The Good = Evil + Time

The Good = Evil + Time January 25, 2017

The Good = Evil + Time (Messkirch Master, Donaueschinger Crucifixion, 1530; Source: Wiki Commons, PD-Old-100)
The Good = Evil + Time (Messkirch Master, Donaueschinger Crucifixion, 1530; Source: Wiki Commons, PD-Old-100)

[E]vil is a moment in the temporalized unfolding of the good.
–John Panteleimon Manoussakis, The Ethics of Time

In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.
–John Henry Newman, On the Development of Christian Doctrine

You probably know the feeling of reading a book that not only expresses your thoughts, but expresses them so well that you immediately assimilate them as your own.

They become your own so quickly that you don’t recognize them as somebody else’s. Auden’s For the Time Being captures this almost magical reading phenomenon with:

                       It’s as if
We had left our house for five minutes to mail a letter,
And during that time the living room had changed places
With the room behind the mirror over the fireplace . . .

I had a moment like this with a friend of mine, an editor of an excellent philosophy journal, during a visit to Krakow last November.

We spent about nine hours at Bunkier Sztuki Café drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, keeping a large dog from attacking the waiter, and discussing whether our nostalgic love for unchanging Krakow is moral (we’re both adopted Krakovians).

As the night progressed I attempted to move out of my typically Polish habit of unquestioningly affirming nostalgia, which also feeds my love for Krakow and its laudable lack of development due to spatial and historical constraints. This was a difficult process, probably aided by the passage of time and successive pints of beer (as the dog got more and more progressively aggressive).

At some point around 1AM I conceded that the passage of time must be a good and certain kinds of nostalgia might be considered immoral. Then I said, “You know what? Everything I just said is not me, it’s my reading of a new book by Manoussakis.”

Fr. Manoussakis is a Greek Orthodox priest who studied under Catholic phenomenologists Richard Kearney and Jean-Luc Marion. His previous book is on my TOP10 books of the Last 10 years list, while his book on ecumenism is also especially noteworthy in how it points out how both lungs of the Church could breathe together.

The problem John Panteleimon Manoussakis addresses in The Ethics of Time: A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change is the perennial problem of time, that is, movement and change.

Philosophy has struggled mightily with change and time, seeing them as evils to be avoided, escaped from. Manoussakis, instead, aims to affirm time by showing how the Christian tradition uniquely affirms change and time:

There is no change except in time—a time made possible by the givenness of a consciousness that is eschatologically orientated. Whether on the cosmological or the anthropological level, the good is what at the moment (that is, viewed only through the perspective of the moment) might appear as its opposite: imperfection and evil. Or, put otherwise, evil is a moment in the temporalized unfolding of the good. Thus, I have resisted the Manichean temptation of making the good the opposite of evil, especially as if good and evil were two contemporaneous poles in an opposition of synchronicity.

The affirmation of time leads Manoussakis to some very interesting restatements of the Christian notion that evil is the lack of the good, rather than evil being a distinct entity opposed to the good (which, incidentally, has a lot in common with Arendt’s banality of evil):

41XPiJten-L__SY346_I would argue that we shall remember even what is now, sub specie tempore, perceived as “evil”—but it will be remembered not as evil, for through the perspective of time that the eschaton will afford us, indeed through the perspective of the end of times, what was previously—namely, at the beginning and at the instant— experienced as evil will be at the end seen with a different understanding. I bring as an example the Lord’s passion which, when it happened, was undoubtedly perceived as the ultimate evil. Yet, that same event is now commemorated in the Eucharist, which is the prefiguration of our eschatological understanding, as the source of our salvation. The same event is presented quite differently “at the moment” and through the distance that time affords us.

Change does not happen all by itself. We need someone to move in order for us to be moved. The implications of this are wide-ranging. Something as mundane as eating is revealed by Manoussakis to be of ultimate importance.

