This paper by Dennis L. Sansom examines and compares the ideas about the nature of the self in the twelfth-century theologian St. Peter of Damaskos and the twenty-first-century philosopher Richard Rorty. Peter understands the self as a flexible reality defined by a person’s ability to orient intentions, desires, and beliefs toward ever increasingly important ontological relationships. Rorty understands the self to be completely self-made through a continual effort to recreate oneself by applying the relevant metaphors proper to living in an utterly contingent society and disenchanted world. The paper’s conclusion shows that Rorty’s goal fails to secure a self for the modern person trying to live without any foundations or hopes but that Peter’s goal succeeds in securing a self through the contemplative search for God. Mr. Sansom is Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.
I want to present a particular understanding of the self by contrasting what the twenty-first-century philosopher Richard Rorty and the twelfth-century theologian St. Peter of Damaskos say about the self. After giving a fair explanation (hopefully) of their views, I intend to show that Rorty’s explanation fails in ways that Peter’s does not. What Rorty envisions to be the best place in which the self experiences its clearest sense of autonomy (that is, what he metaphorically calls the “bazaar”) is also the place that hinders the self reaching what Rorty thinks is autonomy, whereas what Peter envisions to be the goal of contemplation (that is, the intelligible worship of God) fulfills the self’s drive to secure its identity. Although 800 years separate Peter from Rorty, their notions about the aims of the self (that is, autonomous creativity versus relation to an ontologically surpassing reality) are in competition today and offer a stark choice, and by considering the consequences of Rorty’s and Peter’s pursuits, we can learn the risk of Rorty’s understanding of the person and the promise of Peter’s.
Moreover, in giving this contrast, I am not trying to develop a metaphysic of the self; that is, whether the self is a separable substance, inseparable from the substance of matter or no substance at all. Rather, I pay attention to the aspect of the individual that generates beliefs, desires, and intentions. The self performs these actions, hence, directs a person’s life to acknowledge and engage realities outside of the individual. This directivity is always goal-oriented in that the self seeks to secure, fulfill, and complete the individual. In this light, I define the self as the aspect of a person that orients one toward the world through the formation of beliefs, desires, and intentions.1
The Self According to Richard Rorty
Richard Rorty (died June 8, 2007) is an influential philosopher who taught for decades at Princeton University, the University of Virginia, and Stanford University. He argues that we cannot view the self as Plato, Christianity, and Kant saw it. In each, the self has a reality, whether as an eternal form, soul or as the means to know the moral law. Rather, Rorty contends that the contributions of Freud, Nietzsche, Dewey, Wittgenstein, and others have thoroughly eviscerated such notions. Freud did away with any validity to the concept of a self with a conscience. Instead, the self is the interminable conflicts embedded in the sub-consciousness and morality is a cover-up for our own embattled egos.
Nietzsche claimed that what we think about the world and the self is actually the aftermath of the conflict of wills among people. This insight, supposedly, proves that truth is nothing but the “marching army of metaphors.” Moreover, Dewey contended that we actually settle our philosophical and political disputes not by discovering a natural law or ontological foundation but by pragmatically settling on what works best for our mutual efforts to live autonomously and successfully.
Additionally, Wittgenstein declared that we have no perspective outside of our own language-games to settle philosophical, ethical, and religious inquiries, and that we should be content with smaller and more local solutions, not needing grand metaphysical claims about the nature of the world and the self.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Rorty’s interpretation of these writers nor would they confer the same impact and status on them as does Rorty. But that does not deter Rorty from announcing that because of their insights and influence, the “times are a-changing,” and we cannot return to a God or a shared ontological foundation to make our lives meaningful.
Rejection of Foundationalism
There are consequences to this modern sense of the self. First, to live meaningfully, we do not need epistemological or ontological foundations. Traditionally, philosophy presented itself as having “deep” solutions, because, due to its special knowledge of foundations, philosophers thought they had special insights into the nature of reality, morality, God, and so on.
But, according to Rorty, such a contention is groundless, because any assertion of a foundation begs the question of what validates that foundation. Notions of foundations are veiled positions of power and privilege. The modern person sees through these claims and dismisses their relevance altogether. Realism about foundations of epistemology or ontology are groundless and based on special pleading. The only reasonable position to take on epistemology and ontology is non-realism.
For instance, we do not need to investigate the nature of truth; just use the metaphors that work. We should not logically or empirically try to settle whether realism or nominalism is true; a successfully chosen lifestyle is unconcerned whether ideas exist per se or are only names. Furthermore, we should drop the insouciant debate of whether the self is a substance in itself (Plato), a thinking thing (Descartes) or the unity of apperceptions (Kant) and worry only about whether we should accept the ways we define ourselves at the moment.
The proper conclusion to the rejection of foundationalism is that the self and society are contingent “all-the-way-down.” Rorty says,
For our relation to the world, to brute power and to naked pain, is not the sort of relation we have to persons. Faced with the nonhuman, the nonlinguistic, we no longer have an ability to overcome contingency and pain by appropriation and trans-formation, but only the ability to recognize contingency and pain. The final victory of poetry in its ancient quarrel with philosophy – the final victory of metaphors of self-creation over metaphors of discovery – would consist in our becoming reconciled to the thought that this is the only sort of power over the world which we can hope to have. For that would be the final abjuration of the notion that truth, and not just power and pain, is to be found “out there.”2
There is no original self, eschatological self, utopia or kingdom of God “out there” to guide the journey toward self-creation. Modernity has become completely disinterested in these supposed foundations, and in their place, we look for successful vocabularies.
For Rorty, since the self is not a matter of substance, soul, or thinking, there is no such thing as self-discovery. There is only self-making. Moreover, since we are not dealing with being per se or with God, we make ourselves according to the metaphors we have chosen to define ourselves. We do not need to worry about objective truth, for we have chosen the metaphors that work best for us. We are the kind of people who do not believe in trying to find or be loyal to any command to be a certain kind of self:
It was Nietzsche who first explicitly suggested that we drop the whole idea of “knowing the truth.” His definition of truth as a “mobile army of metaphors” amounted to saying that the whole idea of representing reality by means of language, and thus the idea of finding a single context for all human lives, should be abandoned. His perspectivism amounted to the claim that the universe had no lading-list to be known, no determinate length. He hoped that once we realized that Plato’s “true world” was just a fable, we would seek consolation, at the moment of death: not in having transcended the animal condition but in being that peculiar sort of dying animal who, by describing himself in his own terms, had created himself. More exactly, he would have created the only part of himself that mattered by constructing his own mind. To create one’s mind is to create one’s own language, rather than to let the length of one’s mind be set by the language other human beings have left behind.3
And, just as the old view saw God creating the world by the Word, we must create ourselves by our own vocabularies.
