Meaning and Value in the History of Philosophy
This paper will proceed first, to delineate my conception of meaning and value from the neo-Platonist philosopher Gregory Skovoroda for about two-thirds of this paper, reserved for analysis and description. Then, to develop, in the last two third, the relation of this complex of ideas to my life and professional aspirations.
One might wonder what I would pick an obscure Ukrainian philosopher for the foundation of this paper. It is because he encapsulates the basic theories and ideas that we have struggled with all semester, having stumbled across some of his work, I regret he was not studied in class. He made everything else seem much clearer, with a dialogic writing style which is crisp, clear and easy to comprehend, particularly with a classroom background in metaphysics and ethics. He is a neo-Platonist that, in many ways, synthesizes the debate between Plato and Aristotle, Kant and Hegel. He is a philosopher that needs to be read with greater attention. One of the main reasons for this is that the nature of practice, struggle and labor is present within his more abstract metaphysical theorizing. Activity is an integral part, in other words, of his metaphysics–reason and will are considered as one and the same movement, artificially separated in academic, western philosophy. Hence, in an assignment that requires one to link theories of existence to one’s life choices and professional aspirations, there are few in the history of ideas that fill this better than Skovoroda. He was, further, a major–but often un-cited–influence on the thought of Leo Tolstoy (Zakydalsky, 122).
Man, the human being, is the end of the natural world, its purpose and telos. This is because man is a microcosm: he sums up the entire universe in his person. In man, there is a spiritual and a physical side each with its purpose. The final end of man is happiness, and it is the purpose of Skovoroda’s vision, a vision I find satisfying, to provide the means to that happiness.
What is also very satisfying about Skovoroda relative to this assignment is that he is the analytic philosopher’s nightmare: aphorisms and vague language do not mask a lack of ability, but rather an understanding that analytic methods are not appropriate in philosophy like they might be in the hard sciences. Famous philosophical dilemmas such as the one any many, mind and body, individual and society are not fully integrated, since metaphysics or analytic ethics do not have the conceptual or linguistic forms necessary to solve these perennial problems. They are, in fact not solvable–but they can be synthesized in a manner that is intellectual satisfying, and more importantly, in a way that can open the door to a satisfying life beyond the arid debates of professional philosophers. In some ways, Marcus Aurelius and David Hume find room within the views of Skovoroda, for they came to similar conclusions about philosophy’s greatest problems: it is happiness, or contentment, not metaphysics and logic, that philosophy should concern itself with.
Skovoroda is a dualist. Everything, including man, is made up of exactly two things: form and matter. Skovoroda is not an Aristotelian or Thomist, there is no hylomorphism here. As such everything in Skovoroda, similar words are given new meanings. Form is God’s presence in objects of sense. God is the “ultimate plan” of the universe, closely connected with it but not identical with it. The Platonic world of forms is contained in God, and these forms become “clothed” with matter. Matter acts for Skovoroda like light for Robert Grossesste: it is the principle of extension and of appearance (Zakydalsky, 148).
At the same time, Skovoroda, as seen, is an imminentist: God is present in creation, and creation, seen from another point of view, is the self-revelation of God. This is not pantheism, but it is immenentism: God’s truth is revealed in nature. Nature is a “book of symbols” acting in a scientific way what the books of the bible do in a literary way (Zakydalsky, quoting from Skovoroda, 37). Nature, as appearance, is a “shadow.” It is the appearance of form, or the power of God immanent in objects. In this manner, Aristotle and Plato are synthesized. Objects are substances in that, from the point of view of man, they are composites of form and matter. These forms are unique to the objects, but have their basis in God, where they are forms in Augustine’s sense (cf. Augustine’s discussion of the Forms, in Bourke, 62-63).
Rather than analytic metaphysics, these ideas are presented in poetic and dialogic form. They are concepts thrown together to form an artistic whole, rather than a logical analysis leading to conclusions. The reality is, however, this is how the overwhelming majority of human beings experience metaphysics, not through logic, but through he experience of dualism in things: the fact that they abide, and the fact that they come to be and pass away. It is a poetic and artistic vision, not an analytic one: analysis destroys as much as it reveals.
