Monday, April 17, 2006

Self-Abnegation: Platonic Dualism or Christian Humanism?

Friends-
How do we live out a life of Self-Abnegation without slipping into a semi-Platonic Dualism? Of course I know it’s possible, yet I am wondering: can we take Self-Abnegation to a draconian level? When does Self-Abnegation end and Self-Hatred begin? When does Stewardship Living end and Materialism begin? Full Frontal Confession ahead: I have actually found myself wanting to abstain from Self-Abnegation and Stewardship Living for fear of slipping into an anti-Christian Dualism. I tell myself my desires are well intentioned, and its true: Dualism is NOT an authentic Christian Life…Yet, I am aware that avoiding Self-Abnegation out of fear of Self-Hatred is, not least, a cop out. I take Jesus as our model of Divine Self-Abnegation; so I’m sure Self-Abnegation is not born out of a dualistic worldview (especially considering Self-Abnegation was Jesus’ political method)! Nevertheless, can we misappropriate it to ends that actually dishonor Jesus and our imago dei? If a proper Christian Humanism (bearing God’s Image) is our goal, perhaps Self-Abnegation is an operation toward that goal? What say ye? Does anyone else experience or understand this quagmire?

18 Comments:

Blogger Thom Stark said...

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Jacob,

Right on. We don't want self-abnegation to be asceticism, monasticism, or any other ism really. Self-abnegation can't be about "self," otherwise it's not self-abnegation, it's just, well, self.

Self-abnegation has to be radical trust in God manifested in radical love for others. Radical trust in God cannot be divorced from radical love for others. They are the same thing. That's the only way Jesus's exhortation not to worry about tomorrow makes sense. Jesus isn't advocating economic irresponsibility, but economic solidarity within the new community he is forming around himself. Self-abnegation is caring (indiscriminately) for others (including our enemies) as an act of absolute theism (total trust in God).

Your last point on self-abnegation as a way of bearing the imago Dei is dead on target. The life and death of Jesus as the image of God is normative for the church; it is to be carried on and carried out, empowered by the first resurrection, until the last resurrection. The church is the redemption of the imago Dei out from fallen humanity, and Jesus's model of self-abnegating, non-violent, reconciling, suffering servanthood is what that imago Dei looks like against the backdrop of the old world order.

Peace

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April 17, 2006 at 11:04 PM  
Blogger Jacob Paul Breeze said...

You're right. I neglected the fact that humility is how I treat others, not how I view myself...

April 18, 2006 at 9:40 AM  
Blogger Jeremy Bacon said...

I think dualism is dangerous. It can make us think that addressing one area of our "self" (say, the body) is self-abnegation while other apsects of our self (say, our ego) get off scott free. Personally, I find that giving up my own agenda is amazingly more difficult than giving up food or possessions.

April 18, 2006 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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Good point. I think perhaps, however, that giving up food or possessions is necessary if we are to give up our "egos" or our agendas. Pedagogy. Moreover, context. Making habits of considering the needs of others, including our enemies, in our economic and political agendas provides the framework within which we can properly conceive our "selves." Not until I learn to love the other as other can I properly understand what it is to be created, what it is to be me.

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April 18, 2006 at 10:49 AM  
Blogger Dan Hamel said...

Thom, your first response to Jacob was absolutely brilliant. Thanks

April 19, 2006 at 8:16 PM  
Anonymous Timothy said...

I have some doubts about that Thom. I think you have just chosen a circuitous route to ensure a positive kind of self-definition. In other words the ends have not changed, in that you seem to have a clear idea of what will lead you to an understanding of who you are. Shouldn’t the process trump the ends. I think I see self-abnegation kind of like ethics. Like the ancient conception of virtue is not doing any particular thing, or set of things, or even any set of things on given principles, rather in is being the person who lives virtuously, and will continue to do for posterity. This shifts the ground to focus on paradigm cases of self-abnegation (which seems convenient for us), and pushes us further from self-centeredness.

April 20, 2006 at 1:36 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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I'm sorry that you misread me, but I did not claim that the end (as in the "good end") of self-abnegation is an understanding of myself. I said that proper self-understanding comes as the result of giving that up as an end. At least, in the few cases I've practiced self-abnegation, that has been my experience.