Furthermore, since the question of whether a metaphor is true is passé, we are not bound to hold onto our metaphors but can switch them when needed according to our efforts to live as autonomously as we can. Rorty likes to characterize the people he envisions as “strong-poets.”4 They know the right metaphors to express self-determination, and like poets, they create ex nihilo their own world by picking the relevant metaphors of the moment.
For Rorty, the sum of these timely metaphors constitutes people’s vocabulary, the way they define themselves most fittingly for the situation. Just as a vocabulary is fluid and bends to the needs of self-expression, the self is fluid and flexible, not needing a pre-established lexicon of phrases and words that supposedly reveal the truth of human nature and destiny. The self needs the agility and confidence to risks new metaphors to describe the effort to make the most out of life. To pull this off, we must look at the world a certain way.
The Disenchanted World
According to Rorty, for the self to obtain autonomy, it must disenchant the world. There is not in the world a God, natural law, moral law, or mysterious destiny (that is, enchanting realties) that either forms us or from which we should borrow a vocabulary. He says, “philosophical superficiality and light-mindedness helps along the disenchantment of the world. It helps make the world’s inhabitants more pragmatic, more tolerant, more liberal, more receptive to the appeal of instrumental rationality.”5 An enchanted world, filled with definitive norms for human identity, keeps a person holding onto hackneyed metaphors about self and society, but these metaphors cannot liberate the self from the tutelage of times long past, whose issues (such as nominalism versus realism, faith versus reason) have no relevance to the modern drive for self-expression and self-artistry.
The world of categorical imperatives, divine commands, and natural teleology is a world well lost. It is not that we can logically or scientifically disprove such a world. Rather, as strong poets, we are uninterested. The world is our world, defined by our vocabularies of self-determination.6
The Self as Liberal Ironist
Although Rorty dismisses any normative sense of the self and of political society, he promotes being a liberal ironist about political policies and social forces. A liberal works for social equality, but not one based upon a natural law or on endowed human merits but upon the belief that no one is better than anyone else and thus no one has the right to bully others into conforming to their own moral standards or religious goals. Because a liberal democracy does not start out with an image of what a free society should look like but offers legislative and judicial procedures not interested in the normative content of law but only their success in equipping people to materialize their own vocabularies, liberal democracy is the best political arrangement.
Furthermore, the best philosophy equips people to select the metaphors most suited for their efforts at the particular situation to re-describe themselves as they want. And, philosophy does this by serving the interests of a liberal democracy.
Moreover, philosophy should be ironical. “The goal of ironist theory is to understand the metaphysical urge, the urge to theorize, so well that one becomes entirely free of it. … [The ironist] is just doing the same thing which all ironists do—attempting autonomy.”7 Irony exposes the false pretenses and preconceptions of social forces based on religious, political, and ethical vapidity. These pretenses are not necessarily irrational or false but simply irrelevant. Because there is no moral or intellectual foundation to which one can compare oneself, the ironist is not interested in truth or finality and does not try to develop a more moral or enlightened person. The ironist task is negative—to reveal the insouciance of traditional beliefs about human nature, political life, and God. In this negative work, we become more self-made and clearheaded about which metaphors are appropriate for self-creation.
The Self in A Kuwaiti Bazaar
Although Rorty does not spell out a political theory or a set of policies to define a liberal democracy (frankly, within his aims, he cannot), he gives a metaphor of how it would work best—a Kuwaiti bazaar:
Like Geertz, I have never been in a Kuwaiti bazaar (nor in an English gentlemen’s club). So I can give free rein to my fantasies. I picture many of the people in such a bazaar as preferring to die rather than share the beliefs of many of those with whom they are haggling, yet as haggling profitably away nevertheless. Such a bazaar is, obviously, not a community, in the strong approbative sense of “community” used by critics of liberalism like Alasdair MacIntyre and Robert Bellah. You cannot have an old-timey Gemeinschaft unless everybody pretty well agrees on who counts as a decent human being and who does not. But you can have a civil society of the bourgeois democratic sort. All you need is the ability to control your feelings when people who strike you as irredeemably different show up at City Hall, or the greengrocers, or the bazaar. When this happens, you smile a lot, make the best deals you can, and, after a hard day’s haggling, retreat to your club. There you will be comforted by the companionship of your moral equals.8
The metaphor of a “bazaar” pictures people relating, not according to any preconceived notion of nature or law, but according to what they want. They continually create themselves, not bound by any obedience to realities outside of their desire to accept themselves as equal with others and as the persons they truly want to be. We should not expect and demand others to look, live, or believe like us, and as long as they “mind-their-own-business,” the “bazaar” functions smoothly and people can redefine themselves as they desire. Society as a “bazaar” takes away the power and position of the oligarchs and bullies, who condemn and conscript people according to their assumed privileges, and offers the chance for people to choose their own vocabulary.9
Although Rorty does not use the metaphor of the bazaar in the great majority of his works, it is implied in the ways he depicts the social life of the modern person. We do not need pre-arranged ontologies or ethics, just as in a bazaar we do not have pre-arranged prices. We do not need to affirm a shared human nature or a will of God to bind us together, just as in a bazaar we do not even have to appreciate or value the people with whom we bargain. We do not need to seek and find a metaphysical truth binding for all time, just as we would not want a bazaar with only one store or product.
Society as a “bazaar” offers multiple and adaptable metaphors for our efforts to define ourselves. The metaphors should not be thick, representing long-term commitments or metaphysical beliefs, or linked to ethical and religious experiences. Rather, the metaphors need to be thin, bendable to individuals’ continual need to re-describe themselves. These metaphors express a liberated self and are purchasable without allegiance to tradition or philosophical foundations.