All of this however, does not have value in itself. Forms adhering to objects as the will of God implanted in them is not just a Platonic or Aristotelian notion. It is not static. Like Hegel later, these forms are dynamic, and form not merely the objects’s place in the world, but their striving, their motion towards their end. Forms are blueprints for activity rather than mathematical or scientific principles. Hence, the appearance of a thing is dependent on God’s will for it, for in appearance does the observer see motion and striving as an extended substance. In many ways, Skovoroda has elements of Spinoza in him, as there is a monistic notion of God as the eternal blueprint of the universe, however differentiated as modes within specific objects. These modes are destinies.
What makes Skovoroda different from the stoics or Spinoza is his doctrine of the heart. There are few philosophers (Gregory Palamas comes to mind), whop have made a philosophy of the heart. Yet, it is a word constantly used in popular discourse. The heart is central to the non-analytic epistemology of Skovoroda. It is, to put it succinctly, the very center of man’s being. It is not an entity analyzable by reason. It is the final basis of all human action, it is its origin. As God is to the universe, the heart is to man. It is recognizable only by faith, never by analysis, since analysis takes it for granted. It is the ground for any analysis, it is that “thing” that recognizes the logical progression in things, but is also the reason why anyone would want to concern themselves with such abstract things in the first place. It is the basis for both reason and will, faith and ambition. The heart is for human beings what forms are for substances. It is that which makes a particular thing what it is. It makes an object unique in the Aristotelian, not the Augustinian, sense.
The heart is the ultimate ontological principle in man. It sustains the entire human person as the “force” (to use a Hegelian term) that keeps form and matter together. In the thought of Sergei Bulgakov, it is the “divine Sophia” in man (cf. Bulgakov, 56), it is the foundation to which the one and the many can both be reduced. In a strange way, it is the presence of the Hegelian “absolute knowledge.” It is the ground of reason and will, and individual and community, natural rights and natural law. All of these things–common in philosophy at all levels–can be reduced to the heart. It is bottomless.
The heart contains the destiny of man. This is why I have chosen Skovoroda to be the basis of this paper: because in the heart contains what most would call destiny, or alternatively, the idea of vocation. Vocation is yet another one of these common concepts only rarely dealt with in the abstract and analytic philosophic literature. Yet it is so important for life, or how one conceives of life. Heart and destiny are not Hallmark phrases, they are not pleasant poetic concepts that ultimately mean nothing: they are the very core of happiness.
class=Section2>In man the head of all things is the human heart. It is that which is most truly human in him; everything else is peripheral, as Jeremiah teaches: “Deep is the heart of man above all things; it is man, and who can know it?”Take heed, I beg of you: the heart is deep, and it is man. But what is the heart, if not the soul? What is the soul, if not a bottomless pit of thought? What is thought, if not the root, seed, and grain of all our flesh, blood , skin, and other outwardness? You see that a man who has destroyed the peace of his heart destroys his head and root. (Skovoroda, Happiness, np)
The heart can lean one of two ways (everything is based on the number 2). It can lean to its true path: that of understanding the underlying pattern in created objects. In fact, this is the first step in becoming happy: seeing the blueprint inherent in objects and their interrelations, and, in so doing, seeing the real, abiding meaning in events, rather than the more common emotional reaction to events.
Of course, the heart can lean towards the false path, the path to misery: the path, the faith, that holds that matter and appearances (one in the same in Skovoroda) are all that exist. This path is chosen by the overwhelming majority of humanity, and shows the irrationality of humanity in this respect. It is chosen, even though it is false, because it is easy. It is resignation in the worst form, below that of the stoics. Finding the true meaning of objects and their interrelations takes time and effort. It is easy (and immediate) to have knee jerk reactions to events, seeing them only as sense and matter present them. Skovoroda writes on his Dialogue on Happiness:
class=Section4>The babe in arms often reaches for a sharp knife or a flame, but Nature, our most merciful mother, knows better than we do what is good for us. Although we weep and howl, she feeds us, as is seemly, at her own breasts, and clothes us. The good child is satisfied with this, but the bad seed stirs up both himself and others. Millions of unhappy children complain day and night, content with nothing. If you place one thing in their hands, they cry for something else. We cannot fail to be unhappy (Skovoroda, Happiness)
The heart contains a natural law, yet this natural law is not coercive, it can be denied. This natural law is the law of thought. Like Plato’s eros, this law of thought posits that the point of thought is to strip bare the world of appearances, to see the divine pattern beneath the shroud of matter. This is the search for God. God does not “live” “up” in the “heavens.” He is an entity on earth, but existing in a different dimension than that world of appearances. He is the foundation of appearances as the heart is the foundation of man. It is not merely an ontological fundament, but is a dynamic force. While God is complete in Himself, the world of appearances is not, and hence, the blueprint of forms (in Augustine’s sense) is in a constant state of striving, though Skovoroda never uses any sort of act/potency description. Hence, truth is seeing what the world of appearances is striving to. There is a telling passage in Plato’s Symposium similar to this:
class=Section6>Evil is the vulgar lover who loves the body rather than the soul, inasmuch as he is not even stable, because he loves a thing which is in itself unstable, and therefore when the bloom of youth which he was desiring is over, he takes wing and flies away, in spite of all his words and promises; whereas the love of the noble disposition is life-long, for it becomes one with the everlasting (Symposium)
Hence, the natural law of the heart is to uncover this truth, the “everlasting”. Matter has its place, it is not “evil,” as some sectarians hold, but is merely incomplete, “un-spiritualized” for lack of a better term (for a similar view, see Bulgakov, 59). It is a symbol of incomplete striving, but of striving nevertheless. It may even be an error to sharply distinguish between inherent forms and matter, though it is necessary for philosophy to do so. It may be the case, though this is never specified, that matter is an inherent part of form, they come into existence together, one representing the completed journey to truth, the other, the incomplete journey, the striving, the eros.
