagements obviously connected, though necessarily distinct. Many will enter deeply into their religious faith, and into practices possessing only marginal theological clarification; still, they will remain as cognitively in contact with the realities of the third transcendence as any theologian (and more than many). And yet, this third transcendence demands the other species of attention as well. Both are needed: those with simple devotion as well as those with more intellectual aptitudes and needs. Any attempt to sever the bond between the Thomist or Augustinian theologian (with their tomes of reflection) and the simple grandmother that wishes to pray her rosary in peace, is a death blow to the third transcendence in its most searching reaches.

So much more to say about theological and mystical wisdom. (Soon to come…)


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