Even though Rorty resists any notion of a teleological orientation to the self, he acknowledges that the self is driven toward autonomous expressiveness. Because modern people cannot rely on the ontological and religious comforts of a bygone era, they must face the utter contingency of the self and be totally responsible for their own sense of being a person in the world. If the world is disenchanted, the best recourse to securing self-identity is to choose like a poet the fitting metaphors to express one’s own self-determinations. We should reject those metaphors that have too much metaphysical and theological roots to them and find those most suited to a self-made person, and those metaphors properly come from the realm of the “bazaar,” where people purchase the metaphors that best define themselves (and allow others to define themselves as well) by what works most pragmatically at the moment. In the “bazaar” we are most likely to experience self-creativity and to make irrelevant and inconsequential the bullying of the priest and oligarchs.
The Self According to Peter of Damaskos10
Peter was a twelfth-century monk who lived near Damascus in a semi- eremitic community. According to Greg Peters, he probably lived in a cell and was most likely under a vow of poverty (Peter says he never owned any books or possessions).11 Peter promoted what he called the “royal way” where he lived in silence with one to two companions, with one being a spiritual father. Even though a semi-eremitic, he was a learned person, familiar with the literature of Byzantine spirituality. Peters claims to find at least 150 quotes of other authors, ranging from Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea to Maximus Confessor.12 In fact, according to Peters, Peter “employed a literary technique now known as intertextuality” in which “every text builds itself as a mosaic of quotations, every text is absorption and transformation of another text.”13 After St. Maximus the Confessor, Peter of Damaskos has the most published pages (207) in the Philokalia and thus has a prominent place in Orthodox spirituality.14 Even though Peter may not be as well-known as Maximus Confessor, Simon the New Theologian, or Gregory Palamas, Peter adds to a perennially important issue—what is the nature of the self and how can it know God. His contributions come from his unique ways of understanding of the self, shaped by incorporating a long tradition of Greek thought with the practical aims to increase the ability to know ontologically surpassing realities.
Because of these contributions, Peter is representative of Byzantine spirituality. The basic feature of Orthodox spirituality, as described by Placide Deseille, is the deification of humanity—God becomes a person so that a person can become God.15 This does not mean that a person becomes divine per se but it does mean that through prayer and contemplation a person can participate in the divine energies (that is, the knowable characteristics of God) while not becoming identified with the divine essence (that is, the unknowable mystery of God’s reality).16 Through the discipline of contemplative silence in hesychastic prayer, a person develops a heightened sensitivity toward God (which according to Christopher Cook the Philokalia always insists comes about by the work of God’s grace), and thereby one experiences “participation in supra-natural divine realities.”17
As we will see below, Peter’s writings contribute significantly to the aspect of Orthodox spirituality that emphasizes the deification of humanity in prayer. For him, it is through contemplation that the person cultivates the ability to recognize the mystery of God and also participate in the divine acts of grace.
Peter’s two main texts in the Philokalia are “A Treasury of Divine Knowledge” and “Twenty-four Discourses,”18 with the former aimed to instruct his fellow monks living the “royal way” and the latter to assist non-monastics to live the spiritual life. Even though Peter does not address specific theological issues of the day nor does he try to settle theological disputes, he explains a spiritual theology and, according to Peters, has given to the church “a treasury of divine knowledge and wisdom.”19 This treasury contributes to Byzantine spirituality.
His primary goal is to instruct his readers in a greater understanding of themselves and of God. He says, “fasting, vigils, psalmody, spiritual reading, stillness and so on—is directed towards the purification of the intellect.”20 Peter (and others in The Philokalia) contrasts nous (intellect) with dianoia (reason). Simply, reason refers to the conceptualizing and logical capabilities of the mind. We reason about our experiences by categorizing them according to a priori notions of universals, genus relationships, and modes of existences. By reason we are able to deduce and induce knowledge and formulate propositions by which we share knowledge with others.
However, reason, operating by its distillation of experiences, is limited in what it can know. It cannot yield direct apprehension of reality or of the essences/substances of what we experience in reality itself. Because knowledge is the outcome of the categorization of experiences, we cannot know directly the selfhood of God or other persons through reason. Only by the intellect can we have immediate perception (that is, the recognition of that aspect of something upon which all its characteristics depend) of the essences of things. Instead of formulating knowledge according to abstract categories and deducing or inducing it from prior experiences, the intellect, when it has been purified through the work of contemplation, comes into direct mental acquaintance with essences, and with God.
At this point, several questions become obvious—if the intellect is distinct from reasoning, then what directs it? How do we know when we are exercising reasoning rather than the intellect and vice versa? What is knowledge for the intellect and by what does the intellect focus its capabilities to know essences?
In two essays, “The Guarding of the Intellect” and “Obedience and Stillness,” Peter maintains the intellect has to be properly guided, that “without attentiveness and watchfulness of the intellect we cannot be saved and rescued from the devil.”21 We should orient our attentiveness toward God, and “devote [ourselves] to God and be attentive with [our] intellect in everything [we] undertake.”22 It is in stillness (that is, isolation and quietness) that we do the proper “labour of the intellect”23 and can thus direct our minds toward God.
This is Peter’s way of talking about what modernity, since Descartes, has called the self. Of course, Descartes had a completely different understanding of the self. Cartesianism is built on the ontological separation of the self as a thinking thing from matter as an extended thing. With its echoes of Platonism, Cartesianism has the self thinking clear and distinct ideas, of ideas that are necessary and universally true, but it cannot account for how the self actually acts in the world of time and space, of how it interacts with the body and guides its actions. However, this is not Peter’s understanding.
For Peter, the self is the individual’s unique power of attentiveness, of watch- fulness. The self is not an object accessible to rational understanding but the directivity of mental engagement with the realities not itself. The self in this regard is an agent of directedness, which requires motivation, intentionality, desires, and beliefs. It is because of these traits that the self acts toward objects, and it is inconceivable that the self can guide one’s body in the world without the focus and deliberation that these traits provide. They enable an agent to act, and agency is action. Thus, we can say that the self, which guides the intellect and the reason, is an agency acting as motive, intentionality, and desire; and in intellection, the self directs its capacity for direct and immediate knowledge toward that which can be known directly and immediately.
