Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Journal of a Soul 42

Reaching Out

Third Year photograph from School which I took for the Year Book.  Some will be friends for life!
I remember years ago one of our philosophy lecturers, Fr. Brendan Purcell, talking about the drive to connect in the human person, that desire to establish human relationships as a “we-wards” drive.  That odd neologism, so much Purcellian, that transforms the pronoun into a directional adverb, encapsulates a lot about human relationships. Reaching out is something we humans are wont to do. And the directional adverb sums up its two-way direction. Let me illustrate.  Recently, Friday afternoon, 3rd January to be precise, as my brother Pat and I visited the ancient town of Santa Caterina Superiore, a small medieval town atop the mountainside in Eastern Calabria a perfect stranger came over to welcome us to his town.  In broken English he proceeded to introduce himself as Luca and told us he was a stone-mason, sculptor and artist. Our conversation was in his broken English and our rudimentary Italian.  However, we had enough words to communicate at a relatively deep and meaningful level.

He brought us to his little studio where he had many carved heads, which you will see in the photos that accompany these lines that to my mind were of ancient Celtic design as they were carved out of granite rock, at least so it appeared to me, a total neophyte in sculpture.  He also had some of his paintings on the walls.  On a small desk to the front of his studio he displayed a Visitor’s Book that was signed by many.  This man was reaching out to us to talk about his art, albeit in broken English and our rudimentary Italian.

What is that Desire or Drive to Reach Out and in turn to Receive?

Students Council presenting cheque to Arthritis Society
Let’s explore this phenomenon on several levels.  Firstly, let me deal with the biological level of reaching out.  Reductionists like Richard Dawkins would argue that such a drive or desire is merely instinctual and essentially part of that “river of genes” that flows from one generation to another.  It is simply that Darwinian survival of the fittest organism. In a sense, then, this is what I call the lowest common denominator approach.  In other words, we are no more than highly sophisticated animals. In philosophical terms, I have always been taught, and am firmly convinced indeed, that this is a reductionist or scientistic approach (Scientism is defined as an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation, not simply those of the natural sciences.) 

Secondly, let me refer to the theory of social Darwinism which was extremely popular in the late nineteenth century (1870s in USA and the UK). Social Darwinists generally argued that the strong should see their wealth and power increase while the weak should see their wealth and power decrease. Different social Darwinists have different views about which groups of people are the strong and the weak, and they also hold different opinions about the precise mechanism that should be used to promote strength and punish weakness. This type of thinking can obviously lead to fascism and racism at its extreme interpretation as we have seen so vividly in Nazism and Stalinism and so forth.

Thirdly, let me mention the role of friendship in life.  Essentially friendship is an important factor in what I have termed above as the desire or drive to reach out and its opposite to receive.  Many years ago I remember learning about the ancient Greek understanding of this phenomenon.  Aristotle gives great praise his concept of friendship or philia, which includes not only voluntary relationships but also those relationships that hold between the members of a family. Friendship, says Aristotle, is a virtue which is ‘most necessary with a view to living … for without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods’.
Top of Form
Bottom of Form
If friendship is so important to the good life, then it is important to ask the question, what is friendship? According to Aristotle, for a person to be friends with another ‘it is necessary that [they] bear good will to each other and wish good things for each other, without this escaping their notice’. Friendships that are based partly or wholly on virtue are desirable not only because they are associated with a high degree of mutual benefit, but also because they are associated with companionship, dependability, and trust. More important still, to be in such a friendship and to seek out the good of one’s friend is to exercise reason and virtue, which is the distinctive function of human beings, and which amounts to happiness or what Aristotle terms “eudaimonia.”

And yet, there is still a deeper sense to the drive or desire to reach out that is purely altruistic, that has absolutely no self-interest in it for the giver, as in those who work for causes greater than themselves: people who join such organizations like Vincent de Paul, The Red Cross, Goal, Trócaire, Oxfam, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and so forth for purely altruistic reasons.  I will readily admit that there is a return factor for the giver, namely that of satisfaction, and a positive feel-good factor.  However, my point here is that there is something more than the mere biological, more the mere egotistical or self-interest at work in my above named desire or drive to reach out and to receive in return. 

If the Greeks spoke about “philia” which we have defined above, the early Christians spoke about “agape.”  Agape is selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love, the highest of the four types of love in the Bible. [Eros, Storge and Philia are the other three terms used].  There are indeed many incidents of people laying down their lives not alone for their friends, but for others whom they don’t even know at all, like a teacher or doctor or care worker or child-minder protecting those whom they care for from a lunatic gunman, or simply a fireman or Garda or any member of the public putting his or her life at risk to save another.  Now that drive or desire to reach out to another in such a purely selfless and dramatic or dynamic way cannot be explained by any of the theories I have outlined above.  Or simply how does one explain random acts of kindness? Surely they are more than just the opposite of random acts of violence? Now, therefore, I wish to call this phenomenon I’m discussing here the Greatest Highest Factor to which we can aspire as human beings?

Are we Less or More?

Perhaps one of the less desirable characteristics of the human race is its hubris or pride that would over-estimate its own abilities and indeed even its own virtues.  This, of course has led to all types of oppression and exploitation of other human beings (deemed to be less than human as in slavery), of animals (destruction of species, endangering other species to feed the greed for ivory or whatever) and indeed of the earth through destruction of nature and the pollution of the environment. 

However, we are more than those reductionists that Dawkins et al would have us be.  We are more in our desires to reach out, our drive to do good, in our moral awareness, in so far as, in the words of the great contemporary Canadian Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor, we act within moral frameworks and horizons of value that are greater than us.  Such moral frameworks and horizons of value are very clearly felt at our heart’s core in times of moral judgments in the wake of horrific crimes like those tried at Nuremberg in the wake of atrocities committed during the Second World War.  That sense of moral wrongness, of gross deviation from what we instinctively or intuitively believe is right is surely a pointer to what is more in the human person than a mere collocation of atoms, molecules or organs; to what is more in the human person than a mere correct choice of acting; to what is more in human society than the mere wellbeing of the greatest number of its citizens.

What is the more?

Many years ago (1994) I was asked by a learned theologian who was the second reader of my S.T.L. thesis what was the more in the human person at my defense of my piece of academic work before a panel of three Doctors of theology. From this distance in time I cannot recall what precisely I said then.  I most probably said something about the grace of God which lives in every human soul.  Back then in the 1990s we spoke of grace as being “the theology of Christian relationships.”  Today, I would not put the answer in such theological terms as a non-practicing Catholic who likes to describe himself as a Christian-Buddhist, whose two great heroes are the founders of both these religions.  What I’d say now is that the human being is more insofar as he is not just an animal with a high IQ.  He is an animal also with an EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and an SQ (Spiritual Intelligence).  There are times when I am meditating that some power other than me moves through me, a power that I firmly believe to be greater than me.  This is the SQ dimension I believe, to which we humans can allow ourselves to be open.  I believe that SQ shows itself in all religions in their purest forms (not in their impure forms as in Jihad or Crusades, Inquisitions or Conquistadores).  However, I also believe that SQ shows itself in many other manifestations outside of religion: in arts and crafts, in sports and in music – in all creative pursuits.  This for me is humankind in its Highest Common Factor.  Too many of us subscribe to the Lowest Common Denominator of what we humans are and can be.

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