Redeemer of Man, digging deeper into the crisis


The signs of crisis, namely the recoil and threat of technology, the totalitarian attempts to eradicate liberty, and the self-degradation of man, raise profound philosophical issues, not to mention complex economic and sociological questions. Some important philosophers read these signs of the time as a reason to raise the question of “modernity” or to re-visit the issue of ancients versus moderns.

The modern philosophers, and the modern revolutions that were stirred up in their wakes, appealed to liberty under one guise or another. Liberty of thought and conscience, political liberty and rights of man, economic liberty, real or concrete liberty through socialism. But now liberty seems at an impasse: liberty frustrated by the technological manipulation; liberty curtailed by social planning; liberty squandered and made trivial by consumerism; liberty reduced by scientific theory. So the philosophical issue could be – are human beings free and why does it matter? And politically, what is the value of liberty and why is it worth defending?

The questions in turn point to the debate between the ancients and moderns. For modern philosophy circles around the Cartesian dream of becoming “masters and owners of nature” through the new science and technology. The real purpose of human existence seemed to be pushed aside. The totalitarian temptation arose out a combination of Machiavellian expediency and a new psychology of mass man and the ardent pursuit of equality. And the self-degradation opened up as a possibility through Locke’s reduction of political purpose to protection of property and the encouragement of wealth production.

Ancient philosophy held out the contemplative ideal in philosophy as an alternative to making and doing. Ancient political philosophy shunned tyranny most of all and held to its aristocratic bias and the pursuit of excellence. The life of virtue in one degree or another and friendship constituted the stuff of human flourishing all around. The re-discovery or recovery of these philosophical truths would now serve as a check on the unbounded pursuit of liberty and quest for mastery. For nestled in the ancient love of the good and noble we find a deeper liberty, however limited by conditions of scarcity and inequality.

Pope John Paul II shares to some extent in this “recovery of the ancient” or pre-modern tradition. But he does not stop there. He digs more relentlessly to the true depth of the crisis. As mentioned previously we must acknowledge how weak reason is, how ineffectual to really sustain a life of contemplation and virtue. Augustine teaches this lesson through his bitter self-discovery. Like Augustine, we must go beyond reason and listen to the apostle to the gentiles. Revelation yields the deepest account of the meaning of these signs of the times. In sections 8 and 9 of Redeemer of Man John Paul II cites Romans 8 on the “futility of creation.” Let us end this blog with the suggestive application of the writing of St Paul to the present day:

“Are we of the twentieth century not convinced of the overpoweringly eloquent words of the Apostle of the Gentiles concerning the ‘creation (that) has been groaning in travail together until now’ and ‘waits with eager longing for the revelation of the sons of God’, the creation that ‘was subjected to futility’? Does not the previously unknown immense progress-which has taken place especially in the course of this century-in the field of man’s dominion over the world itself reveal-to a previously unknown degree-that manifold subjection ‘to futility’?” Redeemer of Man §8

Let that question raised by St Paul rattle around and we shall pick it up tomorrow.

I have always admired the image above by Rembrandt found in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. The Apostle Paul. c. 1657. Oil on canvas. As a graduate student at CAtholic University I would go to the National Gallery and ponder this — St. Paul meditates on the mystery beyond reason.
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