Reflections: The Threshold of Hell and Social Media Discourse

In a time of pandemic and cultural disgust, I find myself returning (repenting) amidst current dialogues by looking to old books for a sense of self, and a sense of God. One of the books that I have returned to is Dante’s Inferno. The reason I have decided to read this particular work is because of Dante’s profound ability to raise a sense of moral consciousness; the images employed cause the reader to look at the ravaging effects of sin upon men, and the beauty that fills the mind when one contemplates the grace of God intensified by its ugliest contrast. Dante gives the reader a sense that the existential implications of people’s conduct far outweighs the situations of their lives. The phrase inscribed on the gate of Hell lays heavily upon the reader as virtue is looked for, but not found, in much of current dialogue. Those who engage in social media discourse would do well to hear these words: “abandon every hope, all you who enter” (Inferno, pg. 14).

The threshold of Hell is a place called “Nowhere.” Virgil takes us on a journey to a place that is full of people who have never made a decision to be faithful to God. These people are people who have lived for entirely for themselves, without being characterized by “no blame and with no praise” (Inferno, pg. 15). They are people who have preserved their lives through indecision. In Hell they are doomed to march around a banner that never stops ever leading them on through eternity while being painfully stung by insects to their eternal hurt.

This is Medieval imagery. It is stark and highly punitive. It can, however, delineate a phenomenological reality that often occurs in social media discussions.

Social media has come to be a place where people are defined by their opinions. It is a discarnate technological medium that unites people through what they write and images they use. It is a platform for individual self-expression. This is an effort at unity which often seems to unavoidably separate folks and polarize the people who engage in any sort of political discussion (paradoxically a collective discourse serves to further polarization among the collective). People are more rash, statements are more impatient, and the atmosphere among those who disagree can be characterized by an intense hatred of anything or anyone who is different. Ideology and political affiliation separate us in reality, and social media discourse furthers that separation because our opinions are held out so unaccountably from our lives. Part of this is because so much of conversation is based on a person’s tone of voice, or facial expression which is never a contributing factor in extremely tense and difficult conversations. In this way, a discarnate social media presence seems to be more susceptible to greater emotion and less charitable thought because charity necessarily involves bodily reality with all of its risks, discomforts, and rewards.

What am I talking about?

I am talking particularly about the constant barrage of dissent regarding racial issues and police violence (I do not want to expound on any particular issue now because it is likely to become forgotten among future outbreaks, and because it is important to reflect on the framing of an issue as well as the issue itself); I am talking about an incendiary conversation where patience and love for those who are different from you is obscured by unaccountable emotions of anger and outrage.

As someone who has been aware of social media since its inception, and subsequently aware of the collective outrage regarding social injustice, I have acutely noticed how social media is used to generate collective feelings of rage. What I have also noticed is how those feelings of rage subside and are cyclically rekindled when another social crisis occurs generating a congealed narrative, often resolving nothing. The movement takes priority over the incident and the wrong. People quickly forget what the past injustice was, and eagerly jump at the new opportunity they have to express their outrage. It is an dialogue that is “momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose” (The Present Age, pg. 3). Hence, the collective forgetfulness of those who use social media for political discord is just as important to notice as its collective outrage when considering this phenomenon objectively. The crisis serves a movement, and the crisis itself is not resolved, but enables a movement to undo the foundations of society without precise direction, or positive terminus.

Rage is generated, and rage is preserved, but memory is not. This is the degeneration of  social consciousness.

Because of this I am arguing that it is plausible to compare Dante’s threshold of hell to social media dialogues about racial inequality and police brutality. People march on to define themselves not by virtue, but by opinion. Opinion alone is something that is deceptively unable to grip with reality. Decisions must be made. Virtue can never be something displayed apart from actual interaction between physical people, and it is the quality of our lives displayed by what we do. Furthermore, the banner that marches us on and on is every injustice, real or perceived, generated by a soundbite or clip. All that is required of us is to passionately agree with what is being said with no specific bearing on our actual day to day lives. Through our participation in this void we have become a people with many opinions, few values, and even fewer virtues because we have ceased to speak and act in reality. No change is required of us when passionate opinion on social media serves as the dehumanized form of cultural currency.

