Archive for the Philosophy Category

The Happy Polis: Aristotle and Ethics (Ph 104 Paper)

Posted in Philosophy, Reflection on January 4, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Perhaps one of Aristotle’s greatest imports in the field of ethics is his assumption that the moral life is a pursuit of happiness. Happiness is the highest human good (final, self-sufficient, and attainable), and is “an activity of soul in accordance with perfect virtue”—that is, happiness for man is adhering to his rational principle, his rational function, and so developing the excellence of his reason. Morality for Aristotle leads to both the contemplative and the political lives, both of which exercise human reason. In a word, the practice of philosophical and practical wisdom, the intellectual and ethical virtues, fulfills the human function and lead to happiness.

Aristotle’s idea of ethics seems to say that, to do the good, one must have the desire to do the good; doing the good presupposes the desire for happiness. The claim “a moral person is a happy person” is difficult enough to examine and prove in view of everyday life. But even more unsettling is the implication that not everyone can attain happiness: before happiness, the end of all human activity, can be achieved, one must reach the excellence of reason. But how can one reach the excellence of reason when he or she is hungry, or without the means for education, or mentally impaired? One can sense this anxiety even from Aristotle himself:

[A happy man] needs the external goods as well; for it is impossible, or not easy, to do noble acts without the proper equipment. …there are some things the lack of which takes the luster from happiness, as good birth, goodly children, beauty; for the man who is very ugly in appearance or ill born or solitary and childless is not very likely to be happy…

In the end, must one conclude that happiness—and morality—is the province of the privileged alone? Are those with resources the only ones fully capable of living the moral life?

And in our everyday experience, one gets the impression that, indeed, the unprivileged do not have in their hands the full capacity to live a moral life. Right outside our home, just on the adjacent street, a psychologically impaired woman cannot but cause scandal by shrieking and badgering by-passers. Along Taft Avenue we hear of people having their purses snatched; common knowledge would say prostitution happens in the nightclubs and bars. Even if we assert that their actions could not be excused—they could have explored alternative means, such as peddling or, say, working as street sweepers—in the end, the underprivileged do these things so as to satisfy the basic needs that they could not meet through normal means. Can we say, then, that due to the lack of nutrition and growth (the vegetative level of Aristotle’s hierarchy of functions) or perception and motion (the animalistic level), these people are deprived of happiness, of a moral life, and even of humanity?

Perhaps the answer is yes. But then, that such a state of crippling poverty and inequality exists speaks volumes about the neglect of the privileged. For Aristotle, after all, man is a political being “born for citizenship”—a being of the polis, the city-state: the public life is a properly human domain. Again and again he emphasized that happiness and the moral life is not turned in upon a single person; that happiness is self-sufficient does not mean that it is “sufficient for a man by himself.” Moreover, moral excellence for Aristotle lies on the relative mean between excess and deficiency. So we may ask ourselves: can the privileged, those who meet the basic functional levels, who live in plenty amid great want, be truly moral—and truly happy—in such a society as ours? Are they exercising excellence of reason any more than those who are hungry or are blind or crazed? Or, by forgoing practical wisdom, by living in excess, by forgoing the affairs of the polis, are they not as misguided, as inhumane, as the rest?

I do not mean to say that this was what the historical Aristotle had in mind when he proposed his ethical theory. However, it is possible that he could have considered this even as he addressed his Nicomachean Ethics to those who have the advantage, the “proper equipment.” Could it be that his theory is an exhortation for the privileged to enter the realm of the polis, to care, to “do noble acts” for the welfare of the state and all its citizens? Could it be a call to go beyond the basic and properly vegetative and animalistic functions of nutrition, growth, sensation, and locomotion, and to search true, lasting, final happiness in doing the good? We do not know for sure. But maybe we, especially us in the Ateneo, can read Aristotle in this light.

