A Touch of Reality: Life as ἐνέργειᾰ, pt.1
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A certain number of issues customarily gets represented for public consumption as if balancing along a sort of shadow line where religion oversteps into politics and vice versa; those are questions the political parties usually put forward in lists with yes/no boxes to be ticked off: either the political program is pro-life or pro-“reproductive rights”, pro-“traditional” family or pro-homosexual “marriages”, pro-duty of maintaining life or pro-right to “die with dignity”, etc.
In the following we’ll attempt to show that these issues represent less than a tip of the iceberg. In fact they are a crooked image of the originally quite comprehensible principles – or quite uncompromising negation thereof – similar to a stick in the water which, albeit appearing crooked or distorted to our eyes, is in reality quite straight, from the top to bottom.
Therefore our purpose here is to go below the tip towards the base of the proverbial iceberg, not in order to show that the contrary binaries are actually simplifications, but quite the opposite: the purpose here is to show just how deep this very simplicity goes.
Of the three questions we have proposed as examples, we’ll focus on the not so apparent origin of the issue of the “right to die” or institutionalization of euthanasia, the subject we already wrote about to some length.
One peculiarity underlying the debate on euthanasia is that those who argue against it seem to have it much easier than those who argue against the practice of abortion or instituting of the homosexual marriages. There’s something particularly appalling about the idea of terminating human life, as it unfolds before our eyes, striking the conscience with certain immediacy, not present in other issues of the congenial kind. The advocacy of both abortion and “marital” homosexual union unravels from the radical shift in the understanding of life also, but the inversion at work there is not as apparent: one can be fooled into thinking that the shift better serves life than death, be it in the sense of liberating women to a life more worthy of living or letting love transcend inborn sexual duality of the human being. While both assumptions are false, they are not divorced from the truth to an extent that it would render them immediately unacceptable to most people.
However, the idea that life “not worth living” should be legally terminated, with the assistance, or even in some cases by the decision of legal and medical professionals, seems to intensify the matter to a radical extreme.
It is our contention that this happens because the issue brings the matter of life and death in the clear light, where decision to accept or reject life is not the fruit of the more or less complicated series of inferences, customarily requiring quite a bit of soul searching, pushing the inquisitive person, who opts for the “traditional” response, against the grain of contemporary society, but is based, in the last instance, on the purely deliberate opting for death instead of life, because death has been accepted either as good or no less evil than the life itself.
As such, we would also argue, the clarity of the matter tears asunder the veil dividing the so called “secular” from “religious” arguments against this practice. While it is customary for some opponents of euthanasia to claim how “you don’t need to be religious” to argue against it, either out of conviction or as a strategic move to make their standpoint more publicly acceptable, the fact of the matter is that this is the point where the plunge into the depth of what is sometimes called “culture of death”, becomes inevitable and all illusions one might have about it are left behind like so much flotsam on the surface.
We’ll posit that the stand one takes for or against euthanasia, once its grounds are clearly understood, is by necessity a stand one takes for or against God. The crux of the matter is that we’ll attempt to show that the attitude doesn’t have to be conscious in order to be fully deliberate; it represents the point where atheism ceases to be simply an opinion and becomes also a deliberate choice of the active opposition and unmovable intellectual stance, first towards the creation and then towards the Creator Himself.
To argue the point, now we have to turn to what everyday life tells us about life itself.
More or less everybody knows that lives of elderly, infirm and sick are to be maintained, nourished and made easier without necessarily grounding the practice in the rational system explaining the role of death in human life. If one doesn’t care about one’s own parents, we can be sure that one will at least be ready and able, as is fashionable today, to denounce others for not doing so for their own people. Clearly, then, as the practice is still preserved even in the moralizing chatter, its roots have to run deep.
Yet when someone asks us why we do it, i.e. why are we compelled to nourish life to the last moment, we can’t really offer a systematic answer.
Sometimes one is perplexed over such inability to give reasonable grounds for one’s deepest convictions, moreover convictions that were already present long time ago so that men of today are rather relying on them as a legacy than reinventing them.
However, there is something even more perplexing, yet rarely addressed, because it becomes obvious only when the opposite question has been asked:
Why demand answer in the first place and – crucially – why make the practice incumbent upon the ability to provide the systematic rationale for it?