The domain of social media is the “Nowhere.” It is a place where people can talk with little to no consequence for their words. It is a place without deeds. The “feed” marches us on with every new bit of information motivating us by a satisfying release of dopamine when we tell someone off, or get approval for what we post. This is truly an exploitation of the human experience. Jean Baudrillard speaks of “hyperreality” as a phenomenon which replaces the real (Disneyland); what I would call hyperunreality replaces not only the real through a substitution of the real with something purely simulative; through a disembodied experience of that simulation. Quality conversations, thoughts, and self-denial are things that have truly ceased to occur regular interaction because they do not regularly happen at dinner tables, or in living rooms with people we love, but on a digital platform with people that we may know, or may have no relation to at all. The platform has become as infinite as the masses using it. Therefore, the truth is lost in a flurry of voices that have no bearing upon life because the conversation is removed from bodily experience with the ironic goal of self-expression. Interactions like these that separate the mind’s voice bodily, interpersonal expression leave us with unfortunate stings of conscience and conflicting opinions within ourselves, or voiced by others. It is a journey without singular vision, and without beatitude.

What is to be done?

Throughout the Inferno Dante is patiently guided by Virgil. In many instances Dante loses his strength before the sights of horror that he witnesses; often he needs the words and prompting of his guide to cause him to see and understand greater and more terrible things. While painfully witnessing the godlessness of society we are called, like Dante, to leave cowardice and distrust aside in order to see the necessity of good through its most immanent opposite. We are called to seek God with all that we are. People today need guides who can speak to them in the stark reality of life encouraging them to be better fathers, neighbors, and friends. I turn to old books for guidance, to works of literature that have the ability to raise my mind above depersonalized mass movements, and social media contempt. I also turn to my friends who have been my instructors and source of life amidst the chaos of what is happening today and the grief that accompanies it. People need to actually develop a sense of virtue through the instruction of those who have actually pursued it in their lives and implement it in their respective spheres of life.

The vision of Dante requires us to pay profound attention to the end of human experience in order to comprehend its value and meaning in pursuit of the truth. I submit to you that this can only be done through what has long been known by human experience as friendship. Something that existed before the term was redefined in 2004 by social media promulgators and tycoons. Before Dante, there was a Roman statesman and philosopher who in many ways had a profound impact on Dante. The man’s name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero pointed out in his book, On Friendship, that society is held together by the bonds of friendship — friendship, Cicero noted, is not possible without virtue. A modern follow up to this would be that virtue is not possible in on a platform that stirs people’s passions because the discourse is too shortsighted for sustained conversation, or resolution. Virtue is not discarnate, it is deeply human because it requires bodily experience to enrich all of society. Friendship cannot be a reduction of human experience, or it is not friendship, but something far less. I hope that we can pause, learn, interpret, and decide upon how to live, instead of passively accepting an ever and ongoing sense of the present devoid of both respect for the past, or hope for the future.

 

The Quarantine of the Soul During Coronavirus

The Advantage of Quarantine

When I first heard about the Coronavirus, I was wondering how big of an impact it would have upon my school, work, relationships, and my personal life. There has been a great deal of information being circulated about the virus that has led to much fear, doubt, and sadness. Many are afraid because of how the disease has ravaged Italy, China, and more close to home, N.Y. Since the spread of this virus, and its emergence in America, my work has shut down, my classes have gone online, my relationships have had to accommodate life in quarantine. Everything has been turned upside down and the freedoms that were so easily taken for granted now become deeply cherished in their absence. Normally this would be a cause for stress and anxiety, but I find that this is an excellent time to remember how frail and temporary my life is and to ask myself why I get up each morning. This requires me to persevere through a laundry pile of fears that typically lie buried beneath my regular routine of busyness –  a routine that I can no longer easily appeal to quiet my thoughts. Honestly, the ability to pause and to question is a freedom that is often taken for granted in normal circumstances; it is a freedom that emerges in the midst of our national quarantine that can serve as a refreshing turn of events to those who would take advantage of the time they have alone.

