Plotinus in the Jungle

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Sitting by the window with Plotinus

            The other day I read an article by the late Ralph McInerny entitled “Aristotle and Aquinas” in a festschrift for Kenneth Schmitz.  It was a strange experience, for though the volume was only published in 2011, McInerny was dead before the volume came to print, and I understand that Schmitz is growing senile.  And so the dead was lifting a tribute to the dying, from one ghost to one ghostly.

I took two courses with Schmitz while at CUA—he was teaching at the JPII Institute—and I learned precious little from them.  One on Neothomism was mostly a rehashing of Gilson’s Being and Some Philosophers, a work that I find frustratingly dogmatic (Gilson basically bashes every philosopher of any prominence for not as being as good as Thomas Aquinas, while resolutely minimizing Thomas’ appropriations of his predecessors’ ideas); the other on the thought of Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) was basically a mystery to me.  On one hand, I confess that I was often too busy and distracted while in the classroom to give the course matter the attention it deserved, but on the other hand, I think that Schmitz was mentally failing even then.  I certainly did not find him the captivating teacher that many of the writers in the festschrift bear witness to.

McInerny’s piece was, in a similar fashion, from a declining mind, which McInery himself admits.  It was short and mostly historical, being about the mixed reception of Aristotle’s works in the Latin west in the 13th Century.  However, I found one image particularly striking, the idea that Saint Thomas, when writing his commentaries on Aristotle, can be thought of as sitting at a window with Aristotle and seeing the world with him.  Thomas does not see the world through Aristotle, as a dogmatist would; nor is he primarily looking at Aristotle himself, as those interested in the history of philosophy all too often do.  Rather, he looks at the world that Aristotle is pointing to and simultaneously learning about Aristotle’s vision, seeing the world for himself, and correcting Aristotle’s vision with his own—but correcting it through Aristotle’s own concerns and principles.

As Aquinas does with Aristotle, so would I like to do with the philosophers that I read and teach.  I would like to sit at the window with Plato and Plotinus and strain to glimpse what they see and learn how to put it into words, and then sit with Avicenna, and Kant, and Hobbes, and Hume and do the same.  Though I am assured that it is always the same world that we are looking out upon, I wonder if the windows are not different?  Is Plotinus looking through a sunroof, while Kant looks through blinds, and does Avicenna look out on a sunny plain while Hobbes sees an approaching thunderstorm and Descartes sits in the cellar?  The disagreements of the philosophers are legendary, and yet perhaps they can be partially explained by the old fable of the blind mice and the elephant.  No mouse is simply wrong, for parts of the elephant are like a snake, a tree, a brush, etc, and yet the only way to unravel the mystery, to grasp the whole, is to deeply consider the partial views.  No doubt some philosophers see better and farther than others.  Some of them have already sat at the windows of their predecessors and offer a synthesized view.  Some perhaps, have become discouraged, and have closed their eyes, or turned away from the window to gaze at their own reflection in a mirror.  Yet it is no doubt worthwhile to sit at a window with each of them and ask them what there is to see.

Come, let us sit by the window and reason together!

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