Perhaps it is not self evident to everyone, but such opinion implies that the question of whether life is good in itself was never before posed, because systematic answers are not something we can find before the late 17th Century, cca. 2000 years after Plato and Aristotle indeed have posed and answered some important questions, yet, for some reason, never provided us with the system of answers.
Therefore, why would everybody understand that he couldn’t learn a foreign language in an instant, while scarcely anyone would allow for the possibility that he cannot create a system providing the answer to a final question such as this in the blink of an eye?
Well, the answer to this dilemma is quite simple.
We expect a simple answer because the question itself is a simple one.
Natural understanding of simplicity, once it gets baptized in the acid bath of modernity, morphs into a false conviction that the most simple is also the most obvious and that this obviousness must at some point equal consciousness.
Hence both those who approach life as good in itself and those who reject life as good in itself see their respective acts as simple, because simplicity itself acquired a new meaning without the old one being completely obliterated, but rather pushed in the pre-discursive domain of emotions, instincts and intuitions.
The difference between them is, obviously, also a simple one. It stems from the different understanding of what is intuited as self-evident origin of truth, upon which every truth participates. Of course, one side would, if properly informed, reject our use of the Platonic flavored μέθεξις as a proper way to qualify something as true, but that hardly matters because the assumption upon which we work here is that two sides are not equal and that the discussion between them, correspondingly, can never be such. This means that we consider one of the two positions to be an inversion of the only one existing principle upon which something can be called true, and not an equally valid opinion. In this sense, the refutation of such opinion is not a critical discussion in which one could find some middle ground with those who reject this principle, but an act of resolving their position into nothing because their denial of the existence of the assumption of common ground is in itself an act of basing the argument on nothingness, understood in a quite positive sense.
To avoid any possible ambiguity: the inability to perceive life as good in itself, if this inability comes from the simple insight into reality of life itself, is nothing but negation as its opposite would be an affirmation and whole lot of something originating thereof, because death is not an is but a no.
Equalizing death and life is hence based on the inference that non-being is.
In order to clarify this, we have to give an outline of what we consider to be the ground for the claim that life in itself is good. This ground brings us to what was traditionally understood inside the scope of the Ancient Greek expression ἐνέργειᾰ.
This may seem restrictive, even audacious, to some, but we have to keep in mind that traditional words, notions and propositions such as this one are not really an equal commodity on the “marketplace of ideas”, competing with, supposedly, “new intellectual merchandise”; in fact, modern and postmodern ontological “competitors” are the result of the, sometimes quite violent, transformation of what already existed both conceptually and verbally. The only question is whether the reformed or the original form is closer to reality.
So what is ἐνέργειᾰ?
As it happens, precisely life itself is one form of it that could serve as an exemplary instance upon which we can understand the various meanings and modes of reality encompassed by the word.
In this we assume that in order to understand something we have to begin with the most fulfilled, and consequently the clearest, mode in which we encounter it and then proceed towards the less perfect instances.
In the book IX (θ) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics we have a clear example of such procedure:
“From actions (πρᾱ́ξεων) which are limited, not a single one is an end/purpose (τέλος), but they are rather towards the end/purpose, as in thinning the end/purpose is thinness; and bodily parts – in the midst of thinning – are in such movement (κῑ́νησῐς) that thinning doesn’t belong to a final ‘why’ of the movement (while it is occurring, KT), so their movement is not an action or at least not a perfect one; for it is not an end; but movement in which the end is (intrinsically, KT) present is an act, as for example: seeing is simultaneous with have been seeing, comprehending and have been comprehending, thinking and have been thinking, but it is not simultaneous to learn and to be learned or to heal and to be healed; however, it is simultaneous to live good and to have been living good, to live good life and to have been living a good life (εὐδαιμονεῖ καὶ εὐδαιμόνηκεν). If not, the action would have to end at some point as in the case of thinning and being thinned, but it doesn’t and one lives and, simultaneously, has been living.
