Drew Dalton

A short meditation this week on the nature, history and status of our experience of ourselves:  Most philosophical historians will argue that the experience of ourselves from the first person perspective, that seemingly natural primary identification we have with our ‘I’s, is anything but natural and is, in fact, a historically developed perspective.  This is, of course, a very odd claim and one, moreover, which is mind-boggling difficult to comprehend; but essentially the argument runs as follows: when you study the literature and philosophy of the west you quickly discover that we have not always thought of ourselves in the same way we do now; that in fact, the ‘internal’ viewpoint granted in the first person perspective was developed relatively recently.

To argue this point, these historians will point in part to the nature of narrative (after all, how we talk about ourselves, as the analyst knows, reveals fundamentally how we think of ourselves); and how, in the ancient world, there appears to be a distinct lack of first person narrative.  Think about the epics or the earliest scriptures which seem to always be narrated in the third person impersonal.  What’s more, therein we find human beings portrayed as passive: exposed to and subject to the whims of a cruel world, the impersonal forces of nature or the wrath of the Gods.  Human action is thus not portrayed as the out-working of some interior life, but instead as the effect of seemingly arbitrary happenings in the cosmos.  Moreover, the value and meaning of those actions is always interpreted from a third person perspective, that is on how they can be seen in the eyes of a particular community, if not the actual political community of the character then at least the audience who may hear the tale.  The actions of an individual thus appear to be evaluated in the ancient world on the basis of whether or not they bring shame or valor in the eyes of others.  From this, the historians conclude, the most ancient concept of the self was one that was: a) fundamentally mediated by the social; and b) not seen as separated, distinct or closed off from the world (some interior experience).

The modern experience of subjectivity, wherever one plots its origins, is distinct then in that it establishes the self as a primarily interior experience, something only the subject itself has access to and moreover as a power in the world with its own sphere of influence.  Our actions, we think, are the result of some happening within us, whether conscious or unconscious, and not the whim of any exterior force.  The subject, we think, is primarily active, and not passive – is internally coherent and not at exposed to the gaze or judgment of other.  It is private.   As such, we experience ourselves not in terms of how our actions are seen by a community, but how we think or feel about them ourselves.  This transition in perspective is demonstrated in our employment of the first person perspective, both in literature and in philosophy (think of Descartes’ cogito for a relevant example), but also in how we talk about our own experience and history making the ‘I’ primary.

But it seems to me, and this is the subject I’d like to provoke our discussions this week (if only virtually), we seem to be situated at a watershed moment in the history of the experience of ourselves: another cultural transition akin to the birth of subjectivity (that movement from the third person perspective to the first) – one which is seemingly carrying us back to the third person perspective, but in a new and strange way.  I witness this in the way my students think and talk about themselves and their interests, but I witness this most on Facebook where status updates are narrated in the third person (i.e. “Drew is very ashamed of the quality of his blog post today”), photos are taken from the third person perspective (either through the mirror or held at arm’s length) and always posed (as if those in the photo are already estimating how it will look to others and what their best angle is for those others) and where it seems that something needs to be commented on by the community to have really happened.  Isn’t this, at least to some extent what we see in the culture of blogging: the conviction that for something to have really happened to me it must be share and validated by the community?   Isn’t there a strange blurring between what would traditionally have been deemed the interior realm of the private and the exterior realm of the public online or the suspicion in my students that there is no point in doing something privately, only value in doing something which will be seen publicly, something for which they will be acknowledged and get some credit (like the student I had recently who told me that he kept a personal journal for his imaginary future wife or progeny who may want to read what he was thinking or feeling today and so carefully crafts each sentence worried about how it might appear to them)?  I wonder if anything is done privately by my students (any journals kept not in the hopes they will be read, but with precisely the opposite hopes).  Is this also what I see in their hyper awareness, however justified, of how they are being judged from the outside world (by future employers, peers, or other professors) and their attempt to sculpt themselves and their c.v. (and even to their private extra-curricular activities) in terms of how it will appear to others?  Isn’t this further what we see in the current cult of celebrity and reality TV super-stars where someone is valued solely on their media-friendliness (and not on the merits of their character)?  Is this, furthermore what I witness in people who will take a digital photo of something they are currently experiencing (say the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls) and then immediately turn their back to the actual experience, to look at the photo they just took (seemingly imagining how it will be perceived by others who will later comment on it online)?

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not a chronological snob.  I do not lament these changes, offering instead my own nostalgic portrait of the good ol’ days of my youth when we knew what was private and what was public and had a distinct first person perspective.  Frankly, I think there are some real problems with the modern perspective of my generation.  It is not my intention either, however, to praise what appears to be a weakening of the experience of ‘modern’ subjectivity in my students.  Instead, it is simply my hope to raise the very undeveloped and tentative thesis that there is a difference between our two generations which I think can be explained by examining the history of the experience of ourselves (the history of subjectivity) and which I think may explain some uncanny, at least to me, recent social phenomena.  I look forward to your own thoughts and commentary (though I ask you to keep in mind, that though I knew this was to be published and subject to public view, given my generational predilections, it flowed from private thoughts and was composed without really concerning myself with your future judgment – it is therefore not as polished as most of my students Facebook pages are.  I’ll hope for your generosity then with my ‘modern’ limitations).