All thought tends to this end, though laziness (and other factors described below) prevents most of humanity from even starting, let alone finishing, this journey. God and God alone can satisfy this naturally implanted desire, this eros. Reason and will are the same, because it is the eros, the desire to start this journey, that is the impetus to reason, and reason is merely the instrument of will in making this journey work. Reason is never separated from will, and neither are separated from the heart. Plato writes on this score:
class=Section8>There are in the human body these two kinds of love, which are confessedly different and unlike, and being unlike, they have loves and desires which are unlike; and the desire of the healthy is one, and the desire of the diseased is another; and as Pausanias was just now saying that to indulge good men is honorable, and bad men dishonorable–so too in the body the good and healthy elements are to be indulged, and the bad elements and the elements of disease are not to be indulged, but discouraged. And this is what the physician has to do, and in this the art of medicine consists: for medicine may be regarded generally as the knowledge of the loves and desires of the body, and how to satisfy them or not; and the best physician is he who is able to separate fair love from foul, or to convert one into the other; and he who knows how to eradicate and how to implant love, whichever is required, and can reconcile the most hostile elements in the constitution and make them loving friends, is skillful practitioner (Symposium).
What is the nature of this journey, the pursuit of the good and avoidance of the evil, and what is the point of this paper? It all hangs together. The very fact that Skovoroda connects the metaphysics of the heart to that of one’s personal life and development make him unique, and uniquely appropriate for a paper of this sort. The journey is the very expression of the heart. The journey is about the final expression of the heart, and its natural law, to find peace and stillness in the truth of things, and hence, rest in God, as St. Augustine would say. The final end of all this is happiness. Skovoroda writes:
class=Section10>Nature, our most wise Mother, for Her arrangement of the heavenly spheres, God and time are wiser even than he. Why should you seek a better judge? Depend upon Him and make His holy Will your own. If you accept it, it is already your. The harmony of the will lies in a single soul and an undivided heart. What is better than friendship with the Most High? If you have it, everything will be done according to your own will and to the all-wise Will. And this is to be content with all things. (Skovoroda, Happiness)
The way to the fulfillment of these things is exactly how I see my development as a person, citizen and as a professional. And it is here where all the above is tied together into a rational, ethical professional life tied into the Skovoroda’s concept of the heart.
The heart is unique to each person. Human beings are not equal. But this inequality is based on another concept found in the heart, that of vocation. Vocation is one of the central roles for the heart in human and social life. Vocations are interior leanings, an expression of the interior form (similar to the inherent forms in all created objects), a striving, the eros. Destiny is another word for this. It can be frustrated, it can be ignored completely. In fact, most of humanity spend a great deal of time ignoring it every hour of their lives. But it remains the first ingredient to happiness: following one’s heart is just a nice way of saying that each person has implanted in them a form that leans to a specific direction: philosophy, clergy, medicine, social work, etc. It is part of an ontological fundament, which means it is not reducible to environment pure and simple. It is an inchoate longing, a longing that needs to be “unpacked” throughout one’s life both as a professional and as a citizen. It has social value, for yet another element of the human heart is that it is not solitary: a truly ethical and social life is based on serving the community. There is no such things as a “vocation” that demands complete withdrawal from community. The heart always is social, always is gregarious.
