Contemporary academic philosophers tend to be dismissive of the idea that philosophy has any intrinsic moral or spiritual significance. To be sure, the left-of-center ones among them (which is most of them) do think that it can be indirectly morally beneficial insofar as it disabuses the young people who study it of (what these philosophers regard as) the moral, political, and religious illusions foisted upon them by their parents and the surrounding culture. But they have little time for the notion of philosophy as a way of life, as something inherently practical as well as intellectual – something which of its very nature tends toward the moral and spiritual betterment of those devoted to it. W. V. Quine once wrote a condescending piece about Mortimer Adler, brushing aside the latter’s complaint that contemporary philosophy has lost contact with the concerns of ordinary people. “The student who majors in philosophy primarily for spiritual comfort is misguided and is probably not a very good student anyway,” Quine assured his readers, “since intellectual curiosity is not what moves him.” You can find the essay in Quine’s anthology Theories and Things. I remember as a young man reading it and chuckling knowingly at Adler’s evident folly.
Well, I was the fool. Here as in so many other ways, the elegant Harvard man Quine was wrong and the pugnacious academic outsider Adler was right. It would take me many years to get to the point where I could even begin to see why.
Of course, when one considers some of the things contemporary philosophy students are taught, one can understand why Quine might seem to have the better of the argument. There are, for instance, the ridiculous caricatures of the classical arguments for religion and for traditional morality, commonly used as fodder for exercises in “thinking critically.” (“Critical thinking” about religion and traditional morality, you see, involves ignoring the actual views of their greatest defenders, briskly refuting a few straw men instead, declaring a once-and-for-all victory against the forces of reaction, and dismissing anyone who objects to this farcical procedure as an ill-informed right-wing religious fanatic with a political agenda.) Then there are the arid technicalities many a philosophy teacher puts in place of these more traditional themes, divorced from any context which might make their significance intelligible. (I know of a prominent academic philosopher who once spent an entire Introduction to Philosophy course introducing his hapless charges to two topics: direct reference theory and Goodman’s grue paradox. That is an extreme case, but it illustrates the mentality.) Add to this the phony “professionalism” that is too often a mask for careerism and lazy conformity to fashionable academic opinion, and the result does indeed seem devoid of moral or spiritual import, or at least of any positive moral and spiritual import.
But things were not always so. From the point of view of the classical philosophical tradition – the tradition represented by the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – the metaphysical preconditions of there being such things as philosophical and scientific inquiry in the first place inexorably lead us, upon rational analysis, to a divine sustaining cause of the world who is necessarily also the source and standard of all value; and they lead us too to the recognition that that within us which grasps these truths – the intellect – is like unto this divine source, and has (as Aristotle put it) the “service and contemplation” of the divine as its highest fulfillment. To be sure, these thinkers differed, often dramatically, over the details. But on this big picture they were agreed. Contra Quine and the majority of contemporary academic philosophers, the ancients and medievals regarded the intellectual and the spiritual, reason and religion, as necessarily fused all the way down.
That the ancients and medievals had it right is something I have done my own small part to try to show in books like The Last Superstition and Aquinas. Other contemporary philosophers have taken on the same task. David Conway’s book The Rediscovery of Wisdom: From Here to Antiquity in Quest of Sophia – which was, incidentally, instrumental in leading Antony Flew away from atheism – is one important example. Now comes another, Mark Anderson’s Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One. It is a small gem of a book – wise and beautifully written, both in substance and in style something like a glimpse into a lost and longed-for world. Here is the book description from the back cover:
Pure: Modernity, Philosophy, and the One is an experimental work of philosophy in which the author aspires to think his way back to a “premodern” worldview derived from the philosophical tradition of Platonism. To this end he attempts to identify and elucidate the fundamental intellectual assumptions of modernity and to subject these assumptions to a critical evaluation from the perspective of Platonic metaphysics. The author addresses a broad range of subjects - from ethics, politics, metaphysics, and science to the philosophies of Plato, Plotinus, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche - without losing sight of the single aim of formulating a premodern perspective in opposition to modernity. The work culminates in a series of essays on the practice of purification, a form of intellectual and spiritual discipline acknowledged by ancient and medieval philosophers alike to be a necessary preliminary to metaphysical insight.
