Philia

I do feel – and feel is the right word – that Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ deserves a wider audience. So many important themes, from so many thinkers, rendered limpid in a thesis all of his own.

Of course there’s Aristotle in there. And as the title suggests, we are constantly accompanied by Aquinas. But, for me, it’s Herbert McCabe who shines through as having put together his own picture of what constitutes the human condition, in what I’d take as a summation of his life’s work.

I noted yesterday that people read more pulp fiction on Kindles than they’d dare have on their bookshelf or be seen reading in public. But the opposite is also the case. Truth is I’d never have found Herbert McCabe or bought his book without the web, connected devices and impulsive instant gratification via electronic delivery.

McCabe makes a powerful case for ‘philia’, mutual care and fellow-feeling, as the right basis for our relationships – not the functional rights and duties of justice and the law.

Justice is the minimum duty we owe to ‘strangers’, ‘philia’ is the care, respect, love, friendship, reasonable accommodation and interdependence we have with other people which constitute ‘humanity’ and ‘society’. Laws imperfectly capture the statutory minimum, ‘philia‘ is the gold standard for people, politics and society.

Stood on a grey suburban station platform this morning (the car’s bust again) I looked at the different shapes and sizes of punters, mums and pinstriped professionals all focused on getting their train. There were moments of ‘philia’. A shy ‘See you tomorrow‘ to the man serving a women her daily coffee, a jolly exchange between Ticket Collector and middle aged vamp.

Through the lens of ‘philia’ people look different. We judge less, tolerate more and look beyond face value. McCabe was right to remind us of this.

Crystallisation

At the core of Aristotle’s account of ethics and virtue is ‘Prohairesis’ – the central moral character.

I increasingly think of it like a copper sulphate crystal growing on a piece of thread. When you do the classic school experiment, knotted threads provide the core around which a copper sulphate crystal can form, from a saturated solution. But you often get several smaller crystals and imperfections in the main one.

In my thesis, the central moral character forms – like a copper sulphate crystal – when choice and actions start to cohere around a central narrative of who we are and what we stand for. The sub-crystals are alternate versions of ourselves and the imperfections are just that – out of character behaviours, foibles and failings.

Last week I gave a talk where I owned up to once having ‘presentational positions’ on most aspects of work. They were largely free floating from any common ethical foundation. I had ethics ‘in the mix’, but no core crystal.

Expedience, presentational benefit and plausible deniability were as likely to inform my public utterances as beliefs, values or virtue. Not these days. I have Prohairesis – a central moral character which, on my better days, informs and guides my choices.

But to meet Aquinas’s test of virtue I have one major challenge left – slowing down. Talking to a friend at the weekend it transpires that one of the strengths of ‘clever’ people is they are quick. This means they can quickly weigh options and decide on the best action. But the challenge to ‘capable’ people as they progress in life, and into more complicated situations, is to use this processing capability to judge more wisely – not more quickly.

Aquinas has it that a man can make ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral choices without any guiding core moral character, but they cannot be truly ‘virtuous’ without ‘Prudentia’ – practical wisdom – as the unifying prism. As Herbert McCabe says deliberation should be long and considered, action sharp and decisive. Sometimes I am too quick to decide.

I have Prohairesis forming in a nice crystal on the thread of my life. I’m not bad on Prudentia these days either. But like copper sulphate crystals these things take time to grow, so I should take my time too.

Language

Re-reading a chapter of Herbert McCabe’s ‘On Aquinas’ last night, the outline of a new understanding emerged from the complex conceptual haze of the ‘philosophy of language’.

Language is the means through which we transcend individual experience and share our lives, ideas and culture with others. So far so obvious – Stephen Hawking’s is a brilliant mind but without a twitch sensor and a computer voice he’d be lost to us, alone trapped in his own head.

McCabe, following Aquinas and Wittgenstein considers language as exclusively ‘public’. It exists outside and apart from the sense perceptions of people – it has to otherwise it would not work as a means of sharing understanding.

So while my ‘red’ might look and feel different to yours (although probably not that much) as soon as we name it, it ceases to be my ‘property’ and becomes a shared one. As McCabe points out, my sense perceptions are my own, but my words ‘belong’ to the English language and are public, shared and ‘intersubjective’ – i.e. most people would agree on what they mean, otherwise they wouldn’t work.

