To make philosophia my way of life in the academy

To make philosophia my way of life in the academy April 27, 2017
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David - PD-Art, via Wikimedia Commons
The Death of Socrates, by Jacques-Louis David – PD-Art, via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday night, I went home to discover in my mailbox that Dariusz Karłowicz’s new book Socrates and Other Saints: Early Christian Understandings of Reason and Philosophy had arrived. The book had been translated from Polish by my friend Artur Rosman, and the back cover features an endorsement from John Milbank, the theologian whose work convinced me that I was able to do theology as a geographer in the secular academy.

I devoured the book in one sitting.

Perhaps it is because it featured extended readings of my patron saint, Holy Justin the Philosopher and Martyr; perhaps it was because of the fascinating reconciliation of the Latin father Tertullian and the Greek fathers who are usually positioned as his opponents; perhaps it was because Karłowicz does not simply assert that philosophia for the fathers was a way of life and not an anachronistic modern attempt to construct a theoretical system, but demonstrates this from the seeming incoherence of some of the fathers’ writings because they were not writing universally, but to a particular immediate public audience of which we moderns are not a part.

But it is perhaps more true to say that I devoured the book because I have been reflecting on what I am doing as an academic and what it means to pursue the intellectual life. Many of these musings have been stimulated by my students, who ask questions in class that sometimes challenge how those of us in academia live, continue the conversation in my office hours by posing these challenges directly to me point blank, and then sometimes even inviting me to sit in on their discussions where they do not seem to care that I am there and openly criticize the modus operandi of modern academia. More than one student has commended me for trying to practice an intellectual life that differs from what they call the ‘masturbatory circle-jerk’ version of academia; I do not know whether they get this from Slavoj Žižek on the ideological realities of what is taken to be our ‘post-ideological’ age or Cleia Rodriguez’s piece on how academics fancying themselves to be participating in acts of decolonization are just intellectually masturbating.

I will have to save my thoughts on the self-pleasuring tendencies of much of contemporary intellectual and political life for another post, but I will also say that Karłowicz’s book reminded me of that for which my students are searching in the academy. Contrary to the popular perception of this millennial and post-millennial generation as having a perpetual attention deficit because of the Internet, my students seem to be demanding me to do more rigorous work as a scholar not only in my publications and teaching, but by putting it to work in real life. My students not only watch how I think and delight in poking holes in it, but they have asked questions about how my various thoughts on the void of Asian American identity politics and the possibilities of materialist analysis and theological reflection actually work themselves out into real life – my real life. ‘How do you do it, Justin?’ one student asked. ‘How do you sustain your negative politics? How do you keep from joining the circle-jerk version of academic life?’

The truth, I want to tell her, is that just as one practicing Catholic told me he was ‘practicing’ because he was ‘not good at it yet,’ I am a practicing intellectual because I too am not yet good at it. Here is where the rubber meets the road in Karłowicz’s reading, especially of Holy Justin. Karłowicz points out that the fathers paid much less attention to where a philosophy is from or what constitutes it than to what effect it actually had on the practitioner’s life: Holy Justin, after all, converted from Greek philosophy to a Christian way of life after he saw Christians being martyred, and his incorporation of Greek philosophical categories into his Christian praxis was vindicated when he himself was martyred.

How, then, is such philosophy practiced? Karłowicz gives a surprising answer: askesis, bodily training, that in which I had been participating (albeit imperfectly) during the Great Fast.

This should not sound strange to those of us in the academy, especially for those of us who have been trained to talk about embodiment as well as the practice of everyday life; indeed, this is why I have been known to assign Michel de Certeau SJ’s Practice of Everyday Life as the definitive text for how to practice cultural geography. We in the academy are the last people who are deceived that ours is a life of the mind; many of us in the humanities and social sciences are invested in a critique of a mind-body split, though I think some of my colleagues who are enamoured of what is being called the new materialism take it way too far with the assertion that matter is somehow all alive and self-generating without consciousness.

But here come my students, and they tell me that they search constantly for intellectuals who walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

When Pascha began, I had it in my head that I would be writing about what I was calling the ‘mystagogy of full communion.’ I had, after all, relived my catechumenate during the Great Fast, so Pascha would be a great time to relive my mystagogy, especially as attending the Easter Vigil at the Latin Church helped me see that ‘full communion’ meant that even the Anglican practices that had drawn me so close to the Lord and the fire of his love were still spiritually valid in my life now in the Kyivan Church. But as it was during the Great Fast, so perhaps it will be during Pascha: that the Holy Spirit may be redirecting me to that in which he wants me immersed mystagogically – to reflect more on the work of a public intellectual life because I am not very good at it yet.

My friend, a fellow public intellectual, recently told me that it was nice to see that I have finally been getting serious in my writing; he was the same one who had rebuked me during the Great Fast for being intellectually unchaste. Between such peers and students, perhaps the Lord is not going to let me get away from the formation of my personhood through a life of philosophia. It is not for no reason, after all, that the Church that I joined understands the tradition as a wisdom tradition; taking our cue from the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople – the Church of Holy Wisdom – the symbolic centre of the churches descended from the baptism of Holy Volodymyr Equal-to-the-Apostles, Prince of Kyivan Rus’, is St Sophia Cathedral, where the Most Holy Theotokos stands with arms held high in prayer. She is the Virgin Orans, the Immovable Wall because of whose prayers by arms held high the city of Kyiv will never fall. This is Wisdom; let me be attentive.

To the Oranta let me then sing the hymn by which she is extolled during the season of Pascha:

The Angel cried to the Lady Full of Grace:
Rejoice, O Pure Virgin!
Again I say: Rejoice!
Your Son is risen from His three days in the tomb.
With Himself He has raised all the dead.
Rejoice, all ye people!
Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem,
The glory of the Lord has shone on you.
Exult now and be glad, O Zion,
Be radiant, O Pure Theotokos,
In the Resurrection of your Son!

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