Thank you for Don Livingston’s essay, “The Ancestry and Legacy of the Philosophes” (Views, July).  Rarely have I read anything that shed so much light on such a large subject in such a short space.  I have some disagreements with the essay, but they amount, I hope, to a friendly amendment.

As Livingston sees it, Western philosophy contained the seeds of revolution from the beginning because of the totalizing nature of the philosophical act.  The hubris of philosophical reason was kept in check during the Middle Ages by Augustinian faith, but it broke out again in the Renaissance in a far deadlier form.

Fair enough.  But we must remember that Western Europe is not the only civilization that owes its origins to Athens and Jerusalem.  Byzantine civilization had fuller and more sustained access to the classical sources of philosophy throughout the Middle Ages than did the West.  Furthermore, although it was a Christian civilization, it did not adopt the Augustinian conception of faith as an act of the will.  This was partly because the Byzantines read Saint Paul in a very different way than did Saint Augustine.  Even more fundamentally, their vocabulary was different.  Where Latin has a single term for will (voluntas), Greek has a whole menagerie (boulesis, thelesis, to hekon, autexousia), each with its own distinctive nuances.  This meant that the Byzantines never developed the concept of will as a unitary faculty of the soul that operates independently of reason.  The implications of this difference are profound; I believe, for example, that it explains why a book like Saint Augustine’s Confessions was never written in the East.  It also explains the absence of anything like the Augustinian motto Credo ut intelligam.  The Byzantines would have been puzzled by the separation this motto implies between belief and understanding: Christian belief was itself the true philosophy and the highest form of understanding; one does not adopt it in order to “seek” anything else.

What was it that kept their own philosophical hubris in check?  The answer is internal to the philosophical tradition itself: the notion of transformed vision.  Saint Paul says, “be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.”  When Peter, James, and John ascended Mount Thabor, their eyes opened, and they were able to see Christ as He truly is.  When He walked with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, their hearts burned within them until He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.  All of this reminds us that, at present, we see “through a glass darkly”; there is also a higher state of the intellect, however, in which the presence of God all around us does not have to be believed by inference or on the testimony of others but can simply be seen.  The heavens declare the glory of God; the trouble is that we have not yet learned to hear them.

It was precisely this conception of our current condition—that of creatures who need to be transformed, to be taken up into a higher way of being—that animated the Byzantines.  That is why Eastern Orthodox worship is so different from that of the Western churches.  It is also why Orthodox civilization remained both more ascetic and more apophatic (skeptical of the capacities of reason in its current state) than the West.  In adopting this stance, however, the Byzantines were true to the deepest insights of Greek philosophy.  Just read the “Ladder of Love” in the Symposium, or the account of the education of the guardians in the Republic, or the story of how the soul can regrow its wings in the Phaedrus.  They are all about how our perception of reality must be transformed by the right kind of intellectual and moral practice.  The aim is not the discovery of this or that particular truth.  It is to become a different kind of person, one who directly perceives and is attuned to reality and acts accordingly.  Plato understood that this is not a purely intellectual endeavor but one which must embrace the whole person; that is why he has so much to say about love, justice, temperance, courage, politics, and even piety toward the gods.  For Plato, all of life is an arena in which the soul must aspire to recover its lost vision and connection to its transcendent source.

Nor was Plato an isolated dreamer.  We usually think of Aristotle as a hardheaded realist, who looks down rather than upward, as in Raphael’s School of Athens.  However, the Ethics is permeated by the awareness that moral practice is the essential prerequisite to perceiving reality correctly.  That is why the discussion of the moral virtues leads naturally into that of the intellectual virtues and why the whole book culminates with a discussion of contemplation as the highest and most godly human activity.  Aristotle urges us not “being men, to think of human things,” but “so far as we can to make ourselves immortal, and to strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us.”  Professor Livingston charges that Aristotle, in his conception of God as self-thinking thought, makes God into a pagan philosopher.  On the contrary, he makes the pagan philosopher into one who must strive to think and to see things as God does.  There is a huge difference.  In the true Aristotelian conception, the philosophical life is one of strict moral discipline and subservience to the nature of things.  Nothing could be further from the autonomous reason of Descartes, let alone the self-indulgent posturings of Rousseau.

I must therefore dissent from the characterization of the philosophical act offered by Professor Livingston, at least as it pertains to ancient philosophy.  What it overlooks is the overwhelming dominance of nature (Aristotle, the Stoics) or of Beauty and the Good (Plato).  There are some exceptions, but, for the most part, the ancient philosopher never lost the sense that he is answerable to something greater than himself and that he must change himself to conform to it.  This is the very antithesis of the revolutionary spirit.  As for the “philosophical act” as such, I am not sure that there is much we can say about it, except that it takes on different forms in different cultures.  What determined its specifically modern form was the dual blow delivered by the rejection of Tradition in the Reformation and the disenchantment of nature in the Scientific Revolution.  Hume writes in the wake of these changes.  He not unpardonably confuses the essential characteristics of modern philosophy with the essential characteristics of philosophy as such.

I yield to no one in my admiration for Professor Livingston’s work, especially Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium, which I consider an indispensable guide to the pathologies of modern politics.  As we take stock of our situation today, however, we must pay attention not only to the pathologies embedded in our culture but to lost opportunities and forgotten wisdom.  For that, we can do no better than to look to the Greeks and their Byzantine heirs.

        —David Bradshaw
Lexington, KY