Now, the question is “what is the self’s direction and to what does it naturally aim?” For Peter, we find the answer by seeing the self in contemplation of God.
The Eight Stages of Contemplation
The First Stage—Knowledge of Tribulations and Trials. Contemplation starts by admitting, “Woe is me, a sinner!” Instead of following the virtues, we commit vices which cause “a life full of worries and the worst kind of slavery.”24 We primarily become pitiful not because of our bodily weakness but our “thoughtlessness.” Our primary problem is not with the flesh (with the irrationalities and impulse of bodily life) but with the wrong directivity of our thoughts. We move toward the wrong objects and goals and, consequently, must realize that we are to blame for our mistakes and corruption. Such realization makes us ponder why we think such ways, and this prepares us to grow in self-understanding by making us more aware that we can reflect upon our state of wretchedness.
The Second Stage—Knowledge of Our Own Faults and of God’s Bounty. By realizing our moral corruption, we then realize our psychological corruption. Our motives and decisions to act virtuously and piously are actually driven by vanity and pride. Instead of obeying God, we want to disobey. Our acts of repentance are disingenuous. We love the heavenly gifts but not the requisite virtues to acquire them. We believe in God but do not follow the Commandments. We lose interest in praying and keep vigil only if it profits us. And the most telling fault is that “[we] hate the devil, and yet do not stop doing what he wants.”25 There is an aspect of our selves that desires to contradict itself by doing what is evil, what destroys us. Here our intellect believes its own desires to be the goal of the desires themselves, and when this happens the self becomes perverted by suffocating its innate attentiveness toward realities not itself.
Yet, even in recognizing this inward perversion, we want “to entreat Thee, Saviour, to make [us] turn back before [we] die.”26 We want evil and want redemption from it. What is causing such psychological contradictions in us?
The Third Stage—Knowledge of the Terrible Things That Await Us Before and After Death. When we look upon a corpse or consider our own deaths, we know that a person’s beauty given by God becomes “ugly, abject, its physical form destroyed.”27 No matter how hard we may work to become virtuous or pious toward God, death turns all human efforts into ugliness and abjection. We ask, “Why should [we] destroy [ourselves] so wrongly?”28 Such awareness forces us to question our deepest motives and to become more transparent to ourselves about our direction in life. Once we know that our beauty will not last, due to our conflicted and contradictory motives and to the fact our beauty will turn into its opposite, we then realize we have no secure place in the world to do what is lasting.
It is thus easy to lose heart and to stop the process of self-examination required to follow the steps of contemplation. Such a critical and taxing self-examination is necessary, because it forces us to know that “it is only through the nous that I am enabled to approach Thee.”29 We must allow the intellect to do what it innately desires to do—to seek ontologically surpassing realities to itself. Hence, we are driven to become more consistent with the agency of attentiveness and watchful- ness of our truer selves. However, how can we rightly know God and overcome our wretched state if our deepest motives are so corrupt? How can the intellect become purified enough to overcome its inherent contradiction?
The Fourth Stage—A Deep Understanding of the Life led by Christ, the Disciples, the Saints, Martyrs, and the Holy Fathers. To overcome our psychological malaise due to our contradictory motivations, we should think upon the objects that enable us to move toward greater knowledge of God, and this “consists in the understanding of our Lord’s incarnation and His manner of life in the world, to the point that we practically forget even to eat, as St. Basil the Great writes.”30 We should also think upon the disciples, saints, Mary, and the holy fathers. Yet, in Peter’s mind, we do not try to reason about them by categorizing them according to abstract concepts of quantity, quality, and modality, but we should meditate on their essences. We should seek the “mysteries hidden in the words of the holy fathers, of the divine Scripture, and especially of the Holy Gospels.”31
Obviously, the mystery is not the words themselves, which are subject to rational explanations, but what is exhibited in them—the self of the fathers and God expressing motivation, intentionality, and desires toward us. We mediate upon the experience of being addressed by them, by being sought by those whose agency of directivity is properly functioning, and in this we encounter healing occurs in our wretched selves by directing our agency toward the selves of Christ, the disciples, the saints, Mary, and the holy fathers.
The Fifth Stage—Knowledge of the Nature and Flux of Things. Peter writes only one paragraph for this stage. After grasping that our fulfillment as selves resides in mediating upon other self-agencies, we realize that “the changeable nature of visible created things: how they derive from the earth and return again to the earth, thus confirm the words of Ecclesiastes: Vanity of vanities, all is van- ity (Eccles. 1:2).”32
At first notice, Peter’s opinion seems too dismissive and even Manichean about the value of nature. However, his focus is upon the object of our meditation. If we believe that we can better understand ourselves as agents of motivations, intentionality, and desire by trying to find ourselves in the contingency and transience of changing nature, then we will never come to an accurate and fulfilling self-understanding. If we were only materiality and not mentality as well, then a naturalistic reduction of the self would follow. However, our experience in the world indicates that though we are one reality, we must explain ourselves in dualistic ways, as both body and mind. Thus, materialistic reductionism fails to account for the range and uniquenesses of our experiences. This is why we must move beyond empirical generalizations about reality and endeavor to ascertain other selves. It is because the self is the agency of attentiveness and watchfulness that it naturally seeks other selves and is not content with only the changeable nature of visible created things.
The Sixth Stage—Knowledge and Understanding of God’s Visible Creation. Although we cannot fulfill our innate directivity by contemplating only on the flux of things, in “contemplating dispassionately the beauty and use of each thing, he who is illuminated is filled with love for the Creator.”33 Nature contains indications of God as its creator. Our intellects become more focused toward what ultimately fulfills them by contemplating the order, the equilibrium, the proportion, the beauty, the rhythm, the union, the harmony, the usefulness, the concordance, the variety, the delightfulness, the stability, the motions, the colours, the shapes, the forms, the reversion of thing to their source, permanence in the midst of corruption.34
Due to these aspects, nature has a communicable capacity through which God speaks as its Creator. By seeing nature this way, we recognize the agency that created the world this way. We become “filled with wonder” that God could address us through the beauty of creation, that through the previously mentioned features we are addressed by an agency that seeks us.
