Even as regards those truths about God which human reason could have discovered, it was necessary that man should be taught by a divine revelation; because the truth about God such as reason could discover, would only be known by a few, and that after a long time, and with the admixture of many errors. (Summa Theologiae I.1.1)
Any “dualism”, whether of the theological order like that attributed to the Manicheans, or of the philosophical order like that of Descartes, is a radically false conception. ~ Rene Guenon
It is said that St Jerome was severely chastised for preferring to read the pagan philosophers rather than Sacred Scriptures. So it is with some caution that I turn to the pagans, not to commend them, but rather because such writings have been a great part of my own personal equation. In particular, I am interested in those systems that assume the intelligibility of the world through thought. These have been known as “Absolute Idealism” or “Monism”. We prefer the first term, not always used in the strict sense; moreover, they have more of a “family resemblance” and not a totally common teaching. In short, it represents the Platonic thread in philosophy rather than the Aristotelean. Joseph Marechal, in Studies of the Psychology of the Mystics, compares it to a strict monotheism as the foundation of a certain type of mysticism.
It is easy to forget that up until a century again, it comprised what was properly called philosophy for educated men. Other systems of thought, e.g., materialism, naturalism, etc., are not really philosophies since they deny the primacy of thought. From Plato and Plotinus, it was revived with the German thinkers. The British then adapted their own version, e.g., with T H Green, Francis Bradley, Bosanquet, etc. A century ago, it was dominated by the Italians Benedetto Croce and Giovanni Gentile. Julius Evola, who learned German in order to study the German idealists, was also an Absolute Idealist. Even Rene Guenon, although he disdained profane philosophy, had points in common with such systems.
The neglect of Absolute Idealism has allowed inferior ideologies to take hold among the educated classes. Often, the only alternative to such ideologies are crudely expressed dogmas of the exoteric religions, which seem incredible to most educated folk. Hence, such writings have a threefold purpose for us.
- Idealism provides an intellectually sophisticated alternative to naturalism, materialism, and modernism.
- It is a “halfway house” between atheism and theism.
- It provides a safeguard against anthropomorphic and other misconceptions about God. Some idealists identify the Absolute with God, while others do not.
Surprised by Joy
C S Lewis was one such person who journeyed from atheism to Absolute Idealism to theism, which he described in Surprised by Joy. The Magdalen Metaphysicals describes the intellectual climate at Oxford during Lewis’ time there.
A recent promoter of Absolute Idealism was Timothy Sprigge. He provides an updated defense of it in the Vindication of Absolute Idealism. In James and Bradley and the God of Metaphysics, Sprigge provides a helpful survey of rationalist and idealist philosophies. In the latter book, he outlines how such a metaphysical system might relate to religion. Unfortunately, I cannot review that chapter here. However, those who have a religious sensibility, but are turned off by the various alternatives available, may gain something from such an abstract presentation.
Following Bradley, Sprigge claims that self-realization is the goal of life. Of course, that makes sense if we interpret that in Guenon’s notion of the actualization of all of man’s possibilities, including the transcendent possibilities. Ultimately, that is, self-realization is the realization of the Self.
Sprigge defends panpsychism, which is the view that the world consists of experiences. For him, there is no dead, or unexperienced, matter, everything is alive. A more recent example, using a different argument, is Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel, which is reviewed here. Thus, life, consciousness, and thought do not arise from matter, since the psyche is a fundamental component of the cosmos. Guenon makes a similar claim, since he includes life as one of the irreducible elements of the world.
In Infinite Minds: A Philosophical Cosmology, John Leslie derives a system from Plato’s idea of the Good. Hugh Rice, in God and Goodness, develops that idea more fully. He claims that the Scientific Outlook and Objective Values prove the existence of God. Rather than oppose God to Science, Rice claims that the scientific outlook requires three beliefs, which transcend the objects of scientific study:
- A belief in order
- A belief in rationality
- A belief in intelligibility
Then, he demonstrates that there is objective value in the world. From that, he concludes that since it is good for the world to exist, then it necessarily exists.
Leslie builds on Plato, Spinoza, Bradley, and others, to create an idealist system. Interestingly, he acknowledges the problem I mentioned at the top: how can you make such metaphysical ideas comprehensible to the modern mind?
Trying to introduce ideas like these in the twenty first century and in the West, one never knows where to start. The points I want to make could seem entirely natural to a traditionally educated Hindu, or to Hegelians such as Bradley, or to a physicist such as David Bohm, who speculated that all the parts of our universe form a collective mind of some sort; yet they can easily be dismissed as preposterous, for all kinds of powerful reasons. … One has to paint a huge picture at speed, conscious that every brushstroke can earn raised eyebrows, incredulous stares, or worse. One has to do this because the elements in the picture make sense only when seen as a whole. From which it follows, unfortunately, that whatever one begins with can look outlandish.
Leslie identifies the things in the world as “the structures of various thoughts in the divine mind”. He goes on to claim that “when God contemplates various physical possibilities in full detail they do not remain merely possible … they are genuinely real, existent, actualized, non-fictitious.”
Readers here will recognize these as Guenon’s “possibilities of manifestation”, which, in Medieval metaphysics, are ideas in the Divine Mind. So what goes around, comes around. Unfortunately, the work is marred by an inadequate understanding of metaphysical Infinity. For this, a reading of Guenon will go a long way to correct.
To get back to the main point, which is that the world exists because it is good for it to exist. This recalls Bonaventure’s journey to God, which surpasses Being to reach the Good. Bonaventure claimed that it is better for something to exist than not to exist. Here Leslie and Rice seem to be in agreement with Bonaventure.
Nevertheless, for many that proposition may not be so obvious. For example, the Buddha claimed that all life is suffering and Schopenhauer asserted that it would be better not to exist. In our own time, abortion and euthanasia are promoted on the grounds that it would be better for some lives not to exist. This topic deserves extended treatment, but in the meantime, meditate on the Wheel of Fortune Arcanum in the Tarot.
The Idealist View of Life
That is the title of a book by the Indian philosopher Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Radhakrishnan reframes Indian thought in the terms of Western systems of Absolute Idealism. He does that more thoroughly in the two volumes of Indian Philosophy, quoting Bradley, Gentile, inter alia. In the previous century, European scholars tried to grasp Hindu philosophy in Western terms. Radhakrishan turns the tables, evaluating Western philosophy in how well it corresponds to Indian thought. His student, T R V Murti, did the same for Buddhism in The Central Philosophy of Buddhism.
Guenon recommended the study of Eastern thought as the preliminary stage in the recovery of Tradition in the West. Thinkers like Radhakrishnan, Murti, Aurobindo Ghose, and others, may be a good place to start.
Obviously, there are many important topics that had to be excluded in this short survey. Some, including Marechal’s work on mysticism and Nagel’s on the philosophy of science, will appear in upcoming posts. However, there is plenty of material to get started on an understanding of the Absolute, the infinite, cosmic Order, Intelligibility, and Rationality, the Objective Value of Existence, and the goal of Self-Realization.