Therefore one form of those should be called movements whereas the others are acts (ἐνέργειᾰς). For every movement is imperfect (unfulfilled): thinning, learning, walking, building: those are movements and hence unfulfilled. For it is not true that something walks and simultaneously has walked, builds and has built, coming into being and has been in being, or is moving and has been moving, but the thing moved is different from the mover. However, it is same to be seeing and to have been seeing and thinking and has been thinking. Therefore one is movement and the other is act.” Aristotle Metaphysics, IX 1048 b 18 – 35. (Translated from Greek/Croatian edition)
Aristotle, as one might notice, is not yet providing us with discursive arguments here. If he were to do that, he would first give definitions of ‘movement’ and ‘act’ and then proceed to differentiate them in the body of affirmative and/or negative statements (κατάφασις/ ἀπόφασις). Instead, what he does is, quite in line with his general approach, something more fundamental – he explicates the actual content from which the essence, as its comprehensible mode of being (λόγος),emerges, before going forth and giving its definition. This intellectual act could be, with some reservations, called intuition, but, in contrast to the modern understanding of knowledge, there are no subjective connotations to it. Simply put, things reveal their origins to an extent that they are or, more precisely, to an extent that they are in-acting (ἐν-έργειᾰ). Obviously in-act or actuality itself is the most comprehensible because it is the ground from which every inquiry about movement must start, since various forms of movement are incomplete in themselves, i.e. they cannot provide us with the all the qualification intrinsic to movement as a form of act. As for what things in act are, or why are they such and such, this is a matter of further investigation that includes discursive knowledge.
Again Aristotle puts it clearly:
“Concerning non-complex (ἀσύνθετα) beings, what pertains to being and non-being or to true and false (in regard to them)? For it is not something conjoined (σύνθετον) so that it would exist when it is conjoined or would not exist when it is divided, as when “the tree is white” (…) The true and false (there) are like this: the true is to touch (θιγεῖν) and to say (φάναι) (for saying is not the same as putting forward an affirmative premise (κατάφασις)), whereas the ignorance is in not to touch (…) Whatever then is being or act, about those there’s no error, but only thinking or not thinking them. But their ‘what is’ is the subject of inquiry, namely are they really such or no.” 1051 b (15 – 35)
The question whether life is good in itself is therefore convertible with the question, whether the life is ἐνέργειᾰ or not.
The inference “tree is white” is what we would now, in the tradition of Kant, call synthetic inference where the mode and truth of the “is” is concomitant to some kind of synthetic act – “tree is white” is true only insofar the tree actually is white and this cannot be known by the simple act of thinking but only by discursive act that works with affirmations and negations; however, if we take “is” in itself it is a predication based on actuality, i.e. the intellectual mode in which actuality exists, and if we don’t know this simple fact immediately, then our knowledge is quite analogous to mental blindness – we are trying to describe something before our eyes while at the same time denying the existence of light in which we see it; something that is, apparently, easier to do than it seems at first sight. Whereas verb, as the semantic expression of action, presupposes subject of action, the expression ‘is’ presupposes only being itself which is present both in subject and predicate, and this being, if taken by itself, can be understood only as ἐνέργειᾰ.
To clarify: in the Commentary on Aristotle’s On Interpretation (Expositio Libri Peryermeneias), St. Thomas Aquinas has this to say about nature of the expression ‘is’:
“(…) being is nothing other than that which is. And thus we see that it signifies both a thing, when I say “that which,” and existence [ esse ] (where esse is ἐνέργειᾰor the act of being, KT) when I say “is” [ est ]. If the word “being” [ ens ] as signifying a thing having existence were to signify existence [ esse ] principally, without a doubt it would signify that a thing exists. But the word “being” [ ens ] does not principally signify the composition that is implied in saying “is” [ est ]; rather, it signifies with composition inasmuch as it signifies the thing having existence. Such signifying with composition is not sufficient for truth or falsity; for the composition in which truth and falsity consists cannot be understood unless it connects the extremes of a composition. (…)Therefore he (Aristotle, KT) says that the verb “is” signifies with composition; for it does not signify composition principally but consequently. It primarily signifies that which is perceived in the mode of actuality absolutely; for “is” said simply, signifies to be in act, and therefore signifies in the mode of a verb. However, the actuality which the verb “is” principally signifies is the actuality of every form commonly, whether substantial or accidental. Hence, when we wish to signify that any form or act is actually in some subject we signify it through the verb “is,” either absolutely or relatively; absolutely, according to present time, relatively, according to other times; and for this reason the verb “is” signifies composition, not principally, but consequently.” (ELP 20., 22.)