Why is this so important? Well as Aristotle said: ‘It us the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’.

Similarly it is the mark of an animal with language to be able to describe, contemplate and imagine actions, not simply to feel, jump and act. Without language there is no reflection, just action and reaction.

For Aristotle, Aquinas, Wittgenstein and McCabe, language is not just a fancy tail feather or ornament on human intellect – it is human intellect. Language is the difference between pure instinct and intelligence, communication and culture.

The penny has dropped for me – something I didn’t ‘get’ when I did philosophy at University. David Hume and others persuaded me that sensations come first and language just describes them. But I now reckon it’s the other way around – language marks off and frames sensations so we can contemplate them. Language is not just communicating, it’s everything.

Language also connects us across boundaries of space and time. Herbert McCabe lives on through his limpid, lively philosophical prose. Like Montaigne, you feel you know the man when you read what McCabe has written. Shrewd, perhaps a little stubborn, quick-witted, sharp – and for a monk, disarmingly worldly and funny.

As Aristotle said, we are we repeatedly do. Perhaps, also, we are what we repeatedly write – poetry, prose or philosophy.

Incandescence

This week, I advanced my new theory – to a gently sceptical friend – that the brain works (at least partly) like the electronic ink screen of an Amazon Kindle. Blending in the philosophy of St Thomas Aquinas, my sweeping conclusion was he should get angry more. Here’s why.

Since buying a Kindle, I’ve been impressed that the screen, when you switch it off, maintains a complex picture – a person, a constellation, a painting etc – using no energy at all. It’s simple but impressive. Like a screensaver, but without power. Information and knowledge are thus available to be viewed, at any time, at no energy or processing cost. My theory is the brain has the same capacity.

A few years ago I read that neurones aren’t permanently ‘charged’ like little lightbulbs or LCD pixels but store information passively – more like a physical switch or dial. Energy is used to ‘charge’ them with information, but once they have been ‘set’ with information they store it passively until changed. Good job too, or, given the number of neurones we have, we’d need a nuclear generator to power our heads.

So my emerging thesis is we can ‘poll’ in computer lingo, or rapidly access a snapshot our entire accumulated summary of knowledge and experience in an instant. And in that instant we can act or react subconsciously informed by that summary.

My guess is that none of this requires much in the way of conscious cognitive processes. Like a finger recoiling from a nail or a smile drawing a return smile, we can immediately and effectively respond to people and situations against this dataset. I’m not saying it is innate or preloaded. We are constantly checking, updating and rearranging our vast neuronal data-set. But at any instant, my thesis is, it lies latently ‘there’ encrypted in neurones like the patterns which make a rich picture, or a page of words, out of electronic ink.

Of course we can intervene, ignore, debate or challenge our accumulated data. Any instant ‘gut’ reaction, or action, it may recommend can be overruled. In complex or nuanced circumstances the higher cognitive functions kick in – at least most of the time.

And this connects to my ongoing conversation with my friend on Aquinas’ support for ‘ira’, and the set of passions which include anger. Like Aristotle – in fact far more than him – Aquinas was pro anger in the right circumstances. Surprising for a theologian.

He thought the passions were intrinsic parts of who we are. He thought they were forms of reason, not lower ‘animal’ or ‘bodily’ sensations to be suppressed by our purer ‘mind’ or ‘soul’. Thus, our passions come from our instincts, blended with our default ‘Kindle screen’ summary of experiences, beliefs and our lifetime of accumulated and refined knowledge. They all inform each other.

I’m with Aristotle that we are what we repeatedly do. So we are constantly refining and tuning our passions, our experience dataset and our virtues through action – only some of that helped by conscious reflection. I’m increasingly with Aquinas too, that it all comes together in complex single holistic system – an ‘anima’, aka a person, not a dumb body and a smart, reasonable mind.

As Herbert McCabe points out: for Aquinas the good life is a passionate life; not achieved by the repression of passions, but by passions guided by virtues. Perhaps there’s more to be said for trusting our ‘gut’, allowing moments of ‘ira’ and the occasional incandescence of righteous anger. Once you’ve lived a few decades and developed a bit of virtue, it’s pretty well informed.

