Over these past 13 years here I often wondered about the disconnect between me and you. In preparing for this talk, it all became clear to me. I am a child of the sixties, and I have never grown up.
I am not an academic and certainly not a philosopher. For forty two years I have sat in FYP lectures, as you have this year, and as I am introduced to the thinking of others, I am ever discovering more about myself, and thus I discover my freedom.
I am a Maritimer, born in Saint John NB in the Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers—there were some thirty or so of these homes across Canada in the 1950s. Most ‘girls’, to use the language of that day, were there because of social stigma in the fifties—abortion was illegal and families did not want extended family, friends and neighbours to know about the unwed pregnant daughter—but that wasn’t my mom’s particular situation who was married at the time, but simply too poor to deliver a child in a hospital. I wonder if you have any idea of post WWII urban poverty—that particular form of hell doesn’t exit any more but you can read about it. Life certainly had an urgency about it and it was not boring. Violence was commonplace: beatings in the home and on the street was the daily experience. You would never know when a friend would come up to you and smash you in the face as a group watched—because a gang had bullied him into either doing that or having the living ‘you know what’ kicked out of him. As David Adams Richards writes “‘There is no worse flaw in man’s character than that of wanting to belong.”
I remember the evening of 4 May 1970. The five or six of us ‘pinkos’ (we were thrilled every time someone would call us ‘pinko commie bastards’ because it meant someone was paying attention—but it really didn’t happen that often) were huddled around a radio for hours on end, hanging on every word as the news came bit by bit of the shooting of unarmed college students by members of the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University during a mass protest against the bombing of Cambodia by United States military forces. Twenty-eight guardsmen fired approximately 67 rounds over a period of 13 seconds, killing four students and wounding nine others. (Some of you will know Neil Young’s song ‘Ohio’, composed to memorialize that event.)
For some reason it wasn’t until I entered high school that I realized that there were books that people read for pleasure. I had never read a book. It never occurred to me. I read textbooks, manifestos, carried around Mao’s little red book, and memorized facts for tests in school, and copied information out of reference books for ‘projects’. But I remember the time and place in Saint John High School when I first became aware of the notion of actually reading a book from cover to cover. I was off to the races!
You were very briefly introduced to Feuerbach in your lecture on Marx. One of the great surprises when I arrived in 1976 was the absence of Feuerbach: in the 42 years I have been a FYP student, there has never been a full lecture on Feuerbach.
I consider Feuerbach to be an essential turn into the contemporary philosophical spirit. Now I understand that your tutors will tell you that Feuerbach is a second-rate thinker and not really so influential for Marx, Engels, Nietzsche, Husserl, Heidegger, Buber, and even Lowith …
As I ride off into the sunset let me just say that I disagree …
A student of Hegel, Feuerbach provided the first substantial response to Hegel’s claim to represent the culmination of the Western teleological philosophical tradition. Derrida would say of Hegel that “He undoubtedly summed up the entire philosophy of the logos.”
Feuerbach ‘inverted’ and secularized the ideas of Hegel, reducing Hegel’s absolute spirit to human terms, describing religion and speculative philosophy as forms of alienation of man’s essence. Feuerbach, he turned idealism on its head: all theology and metaphysics became anthropology: the gods are projections of the human spirit. Feuerbach anticipates the increasing secularization of the West precisely upon the principle of the Incarnation, suggesting in the early 1840s that the hidden “truth of Christianity” (Provisional Theses for the Reformation of Philosophy 263) is finally about to be realized in the form of an atheistic humanism that renounces the fantastical consolations of religion in order to embrace the historical tasks of human self-realization and the creation of the political and cultural institutions that are conducive to it.
I have no idea why bishops found my convictions perplexing.
In order to make as clear as possible what I mean, I am going to rely largely on the teaching of Robert Crouse, one of the founders of the Foundation Year Programme in 1972 who taught in the programme until his retirement in 2006.
In his convocation address given in 2007 on the occasion of his being made an Honorary Doctor, Dr Crouse said:
Recollection is the fundamental task of education. It must make what is sensibly past, or hidden, clear and contemporary for intellect; it must evoke the past, recent and remote, so far as possible in all its fullness and coherence, so as to make of it the nutriment of present memory; to establish thus the perspective, the substantial dimension of the present, fleeting moment. … The past is always and inevitably here, and our choice is only whether to possess it consciously in recollection, or to possess it in the form of unreflective prejudice, devoid of understanding.
What more precise description of FYP could there be? And more better apologia could there be for FYP?
There is no doubt that when I arrived in King’s I held my prejudices unreflectively, “devoid of understanding”. An individual knowing no limits (Nietzsche) and thus tortured by the open-endedness of being.
Here I discovered my own thinking.
Attending to the dialectics of the history of philosophy becomes the means of philosophizing: the history of philosophy is philosophy. What has been achieved historically can become our own possession.