The Seventh Stage—Understanding God’s Spiritual Creation. Because the world is a means by which God’s communicates toward us, we can marvel at the multitude of incorporeal powers: authorities, thrones, dominions, seraphim and cherubim, the nine orders mentioned in all the divine Scriptures, who nature, power and other good qualities, as well as the hierarchical dispositions, are known to God their Creator.35
These powers, as Peter uses them, are active communications from the incorporeal realm of divine existence. That is, by being in a state of marvel and wonder upon the beauty of nature, we hear eternal and timeless messages. We sense that we are spoken to, that we are addressed by powers exceeding in reality anything we can know of the physical world. The “seriocomic realm” becomes like the “holy of holies,”36 a place in which God is experienced.
The Eighth Stage—Theology, the Knowledge of God. Here, we are led upwards to the vision of what pertains to God … The intellect is seized during the transport of prayer by a divine longing, and it no longer knows anything at all of the world. Not only does the intellect forget all things, but it forgets itself as well.37
Peter does not maintain that in this final stage we come to see that we are actually emanations from God.38 God remains the Creator and we creatures, but we reach knowledge of God that knows God as God knows us. This knowledge is not only of God’s attributes. In fact, in this stage “we should not identify God in Himself with His divine attributes, such as His goodness, bountifulness, justice, holiness, light, fire, being, nature, power, wisdom.”39 The attributes are divine because they result from God’s agency, the divine center of God’s motivations, intentionality, and desires, but this divine agency is “inscrutable, unsearchable, inexplicable, as all that it is impossible to define.”40 We do not know God rationally (dianoia), but we have a “direct vision [through the nous] of what pertains to God.”41
Yet, if God’s essence is inscrutable, unsearchable, and so on, then how can we be certain that we actually have intellectual knowledge of God? If God is beyond reasoning, then what guarantees our intellects are directed toward God? For Peter, the intellectual knowledge of God occurs when the self of the person—that is, the agency of attentiveness—encounters the self—that is, the agency of attentiveness— of God. It is important to remember that in Peter’s mind the progress through the eight stages results from God’s grace taking the initiative and contacting the person, provoking the person to find more appropriate ways to acknowledge and respond to the mystery of God. The eight stages are, as Greg Peters puts it, a result of salvation, not the process to gain salvation.42
In the essay “Conscious Awareness of the Heart” Peter describes this experience of contemplation as us “[abandoning] all other things and as intelligent beings cleave to the intelligence, offering with the intelligence intelligible worship to the divine Intelligence.”43 In intelligible worship God knows us and we know God. In God’s directivity and attentiveness toward us, our selves are drawn toward the inscrutable reality of God as God is in God’s self. And, in our directivity and attentiveness toward God, God’s being becomes intelligible, not in the sense that we understand the “inscrutable, unsearchable, and inexplicable” reality of God, but that we know we are known by God. The final stage of contemplation occurs when we lose our sense of being an object before God and become united in the intellectual occurrence, in the encounter of self to Self.
Conclusion: The Self in the Bazaar or in Contemplation
On a simple level the difference between Rorty’s and Peter’s accounts of the self and what fulfills it is that Rorty offers a secular explanation, consciously rejecting any theological moorings to it, and Peter gives a religious explanation, shaped by Christian teachings and personal spiritual experiences. A more profound difference is that Rorty’s agenda to promote the modern self as a strong poet who can re-describe itself by adopting the thin metaphors made available in the “bazaar” actually obstructs people’s efforts to gain autonomy, whereas Peter’s agenda to promote the innate intentionality of the self to form relationships with surpassing ontological realities (that is, the world and God) equips the self to experience fulfillment in the intelligible worship of God.
For people who seek the supposed benefits of living in a post-religious society, Rorty’s account of the self is definitely attractive. It resonates with the move to undercut the undeserved authorities that force people into submitting to their notions of what people should be politically, ethically, and religiously. Nevertheless, Rorty’s account defeats itself.44 What the self needs to recreate itself in society, to act as a strong poet picking the apropos metaphors, which enable the self to affirm its own identity, eventually erodes the self’s ability to recreate itself. That is, the “bazaar” does not engender liberation. Instead, it acculturates people with the values of the domineering forces of society. The contingent society is not as neutral of moral and political norms, nor as tolerant of differences as Rorty envisions it. Michael Barber correctly sees that Rorty abstracts the self from the influences of a person’s past and current social forces.
Another possibility that Rorty does not entertain, perhaps due to his respect for the uniqueness of every self-creative endeavor, is that the blind impress of the past can have a particularly self-blinding effect such that our self-project appears only to ourselves as making something worthwhile out of ourselves or creating a self we can respect. Others, however, are able to see more clearly the addictions or self-destructive neurotic behaviors that we deny.45
Rorty seems blind to the full range of overt and tacit influences on the self. Social goods, whether products or ideas, express not only what the “buyers” want but also what the “sellers” want, and “sellers” try to convince “buyers” to purchase social goods (that is, products and cultural ideals) at the highest possible price. These are the marks of the modern consumerist market in which people need to shop continuously and products by design have short lifespans. The “bazaar” as a consumerist market in which the hagglers of products and ideas determine value commodifies all products and “buyers,” and it forces psychological uniformity in which “buyers” conform to the kind of persons necessary to sustain a society based on the immediate consumption of social goods, whether they are artifacts or ideas promoted by philosophy, literature, or politics.
To keep with the implications of Rorty’s metaphor, a “bazaar” is not an easy place to haggle. It is filled with deceivers, swindlers, and sophists, who are not interested in the buyer getting the best buy, not interested in poets becoming the strongest poets they can be, but in forcing homogeneity, so that shoppers become predictable and manageable and poets and philosophers get published and tenured. The more the “bazaar” flourishes, the more conformity there is in those who need it. The more the self, which Rorty envisions, relies upon a society of thin metaphors expressive of a disenchanted world, the more it conforms to other selves according to the market designs of those who proffer the thin metaphors.
