Metaphysics and the Return to the Cave

Metaphysics and the Return to the Cave

I recently uploaded to a very significant text for me personally.Academically, it was a non-starter: an article written under my MA advisor, that languished in the drawer for almost a decade, before I finally became restless, polished our last draft and made it public. But “Reconsidering Neoplatonic Theurgy: Proclus on Metaphysics as a Virtue” articulates some of the reasons I had at the end of my MA in 2011 to start discerning a vocation to the priesthood and the religious life – a self-interpretation that would determine my life plans more or less until my arrival in Israel three years ago for a postdoc.

In many ways this exemplifies my tendency to simply act on any argument that convinces me – “When I see an argument, I go with it, and I throw in my lot with scribblers”. A habit for which friends have called me both serious and unserious. Serious, I take it, because I follow the arguments where they lead me, unserious, because I am not sufficiently critical of them. And as I revisited this paper last week and thought about how much I have changed since then, both charges seemed to be true. In this post I will be meditating on how I’ve changed and why those arguments, which once seemed so compelling to me, now have lost their force and I am taking decisions opposed to the ones that I took then.

So what was the decisive argument? It was that theurgy allows the philosopher to maintain his attention on eternal realities – on the gods – and nonetheless, through his religious practice help his fellow man. He could bring showers to remedy a drought or he could perform and explain the rituals that accompany individuals at every phase of their moral development. Through rite, philosophy exceeded its scholarly constriction, and reached all. It was in this way possible to be political, to return to the cave, and yet keep one’s mind on the Sun of Truth.

This line of thought was appealing to me, not least because I believed that concrete forms of political action were denied to me. At the time I was still under the influence of Olavo de Carvalho, even if I no longer followed his course, and the morality tale of “the life of Otto Maria Carpeaux” was something I constantly thought of: “Brazil destroys the spirit. Otto Maria Carpeaux arrived a Catholic conservative died an atheist errand boy for the Communist party. Bruno Tolentino arrived in Brazil with the promise to teach and after an initial assault, the intelligentsia neutralized him by awards and parties” (This is not a quote, but a paraphrase of the kinds of warnings he would emit – I also have no idea if there is any semblance of truth to these claims). Indeed, the recent association of Olavo with Bolsonaro appears ironic from that perspective – he always said and still says that until there is Christian hegemony in the cultural sphere, all conservative political movements will be a failure. This picture of Brazil as a corrupting swamp and an irredeemable polity, together with my own disconnect from my Brazilianness, made the idea of participating in politics simply unthinkable.

Theurgically understood the priesthood – and especially the priesthood in the religious life – offered a solution: it was possible to act politically without needing to descend to the mess of ideology. It was possible also to act politically within a supranational setting – the Church, the people of God, the nation composed of every nation. Here She was, with the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Roman imperial language to offer an identity for those who were orphans of the nations in the globalized world of progressive deracination from every national culture. A language to unite the Platonist with the masses. The sacraments held out the possibility that the philosophical word feed our common flesh.

I would only latch on to my Catholic identity as a substitute for a national identity later on in my discernment process, when I started regularly praying the breviary with its constant reference to us as the people of God and the children of Abraham. Before that already, the Procline argument promised to give a measure of unity and wholeness to my life: as a priest I would not have my research here, and my prayer there, and my sexuality elsewhere: rather there would be a unity of contemplation-sacraments-celibacy that would make sense as a unity. And fittingly enough Hermias describes theurgic mania as making the soul whole in each of its parts.

And yet, now I plan to move back to Brazil next year, in part precisely to take part in political life as an intellectual. “What went wrong?” my old self might ask. Why am I going back to the cave? What did I miss then, that I see now? Certainly there have been decisive experiences that showed me I had misunderstood myself, such as my failure to find a fitting religious community. But in this post I want to talk about what
I see as the intellectual errors in my never-published article and the motivations surrounding it.

First of all, upon rereading the article I was struck by how the theurgic integration of the soul presupposes the previous poetic harmony established amongst its parts. And this is, for me, certainly still a work in progress and one I had barely begun back at the time. True, ever since I returned to the Church in the middle of my BA, I have been trying through faith to integrate my Reason with the rest of my life, and theurgy is in part precisely by its notion of the divine signatures in matter - yet whole areas stil lay disconnected, such as my sexuality. And since then, when I do achieve a measure of cohesion through the symbolic imagination – like through the Sodomite identity – I find that these symbols are particular and not universal, some are able to sympathize with them and others are averse to them. So not only did I not pay enough attention to personal integration back then, but the promise of a “universal” or “common” vocabulary between intellectual and others needs to be qualified.

This turn to the particular is required both by the harmonization of the soul and also by any attempt at communication. If I wish to teach an existentially relevant knowledge, if metaphysical concepts are supposed to be “something more than mere husks” as Heidegger puts it, then they must describe a reality that I and my hearers can responsibly participate in, it must have an emotional draw that we can assent to or reject. But affective constitution is not universally the same, indeed it is highly particular and diversified.

Furthermore, the Catholic Church does not constitute a community of sentiment. It is a community of faith aspiring to be one of love. Even if as Christians we are in agreement about the highest things, this does not yet mean that the concepts I develop will be existentially relevant for you, will be able to engage your whole being, from the highest to the lowest. The Church everywhere particularizes itself and it is right that it should do so.

Additionally, any cosmopolitan Catholic identity stands on shaky ground, for the reasons delineated by Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism: membership and participation in a political community is the transcendental condition for one having any rights at all. The fate of the stateless, mere humans without any rights since without a State to back them shows this. As she also mentions in her Gunter Gauss interview, the foundation of the State of Israel gave jews in general freedom. Until there is a Catholic integralist State somewhere, this will be true of all Catholic cosmopolitanism. Furthermore, such a State will most likely have a consequence parallel to that of Zionism: the forging of a non-religious strictly cultural/political catholic identity, connected to the project of the integralist State and disconnected from the faith. It will be the greatest possible win for a mere “cultural Catholicism” – which might not actually be all bad, it might provide wavering members of the faith a way to remain within the penumbra of the Church even when the faith proper is beyond them. In this sense Integralism might provide a way to unite both traditionalists and those who care less for doctrine and liturgy and more for the Church as a social institution.

If metaphysics is to be practical, it must be particular and my freedom requires that it be both practical and particular, that I participate in a community and seek to further the common good. And as a metaphysician I can indeed contribute to the community with words and action. Previously this seemed impossible because it seemed to me that there was no option but liberalism. On the one hand, research into contemporary political philosphy, such as that of the Conservative Revolution, has shown me that one can try to articulate today a metaphysically grounded polity. And on the other hand, Covid ended any illusion that Liberalism is some kind of destiny. If we have learned nothing else from the crisis, we have learned that given a good enough reason and a proximate enough threat, we can indeed radically change how we function.

Thus, in sum, a renewed belief in politics and in the need to root my philosophy in my particularity has made me change the way I see how metaphysics can be practical. Surely, theurgy is one way of making metaphysics practical. But it is not the only way, and given the way my life has turned out, it does not seem to be my specific vocation.

Header image credit: Gustave Courbet, Le Désespéré, 1843

Antonio Vargas
Antonio Vargas

Antonio is a postdoctoral researcher at the Martin Buber Society for the Humanities and the Social Sciences at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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