With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Sound of One Hand Clapping

For the Aristotelian, a severed hand is not really a hand at all. It is detached from the substantial form that secures its function and identity as hand. Apart from this, it is only analogously called a hand, much in the same way we would call a prosthetic replacement a "hand." Without the living, informed body, the severed hand is far more like a prosthetic hand or a claw or even the sculpture of a hand than it is like an organic, living hand.

Similarly, for the Aristotelian, the polis and the common good are naturally prior to the individuals that partake of them; much in the same way that the unified, substantial body is prior to its hands and its feet. It seems apparent then that in many accounts of Modern autonomy, philosophers are proposing that hands are truly hands when they are lobbed off of their arms. Body parts precede the unity of the body. Yet when Modern man is cut off from the common good and the intrinsic "political" aspect of his nature and his end, can we really call him "man?" Or is he in reality closer to a manequin or a sculpture?

Obvisouly Modern man, even in accepting such a vision of autonomy, is not cast out of human community the way an exile or a hermit might have been sundered from the polis in Aristotle's day. Now as then, people still grow and develop and depend upon the specialized skills of others in their communities. So it would be more like a bunch of severed body parts trying to move together in imitation of a real and living unified body. Imagine the child of some deity trying to create a human doll out of a bunch of dead human body parts. It's actions, it's movements, would in effect be no more than those of a doll: what Aristotle would classify as an artifact. What we have then in the extreme accounts of Modern autonomy is an argument for a political Frankenstein.

Are we willing to refer to Frankenstein (the monster) as "man" in the same sense as we would use that word of, say, Dr. Victor Frankenstein?

Pax Christi,


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