Pure is informed throughout by rigorous scholarship, but it is not an “academic” work. The author avoids the plodding and professorial tone typical of contemporary philosophical research in favor of a meditative and aphoristic style. The book, in short, is learned without being pedantic. Readers interested in the history of philosophy and the intellectual roots of the crisis of modernity will find in Pure substantial matter for reflection.
As this indicates, Anderson’s approach is (unlike my own) Platonic rather than Aristotelian or Thomistic. More precisely, it is Neo-Platonic, though as Anderson emphasizes, the label “Neo-Platonism” is something modern scholars have imposed on Plotinus and Co., not one they applied, or would have applied, to themselves. The great Neo-Platonists regarded their position as Platonic without qualification, as at most an elaboration of themes Plato himself hinted at rather than the invention of anything radically new. I sympathize with this interpretation, and Anderson endorses it unapologetically. It is but one of the many ways in which Pure is refreshingly old-fashioned.
Nor should the differences between the Neo-Platonic and the Aristotelian-Thomistic views of the world be overstated. The extent to which Aristotle himself departed from Plato is a matter of controversy. The Neo-Platonists incorporated aspects of Aristotelianism into their own system. The Augustinian brand of Christian theology Aquinas grafted Aristotelianism onto was already heavily influenced by Neo-Platonism. The central theme of the Summa Theologiae – God as the first cause and last end of creation, He from Whom the world derives and to Whom it seeks to return – echoes Plotinus. And there are various other specific aspects of Aquinas’s thought which have long been understood as evincing a Neo-Platonic influence – such as his use of the language of “participation,” the henological approach to God in the Fourth Way, and the many citations of Pseudo-Dionysius.
More than any other recent defense of classical philosophy, Anderson’s book revives and reasserts the ancients’ emphasis on the moral preconditions of attaining philosophical understanding. This is the “purification” referred to in the back cover description and alluded to in the book’s title – a purification having physical, ethical, intellectual, and spiritual components, all spelled out in Pure with reference to the Platonic tradition. As might be expected from that tradition, the purification in question fundamentally concerns deliverance from our enslavement to things material or bodily. But contrary to the standard caricature, the Platonist does not condemn either the body or the material world in general as such. What is condemned is rather the disorder which makes the body and its appetites the master of the soul, and the material realm rather than the immaterial the primary object of the intellect’s attention. The body has its place – and it should know its place, which is to be in every way subordinate to the soul, permitted to realize its desires only as reason dictates. And the material realm, while worthy of our empirical scientific efforts, points beyond itself to a higher realm, the object of a higher science – metaphysics – and ultimately to a divine Source of all which is no less an object of rational investigation than of spiritual aspiration.
For the typical modern reader, especially the typical contemporary academic philosopher, all of this is bound to raise eyebrows. Some riff on materialism and empiricism – a “naturalistic” approach to metaphysics and epistemology, say, to use the currently fashionable jargon – is de rigueur. But from a classical realist point of view – the basic metaphysical perspective shared in common by Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, whatever their differences – the falsity of materialism and empiricism is obvious. For (a) the reality of universals is unavoidable, (b) universals are necessarily immaterial, and (c) our conceptual grasp of them cannot in principle either be accounted for in terms of sensation alone or reduced to material processes in the brain. (To be sure, for Aristotle and the Scholastics there is nothing in the intellect that did not arise from the senses. But this does not entail the British empiricists’ thesis that concepts just are faint copies of sensations.) Moreover, to adopt some form of classical metaphysics is more or less to commit yourself to some kind of classical theism: a Platonic theory of Forms leads inexorably to something like the Form of the Good or The One; an Aristotelian act/potency distinction leads inexorably to that which is Actus Purus; a Thomistic essence/existence distinction leads inexorably to that which is ipsum esse subsistens.