I would like to offer some suggestions on how to spend your time and value the quarantine.

Keep a Journal

Around the advent of our nation’s response to Coronavirus, I began to keep a journal about the things that I value in life, how to increase my pursuit of those things, and also how I take them for granted. I find that during a time where life is so obviously frail, it is a comforting discipline to reinforce my own life with meaning about how to live presently well for the future. Sorting through my own thoughts has been a challenge, a joy, and a comfort during this time. This discipline has been a sort of momento mori for me. Not in a morbid sense, but a sense that recognizes that the value of something is more clearly seen from the vantage point of the end. The Greek concept of happiness was something that was not informed by the moment, but by its completion. Our lives should be lived with a reverent respect for our end that informs our daily attitudes and decisions.

Talk to People

Pick up the phone. This is a good time to talk to people in your life that you haven’t talked to in a while. It is a good time to mend broken relationships, and to see how much the people around you mean. A time of crisis can be the best way to encourage a compassionate approach to those who we may be at odds with. This time can enforce a decision to love. It can also be a way to really, and kindly approach elderly people that you may know that are affected most by this quarantine. Give them a call. If you do, you may find that you are the one who is filled with comfort and warmth from the interaction.

Talk to God

With more time comes more reflection, and with more reflection you sometimes see more of yourself than you regularly want to see. Give thanks to God for His kindness toward you, and confess your sins. Learn to see that every day is a gift. Gratitude and sincerity are more visible in a time like this. I cannot say enough about this which is why I will be brief and ask you, who do you have in the end but God? Gratitude and confession are life changing. In a time of quarantine, no one is without God. He will not leave you or forsake you. Thank Him for it.

Use the Quarantine 

Many in the Christian tradition have made solitude a regular part of their Christian experience. The reason for this was so that they could cultivate the interior space to listen to God and inform their own hearts. They did this in order to have a sense of grace as they approached the difficult challenges of their lives either within themselves or out in the world. Quarantine presents itself as a difficult challenge to our lives, but a lack of external freedom is an opportunity to pursue freedom of the soul. What is important at all times, even if it is a more apparent necessity in the quarantine, is to listen to God and inform our own heart by what He says in order to virtuously meet whatever difficulty we encounter. As you spend this time alone, order your mind and resolve to do what is right by listening with a compliant heart to what God says. Seasons like this can provoke us to anger, or other passions that cause harm to ourselves and others. However, we can meet these attitudes of the heart with a sense of grace which I think is fair to call the faith of the saints. In this way use the solitude you have been given to strengthen your faith and to dialogue with God and others during this time of crisis. May you find this time of solitude that has been given to you to be a fruitful opportunity to dialogue with yourself through journaling, with others over the phone, and with God by praying His word.


PC: Photo by Brad Helmink on Unsplash

 

Thomism as an Approach to Philosophy (PODCAST)

This is part one of a series on Thomism. Herein we discuss the definition, principles, and doctrines of Thomas Aquinas and his philosophy.

References:

(1) Charles Taylor: A Secular Age. https://www.amazon.com/Secular-Age-Charles-Taylor/dp/1522665056

Taylor’s work is a helpful overview of the distinction referenced in the podcast between the way contemporary man relates to the world and the man in Thomas’s own day.

(2) James F. Anderson, An Introduction to the Metaphysics of St. Thomas Aquinas. https://www.amazon.com/Introduction-Metaphysics-St-Thomas-Aquinas/dp/089526420X

This is a great volume and translation of Thomas’s views on Metaphysics.