Rorty’s confidence in the “bazaar” is ironic. He argues for a contingent self, needing a contingent society so that the self can re-describe itself, but he has the self needing a social reality that in fact stifles the ability to re-describe itself.46 This is not only true for tangible products, like automobiles and fashionable clothing, it is also true with ideas and publications. In Rorty’s modern society of the “bazaar,” the academy and literate society become just as conformist and homogeneous as the bourgeois middle class. Teachers and publishers become like the sellers in the “bazaar” offering ideas, trends, and political views that, by holding them, students and readers perpetuate the dominance of the academy and publishers. When the student becomes a “buyer” in the “bazaar,” the student mirrors the dominance of the ruling intellectual class. Ironically, their self’s re-description parrots the re-description of those who control the market of ideas.
Rorty has a naïve view of the modern society.47 Being rootless of any religious and ontological foundations, he contends it becomes a place where artists can explore their selected metaphors, unencumbered by bullies and oligarchs.48 Even though Rorty takes his clues about the self without foundations from Nietzsche, according to Daniel Conway, he does not take Nietzsche’s nihilism about the self far enough. “The inherent danger of Rorty’s strategy lies in its propensity to over-estimate the extent to which we can create ourselves.”49 What Rorty denies about epistemological, ontological, and anthropological foundationalism, he implicitly confers on the ironical poet—the genuine creation of human meaning and identity.
This is what Charles Taylor calls the “disconcerting wobble” in Rorty’s thinking.50 He starts his analysis of the self and society by denying realism of any sort and thus concludes realistic interpretation are arbitrary, but he uses his non-realistic epistemology (what Taylor describes as an ex ante one) in a non-arbitrable way. His promotion of the ironical poet as the quintessential modern self is in fact not non-arbitrable. But if we are utterly contingent, incapable of connecting with God, reality, or any normative human life, then our actions as ironical poets are also disconnected from any authentic meaning and as flimsy in self-assurance as a self shaped by theological claims, natural law, or cultural heritage. It is naïve for Rorty to claim the ironical poet can assure for the modern person what the rival views cannot assure.
Moreover, for Rorty, all we need to form solidarity with each other, as we seek to re-describe ourselves relative to our current interest, is the commitment not to be cruel to one another. However, this reduces society to only one important emotion—the fear of being belittled and harmed. Human life and social interactions involve far more than Rorty’s reductionism—for example, loving relationships, shared wonder and grief, memories of significant people, intuitions of hope and guilt, and so on. Frankly, a society built on Rorty’s reductionism is unimaginable.51
Although Rorty might be able to point to certain urban neighborhoods and academic settings in which his liberal ironist flourishes, it is hard to envision that his modern society, fashioned as a “bazaar” in which no one is committed to the inherent goodness of others or a theological-natural law undergirding of justice, would give free reign to people to become self-made individuals. People flourish in the “bazaar” because they have enough social power embedded in what they own and what they politically and aesthetically endorse. In this way, they mirror the reigning forces of society. This is also George Bragues’ criticism of Rorty: “Rorty’s nonfoundationalism expresses itself in a historicism that gives way to an overly politicized conception of philosophy, one which unashamedly descends into the most blatant partisanship.”52 Bragues maintains that Rorty’s sophistical rejection of foundationalism is actually a guise to substitute a dogmatic leftist partisanship. Moreover, Rorty never questions that partisanship. He just assumes that there is only one choice—authoritarian foundationalism or a free life in the “bazaar,” and by dismissing foundationalism, he pretends to prove the legitimacy of the “bazaar.”
The “bazaar” is not a place amenable to people who seek their own self-definition. It is a circumscribed environment with rules that reward those who can conform to its values and ignores or discards those who cannot or will not.
David Bentley Hart rightly observes that “post-modernism” relies upon the market but also suffers its hegemony:
Truth be told, this faint residue of radicalism [that is, Nietzsche’s continual influence] seems only absurd in the light of the market’s power to assimilate and commodify almost any energy, to subdue any force, and doubly absurd insofar as it advances itself according to a logic already indigenous to the market. … The market is not so much a vertical as a horizontal totality, a plane upon which everything can be arranged in hierarchy of abstract equivalence, aleatory instances of desire or apathy; it is a totality that contains everything in a state of barren and indifferent plurality.53
The contingent self gravitates toward a market culture that, instead of equipping the self to become more autonomous, molds people into usable objects within more powerful and subtle societal forces. Although the modern self needs a “bazaar” to fulfill the desire to re-create itself anew, the actual activity of the “bazaar” only frustrates this desire.
Rorty’s promise to liberate the self from theology and foundational philosophy, by envisioning a society of people constantly re-creating themselves with new and more contemporaneous metaphors, actually does not lead to more strong poets but to more homogeneous “buyers.” In the end, what Rorty’s modern person naturally seeks defeats her or his efforts to become self-defining. His promotion of a contingent society patterned after a bazaar pretends to fulfill this promise, but it cannot.
However, Peter’s explanation of the self in contemplation does not suffer the same fate as Rorty’s. The self in contemplation is driven to seek continually those greater ontological realities that fulfill the inherent drive of the self to become what it is. This teleological search for fulfillment equips the self to be aware of what cannot fulfill the quest to become a true self. The contemplative has a built-in system to evaluate what it experiences, to test whether the longing for ultimate fulfillment can actually be satisfied. Since its true identity is only secured in what can grant ultimate security, it knows the temptation to idolize penultimate stages of human experience. It scrutinizes and relativizes the promises of material security, political power, personal privilege, and even self-satisfaction. Because the self seeks contemplation with God, it clearly critiques the false pretenses of the “bazaar.”
Yet, Peter’s account of the self, fulfilled in the contemplation of God, is credible only if the self in fact inherently seeks to relate to realities capable of expanding the self’s ability to know realities ontologically surpassing of itself. If we cannot seek and relate to these realities, contemplation of God is impossible. Even though persons may become so weary and hurt by their efforts to find meaningful relationships that they trivialize and make banal all their endeavors, yet, we know (for example, as expressed in Plato’s explanation of love as Eros in the Symposium and the Psalm’s hymns of the soul’s thirst for God) that inherent to the most basic of human desires is the longing to find intimate fulfillment with realities outside ourselves. Peter’s explanation of contemplation expresses this human desire and orients it toward the relationship that promises and potentially gives the greatest fulfillment—the intelligible worship of God. If this inherent longing to recognize and to relate reciprocally to ontologically surpassing realities is true, then we can draw two further conclusions.
