woensdag 6 augustus 2008

Things and People

Enjoying my holiday in the Dordogne, reading a book, brings me each year again into a contemplative mood. Old churches, the silence of a monasterial garden, a scorching afternoon sun and chirping crickets lead me unavoidably to meditative atmospheres.

In this attentive presence in the world around me I should look – that’s what my book tells me – for the ultimate assurance against the thoughtless hurrying and activism which haunt our lives.

But why then is this contemplative tradition slowly disappearing from our Western culture? And does that disappearance say something about its credibility for our time? Could it perhaps be that the values of the vita contemplativa are not as timeless as they want to appear? Or should we, very pedantically, say that people nowadays do not know anymore what is important?

In my opinion contemplativity contains an important manco: it is, in first instance, not interested in people. It does, to be sure, engage into relationships, but primarily so with things and only in second instance with other people. Certainly the Christian tradition, in which contemplation plays a main role, knows also a social philosophy. But this social philosophy is emphatically placed at the second level, behind the contemplative attention for creation as a whole of divinely created things. That’s why this attention is called prima philosophia: the first philosophy, which is significant enough.

The book I read situates itself clearly within this tradition. It attributes a fundamental role to contemplativity for reflection on a world that gets stuck in its vita activa. It suggests that we perhaps could escape the coupling of technocratic observation and acting “just by reflection on that connection and thus to dwell with an emptied mind upon the things themselves”. In this thought the author is supported by Heidegger and Nietzsche.

Honestly, I think that the spirituality of the monastery doesn’t fit us anymore.
The problem is not so much that that spirituality is too much withdrawn from the world and does not engage with it. For that withdrawal is rather relative. The contribution to society of the early monks by way of bringing waste land under cultivation was enormous. They worked actively in the care for the sick and the poor. And the accumulation of wealth in the monasteries and later by the ascetic-protestant capitalism made the economy flower.

The actual difficulty is that that spirituality, in line with the definition of contemplativity as prima philosophia, proceeds primarily via things. The dwelling upon creation and things belongs to the heart of the vita contemplativa. Paradoxically enough this stilled attention for things is best expressed in the frugal soberness of Cistercian monasteries. There buildings and objects have been reduced to their essential simplicity.

But exactly that primary attention for things does not suffice anymore. It suffices most of all in a world which lies at your feet to be cultivated. But our world ís cultivated, people are being overloaded with things. Now it are relations which count, communication is primary. In such a situation a spirituality of things is less appropriate than a spirituality of human relations.

One could say, with Levinas, that our conception of prima philosophia should be revised. According to him not the attention for the essence of things is fundamental but reflection on the ethical relation.

But rather I would let go the whole idea that there is a more and a less fundamental philosophy. The first person (where contemplativity departs) and the third person (the source of ethical transcendence) alternate continually as the central focus for human beings. By placing them on an equal level we keep space for surprises. And at the same time we dump a bit more of our hierarchies.

See also Order