Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pope Benedict's University Speech on Tradition and Rationality

The cancellation of a papal visit to Rome's prestigious La Sapienza University calls to mind the reaction to Regensberg. Some Muslim protesters, egged on by sensationalistic reporting in the BBC's foreign language broadcasts, would go on to kill a few people to avenge the Pope's quotation of a fifteenth-century Byzantine emperor critical of Mohammed.

The Italian protests, reportedly led by the physics faculty, had different motives. Communists, sexual activists, and putative defenders of science and reason took offense at the Pope’s quotation of skeptical philosopher Paul Feyerabend, who called “rational and just” the 16th century verdict condemning Galileo. As the context makes clear, Pope Benedict was using this anti-modern attitude in his discussion of modern philosophy’s diffidence about truth and science.

One difference from the heated reaction to the Regensberg address? The Pope’s quotation of Feyerabend took place in 1990. Muslims at least have the sense to riot about perceived offenses committed only in the recent past.

While I am skeptical of the truism that publicly protesting some book or movie only draws attention to the object the protester would rather not publicize, the furor certainly caught my attention and tickled my curiosity.

There is to my knowledge no full translation of Pope Benedict’s planned address. Catholic News Agency has a few excerpts. However, I found the Italian text most useful, and I will in my amateur’s Italian translate passages of interest to me below.

One section illustrates the Pope’s support for a kind of traditionalism:

Here, however, the objection quickly emerges: the Pope, in fact, cannot speak truly about the basis of ethical reason, but ought to draw on his judgments about faith. For this reason he cannot claim a validity to these judgments for the many people who do not share that faith.

We ought to return again to this argument, because it places before us the absolutely fundamental question: What kind of a thing is reason? How can an affirmation—above all, a moral norm—demonstrate “reasonableness”?

At this moment I would like to note briefly that John Rawls, though denying to comprehensive religious doctrine the characteristic of “public reason,” saw even in their “non-public” reason at least a reasonableness that he could not, in the name of a rigid secularistic rationality, simply disregard those who uphold it.

Rawls sees a standard for this reasonableness between each group in that they derive similar doctrines from one accountable and determined tradition in which, over a long time, they have developed argument sufficiently good for sustaining their respective doctrines.

In this affirmation, it seems to me important that the recognition that the experience and the demonstration through the course of generations, the historical basis of human wisdom, are also a sign of its reasonableness and its enduring significance. In contrast to the a-historical reason that seeks only to construct itself in a-historical rationality, the wisdom of humanity of this sort—the wisdom of the great religious traditions—he that emphasizes these as true cannot with impunity consign them to the dustbin of the history of ideas.

Another touches on one of my peeves, the misuse of Euthyphro by those who have only taken, or have only taught, Philosophy 101:
I think one can say that the true, intimate origin of the university would be in the desire to know that is proper to man. He wants to know what everything surrounding him is. He wants truth. In this sense one can see the dialogues of Socrates as the impulse of that sort that birthed the Western university. I think, to mention one text for example, of the disputation with Euthyphro, who against Socrates defended mythical religion and its worship.

To him Socrates counterpoised the question: “You believe that there really exists between the gods a mutual war and terrible animosities and battles? Ought we, Euthyphro, to say that these things are actually true?”

There is apparently little devotion in this question. However, from Socrates there derived a religiosity more deep and pure, concerning the search for the God truly divine. The Christians of the first century recognized that his path and theirs was the same. They listened to his faith not in a positivist manner, or as the way of escape from unsatisfiable desires. They understood him as the dissolver of the fog of mythical religion, making a place for the discovery of that God who is Reason-creator and at the same time Reason-Love. Because of this, they asked themselves the reasons about God most great, and also about true nature and the true sense of being human. Inquiry was for them not a problematic condition of a lack of religiosity, but it made part of the essence of their way of being religious.

Therefore they had no need of dismissing or putting aside Socratic inquiry, but they were able, or rather, were obliged both to welcome and to recognize how part of their proper identity was the laborious inquiry to reach understanding of the entire truth. They were able, indeed, they were obligated, in the ambit of Christian faith, in the Christian world, to give birth to the university.

The Euthyphro dilemma is often thrown around against contemporary religion, as if Christians throughout history have been unaware of Plato. In fact, Plato answered the dilemma in a matter congenial to neo-Platonic Christians: participation in God, rather than merely following His will, provided a standard for devout behavior. I hope Pope Benedict’s categorization of Euthyphro as belonging to “mythical religion” can at least help reprove as soon as possible the second-hand undergraduate philosophizing that thinks not only did philosophy end with Plato, it ended with the early Plato.

(If anyone finds fault with my translation, or finds a professional translation, please let me know. I’ve only a year’s worth of Italian class, and I’m winging the rest with help from Semi-fluent.)

Addendum: Amy Welborn links to some better translations.


James H said...

I should have a translation soon. The person that is doing it is pretty good generally and I shall post a link here when it is online which I expert shortly

Paul said...

Hello. I just thought you might like to read this article:
"A Christian Answer to the Euthyphro Dilemma" (link).