The following passage from The Ethics of Time is too delicious not to be quoted in full:

Notice that from all the images that the Gospel could use in order to convey the state of human misery, the evangelist chose that of hunger. Eating is not only a way for recognizing our dependency to each other and to the world—so much for the prodigal son’s claim to independence!—but by eating we assimilate the world to ourselves, we turn that which is outside inside. Think of this passage from outside to inside and you will discover that this opposition is nothing else than the exemplification of distance and fragmentation. Ultimately, distance comes down to this opposition between an inside (that I identify with myself) and everything else that is outside me. In eating, however, this wall of separation collapses—when I am hungry I am really hungry for the Other (following Sartre and Levinas)—and eating is one of the ways we have in overcoming our isolation that is the result of being scattered beings. Eating declares—willingly or not, and contra to all our illusionary attempts to self-mastery and independence—my dependence on the world, on the cows which provide me with their meat, but also on the grass that fed the cows, on the water that fertilized the soil on which that grass grew, and so on. “But eating, by contrast, is peaceful and simple; it fully realizes its sincere intention: ‘The man who is eating is the most just of men.’” Levinas in Existence and Existents juxtaposes a referential totality of food to Heidegger’s referential totality of tools: the world of enjoyment takes precedence over the world of action. A referential totality is presented in every meal whereby the entire world is eaten. When I eat, I eat the world. But even more than the world, I eat the labor and the effort, the care and the artistry of the people who cultivated, prepared, and cooked my food. No meal is ever solitary—even if I eat alone in the seclusion of my room—every meal is a public and communal event. A community established and referred to by every bite.

The Ethics of Time then expands upon this observation by bringing in the Eucharist once more. This is an emphasis I only noticed by going over my notes from the book, because the book is composed like a symphony, all the parts moving together through time, inviting many re-readings.

I’m sure I’ll discover other caveats when I go through it again. Not if, but when. My guess is that this review would be entirely different if I were to write it at some other time, because I would be picking up on other notes in the book. And there are so many notes to pick up on, especially because Manoussakis references many different artforms and authors throughout this noteworthy book.

The Ethics of Time is a commentary on time, through the Book of Genesis, accompanied mainly by Sophocles and Augustine, but also an army of other protagonists, such as the above mentioned Levinas, Kafka’s Zurau Aphorisms, von Trier’s Dogville, Lacan’s psychoanalysis, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. The use of music as a philosophical example is especially noteworthy because, according to Manoussakis:

One of phenomenology’s preferential examples of time has been music. The example of music was of course used by Augustine when he came to ponder the enigma to time, but also, more recently, it became paradigmatic for the analyses of temporality attempted by Husserl, Sartre, Levinas, and Lacoste. There are good reasons that suggest music as an ideal experience of time: indeed we know, on Kierkegaard’s authority, that “all other media have space as their element. Only music . . . occurs in time.”

Really, everything is packed into this essential and moving read. I ate it up.

It’s so unlike any philosophy book I’ve read recently that its last section is a fictional variation on Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

The Ethics of Time has a lot to digest, a lot to grow into, starting with the thought that, “[E]vil is a moment in the temporalized unfolding of the good.” That sounds scandalously Hegelian (bad-ish, yet maybe Hegel is more classically Christian than we give him credit for?), but it’s actually part of a long theological tradition (good).

After all, both the Scriptures and the Church Fathers attest that the unfolding of time and Creation itself are good. This is something that is lost in nostalgic readings of Genesis that would have us turn back time to a Golden Age. They ignore the fact that the tradition sees the entire cosmos moving toward the New Jerusalem through time, toward the final victory of the Good. That’s the reason why one of the sections of The Ethics of Time is entitled, “The Scandal of the Good,” which was supposed to be the original title of this book.

Not that Manoussakis assumes this will happen magically:

We do not naively suggest that evil, touched by the magic wand of time, will be transformed into the good, while all we have to do is wait patiently for the end of history. However, I think that we shall be wrong to understand the question of agency only or mostly in the limiting terms of activity, action, and activism. When it comes to the recognition of the good—which precisely as re-cognition entails always the reflection opened up by retrospection—agency operates on the level of passibility. That is, on our ability to undergo a passion in both senses: of affectation and of suffering.

This book will change you whether you notice it at first or not.

You should also take a look at my TOP10 books of the Last 10 years list.

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