Interview with Prof. Drew Dalton, Department of Philosophy, Saint Anselm College on his new book:

Longing for the Other: Levinas and Metaphysical Desire

2009. Duquesne University Press



Interview: Longing For the Other

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Lacking the time needed to really develop an extended thought or well composed essay for this month’s blog post, I’ve opted instead to simply share some notes from my personal philosophical journal in the hopes, at the very least perhaps, of sharing with you the reader some of the questions that I’ll be exploring next semester in my preceptorial on Freud and Analysis.  In this way you get a glimpse not only into what promises to be an interesting experiment in the form of a class, but also into the messy naissance of an idea.

What does it really mean to be a subject?  If to be a subject means to be held out before, extended and open towards beings, in a word ex-istent, then isn’t there a sense in which to be a subject is to always already be called away from the self, away from the starting point of one’s own being?  That is, isn’t there a sense, given the trajectory of subjectivity towards beings, that to be a subject is to be living always already beyond the ground of one’s own being, alienated or distended from one self?  Put another way, isn’t there some tragic sense in which one can only fully become oneself/become a subject by loosing or separating from oneself, by cutting oneself off/free from oneself and rejecting the primordial tendency to be absorbed in one’s own being?

French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan refers to this strange and seemingly paradoxical reality as the law of castration, the fact that one can only enter into the symbolic order of language, exchange and community (the very order in which the formal structure of subjectivity is achieved), by cutting themselves free from the gravitational pull of and primordial bond to their own being.  For there is no private language, as we all know.  The language we take up in the development of our subjectivity is not our own, but belongs fundamentally to another.  Indeed, initiation into the symbolic order is to be othered in this way – it is to take on the language of the other’s as our own – in a word, to become an Other.  And to be inducted into the symbolic order (a language community) in this way is not only to be welcomed into a society, it is the very naissance of our subjectivity, our ability to think to process.  Cognition and consciousness requires this symbolic initiation.  So it seems that the very process of becoming a subject is the process of loosing one’s primordial way of being themselves, it is to be othered – to abandon that nascent privacy which is one’s original mode of being, and become fundamentally exposed in the public realm.  In other words, subjectivity appears to be a mode of becoming which is inexorably marked by being torn from one’s ‘original’ state and laid bare before another: to be me is to be alienated from myself, as it were.

This means that to be a human subject means to be by necessity ‘out-of-joint’ – it is to dwell in the rupture between a supposed closed off state of primordial being to which you can never return and which you never properly were (as you only fully came to be through the rupture of that totality), and perhaps a state of final fulfillment in which this alienation will be annihilated, and with it you (death).  The being of the subject is thus made fundamentally a way of becoming – inscribed ineluctably by desire.  Hence Lacan’s nomination of the subject as a manqué-a-etre, not so much a being as a want-to-be, a desire or absence of being (double meaning to the word want here).  To be a subject is to become in the disaster (dis-astre) that is the explosion of the singularity of our being, it is alienation, it is to be in want.  This is the law of castration.

The horrible curse, of course, is that we can only become aware of the tragedy that is our being, our want-to-be, from this side of the symbolic order (once we’ve taken up the language of another).  The result is that we all too easily give into the illusion that no gap exits – that we are whole in the symbolic order.  This emerges out of a false identification with the symbolic order (i.e. because we come-to-be in the symbolic order, we find in it our whole identity and being).  Of course this is inauthentic (in the old Greek sense of the word of being other than one’s own, failing to recognizing what is properly one’s own, to use the Latin) as it fails to recognize the ground of subjectivity.  But, more importantly, it leads to all sorts of social problem, such as social conformity and mob mentality, opening the door to totalitarianism.  For others, sensing the trauma of their being, sensing that they are fundamentally in want, will all too quickly attempt to correct the disaster and propose ‘solutions’ (even final ones) to the want in some vain nostalgic attempt to ‘return’ to some presumed primordial unity, a time before the disaster.  We see quickly how the curse of the law of castration leads to holocaust.  This is, of course, a social outworking of the Oedipal drama: the attempt to return to the primordial home (Mother), and it is necessarily doomed to failure and the harbinger or murder.

What we are left with the ethical necessity or recognizing our alienation and embracing it – the ethical imperative of refusing and resisting our inborn tendency towards nostalgia, towards ‘return’ to unity and harmony.  In a word, the ethical necessity of conflict, difference and descent.  Only through such an authentic acceptance and appropriation of our primordial alienation, through such a resistance to and rejection of the siren’s song of absorption and completion, can we mature past the Oedipal drama of totalitarianism and murder and bare our heads freely in the truth.