Aquinas denies that being (ens) is said equally according to categorical predication, in the sense that quantity and quality or substance and accident are equal explications of what beings are; on the contrary, being is said “according to prior and posterior” – as, for example, the substance has more being than accident, because accident is implicit in substance and is predicated according to substance. Therefore, universal being is not some kind of linguistic hypostasis, as it is mostly being understood in modernity, but act (esse/ ἐνέργειᾰ) present in every mode of being in a different way, according to its original instance, which is its purest form and through which all others participate in the cause of why they are what they are. What we call reality, to an extent our intellect can grasp it, is not the pure act of being but precisely the fact of participation of all other acts in it, primarily present to mind in its purest instance comprehensible, i.e. in the transcendental being or esse/ ἐνέργειᾰ present in all as a sort of light that “opens” the world to knowledge. Therefore, to get back to Aristotle’s examples, life is purer than the mere movement, yet, in all its forms known to intellect, it is not such that we can call it “pure life”, only that it is the purer form of ἐνέργειᾰ than spatial movement and we understand this because we are endowed with a priori understanding of ἐνέργειᾰ. Introducing demonstrative knowledge in the realm of what we can intuit as higher than this i.e. into the origin of ens universalis, would mean introducing both human and humanly comprehensible natural necessity into origin of all necessity which, as such, cannot be subjected to any form of necessity.
Therefore, the word ‘is’ signifies composition consequently, not principally, because the origin of composition – i.e. the act of participation that provides being and unity – cannot be understood inside the discrepancy of subject and object at work in propositional language, but can rather be represented in symbols, of which we already have mentioned one – light.
While contemplating these passages, one is forced to reconsider the tried and tested phrase about “being in touch with reality” as well as the nature of the simplicity of insight it entails.
Could such reality and such simplicity provide the basis for the creation of the system?
Let us explicate a resounding “no”:
Aristotle’s strangely casual remarks should certainly make one pause, because with them he is describing the key issue: we cannot be fooled about reality in the sense that, once we are in touch with it, we can exchange it for something else without willful ignorance. So, we cannot, for example, take the act of living as anything else but what it is: an act. We can deny this only if we haven’t attempted to comprehend it at all, but, once it is established what it is on the grounds of its act, we cannot be fooled into wrong understanding by further discursive reasoning, save by willfully ignoring its ground; once one takes life in consideration as a form of act, the inference resolves in insight that life is more fulfilled and hence more comprehensive form of act than the mechanical or biological movement.
Also this implies that hierarchy of actual forms is the participatory hierarchy and the touch with reality is implicitly a touch, not with the origin, but precisely with the point where the presence (παρουσία) of participation in origin is being transparent.
This is indicated by the temporal vectors Aristotle points out in the first passage quoted – in living as living there is no opposite to living, that is: there is no death. The purpose intrinsic to act is a part of its cause, or the intrinsic and comprehensive dimension of the presence of its ultimate cause, and as such has an ontological determinant of the past as for every effect the cause is always in the direction of the past; at every single moment of living, life already was present because it is continuous and non-complex in the sense that nothing contrary to it can enter it or it would then cease to be life. The example is paradigmatic for understanding the traditional notion of simplicity, because we can clearly see that it is not referring to a product of logical and simultaneous materialist reduction, but quite the contrary: the simple act is the one that entails the abundance of qualities while lacking all those determinations that would reduce this abundance, because it suffers only determinations distinguished into one, undivided, being. Therefore, to say that life is self-sufficient would mean that it cannot be reduced to a single one quality – as, for example, movement of the parts of organism – but all the qualities indivisible from it are necessarily present when it is present or they all have to participate in the higher form where it is present. For example, this entails that biological movement is called “life” only insofar as it participates in the act of living which is in itself simpler and, at the same time, more encompassing than the movement of organisms. Animal life therefore cannot be the basis for understanding the life itself, but only the simple act of life as such can serve such function; and this is what “touch” of the mind and reality discloses, no matter is it being explicit or implicit – the knowledge of the child nourishing his elderly parent is not less real than the same knowledge held by philosopher doing the same thing for his parent; θιγεῖν is pre-reflexive yet wholesome and sufficient to serve as an underlying purpose of moral act nevertheless.