Hence, the first element in happiness is to throw away all concepts of personal gain, and to pursue the inner directives of the heart, regardless of consequences. In this case, it is Kantian duty, rather than any specifically personal (i.e. selfish) desire that should motivate action. Pursing duty is to pursue the erotic promptings of the heart, regardless of the unpleasantness that may arise. In fact, pursing ends based on avoiding unpleasantness is the very opposite of duty and happiness, and can lead only to misery, since one’s internal prompting are ignored in favor of a far more vivid animal impulse to avoid pain. In fact, pain in the pursuit of one’s heart’s desire is not pain at all, but a side affect of being yet fully enlightened, of still living in falsehood, in the world of appearances. In reality, pain in pursuit of a rational interior prompt is not pain at all, it is merely perceived that way. He writes:
class=Section12>Those without understanding dispraise the disposition of the heavenly spheres, criticize the quality of the earth, find fault with the wise creations of God’s right hand in animals, trees, mountains, rivers, and grasses. They are satisfied with nothing. According to their absurd and gloomy view, there is no need in the world for night, winter, old age, labor, hunger, thirst, disease, or–most of all–death. What purpose does it serve? Ah, our poor, small knowledge, our tiny concepts! I think that we would govern the machinery if the world the way a son brought up in lawlessness would govern his father’s house. From where did these demons come to settle in our hearts? Are they not legion in us? But we ourselves have brought this primordial darkness with us; we were born with it. (Skovoroda, Happiness)
The second element is socialization. Each vocation, to be truly such, must have a social role. The prompting of the heart can never be confused with selfish desire, which is a lower impulse that fights the heart. Selfish desire derives from the world of appearances, while the heart is in “tune” with the forms of nature, or the eternal, almost Spinozan plan for all things.
The last element is simplicity, something sorely lacking in modernity. One’s desire’s should be limited, the ultimate desire is peace in th Augustinian sense. Suffering exists in the world of appearances, and, so long as one’s heart’s desire (in the proper sense) is being followed, then pain is not pain, but an experience of the constant dualism between form and matter, appearance and truth, peace and change. Living in the realm of true Form is the goal of life, but Skovoroda himself writes: “It is difficult, almost impossible, [to do this] but it is worthy of the greatest effort.”
The opposite of the heart is the ego, its obsession with appearances (in all sense of that term). The opposite of social life is selfishness and passion, while the opposite of simplicity is weakness, the following of passion rather than heart-rendered reason. Hence, the action plan is simple: to make up my mind that what I want, so long as it passes Plato and Skovoroda’s tests for its goodness and sociability, will be my reason for functioning. It will not be the market, or that “which sells” that will motivate my life, but the promptings of the heart, the eros, as Plato describes, that brings the soul/heart to its final end, peace in the knowledge of truth, rather than the agitation of the life of appearances. While others are pursing “what sells” I will be struggling, but secure in the knowledge of the ethical content of what I’m doing. Others may not understand, but Plato and Skovoroda, as well as Spinoza and so many others, have fully recognized this, but it need not be a source of pain. Of sympathy and pity, maybe, but never pain. Truth, stability, eternity: thee are the final ends. Only from here can peace derive. The market, “social norms,” the “normal”: these are unstable, ever changing and the cause of untruth. They are appearances, productive of images. But Plato and Skovoroda have taught me that image is falsehood, appearance is a lie: it is the form, the hand of god in all things, that is the source not only of truth, but also of peace.
Bulgakov, Sergei. Sophia: The Wisdom of God. Trans. Patrick Thompson. Lindisfarne, 1993.
Skovoroda, Gregory. “A Conversation among Five Travelers Concerning Life’s True Happiness.” Trans. Groege L. Kline. In Russian Philosophy Vol I. University of Tennessee Press, 1965.
Zakydalsky, Taras. The Theory of Man in the Philosophy of Skovoroda. Unpublshed Master’s Thesis. Bryn Mawr College. 1965. (Retrieved from http://ditext.com/zakydalsky/skovoroda.html on 12/4/2008).
Plato. Symposium. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. Internet Classics Archive (retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/symposium.html on 12/4/2008)
Augustine. The Essential Augustine. Trans and Ed. Vernon Bourke. Hackett, 1964.