I have elaborated on all of this in The Last Superstition and Aquinas. What Anderson emphasizes is the moral dimension to this fundamental metaphysical dispute. A culture as deeply informed as ours is by the errors of materialism and empiricism is bound to be a culture obsessed with material gain and prone to sensual overindulgence, and a culture dominated by these vices is bound to be drawn, in its intellectual moments, toward materialism and empiricism. The philosophical and moral errors in question are mutually reinforcing, and their combination is, for Anderson, of the essence of “modernity” – a condition possible at any time, even if it is the dominant spiritual condition of our own times. And from the point of view of classical philosophy, modernity in this sense is (as Anderson paraphrases the Socrates of the Phaedo) “the greatest and most extreme of all evils.” For of its essence it positively drives us away from the Good, in the classical sense – away from the pursuit of it, away from even the possibility of knowledge of it. Modernity is the life of Plato’s cave.
Certainly the greatest of the ancient philosophers would find their modern counterparts thoroughly uncongenial – in their dogmatic materialism, their dogmatic egalitarianism, their atheism, their easygoing attitude toward sensual indulgence, their tendency to think of justice primarily in material, economic terms (whether socialist, liberal, or libertarian – these are just different strains of the same virus). As Anderson acidly puts it: “Contemporary philosophers refuse to admit that Plato meant what he wrote, for what he wrote generally amounts to a repudiation of their moral and intellectual lives.”
That is an aphorism, and like all aphorisms it needs to be read with care – something the unsympathetic reader is unlikely to bring to his evaluation of a book like Pure. Secular left-of-center academics are happy to bend over backwards, forwards, and in every other direction to discern some rational insight packed into a throwaway aphorism of a Nietzsche (say) or the half-baked political rants of a Chomsky or Zinn. But they will dismissively nitpick even the most carefully formulated utterances of a conservative or religious writer. One can imagine what they would do with an Anderson line like this: “We must not refute Hume, we must refuse to converse with him – we must forget him.”
But this is another aphorism, and that Anderson does not mean by it to deny that the critic of Hume must provide arguments is clear from the rest of the book. For example, in criticizing the fideism of some Christians, Anderson rejects “groundless belief deriving from authority, hope, or desire” and insists that “we must not simply advocate the groundless substitution of a premodern metaphysical perspective for the assumptions of modernity.” The premodern perspective is something that can and must be argued for.
Regarding Hume, readers of The Last Superstition know that I consider him overrated, a “mere – brilliant – sophist,” as Elizabeth Anscombe famously described him. (I say this as a former atheist, who used to admire Hume greatly.) Hume’s best-known positions typically rest on crude philosophical errors (such as his assimilation of the intellect to the senses). And while (as Anscombe rightly conceded) in the course of developing his sophistries he sometimes raises interesting and important philosophical questions, his stature owes less to this than to his political usefulness – not in the sense of everyday electoral politics or even political philosophy, but in the sense that he has become a symbol of intellectual opposition to the claims of religion, a kind of anti-Aquinas who is thought somehow to have exposed natural theology as vacuous once and for all. It is Hume’s conclusions that his admirers like, and even if his arguments for those conclusions are worthless, continuing the fiction that he was a thinker comparable to Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Co. affords those conclusions an unearned respectability they would not otherwise have. (Hume is in this respect like Marx.)
I do not want to put words in Anderson’s mouth, but my sense is that that is what he is getting at in the aphorism in question: We must stop participating in the maintenance of this fiction that Hume was ten feet tall, stop treating him as anything but the easily dispatched sophist that he was, stop buying into the lie that he did any serious damage whatsoever to the arguments of classical metaphysics. In a sane world, Hume would be treated as a curiosity and nothing more – a clever fellow who propagated some interesting errors. In short, he would be treated the same way contemporary secular academic philosophers treat Aquinas.
As the reference to Anderson’s views on Christianity indicates, Pure is not written from a Christian point of view, or at least not an explicitly Christian point of view. Indeed, it seems to me that Anderson’s brief remarks about early Christianity vis-à-vis Platonism overstate the fideism of the former (though he is careful to qualify his remarks as intended to apply to “some” Christian thinkers). But in this too Anderson’s book is refreshingly old-fashioned – reflective of a more sane era in the history of philosophy when the debate was not over whether God exists (every rational person knew that) but rather over how one ought to worship Him. With Pure, Anderson has contributed to the restoration of philosophical sanity.