In the contrary example of movement, which is a form of act only insofar it is like purer form of act, the end and likewise the vector of the past, or origin, is extrinsic. I am not healed while I am being healed and an act of healing cannot be understood from itself, but only from its subsequent purpose – “health”. This means that act of healing can produce non-simple result: it can produce a contrary to health. So movement is the ground for technical operation because it acts upon other or the same as other: when physician heals himself he is also a patient to himself. In this sense every form of technical knowledge is prone to fundamental mistakes and can indeed run contrary to its purpose, whereas the act, such as the act of life, can never do that because at every given moment its purpose is intrinsically present.
One quite interesting consequence is just how obvious this is. It is no accident that Aristotle is not much troubled about providing the basis of the act of understanding it in just a few words; words, we might add, used even today in a phrase of “having or not having the touch with reality”, surprisingly often with the more or less the same meaning, albeit without consciousness of it. The degree to which a particular ἐνέργειᾰ is comprehensible is the degree to which it is pure. Yet this doesn’t mean that such a thing is readily obvious to human understanding. The example of life and, even more, of the act of thought, are paradigms upon which man can conjecture about the higher forms of ἐνέργειᾰ precisely because we cannot experience them of ourselves in their pure state – whereas every act of life is pure to an extent it is in act, no act of life is infinite. The finitude doesn’t come from some discernable biological necessity which one might find in the matter out of which the living body is being formed, but in the outside limit that is somehow imposed upon it as if it were intrinsic: certainly, as much as we are aware that our life has no inherent limit while it lasts, we are as much aware that it has a limit – the limit that is a clear contrary to its purpose that makes it one and indivisible ἐνέργειᾰ. The most important thing here is that this truth is not apparent from the life itself, i.e. it is not grasped by the “touch” with its reality. Matter itself, as a basis of all somatic life, is an obvious impediment to its infinity but our original intuition of life is not its finitude, or its material or potential being, but precisely its infinity, because the natural understanding of life is the understanding of the form of ἐνέργειᾰ. Finitude is the fact that is strangely incomprehensible on this primordial level of knowledge and no amount of reasoning can make it impact the mind with the same strength as it’s opposite.
We preserve human life without second thought whereas we need a quite elaborate argument to justify its termination.
This elaborate argument can be brought to inner consistency only by the creation of the system that is completely unconditioned by the inner touch of thought and ἐνέργειᾰ of living.
One of the reasons why it is so difficult to demonstrate the most simple and the most obvious could very well be because it is so simple and so obvious that it is indemonstrable.
Demonstration is an intellectual act which resolves particular being into, at least, its proximate cause. We say that we demonstrated what something is when we can categorically infer why it is so and so. However, in order to at least be able to attempt it, we already have to know what is and what is not in universal sense – if we don’t know that life is a form of ἐνέργειᾰ about whose universal nature the knowledge already exists, then our inference will be erroneous in the sense that it can satisfy the logical structure of correct judgment but its ground will not be ἐνέργειᾰ of life, but a reflexive concept derived from some form of conscious interpretation of being.
One of the most stubborn obstacles to understanding the fine line dividing modern and traditional understanding of reality is the conflation of insight with consciousness. Aristotle has shown us that insight does not have to be conscious, i.e. it doesn’t have to be externalized into body of correct inferences, but can, and to some extent must, be intrinsically grasped in order to serve as a basis for discursive thinking. This, however, doesn’t mean that it is intuitive in the psychological sense or, at least, that it can be isolated as such. Between mind and reality as such there is no principal but only consequent opposition; the point at which they converge is the reality in which they both exist and difference emerges in the act of probing this reality further by inquiring why it is precisely such as it is. The question why reality is at all and not rather nothing – a supposedly universal, but in reality quite modern utterance – simply doesn’t apply here because every thought is a thought of being, not nothing.
Consciousness, on the other hand, presupposes that in every true act of knowledge “I” have to be taken into account – knowledge is in the sense that it is a product of the intelligent subject grasping its object; as such the idea of knowledge that does not know that it knows is absurd in this context, but only because of the subtle shift in the expression. I know if I know that I know now means I know if and only if I can externalize and, this means: objectify, what is known, because the reality is principally something other than I am. This act is the basis of system thinking. In the following we’ll attempt to explicate its nature and reasons why it is quite unnatural for human beings as well as the concomitant notion of consciousness which is conflated with reflective insight, whereas in reality it is its exact opposite; an act, we might add in advance, far more appropriate to self referential machine than the living organism, let alone human being.
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