First, the contemplation of God establishes the security of the self in its place within the world. Because the self is an activity defined by intentions, desires, and beliefs, it seeks objects in the world that assure that this activity is rightly oriented. The self definitely seeks to know the world, but its directivity toward the world is not satisfied in speculating upon objects that remain only quantifiable and unresponsive to it. The self seeks to be recognized as an activity of intentions, desires, and beliefs. The more the self realizes that its directivity is received and welcomed by other selves the more it experiences the legitimacy of its own direc- tivity. In the contemplation of God, the self experiences the eternal directivity of God toward itself, and in this encounter, it realizes that its place within eternity and consequently within the world are recognized, known, and accepted. In this experience of eternal acceptance, the self realizes its greatest fulfillment occurs in being known as it knows, that its innate convivial impulse to aim its intentions, desires, and beliefs toward that which most reciprocates its own directivity reaches its greatest accomplishment in the contemplation of God.
Moreover, in Peter’s account, the self secures its own reality as the activity of intentions, desires, and beliefs in the eternal intentions, desires, and beliefs of God. This happens not by divorcing the knowledge of the eternal from the experience of the world or by only recollecting on abstract and necessary truth, but by ascending through the stages of contemplation toward the God who seeks to know us, by following the self’s innate impulses to be known as it knows.54
A second conclusion to infer is that contemplation involves the reciprocity of God’s self with the contemplative’s self. We can speculate upon God’s attributes, just as we can speculate upon our physical characteristics. That is, we can rationally understand them. However, we cannot speculate on our own agency, we can only exercise it. In knowing God, as God is in knowing us, we know God’s agency, and in knowing God’s motivations, intentionality, and desires, we better know our own directivity toward God. The reason for this is that agency is established to its greatest extent as an agent in relationship with another agent, and in the divine knowledge, the ultimate establishment occurs.
In this sense, anthropology (that is, the knowledge of self) is theology (that is, the knowledge of God), and theology is anthropology. This reciprocity is not established because God and humanity share the same attributes (for instance, power, presence, or knowledge) but is established in the interaction of beliefs, desires, and intentions. Furthermore, in contemplation the distinction is not lost between God as the transcendent Creator and the contemplative as the contingent creature. Both God and the person experience the same act of knowing, the same intentionality to acknowledge, accept, and appreciate the other.
Both Rorty and Peter acknowledge that the self is driven to obtain a proper understanding of itself by forming meaningful and right relationships with others (Rorty in the “bazaar” and Peter with God). However, the self in Rorty’s explanation, devoid of any natural, moral, or spiritual identity, is too unstable and susceptible to societal forces and finally mirrors what these forces dictate. Such a person actually is not a totally self-made individual, but a reflection of pre-arranged images that succeed in the open market of material exchange and cultural ideas. On the other hand, the self in Peter’s journey toward God accepts the process of constant of self-scrutiny, a process that is needed to secure its identity in what would actually satisfy the teleological yearning of the self. The self in the process of the contemplation of God is not as gullible and naïve as is the self in Rorty’s account.
It may be true that not every contemplative person may reach the eighth stage, as depicted by Peter, and may experience frustrations in the effort; nonetheless in contemplation the self experiences an expansiveness of its innate ability to desire and intend relationships. People learn to form relationships that fulfill the self’s yearning for the relationships it lacks but needs. These relationships require the self to do what it innately can and also seeks to do—to divulge its intimacy in reciprocal relationships that continually equip the self to experience even more of what it seeks. And, therefore, in contemplating upon God in which the self encounters the divine self, the self’s identity is secured.
Cite this article
- I am aware of the intense debates about the meaning of these terms. I take them to mean the following. Beliefs are mental acts that are able to form propositions about external states- of-affairs. Desires are mental acts that are in a state of potentiality oriented toward states-of-affairs that actualize the potentiality. Intentions are mindful activities with a calculative structure aimed toward some goal. The common feature among the three is directive agency. The self, thus, as expressed in beliefs, desires, and intentions, is an agency aimed toward realities external to itself. Also, because these beliefs, desires, and intentions inform one of one’s position in the world, the self can reflect upon itself, and thus become self-conscious.
- Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 40.
- Ibid., 27.
- Ibid., 26.
- Richard Rorty, “Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,” in Philosophical Papers: Objectivity, Relativism, and Truth, volume 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 193.
- Jeffrey Metzger argues this emphasis on obtaining happiness through self-determination is actually a form of teleology latent throughout Rorty’s writings, and that though it promotes a “light-mindedness,” its results are more social tolerance and a more pragmatic liberalism; see Jeffrey Metzger, “Richard Rorty’s Disenchanted Liberalism,” Contemporary Pragmatism 7 (2010): 117-118. Also, Steve Fuller promotes Rorty as the paradigmatic American pragmatist who ties the quest for self-determination to the American psyche and the central pragmatic guideline of “every conceptual difference must make an empirical difference;” see Steve Fuller, “Richard Rorty’s Philosophical Legacy,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 38 (2008): 131.
- Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity, 96-97.
- Rorty, Objectivism, Relativism, and Truth, vol. 1, 209.
- For what Rorty thinks about bullies and oligarchs, see Richard Rorty, Derek Nystrom, and Kent Puckett, Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies: A Conversation with Richard Rorty (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2002).
- Even though it is customary to Latinize Peter’s title, I stay with the Byzantine version because that is how it is found in the primary source of the Philokalia.
- Greg Peters, “Peter of Damascus and Early Christian Spiritual Theology,” Patristica et Mediaevalia 26 (2005): 91.
- Ibid., 96.
- Ibid., 97.
- Greg Peters, of Biola University and an Anglican priest, has done more than anyone since the publication of the English translation of the Philokalia (1984) to show the importance of Peter as a good representative of Byzantine spiritual teaching and as a serious contributor to spiritual theology in general. Peters attempts to correct the rather dismissive and critical assessments of Peters’ works by Jean Gouillard who in 1939 said they were not original and corrected and diffused by Maximus the Confessor. Also, in 1985 Benedetta Artioli and Francesca Lovato maintained that Peter’s works were disordered, mostly approximations of other authors, and not original. Even the editor of the English version of the Philokalia, Kallistos Ware thought little of the significance of Peter’s contributions. See Greg Peters, Peter of Damascus: Byzantine Monk and Spiritual Theologian (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011), 50-54.