What I have said has not contradicted a virtue approach to ethics. An Aristotelian account of the virtues is not mutually exclusive to principled ethics, so long as the principles are derived from paradigm-cases.

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April 20, 2006 at 3:46 PM  
Anonymous timothy said...

I don’t mean to be difficult, but basing principals on paradigms does in fact vitiate the point of Aristotelian virtue ethics.

April 20, 2006 at 8:32 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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I don't take you to be difficult. No doubt you know more about these things than I do. Perhaps you can help me discover how I might be misreading this:

"For it is not merely the state in accordance with the presence of the right rule, but the state that implies the presence of the right rule, that is virtue; and practical wisdom is a right rule about such matters. Socrates, then, thought the virtues were rules or rational principles (for he thought they were, all of them, forms of scientific knowledge), while we think they involve a rational principle.

"It is clear then, from what has been said, that it is not possible to be good in the strict sense without practical wisdom, nor practically wise without moral virtue. . . . And it is plain . . . that the choice will not be right without practical wisdom any more than without virtue; for the one determines the end and the other makes us do the things that lead to the end" (NE VI/13, or, 1144b25–1145a5).

I'm reading Aristotle saying precisely that a rational principle and a virtuous act cannot be separated one from the other if the act is to be a good act.

Perhaps our disagreement so far has been based on a misapprehension of terms, and not a real disagreement of content. What I claimed earlier about coming to know myself as I truly am by learning to love the other as other is only a paraphrase of Aristotle's definition of "happiness as a sort of good life and good action" (NE I/8, or, 1098b20), an "activity of the soul in accordance with perfect virtue" (NE I/13, or, 1102a5).

At any rate, regardless of whether or to what degree principled ethics can be consistent with Aristotelian virtue, the point I was making was that self-abnegation can only be achieved by making a habit of figuring others, including our enemies, into our own agendas. For "moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ἠθική) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ἔθος (habit). From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature" (NE II/1, or, 1103a15–20).

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April 21, 2006 at 3:31 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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I might add that Aristotle himself bases principles on paradigm cases, to a certain extent. The principle is based in the paradigm not in the sense that the rationality of the principle is derived from the paradigm, but that our grasp of the rational principle is brought about by the paradigm, as in the relationship of teacher-pupil.

"The appetitive and in general the desiring element in a sense shares in [the rational principle], in so far as it listens to and obeys it; this is the sense in which we speak of 'taking account' of one's father or one's friends, not that in which we speak of 'accounting' for a mathematical property. That the irrational element is in some sense persuaded by a rational principle is indicated also by the giving of advice and by all reproof and exhortation. And if this element also must be said to have a rational principle, that which has a rational principle (as well as that which has not) will be twofold, one subdivision having it in the strict sense and in itself, and the other having a tendency to obey as one does one's father" (NE I/13, or, 1102b30–1103a5).

As MacIntyre points out, however, even the list of virtues in the Ethics "reflects what Aristotle takes to be 'the code of the gentlemen' in contemporary Greek society. Aristotle himself endorses this code. Just as in analyzing political constitutions he treats Greek society as normative. . . . There is in Aristotle’s Ethics not merely a contempt for the morality of artisans or of barbarians, but also a systematic repudiation of the morality of Socrates. . . . It is difficult to resist the conclusion that what we see here is Aristotle’s class-bound conservatism silently and partisanly rewriting the table of the virtues" (A Short History of Ethics 58).

Of course, these biases don't undermine Aristotle's account of practical reason, but, as MacIntyre brings out, they do prevent Aristotle from asking, "How do I decide what is in fact included in the list of the virtues? Could I invent a virtue? Is it logically open to me to consider a vice what others have considered a virtue?" (68).

In other words I'm pretty convinced that paradigm cases play a bigger role in practical wisdom than even Aristotle may have been aware of.

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April 21, 2006 at 4:04 AM  
Anonymous timothy said...

If you are building a principle from a paradigm case, then simply drop out the principle and stick to the paradigm. For when the time comes for you to make a decision that you saw your “paradigm case” make, then you will not be able to glean a principle by which you can accomplish the same. Rather you will have to BE the virtuous person who therefore acts correctly.