So we come at last to “reading,” that is, education and instruction. Aristotle places emphasis on the development of arête—and informed intellect, philosophical and practical wisdom, is one such good that needs development. Aware that we are, as Aristotle teaches, political beings, then the development of intellect (that is, education) cannot end in our own selves; self-enlightenment is no longer enough. We must teach our society as well, especially to the underprivileged. How can we do this, even as Ateneo students? One tangible opportunity is the immersion experience: those sponsored by OSCI as well as ACED, among others. We can view these not merely as another requirement to endure, but as a political exercise: literally, contributing to the development of the polis by developing tomorrow’s society.

And there is also the moral function of reason, which is developed to excellence by choice and habit. One must choose to do the good. Again, taking into mind our political nature, we must exercise our good choices and habits outward, directed not only to achieve a self-sufficient “inner glow” of moral satisfaction, but also to succor and to improve the rest of society. Our response here cannot be anything less but our daily life—and that life we must lead not only for ourselves, but also for others. The Ateneo has termed this life as “professionals for others,” which simply translates to doing the best one can in his specific field, his ergon as it were, for the sake of the other. As seniors approaching the start of our careers, this calling is particularly relevant for us. We are called to be good and honest businessmen, hardworking scientists, and truthful writers—for the betterment of society.

Earlier we have put into question the generalization, “the moral man is a happy man.” But now we may get a glimpse of what Aristotle could have meant by stringing the moral life with the happy life. For could the world be anything but a happier one if it becomes more just, a society where all support each other towards the common goal of the final good, the final happiness?


Religion and Faith Revisited

Posted in Philosophy, Reflection on January 2, 2011 by theburningpulpit

Earlier, the fact that we Filipinos go to Sunday Mass in droves and participate in the ceremony suddenly struck me. Based on my experience in the US (and from what films like Sister Act show), only we are capable of filling churches over and beyond their capacity. And so I was reminded of what a high school alumnus once wrote in our newsletter: that the greater majority of us Filipinos are men and women of religion.

Which leads to his question–are we men and women of faith?

Many wiser minds have already pointed out that, despite our love of pilgrimages and observance of rituals, Catholicism in the Philippines is a folk religion, a mingling of the watered-down Roman rite and the local paganic superstitions and beliefs. Hence, the semblance of anito-worship in the veneration of saints, the co-existence of Buddha and the Christ-child in sari-sari stores, and so on. Thus, many have concluded, as Epifanio San Juan does in his reading of Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows, that we Filipinos still remain pagan at heart, and that Western Christianity–the religion of many in this country– has never been and will never be at the core of our faith.

But I beg to disagree.

It is true that there is a distinction between religion and faith: as our alumnus said, these are two sides of a coin. And yet there is no need to pit one against the other. Faith and religion do not stand opposite to each other–they still constitute one and the same coin. The person of faith is and should be a person of religion–for what is faith if it is not expressed? And the true person of religion might, just might, have trouble with the Faith–but that he or she keeps holding on to the rites and perseveres through the dark night, not out of material or political gain, is on the right track. As Nick Joaquin implies, the very struggle to find faith in religion is the Faith.

Alas! Perhaps it is unfortunate that we who are learned have to struggle so much, to learn so much, only to remember our faith! We have to go through a lot of theories only to reaffirm what we believe. And for some, what they see even pulls them out, disenchants them, as it were, from the Faith.

So now we go back to the common people filling the churches every Sunday. True, they might be simple folk who do not fully understand our religion. This, of course, should be amended. True, they must be educated. But does that make them anyless Christian? Does the folk nature of their religion make them any less Catholic? Is their faith any less than us learned people?

Dostoyevsky admired the simple faith of the poor and the peasants in Russia. True, they do not have the enlightenment of theory, but their pure, simple hearts are in the right place. One may draw a parallel between Dostoyevsky’s peasants and the Filipino Catholic masses. They believe in engkantos and overemphasize miracles, but deep in their hearts they quite possibly understand God more than we do. They understand that He is the God of the poor, the downtrodden, the needy, the oppressed–and that He sympathizes with them. Though they lament God’s sleeping, they understand that He is with them, that He does not approve of the evils and injustices in this world, and that someday He will set things right, and He will welcome them, the common, the poor, the small ones, with open arms. And that is the core of the Christian faith, the Christian hope, is it not?

And perhaps this is what the Lord means when he demands us to be meek, to be humble, and to be childlike in the name of the Faith.

On Nakedness

Posted in Philosophy, Reflection on October 13, 2010 by theburningpulpit

Unless perhaps for a professional streaker, being naked is a very precarious situation. It would be an extremely rare kind of individual who would dare and so completely expose himself or herself in front of a complete stranger, much less in public.

Now, we have used the term expose. The word comes from the Latin ex-positio (ex – “outside”; positio – from ponere, “lay down”, which can be traced from the Old Latin po-sinere “away-leave”). Nakedness, then, insofar as it means “being exposed”, has as roots three things: an outward movement; a laying down before an other; and a sense of being left away. These, in turn, give us three elements of nakedness: revelation, intimacy, and vulnerability.

To be naked is to be revealed. One may note the phrase “the naked truth” to see the relationship between nakedness and revelation. When a person disrobes himself, he literally steps out of his clothes–and in the process we see not only his fine form, but also the scars and defects on his body: a mole on his back, a gash near his abdomen, and so on. Nakedness opens the person into scrutiny by an other; it invites the other’s gaze. The disrobing person sheds off the veil of his secrecy, removing his masks, his false selves and images, and allows someone else to see him as he is in his totality, that is, both magnificent and flawed.

Now, even as the naked person opens herself, inviting the other person into her confidence, she also sets the stage for intimacy. This we see in the sexual act. Once two people disrobe they lay themselves down, their lips meeting, their bodies touching, exchanging heat. They would also, inevitably, exchange secret, whispered words: I love you, among other things. Having opened themselves, the couple then are able to reach into the other’s core, touch it, and put all of themselves in it. A bond is forged. By sharing all of themselves to the other, they begin to draw from the same hopes, the same fears, and, indeed, they become as if but one person.

And yet, by daring to open himself, by daring to lay himself down for the other, the disrobing person also makes himself vulnerable. Without the layers of clothing, his body is easily affected by the harsh elements: scorching heat, freezing cold, disease, piercing spears, and so on. Moreover, should the other for whom she strips herself prove malicious or unworthy, the naked person risks getting injured, or violated, or even ignored. She may, in all her surrender, become nothing more but an access point, a mass of knowledge to be taken in: she could be subjected to the cruel objectification of the gaze, every aspect of her personality neglected until the observer is given (or has given himself) the right to put her into the rack, to dissect her–in a word, to limit her, to define her, to eliminate her. Or, and just as terribly, her gamble might only be ignored, unrequited, her body revealed for no one to see.

This vulnerability, perhaps, is what makes nakedness an utterly terrifying state. Exposing oneself to the wrong person, the wrong crowd, could lead to humiliation, indeed even to hurt and elimination. The stakes are just too high. It is no wonder then that there are those who clam themselves up, building strong walls to safeguard their identity, their integrity. They protect themselves from all harm, perceived and imagined, caused by a malevolent other who would try and pry into their nakedness and exploit it.

This choice is, without a doubt, a prudent one. However, by covering himself with so many layers, the prudent person is no longer able to see, much less react, to the events at and beyond the horizon. Having so wrapped himself in his own clothes, he cannot perceive the face of the other; he cannot reach out to touch that other; he cannot belong in a community; he cannot see beyond the horizon. By building himself up beneath his thick clothes his eyes and ears are shut, his nose covered, his mouth stilled. He cannot receive nourishment. He cannot even breathe. And after years of seeing nothing but himself, he will eventually tire, he will tell himself that nothing will change, that he has already reached a plateau–and indeed, there is only nothing. And he will despair.

In the end, prudence fails. And from prudence, we must instead turn to hope. But what is hope? In his “Sketch of a Phenomenology and Metaphysic of Hope” Marcel discusses the true hope in detail. But, in a word, we may perhaps state hope as this: hope is what urges us to surrender ourselves, to disrobe and let the possibility of alterity, of transcendence, and as well as oblivion, pierce through our openness, our vulnerability. It is an unconditional surrender–we surrender our hearts, our minds, our bodies, and our souls, and in doing so we forego any conditions, and terms, any clauses, any particularities. We give ourselves up completely to the Light which disarms, removing us of all our armor and penetrating us with His rays; we retreat from the center of the field and allow Him to take the high ground. And we trust in His goodness.

But what surety do we have that this Light is good–or, indeed, if there is such a Light to face in our nakedness? Alas, we have none. But all we know is that to crave for surety is a withdrawal of judgment. It is a postponement, a condition. And if we are to truly hope in Him, then we are to let go of the mantle of cognition.

So are we to merely disrobe ourselves of everything and–let all be? Hardly so, for, as we have seen, baring, exposing ourselves is in itself a struggle, if not the struggle. I have to let an other to see me; I have to let Him see us. And we shall have to have desire–for her, for us, for Him–if we are to win this struggle at all. We have to want the other to see us, to rejoice in us as we rejoice in them, to speak as they speak, to caress their skin as they do ours, to meet lips with lips in kiss, to become as one. And then, and yet at the same time, we are to delight in our vulnerability, our smallness, in our humility–and we believe that He, in His grace, will find our faults and alter it, that He will reside in our frustrations and our failures and turn them into our victories.

In the end, then, we ask ourselves: how, then, are we to do this struggle? How, then, do we disrobe ourselves? And this question, for us who believe, can be transposed once more: how do we pray? We echo the disciples as they ask the Lord, “teach us how to pray”. For prayer, that religious experience par excellence, as Chretien implies, is the ultimate expression of exposition–in prayer we are utterly exposed, utterly naked. By raising our voices and revealing our secrets we risk being humiliated, being seen as madmen, being disappointed in the face of a God that we cannot see. And yet, as we hope in Him, we take this risk: we deliberately endure and undergo this nakedness, trusting that in doing so God shall repay our joy in full.

It is interesting to note that in the first chapters of Genesis, Adam and Eve were created naked by God. They were completely open, completely intimate, and completely vulnerable. The slightest things, such as loose twigs and sharp stones, could have hurt them, but it was of no consequence. They held speech with God. In their Fall what they first noticed was this naked state–and they were afraid. They feared that, they being so exposed, God, and perhaps the other and even the whole of creation, could see their weakness and exploit it. So they hid, and so God clothed them, and so began the history of our shame, our fear, our self-absorption. But for we who will dare to hope in God, we are called to return home to our natural state of nakedness: but this home, we believe, will be better than before. What does this mean? We may not yet grasp this in its totality. But in disrobing ourselves, we allow the possibility that God, in His own time, will, for our (and not my) sake, make it so.

Fides et Spes

Posted in Philosophy, Reflection on October 12, 2010 by theburningpulpit

Or, you know, Faith and Hope.

This finals week, these two words, especially when in Latin, seem to me to be the dirtiest things. “Fides” comes from “Fides quaerens intellectum” which, aside from being Theology’s favorite battlecry (“Faith seeking understanding!”), is also another title of St. Anselm’s Proslogion, a deceptively simple Philo reading. “Spes,” on the other hand, reeks of the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes–hence the link to Theology–while also recalling Marcel’s Prolégomènes À Une Métaphysique De L’espérance, a Philo reading.

And as a student, I must admit: I really do need a break from all the readings. That’s one reason why I’m blogging right now. But then again, these two words are also exactly what I have right now to keep myself from breaking down.

Summarizing a sem’s worth of Philo and Theo, I’ll say: Fides, that is, faith, is a response to a Call that has preceded me, a Call by Someone beyond me, greater than me. I know, I know, it’s a very religious thing and probably not in vogue right now (heck, I try and avoid being super religious, so yeah, even I find myself cheesy), but insofar as I believe (credimus, wooot!) that there’s Someone Bigger, and that there’s something, that there’s some meaning behind all this, then I can allow myself to hope.

But what does Spes, that is, hope, mean? To hope, for Marcel, means a decision, an involvement, a non-knowledge, and a non-clamming up. It is not a resignation to a perceived fatum, nor an attachment to a particular outcome. In the end, Marcel concedes that he does not hope that, but rather, that hope must be a “Hope in You for us.” Hope, then, is openness (one can say, as Marcel does, a sort of patience) to an Other–an Other not as a particularity (say, an event like acing the Finals), but as a general whole, as something that demands the turning of the hopeful’s mind, heart, and soul into something that he does not yet see.

In the end, what is the difference between hope and faith? I’m not sure. But both converge on one point.

So this finals week, I will allow myself to hope and to have faith. I will let things go. I will take my time, or, rather, allow Someone to work according to His time.

The Importance of Work to Human Nature

Posted in Philosophy, Reflection on September 13, 2009 by theburningpulpit

I would not be the first, nor the last, to think of using Marx to tackle the matter of manual labor in today’s society. I would not, then, be the first to use the Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto to condemn the machination of the contemporary worker alienated from the fruits of his or her labor, the withdrawal of profit by the bourgeoisie, and so on. Yet what would I achieve by condemning the current notion of manual work as dehumanizing? Greater minds than I have already and repeatedly called for the end of capitalist abuses, and many of these calls could have well fallen on numbed ears. Hence I shall try instead to affirm that manual labor, as equally as desk work, can establish the humanity and dignity of a person even in spite of the machination brought about by the drive for efficiency. And, while not abandoning Marx altogether, I shall instead dwell on the philosophies of Marcel, Dondeyne, and, to an extent, Heidegger.

But first I must state the question and take into account its parts, or I shall be battling a hundred-headed hydra with only a single branch. And so I propose to break the question into three parts, namely: 1) the nature of humanity; 2) the significance of work; 3) manual labor as humanizing agent. It is in such a manner that I hope to show that human beings, in their quest to fulfill their being, must necessarily work, and that manual labor, being equal to any other kind of work, is a means to the pursuit of humanity’s being.

The nature of humanity

To ask, “What does it mean to be human?” seems at first to anticipate the end of the Ph101 course. For is it not the goal of the course to understand what being human means, and any attempt to answer this question is like taking the cake out of the oven before it is fully baked? However, this question must already be asked if I am to argue that manual labor is a humanizing act. It would be peculiar to discuss the matter at all if I did not know what is this being that manual work ought to create! And yet where will I search for the answer? Have I so completed the course that I can, like a researcher combing through the library, say, “Aha! Here it is!” and pull the final answer out? Certainly not! The answer, as I infer from Heidegger, is and has always been right under my nose. I am, after all, a human being, and even dimly I can give my personal answer to the question, “What does it mean to be human?” And without further ado, I shall say that the human being is a transcendental being.

This conceit comes not only from my personal experience, but also from the thoughts of Heidegger and Marcel. Heidegger, who, in the midst of his ontological query on being, states that Dasein (that is to say, humans as the there-being) is caught up in everydayness at first and for the most part. This is to say that we as human beings always take it upon ourselves to care (to have a disposition towards something else). This is strikingly similar to Marcel’s first two philosophical tenets: that a man is a being-in-a-situation and a being-by-participation. Man is a contextual, situational being moving in a community of people with their own contexts and situations. But the two philosophers did not stop here. Heidegger goes on to say that Dasein’s everydayness is inauthentic; Marcel brings up the problem of metaphysical unease. (The latter’s idea of a broken world I shall deal with later.) After all, humans have aspirations, and Marcel points out that, aspirations being contexts and situations not yet present for the aspirant, these cause the agitating feeling of “not yet reaching the goal”. Authenticity and aspirations, then, tells me that the human being cannot accept himself or herself as being merely a what-you-see-is-what-you-get creature. Marcel, taking note of this human characteristic to go beyond what “is there”, thus says that humans are beings-beyond-a-situation. Hence, humans are transcendental beings.

The significance of work

I am manifest. I have a body, and I am my body. All these point to Marcel’s idea that existence necessarily means embodiment. Dondeyne takes this point further and asserts that a human being is an embodied spirit. The human person is thus not a pure cogito or a floating spirit, and bodies and everything else can be merely reduced to “extension” and “motion”, merely X- and Y- axes. Dondeyne goes on to say that the material body is the means for the human spirit to express itself and transforms its “potency to act”. And how does the material body communicate the human spirit, if not through work?

Work is, mathematically, force multiplied by distance. Force and distance are properties belonging properly to bodies, and only as embodied spirits can the human person work. And so, Dondeyne concludes, it is only through work — through putting one’s stamp on matter and thus revealing oneself to the self and the other — that one can complete his or her being human.

Work, then, is the means to the end of transcendence. It might sound silly at first. More often than not I have always interpreted transcendence, that act and goal of going beyond oneself, as a “mind thing” achieved through meditation and prayer, preferably under a bo tree or with dancing halos over my head. But humans are embodied spirits, and the spirit communicates and completes itself through work. Hence, to say that work and materiality is a deterrent to transcendence (for humans are transcendental beings, and transcendence completes their being human) is to go back to Descartes all over again.

Even Marx acknowledges that work is good for humanity. Influenced by Hegel, Marx asserts that there is a direct relationship between a human person and work. As Sophie’s World puts it, as one interacts with nature through work (how else?), nature interacts with the person himself or herself. Work, then, is the vehicle for the human person to interact with the world — and is by itself good.

Manual labor as humanizing agent

I must admit that there are a few more obstacles left before I can truly say that work, especially manual labor, indeed makes a person more human. This section, in fact, shall begin with a deliberation on whether manual labor is actually a de-humanizing agent. And I shall begin the attack with the assertion that manual labor is inferior to office work. Is manual labor not more tiring than a desk job? And even if it were not, the sweaty and dirty men digging with shovels and sweeping streets seem “filthier” and “lesser” than the cleaner architect and engineer, who, by the way, earn much more than the former.

But earlier in this paper I have mentioned Descartes; perhaps it is high time to criticize his philosophy once again. By postulating the cogito and setting it above the “machinery” of material objects, Descartes had in effect birthed an unfortunate notion that the mind is greater than the material: mind over matter. It is no wonder, then, that the modern world found it very easy to be prejudiced, preferring great minds to skilled workers. It has been easy for mothers everywhere to prefer their children to become lawyers than carpenters. And it has been easy for the capitalists to abuse the “lowly” factory workers.

This is where Marx and his ideas of alienation come in. But to enter this argument (and deliberate in the end whether indeed capitalist abuse stemmed from class struggles and economic bases as much as from the terrible duality Descartes’ philosophy had implied) is to walk across the path I earlier shunned, not out of distaste but of realization that this path had been crossed far too often, and mostly, in vain.

And yet I am not out of the woods. Earlier I promised to take up Marcel’s notion of a broken world, and I shall do so now. Marcel notes that the problem today is that people have allowed their roles to define them. That is to say that a person A had allowed his status as a student “take over his life” and in effect, limit himself as “just a student”. Therefore, whatever happens to his “student role” is, for him, a happening to his very self. The factory worker becomes just a factory worker, and not Mang Berto, named Roberto so-and-so, and definitely not a complete human being. This, according to Marcel, is the problem of our present society: people, especially those who do not and cannot have a say on the matter, are limited to roles.

That is one sad experience, one I have almost come to grapple with in my JEEP experience. Four hours in the photocopying area and eight hours in the computer shop had brought me almost face-to-face with being merely an automaton required to file papers and assign seats to computer users. I had almost been defined by my role…

But I have been spared — and I shall say that everyone else can be spared of this broken world in spite of all automation and alienation. For work, again, is a means to the end of transcendence. There on the field, doing (more or less) the same things my co-workers do, I have been able, if only temporarily and a little superficially, connected with them through language: the verbal one not more than the language of work itself. I was able to transcend my being me and become, in a sense, more than me: I have become I-who-can-connect-with-others, I-who-can-do-manual-labor, I-who-am-more-than-a-student. This, then, is the humanizing power of work, whether manual or not: The-human-as-an-embodied-spirit-works-toward-transcendence-through-interaction-with-others. And as long as work of any sort continues to be a vehicle of positive, transcendental interaction with nature and towards the other, work cannot help but make an individual more completely human.