Surely this is the project to which we have given ourselves this year. Your lecturers and tutors have struggled to make past present to your recollection, so that you may share its intellectual achievement. The hope is that this year of study has begun to uncover what was both hidden to us, yet active and effectual in us.
Before I arrived at King’s I knew of Nietzsche’s interpretation of the Greek tragedies, but not the tragedies themselves. I knew of Nietzsche’s accusation that Socrates was the executioner of poetry in his insistence that to be beautiful a thing had to be intelligible (Birth of Tragedy). The Socratic embrace of rationality is described by Nietzsche as a form of sickness that dismisses that powerful Dionysian side of the human that is instinct. Socrates’ turn to reason and dialectic creates an unreal world of unity, essence and substance that falsifies the actual world.
But turning to the ancient texts themselves in FYP I learned that Greeks had a profound appreciation of the conflict between the rational and affective sides of the human soul.
I have tried to make clear to you that Hannah Arendt’s challenge to open ourselves to the world, and to one another “with sympathy, imagination, judgement and care” has continued to rest deeply with me since reading her Eichmann in Jerusalem when I was in High School. The philosophy I had at hand in those days was that of Karl Marx who concluded his series of theses on Feuerbach with the words:
The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.
My commitment shifted when I came to King’s. What I learned here I suppose could be summed up by saying,
The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to love it.
Recall how Dr Brandes yesterday introduced to you the words of Hannah Arendt: the problem with the educated philistine is not his or her reading the classics, but reading them with an eye to “self-perfection,” insulating oneself from the fragility, vulnerability and suffering of others, imperfections and realities of the world, that is, from the shared finitude, vulnerability, and fragility of both the world itself and of its inhabitants. It is this world and these realities for which we, all of us, must take responsibility; to which we must open ourselves, with sympathy, imagination, judgment and care.
…42 years of FYP has only increased my appreciation for Feuerbach and his critique of what manifests today as a particularly popular neo-platonic philosophy that, in my mind, is popular precisely because it demands very little and caters to a self-indulgence that is morally indifferent. It is an intellectual ascent of the individual, leaving the world behind. I admit to you that in the 1990s as students were leaving Halifax with graduate degrees, I would warn them sincerely, ‘beware of neo-platonism’. Having studied the Confessions, I think you know what I mean. There, in Book 7 Augustine tells us that in the Books of the Platonists he found everything: it all made sense. Everything but one thing: the word made flesh. The universal logos made particular. The transcendent made immanent. Divinity made human.
Our former Dean of Students, Father Nick Hatt lectured on the Council of Chalcedon in 451 that speaks of divinity and humanity coming together in one hypostasis, one person: the relation of divine nature (all the gods) to human nature in that one person, is described as unconfused, unchangeable, indivisible, and inseparable. Here is the basis for what will become our contemporary secular world in which the fullness of divinity dwells (apart from any god-language), the secular inseparable from the sacred, but complete in itself—the secular and the sacred are unconfused. In Feuerbach’s language, the hidden “truth of Christianity” (VT 263) is realized in the form of an atheistic humanism that embraces the historical tasks of human self-realization and the creation of the political and cultural institutions that are conducive to it.
In the word made flesh is the necessary remedy for what would otherwise be a self-absorbed Neoplatonism.
Although Hannah Arendt was a continuing companion for me, the two thinkers that I met at King’s in the late seventies who would give me the freedom to love the world in the Word made Flesh were a Jew and a Christian. Simone Weil and Charles Williams.
I need not pause to tell you about Simone Weil for Dr Diamond admirably outlined the life of Simone Weil and has provided you with the texts that have been my anchor since the late seventies, and likely have been quoted more than any other texts in the chapel in the past thirteen years. Her early commitment to Marxism never left her and assisted her to be attentive to solidarity with the poor and class struggle. Dr Diamond highlighted Weil’s great corrective to much of earlier 20th century philosophy in her exhortation to give attention to the world and to the other:
The soul empties itself of all its own content in order to receive the human being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only one who is capable of attention can do this…
Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this word but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. (Waiting for God 194-5)
Just a word about Charles Williams. In the 1970s one could not be here without reading Charles Williams. One of the Oxford Inklings (along with C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien), one of the finest theologians and interpreters of Dante of the 20th century, who popularized the notion of the Via Affirmativa—the goodness of all creation, his notion of co-inherence—that we belong to one another—and the doctrine of substitutionary love—that we exchange ourselves for one another—provided a vision of life in which we bear one another’s burdens and carry one another. This is not a religious doctrine, but a human doctrine. Through giving proper attention to one another we can quite literally take over the cares, anxieties and even the physical pain of another. Now you may think that this is just another idea, but the point is, we tried to practice it. Nay, I’ve spent my life trying to practice it. In the chapel on this campus it is what we try to practice.
(–ed note: this is a final FYP Lecture from a couple of years ago, given by our retiring Chaplain, the Rev’d Doctor Gary Thorne.) Fr. Thorne’s lecture was followed by Karis Tees’ rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom.”)