Elemental

The late Herbert McCabe wrote with almost scientific beauty on Aristotle and Aquinas. There is a tightness and precision which bespeaks a lifetime’s reflection and contemplation.

The international physics community has just acknowledged two new superheavy elements – 114 and 116 – which can only be made by man. In his book ‘On Aquinas’, McCabe has fused together all the elements in philosophical symmetry from the two historic heavyweights: Aristotle and Aquinas.

He manages some lighter metaphors though. Describing the difference between following rules and developing virtue he draws on football. Learning the rules of football won’t make you a good player, practice alone makes perfect. Similarly our ‘friends’, in the Aristotelian sense, are our purpose, practice and team-mates. Here’s what he has to say:

From the point of view of moral philosophy the game is friendship (philia) in the sense which Aristotle described it as that relationship by which people are fellow-citizens; and it is more than justice. Justice is the minimum proper relationship with foreigners, but, in addition to this, citizenship demands a concern for the flourishing of your friends, a concern, therefore for their virtues and their concern for my virtues. Friendship is both the aim of all the virtues and also the necessary means by which virtues are cultivated, sustained and developed. Virtues can only be taught by friends. Friendship can only be sustained by virtues.

Past thinkers have discovered all the elements of the ethical periodic table. But McCabe showed there are still elegant and beautiful new ways to bring them together.

Poppies

On holiday in France, I started reading Herbert McCabe on St Thomas Aquinas. I’d heard Sir Anthony Kenny in a ‘Philosophy Bites’ podcast describing Aquinas as deserving as much attention from we moderns as Aquinas himself paid to Aristotle in his day – a great medieval foundation on which to build.

On a prominent bookshelf, in the holiday home we were staying in, Aquinas merited two volumes – Aquinas I and II – in the leather bound ‘Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World’. Only one other philosopher got two whole volumes… you guessed it – Aristotle. Good references then.

I’m too early into Aquinas to know how much is him and how much is McCabe building on him. But reading McCabe’s account, a whole series of philosophical concepts and ideas which I ‘learned’ at University are now a lot clearer to me.

Souls, existence and being are all brought to life, but also the significance of language. I never really got why modern philosophers were so hung up on language. Yes it’s an important skill, yes it codifies our world, but presenting it like maths is to science – underpinning everything we are, think and can know of the world – seemed to overrate ‘words’ to my undergraduate mind.

Take ‘redness’ I can accept your idea of red might overlap with mine, or be subtly different or be missing altogether if you’re colour blind. I can further accept my dog or a leopard might see it differently again, and a plant not at all. But as a good post enlightenment ‘atomist’, I felt ‘redness’ was ‘real’ not subjective. Whatever jingling of photons against molecules it is, ‘red’ for me was the name for a real ‘observable’ characteristic of the handsome poppies dotted in the wheatfields of Charente-Maritime.

I’m attracted by McCabe’s account that the big difference between a car and a cheetah, is one is made of parts, the other is only comprehensible as a whole. One can be taken apart and put back together again, the other can’t. One can exist uniquely as the only one of it’s kind, the other requires mates, progenitors and offspring to come to exist and continue to truly exist.

And so it is with humans. What we call ‘red’ is the product of millions of years of evolution and thousands of years of language – in an unbroken physical, linguistic and cultural chain. This unbroken chain can be ‘atomised’ into its constituent parts – which certainly helps us to grapple with what is and isn’t ‘red’, but that doesn’t really capture the phenomenon or the ‘phenomenology’.

There is no ‘red’ without humans to see it and a shared human language to describe it. We can describe the photons bouncing off the lattice of the petal, hitting the retina and sparking the neurones. Using language we can think hard about it and describe it to others. But before there was language to describe it, think it and name it there was no ‘red’. There were plants but no poppies.

What I call a poppy, Montaigne would have recognised as a pavot, Aquinas as a papaver and Aristotle as a παπαρούνα. Same sensory apparatus, languages from the same family tree, many common cultural references. Different words, similar – although never exactly the same – human experience: ‘redness’.

Being part of that unbroken chain of evolution, languages, knowledge and ideas is far richer than photons bouncing off a lattice. It’s good to look at the parts, but as Aquinas reminds us, it is the whole which is the special bit.