 

TGP Podcast: Ecclesiastical Dogmatism: Abuse in the church 1

This episode features host Aaron Lague, Dirk Petterson, and Patrick Steckbeck. Unfortunately, it does not contain an introduction due to processing problems and the editing is sub-par. Nonetheless, we hope you benefit from the discussion about Dogmatism, particularly in the church, and Dogmatism’s practical outflow in the form of manipulation and abuse.

Wisdom: Comparing Aristotle and Ecclesiastes

Aristotle’s Wisdom-Prudence Distinction and Qoheleth’s Use of Wisdom

I. Introduction

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, two virtuous lives are presented, characterized by two distinct virtues: the contemplative and active lives. These two lives are respectively characterized by wisdom and prudence. While wisdom is defined as a virtue of the speculative intellect which allows one to perceive the truth of things, prudence is defined as a virtue of the practical intellect which allows one to act in accordance with right reason in particular situations. Aristotle’s relation between these two lives is heavily debated by contemporary philosophers: some think that the two lives are inherently opposed and that Aristotle gives emphasis to the contemplative life, others the active life. While I think that Aristotle’s account is itself one of reconciling these two virtuous lives, my thesis here is that Ecclesiastes’ (hereafter referred to by its Hebrew title: Qoheleth) understanding of wisdom (Hb. hokmah) presents us with a synthesis of the two intellectual virtues and provides a way forward in understanding how to reconcile the contemplative and active lives. My argument hinges on two points: first, that wisdom has a dual function in Qoheleth—it corresponds, loosely, with Aristotle’s wisdom and prudence distinction—and second, that the synthesis between these two virtues is predicated on the connection between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

II. Aristotle on Wisdom and Prudence

Previously I stated the distinction in Aristotle between wisdom and prudence, the intellectual virtues which are characteristic of the contemplative and active lives, respectively. The difference between them, however, needs to be made more explicit in order to appreciate Qoheleth’s synthesis. Wisdom (Gk. sophia) in Aristotle is that virtue which is characteristic of seeing or perceiving the truth of things—for this reason it is often seen as the chief of the virtues, as in Plato’s Meno, and often characterizes the ideal of the philosopher. [1] Wisdom, then, is concerned with the universals or generals: things predicated of many or all. Aristotle says, “in contemplative thinking…thinking well or badly consists in the true and the false respectively,” because “wisdom is a science and intellectual grasp of the things most honorable by nature.” [2] Prudence (Gk. phronesis), however, is the virtue which is characteristic of knowing what action is in accordance with right reason and will, therefore, lead to the human telos in the utmost particular, namely, the situation. While prudence involves knowledge of the universals (implied by sight or vision towards the telos of human nature and judging actions accordingly – i.e., by right reason), its distinctive character lies in its capacity to evaluate the absolute particular in view of the end, and no merely any end but the end in accordance with human nature qua human nature. This is what distinguishes prudence from mere cunning. Since, “good deliberation simply is that which guides us toward the end simply,” but prudence “is what guides us correctly towards some particular end.” Thus, “prudence is characterized by the giving of commands: its end is what one ought or ought not to do.” [3]

III. Hokmah in Qoheleth

Hokmah (wisdom) in Qoheleth functions, I argue, in two ways: first, in seeing the truth of things; second, in prescribing both an end to be sought an offering itself (i.e., wisdom) as means to achieve that end. Since these two functions of hokmah loosely correlate to wisdom and prudence, respectively, there is, implicitly, a synthesis of these two. Let’s first look at the two ways hokmah functions.