- Placide Deseille, Orthodox Spirituality and the Philokalia, trans. by Anthony P. Gythiel (Wichita, KS: Eighth Day Press 2008), 56.
- Christopher C. H. Cook, The Philokalia and the Inner Life: On Passions and Prayer (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2012), 160.
- Ibid., 162. Greg Peters makes the same point about Orthodox spirituality and Peter’s role in it. For Peters, the goal of spiritual progress is union with God in a state of perfection that results from an inward-looking mysticism; see Greg Peters, “Towards a Definition of ‘Spiritual Theology’: A historiography of Recent Writings on Byzantine Spirituality,” Studia Monastica 48 (2004): 36-40; also see Peters, “Peter of Damascus and early Christian Spiritual Theology,” 89-109.
- The editors of the Philokalia (G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware) give these titles, and thus are more widely used, but Greg Peters in Peter of Damascus stays more closely to the Greek titles, The Admonition to His Own Soul and The Spiritual Alphabet; see Greg Peters, Peter of Damascus: Byzantine Monk and Spiritual Theologian (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2011).
- Ibid., 181.
- The Philokalia, volume III, trans. and ed. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1984), 105.
- Ibid., 105.
- Ibid., 106.
- Ibid., 107.
- Ibid., 110.
- Ibid., 112.
- Ibid., 113.
- Ibid., 114.
- Ibid., 116.
- Ibid., 117.
- Ibid., 122.
- Ibid., 123.
- Ibid., 133.
- Ibid., 136.
- Ibid., 137.
- Ibid., 141.
- Ibid., 142.
- Ibid., 136.
- Ibid., 143.
- Peters, Peter of Damascus: Byzantine Monk and Spiritual Theologian, 116.
- Ibid., 277.
- Rorty persistently claims that all we need is justification not truth, because there is no truth, only our justifications. However, if Rorty is serious about rejecting metaphysics, theology, and normative ethics, then he needs more than what he thinks is the modern urge for poetic irony, because without an appeal to truth, poetic irony is no more compelling than what Rorty believes he has rejected. This is James Tartaglia’s critique of Rorty; see James Tartaglia, “Does Rorty’s Pragmatism Undermine Itself?” European Journal of Pragmatism and American Philosophy 4.1 (2012): 299-300.
- Michael D. Barber, “Rorty’s Ethical De-Divinization of the Moralist Self,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 32.1 (2006): 144-145.
- Patricia Rohrer makes a similar critique when she argues that Rorty cannot assure the success of the private sphere (where people seek continual re-description) if it is totally divorced from the public sphere (where people are committed liberal democrats). He needs what he rejects—a political, ethical theory connecting the private and public (something similar to Plato’s idea of the interchangeable just person and just state); see Patricia Rohrer, “Self-Creation or Choosing the Self: A Critique of Richard Rorty’s Idea of Democratic Education,” Philosophy of Education 2000 11 (2001): 58.
- Stephen J. Gallagher also has this view; “One wishes that Rorty had spent less time among those academics he despised so much and more time out among those human beings who are engaged in the hard, practical, reality-based work of building amore sane and humane world;” see Stephen J. Gallagher, “The Manic Triumphalism of Richard Rorty,” Free Inquiry 32 (2012): 37.
- Alan R. Malachowski makes the same point—“in advocating a post-epistemological form of philosophy, Rorty is inclined to exaggerate the creative autonomy of language,” in Reading Rorty (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1990), 140. However, Ian Hunter thinks that though Rorty’s liberalism probably would not secure itself socially as much as Rorty pretends, it is the best choice we have to promote liberal democracy and to keep governments out of determining substantive norms for society; see Ian Hunter, “Is Metaphysics a Threat to Liberal Democracy? On Richard Rorty’s ‘The Priority of Democracy to Philosophy,’” Theoria: A Journal of Social and Political Theory 95 (2000): 75. I would add Robert B. Talisse, who worries that Rorty tacitly promotes a liberal tyranny, to this critique; “An antifoundationalist politics is thus an antiphilosophical politics; accordingly, Rorty is not proposing a political philosophy but proffering liberal propaganda. He aims to promote and inspire liberal democracy among those already well-disposed to it rather than prove it to antidemocrats;” Robert B. Talisse, “A Pragmatist Critique of Richard Rorty’s Hopeless Politics,” The Southern Journal of Philosophy 39 (2001): 618.
- Daniel W. Conway, “Thus Spoke Rorty: The Perils of Narrative Self-Creation,” Philosophy and Literature 15.1 (1991): 105.
- Charles Taylor, “Rorty in the Epistemological Tradition,” in Reading Rorty, ed. Alan R. Malachowski (Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1990), 257-275.
- William J. Garland also makes this point; see “Private Self-Creation and Public Solidarity: A Critique of Rorty’s Vision of Human Life,” Southwest Philosophy Review: Papers Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Southwestern Philosophical Society 12 (1999): 214. Christopher Voparil shares this critique of Rorty; “Actually, Rorty re-enchants liberalism, not merely offers it as a redescription. He is not trying to describe an actual state but offers a Utopian vision;” see Christopher Voparil, “The Problem with Getting It Right: Richard Rorty and the Politics of Antirepresentationalism,” Philosophy and Social Criticism 30 (2004): 235.
- George Bragues, “Richard Rorty’s Postmodern Case for Liberal Democracy: A Critique,” Humanitas 19 (2006): 160.
- David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 433-434.
- Although this directivity toward God is found in all expressions of Christian spiritual traditions, it is pronounced in the spirituality of the Philokalia. Christopher Cook maintains that we should see the Philokalia as “being ‘an instrument of theosis’” (Cook, The Philokalia and the Inner Life: On Passions and Prayer, 159). And, according to Greg Peters, Peter’s spiritual instructions express this aim accurately and, hence, should be esteemed as a spiritual treasury for all, monastics and non-monastics (see Peters, Peter of Damascus: Byzantine Monk and Spiritual Theologian, 181).