St. Maximus on Philosophy

I’ve been working on a review of Derek Webb’s new album, Stockholm Syndrome, and an article on the recent OCA/ ACNA conference at Nashota House, but I wanted to briefly share a quote from St. Maximus the Confessor on the good of philosophy.  I ran into it while reading through Andrew Louth’s book on St. Maximus.

The passage is from Difficulty 10, which tries to dissolve the tension between philosophy and ascetic struggle, and the knowledge gained by both.  In a move characteristic of Orthodoxy, he refuses to allow the physical and the immaterial to be divorced from each other, calling to mind the reasonable movements of our bodies.

For the movement of the body is ordered by reason, which by correct thinking restrains, as by a bridle, any turning aside towards what is out of place, and the rational and sensible choice of what is thought and judged is reckoned to contemplation, like a most radiant light manifesting truth itself through knowledge.  By these two especially every philosophical virtue is created and protected and by them is manifest through the body, though not wholly.

Frankly, I was expecting  a move towards union in the opposite way; because philosophical investigation– like any other artistic act– is an act of ascetic striving.  The truth of this St. Maximus does not deny, and the union of reasoning in our daily bodily movements informs my more mundane observation.  Discipline in one’s physical actions reveals health in one’s rational and contemplative mind.  Rational movement is part of the prudent life. Prudence and profound thoughts are not just relatives, but close kin.

St. Maximus continues by talking of “the grace of philosophy” and how it wonderfully subtracts from our unfortunate state of disrepair.  Once rid of these entanglements we primed for the ascetical struggle that is so much of the righteous life.

For philosophy is not limited by a body, since it has the character of divine power, but it has shadowy reflections, in those who have been stripped through the grace of philosophy to become imitators of the godlike conduct of God-loving men.  Through participation in the Good they too have put off the shamefulness of evil to become worthy of being portions of God, through assitance they needed from those empowered, and having received it they make manifest in the body through ascetic struggle the virtuous disposition that is hidden in the depths of the soul.  So they become all things to all men and in all things make present to all the providence of God, and thus are a credit to God-loving men.

For Plato, Wittgenstein, and now St. Maximus, the role of philosophy is not to add something missing to the human being, but to keep us where we need to be: in humility, wonder, and holiness.

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