A. Twofold Function of Hokmah

First, wisdom functions as perceiving the truth of things. This is clear in Qoheleth’s hebel insight, that is, the incongruity-inequity of human existence under the sun. He describes all as hebel (1:2) and demonstrates the absurdity which penetrates through human wisdom (1:12-18; 2:12-17), human activity and agency (2:18-26), human experience of justice and injustice among the righteous and the wicked (3:16-22; 4:1-3; 8:14-15), and seemingly every other aspect of human existence. In this, Qoheleth perceives the underlying quality of things whose acknowledgement is painful. This is why he says, “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:18) Hokmah in this function, loosely, corresponds to Aristotle’s wisdom, since it involves a proper perception of reality according to its general and/or universal truths—in this case, hebel. The hebel insight of Qoheleth is an insight of wisdom, the perception of the cosmic effects of fallenness: “See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” (7:29)

Second, wisdom functions as perceiving proper actions towards the proper end of human nature: this is clear in his persistence insistence on the enjoyment of temporal goods and the fear of the Lord, despite the hebel of life under the sun. He repeatedly says, “I perceived that there is nothing better than for [mankind] to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (3:12; cf. 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 12:13-14). Here the upmost particulars are considered and evaluated in light of the end (both in terms of final causality and final judgement) as either conducive towards or detracting from it. This is why Qoheleth speaks of doing good and fearing the Lord and keeping His commandments with virtual synonymy (cf. 3:16-17; 12:13-14). It is also important to note that this second function of wisdom depends on the first function: the proper knowledge of the truth of things contextualizes the particular considerations. The pervasiveness of incongruity-inequity, designated by the term hebel, properly contextualizes the worth of things and various activities.

B. The Is-Ought Connection

In this twofold function of hokmah, we see Qoheleth arriving at prescription from description—even, in spite of it. The description of hebel contextualizes the prescription of enjoyment and doing good; even so the empirical observation that everything has its season or time grounds the later assertion of divine judgement against evil (see 3:16-17). Contra Hume, Qoheleth understands that any predication of ‘ought’ necessarily derives from ‘is’ since it is only intelligible on the assumption of a connection with and contextualization by ‘is’. This is-ought connection is predicated on the two functions of hokmah, since it seems proper to the one to describe the truth of things and proper to the other to prescribe actions conducive to the end in the context of the real. As Aristotle says, “prudence is not concerned with the universals alone but must also be acquainted with the particulars: it is bound up with action, and action concerns the particulars.” [4]

IV. Reconciling the Contemplative and Active Lives

From this I think we can begin to see how the contemplative and active lives may be understood in such a way as tends towards a synthesis. In Qoheleth, wisdom is one thing; while I argue it functions in two different ways, it remains a singular. Aristotle makes the distinction between these two functions and calls each by a name: wisdom and prudence, respectively. However, these two go hand in hand, as even Aristotle admits. Now, if these two virtues go hand in hand, it is reasonable to assume there is some congruity between the lives that these virtues characterize. The contemplative life of continually seeking to know the true is still a form of activity. The active life of seeking the good corresponding to action and choice is only possible if the individual possesses both knowledge and moral virtue: both contextualize the end in view of choice and action. The difficulty to this is the presence of hebel: the incongruity and inequity experienced under the sun. However, the synthesis of the active and contemplative lives, ironically, results from the uniting of human experience: connecting ‘is’ with ‘ought’ and thereby bringing coherence despite the absurdity of life under the sun. This gives us as Christians and as human beings a way forward in properly understanding the relation between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: ‘is’ leads to ‘ought’; there is no naturalist fallacy. What we are, when we find ourselves (i.e., factual statements) are what contextualize our pursuit of the good. We must never assume the reality of our being does not bear hold on our telos or morality. We must attempt to live coherent lives: ones where in our being imago Dei is united with natural virtue, where our being en Christou is united with theological virtue.

Endnotes:

[1] The task of the wise man is to order, this ordering is according to wisdom as per Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I, c. 1; Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I, lectio. 1-3

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1139a27-29, 1141b3-5.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1142b30-33, 1143a8-10.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1141b15-17.


PC: Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash