Intros to European Philosophy: Fichte


Previously read: nil

Key texts: Vocation of Man, Bk. 3

Overall impression: It only seems natural that philosophic discourse should finally focus its lens on will as the pendulum had swung far too to the search for knowledge.  Why do we contemplate at all?  Not for the accumulation of knowledge, but for action – for the application of will.  However, I remain surprised that such a thinker would wave aside the frustration which focus on the will to action (and therefore the frustration of being thwarted) would lead to.  If there is some world-will or Spirit guiding matters, am I to accept its whims so readily?


“Knowledge is not this organ [by which to apprehend the reality of Spirit]: no knowledge can be its own foundation, its own proof; every knowledge presupposes another higher knowledge on which it is founded, and to this ascent there is no end.

(European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche, ed. M. Beardsley: pp. 494-495)”

Perhaps not ascent or descent, but knowledge is no set limited series of possibilities – it is a progression followed by a digression, which is occasionally an improvement.

~~“Conscience alone is the root of all truth. (ibidem, p. 495)”  As I think conscience to be our internal ideals mirrored back upon the self so that it either accepts, abrogates, or noticeably winces at the perceived reflection, my opinion differs.  Truth is culturally expressed and so is conscience; otherwise I find this definition interesting but not particularly useful.

“Our thought is not founded on itself alone, independently of our impulses and affections; man does not consist of two independent and separate elements; he is absolutely one.  All our thought is founded on our impulses; as a man’s affections are, so is his knowledge. (European Philosophers, p. 496)”

**no comment, just ponder.

“The good cause is ever the weaker, for it is simple, and can be loved only for itself; the bad attracts each individual by the promise that is most seductive to him; and its adherents, always at war among themselves, so soon as the good makes its appearance, conclude a trace that they may unite the whole powers of their wickedness against it.  Scarcely, indeed, is such an opposition needed, for even the good themselves are but too often divided by misunderstanding, error, distrust, and secret self-love…Thus do all good intentions among men appear to be lost in vain disputations, which leave behind them no trace of their existence; while in the meantime the world goes on as well, or as ill, as it can be without human effort, by the blind mechanism of Nature – and so will go on forever. (pp. 506-507)”

Very astute.  The idealist wants everyone to agree with her particular application of the ideal while wickedness offers many rewards with less personal cost (only the cost of being a person).  And Nature chugs along while Wisdom cries in the streets.

“There is no man who loves evil because it is evil; it is only the advantages and enjoyments expected from it and, in the present condition of humanity, likely to result from it, that are loved. (p. 511)”

Someone’s been reading Augustine.

~*~“Reason is not for the sake of existence, but existence for the sake of reason. (p. 513)”  Aye, only we find that existence is not a set object so that we speak of existences and, therefore, reasons which are chosen because they serve the more desired modes of existence.

**~“Alas!  Many virtuous intentions are entirely lost for this world, and others appear even to hinder the purpose they were designed to promote. (p. 514)”  I ‘ve been shewing Descartes to have fallen into this trap; in fact it is the very danger of being understood (as Nietzsche would have it).  The greatest enemies to one’s ideals are too often oneself (and close supporters).

“I am indeed compelled to believe, and consequently to act as if I thought, that by mere volition my tongue, my hand, or my foot, might be set in motion; but how a mere aspiration, an impress of intelligence upon itself, such as will is, can be the principle of motion to a heavy material mass, this I not only find it impossible to conceive, but the mere assertion is, before the tribunal of the understanding, a palpable absurdity; here the movement of matter even in myself can be explained only by the internal forces of matter itself.

(European Philosophers, p. 522)”

Oh the absurdities of life which we assume.  Likewise the following: “I see everywhere only myself, and no true existence out of myself. (ibidem, p. 529)”

Intros to European Philosophy: Descartes

In graduate school I quickly grew frustrated how limited my courses were in scope.  It seemed everything was an introduction, and often a disappointing one at that.  But this is also much of my experience of the quest for further wisdom.  Even my readings seem to halt at the introductory.  I find this anti-climax often in reading as in study.  In short, there’s rarely a sure foothold to be marked from such things.  The European Philosophers from Descartes to Nietzsche (2002) is no exception. 

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not truly disappointed.  I’m only disappointed that I haven’t progressed further by means of these readings.  But enough of that, I’ll speak of what may yet be helpful and my impressions.  After that, I leave to you to decide whether any meaningful insight has been gained (or could be gained by another better equipped).

RENE DESCARTES (1596-1650)

Previously read: only excerpts from his Meditations on First Philosophy and wrote some short essay about methodological doubt in college.  This paper was a case study for me on how his method could be misappropriated to serve thought-systems alien to Descartes’ purposes. 

Key texts: Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy

Overall impression: It’s nice to be able to locate these thinkers in relation to one another, at least when I can remember key terms.  For instance, Descartes’ confidence in something that is true whether dreaming or awake (2+3=5) is located for Kant in the analytic (and the arithmetical or geometrical examples are completed by intuition guided by linguistic definitions). 

The idea that I am a thinking thing isn’t nearly as helpful as Descartes asserts, but he spoke in a different discourse than I do. 

Surprises: Ego sum, ego existo (I am, I exist) is to be found, not the famous cogito ergo sum (p. 34).  I had heard that Je pense donc je suis was to be found, but it was not in the offered excerpts.  The idea can also be found in some measure in Augustine, if you’re interested.  It just isn’t made to be the ground of epistemological knowledge as it is in Descartes.

  • He doesn’t really doubt the senses when it comes right down to it.  Doubt is a path to speak of being guided by the ‘natural light’. 
  • He speaks of being a unitary whole, but still uses the language of being a sailor in a ship when speaking of his relation to sensations.

Useful: In ‘Infinity and the Idea of God’ [B] (trans. Haldane and Ross), Descartes averred that we ought to name things ‘indefinite’ instead of ‘infinite’ (p. 85).  This better contextualizes certain mathematical problems: ‘how long is half of an infinite line’ no longer poses the same issues for us.

Dis-course – The Defender of Peace

Discourse II:

On the Canonic Scriptures, the Commands, Counsels, and Examples of Christ and of the Saints and Approved Doctors Who Expounded the Evangelic Law, Whereby It Is Clearly Demonstrated That the Roman or Any Other Bishop or Priest, or Clergyman, Can by Virtue of the Words of Scripture Claim or Ascribe to Himself No Coercive Rulership or Contentious Jurisdiction, Let Alone the Supreme Jurisdiction over Any Clergyman or Layman; and That, by Christ’s Counsel and Example, They Ought To Refuse Such Rulership, Especially in Communities of the Faithful, if It is Offered to Them or Bestowed on Them by Someone Having the Authority To Do So; and Again, That All Bishops, and Generally All Persons Now Called Clergymen, Must Be Subject to the Coercive Judgment or Rulership of Him Who Governs by the Authority of the Human Legislator, Especially Where this Legislator Is Christian

(Title of Chapter IV, Marsilius of Padua [ca. 1275 – ca. 1342 A.D.], italics mine)

I ‘ll admit it; I can’t resist a provocative title – especially not when it ‘s stood the test of time.  When it comes to 14th century disputes, speaking against the Church’s power has to vault to the top.  Speaking against the power of individual clergy to use coercive authority is plain daring, but what else is to be expected from an Italian who supported the Holy Roman Empire’s independence from Papal jurisdiction.

Having mentioned my own fascinations, this work clearly lends itself to those who debate the proper relation of church and state.  Having shown that the law is only good where it is applicable to the citizenry and enforced by the necessary coercive authority in Discourse I of Defensor pacis (or ‘The Defender of the Peace’) Marsilius proceeds to inquire “what power and authority, to be exercised in this world, Christ wanted to bestow and in fact (de facto) did bestow on them (St. Peter, the apostles and their successors – the bishops or priests)… (Discourse II, Ch. IV, Par. 2)” because Christ was certainly able to bestow to them whatever powers he saw fit.

If Christ had taken up temporal rule, it would have set the precedent for his followers (and therefore the Church) to go and do likewise.  Instead, he “wanted to and did exclude himself, his apostles and disciples, and their successors, the bishops or priests, from all such coercive authority or worldly rule, both by his example and by his words of counsel or command (ibid, Par. 3, italics mine)” and his followers did and taught the same.

The clearest example offered of Christ’s example to his followers is found in John 18 where Christ is questioned by Pontius Pilate, the symbol of Roman rule in Jerusalem.  As Jesus expounds for Pilate, “If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would certainly fight.”  An earthly kingdom needs to be defended, but Jesus submits his person to wrongful conviction.  The most extreme measures available for one wielding coercive authority are executed upon him when he by rights could take up such authority.  But he did n’t.

Further, we see that Christ often illustrated: “‘Like is the kingdom of heaven,’ etc., but very rarely did he speak of the earthly kingdom, and if he did, he taught that it should be spurned. (ibid, Par. 6)”  Where Christ had opportunities to exact judgment, he forgave.  The force of such argument is clear when Christ, in John 6, flees those who would install him as king by force and when, in Luke 12, he refuses to act as an arbiter of between disputants.  Clearly then exerting such carnal power was against his will.  If this is his example, how should it then be followed?

In his teachings to the disciples as well, Christ leads Peter in submitting to the authority of those placed over them in the famous line: “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”  But Christ is the heir of David and is therefore rightful ruler by human bloodlines in addition to his divine lordship.  If any should be exempt from Caesar’s tax or from the temple tax, it should be the Lord.  Origen, in meditating upon Matthew 17, understands it to follow from Christ’s words,

“that while men sometimes appear who through injustice seize our earthly goods, the kings of this earth send men to exact from us what is theirs. And by his example the Lord prohibits the doing of any offense, even to such men, either so that they may no longer sin, or so that they may be saved.  For the son of God, who did no servile work, gave the tribute money, having the guise of a servant which he assumed for the sake of man. (ibid, Par. 10, as quoted)”

Marsilius then avers that the bishops and priests have constructed rights to powers not given them by Christ’s example or teaching, or the teachings of the apostles and their followers.  Therefore the graspings for power to be observed in the 14th century church leadership must be of their own inventions.  Jesus’ example is not merely to submit to the just proceedings and exercises of coercive authority by imperial rulers, but even to provide undue tribute – to submit to the unjust as well!  As the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 6 states, ‘why not rather be wronged than quarrel with one another?’

In the ultimate display, Christ submitted to unjust punishment by the emperor’s representative (even though he could have submitted himself and those who followed under ecclesial authority by choosing rather to be punished by the priests).  Although Christ points out that Pilate’s authority is merely the way political affairs happen to be (de facto) and not one of right (de juro),still he submits!  In Romans 13, Paul agrees that there is no power except from God.

As Chrysostom writes:

“The rulers of the world exist in order to lord it over their subjects, to cast them into slavery and to despoil them [namely, if they deserve it] and to use them even unto death for their own advantage and glory.  But the rulers of the church are appointedin order to serve their subjects and to minister to them whatever they have received from Christ, so that they neglect their own advantage and seek to benefit their subjects, and do not refuse to die for their salvation. (ibid, Par. 13, as quoted, italics mine)”

Therefore, as pertains to power, if church leaders would follow Christ’s example and teaching, they should put off the use of coercive force and serve those placed under their care, not using them to their own advantage or glory.  For my take, such an argument is particularly persuasive.  The opportunities for abuse in ministry abound.  Where the Church has fared best it has been subject to empire without exhibiting a controlling interest therein.  Stretching Marsilius’ teaching to its fullest extent: the use of coercive force even inside the church strikes against the teaching of Christ modeled by the apostles.

Taking as a case study the Mars Hill church discipline controversy, the potentials for abuse in church leadership are clearly demonstrated.  The Scriptures describe models for approaching one who has wronged you and for dealing with the unrepentant one who sins openly.  But, the role of church discipline is to bring the offending brother or sister to repentance, not to create an official record of wrongs or maintain a paper-trail so that the fruits of repentance are displayed for the benefit of church leadership.  If one comes to repentance, there is no further responsibility for the church other than to serve.  Recommending counseling, offering accountability, and offerings of help fit Chrysostom’s model in today’s context.  Enforcing one interpretation and requiring that another repent in the way which satisfies your church model is way off base.  I do n’t claim to know with all veracity what has occurred in this situation, but the example demonstrates how damaging the use of coercive force by church leadership can be in a specific context.

At best I can seek to follow in the manner I believe Christ laid out for us.  Marsilius may not have final say, but I think his teachings are relevant to our discussions today and I ‘m curious to hear how such a viewpoint is helpful or unhelpful.