Two background quotes from the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
“Virtue ethics is currently one of three major approaches in normative ethics. It may, initially, be identified as the one that emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach which emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that which emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). Suppose it is obvious that someone in need should be helped. A utilitarian will point to the fact that the consequences of doing so will maximise well-being, a deontologist to the fact that, in doing so the agent will be acting in accordance with a moral rule such as "Do unto others as you would be done by" and a virtue ethicist to the fact that helping the person would be charitable or benevolent.Three of virtue ethics' central concepts, virtue, practical wisdom and eudaimonia are often misunderstood. Once they are distinguished from related but distinct concepts peculiar to modern philosophy, various objections to virtue ethics can be better assessed.”
“But McDowell, Foot, MacIntyre and Hursthouse have all recently been outlining versions of a third way between these two extremes. Eudaimonia in virtue ethics, is indeed a moralised concept, but it is not only that. Claims about what constitutes flourishing for human beings no more float free of scientific facts about what human beings are like than ethological claims about what constitutes flourishing for elephants. In both cases, the truth of the claims depends in part on what kind of animal they are and what capacities, desires and interests the humans or elephants have.”

Finally, I would just take issue with MacIntyre here. I think he is just mistaken that Aristotle can/does endorse the list of virtues as normative. The polis can and should be directed by principles, but not the same for people.

April 21, 2006 at 9:05 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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OK then. Fair enough. I have no idea who you are at this point, so I have no reason to take your word over MacIntyre's. (There are very few people's word I'd take over MacIntyre's, particularly when it comes to Aristotelian ethics, but fair enough anyway.)

You did not respond to my quotations of Aristotle and his account of the inseparability of rational principles from virtuous acts, but I don't particularly want you to, since I really don't have time for this conversation at this stage in the semester.

To the point: If I am going to follow my paradigm, namely, Jesus, then I am going to have to admit that he gave me rules, he gave me laws, he gave me principles, and he exegeted them with paradigmatic actions. Now, I can take Aristotelian virtues and with them better understand how to develop the life of my paradigm case in my own life, but I cannot deny the fact that my own paradigm articulated himself to me in the form of laws and commands. The fact that the first three centuries of Christianity took the ethics of Jesus as literal rules to be obeyed (hence ubiquitous and stanch pacifism for three hundred years) keeps me in check on this matter.

Moreover, my paradigm did not tell me to love my enemy for posterity. He told me to love my enemy in order to be like my Father in heaven. He did not tell me to lose my life because self-abnegation is a good thing to do for its own sake. He told me to lose my life in order to find it, to lose my life in order to receive a reward (that being life in the kingdom, as opposed to death outside the kingdom).

Some or all of this may have just been pedagogical. Perhaps in the back of his mind Jesus had virtue ethics mulling around, and he just capitulated to "laws" and "principles" and "commands" for the sake of his uneducated Jewish audience, but he put it in those terms at any rate, and I can't be faulted for following in his footsteps.

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April 21, 2006 at 10:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://www.myspace.com/markmoore
hmmm? funny or scary

April 24, 2006 at 11:15 AM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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Funny because it's fake. Scary because it's really, really close to authentic.

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April 24, 2006 at 12:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Maybe the key to self-abnegation is to not take yourself so seriously. Maybe you should not spend so much time trying to think up the right words to describe yourself. Maybe you should think about somebody else, or the Lord. Better yet, just go do something for somebody else, or the Lord. It is hard to abnegate yourself when you are sitting around thinking about yourself. Jesus didn't sit around trying to abnegate himself. He "went about doing good."

May 2, 2006 at 9:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, does absolute powerlessness make you pure?
- Harry Shearer

May 2, 2006 at 11:17 AM  
Anonymous Jack said...

I think the comment-before-last is rather rude and snarky and completely misses the point. The conflict is not between "thinking about what is best" and "actually doing something."

Instead, I think it is a little more like taking golf lessons. At first, you have to think hard about things like feet close together, elbow straight, eye on the ball, follow through with your swing, etc. After you have internalized these things, then you are able (sometimes) to hit the ball in a better way.

On the other hand, we don't want to over-analyze. C. S. Lewis said sort of the same thing about the Eucharist. Jesus didn't say take and understand; he said take and eat.

Jacob Paul, keep up your good work! Let's all study how to "improve our swing" and after we've done that, let's go down swinging!

May 6, 2006 at 6:01 PM  
Blogger Thom Stark said...

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Nice drive.

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May 7, 2006 at 8:59 PM  

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