There is a certain naïve assumption which lies at the heart of most philosophic and scientific investigations, certainly those, at least, which have grown from modernism. This assumption is perhaps most explicitly expressed in the thought of Rene Descartes, who makes it essential to his path to philosophical certainty, but could equally be found in the work of any number of other thinkers. Simply stated, the assumption is that that world is such that it does not, indeed cannot, deceive us. Everything that is present in the world is thus available for and subject to investigation and, eventually, full knowledge. Thus even those dark or shadowy elements of existence, those elements that for whatever reason remain closed to us for now, as if veiled in a cloud of unknowing, are not conceived of as essentially hidden, but only temporarily hidden, perhaps as the result of not yet having turned our attention to it sufficiently to illuminate it completely or perhaps because we have not yet developed the sufficient means for investigating it properly, say some technology which will unlock the phenomenon for us. In any case, we think, it is only a matter of more work or time before these mysteries too are unlocked and enlightened by our intellect. This is the philosophical payoff for Descartes’ investigation into the existence and nature of God in the Third Meditation: that the world is a place given to us clearly and distinctly and thus capable of yielding certainty. But, is this really the case? Is it true that everything which is in the world is subject to such illuminative investigations, capable of being fully conceptualized and understood, or are there some things which given their very nature, and not merely our lack of time or technology or inclination, which remain veiled and hidden from us – apparent, but still unknown?

It strikes me that there are some objects, some happening or occurrences, some beings, in a word, which are not available to full investigation in the way traditionally pursued by modern philosophy and science, and not because of any deficiency within us, but as such, because they are superlative, for whatever reason . indeed, it seems to me that there are some phenomena which are too big to be framed by our understanding or too dense to be fully illuminated by our reason. Thus, though apparent, these beings nevertheless hold themselves back from full conceptualization within the modern framework. One could compare these phenomena then to something akin to a black hole: though certainly existent the black whole is such that it resists direct appearance – being so dense it absorbs any light directed towards it.

To understand what it is we’re driving at here we can point to a very concrete example, the Shoah, the black hole at the heart of the 20th century. How is one to make sense of the madness and the horror of such an occurrence? How can the death of so many be fully framed for understanding? How can such a radical appearance of evil ever be fully understood? It seems to me that there is something inherent to the nature of such a tragedy which denies any attempt to approach it directly, any attempt to illuminate it by reason. It sticks in throat of whomever would attempt to digest it, absorbs the light of whomever would illumine it, and paralyzes whomever approaches it directly.

So how are we to talk about such phenomena? How are we to approach them without being transfixed or without yielding the light we shine upon them? Or, is such a task impossible – a kind of hubristic fantasy? Do such phenomena truly fall, by their very nature, beyond the scope of language and outside the boundaries of understanding – or do they merely resist a certain kind of understanding and certain kind of approach? In attempt to answer this question it is useful to turn to another who faced a similar difficulty.

It seems to me that Perseus faced a similar task in his attempt to slay the gorgon, Medusa. Knowing that any direct, illuminative approach would inevitably end in failure Perseus, with the help of the gods of course, struck upon a novel solution to his problem. Instead of approaching the monster directly, head on as it were, Perseus choose, against all intuition, to approach her indirectly, moving backwards towards his goal, never looking at her straightforwardly, but only obliquely via the inverted reflection provided him by the backside of his shield. In this way Perseus was able to gaze upon the monster without being turned to stone and illuminate her without being overwhelmed by her presence. Perhaps we can take something from this story in our own attempts to approach and apprehend ontologically dense phenomena like the Shoah. Knowing that any direct approach will inevitably end in failure, perhaps like Perseus, we must, counter-intuitively, pursue the phenomena obliquely, perhaps through some mimetic reversal or via what Merleau-Ponty termed an indirect ontology.

Of course this would mean that sometimes, against our better judgment, the most direct route to such a phenomena may appear to avoid it entirely; as is the case, for example, in Stephen Spielberg’s film Munich, which is, in my opinion one of the most powerful reflections upon the Shoah ever filmed, not because it ever treats it directly, indeed I don’t think it is mentioned once in the film, but because one cannot watch or understand the film without constantly thinking of the horror of Auschwitz and Birkenau.

This brief reflection is not meant to treat the subject of such an indirect ontology completely, nor to completely settle the question of how to deal with such ontologically dense phenomena as radical evil, or for that matter radical good; instead it is only meant to invite conversation and to call into question one of the unspoken assumptions at work in the traditional understanding of philosophical and scientific investigation. Let me conclude then by inviting further discussion on this subject either via the blog, or perhaps in a future meeting of the philosophy club. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Philosophy Colloquium October 21, 2008-10-22

Professor Drew Dalton

Phenomenology and the Divine: Understanding the French Theological ‘Turn’

click the above link to listen, or right click to download.

The talk deals with 20th and 21st century developments in the phenomenology founded by Husserl and Heidegger that allow the discussion of the Divine within phenomenology. The Turn began with Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida, but the heart of the turn includes: Michel Henry, Jean-Louis Chretien, Jean-Yves Lacoste, and finally Jean-Luc Marion (you could also include Jean-Francois Courtine and Paul Ricoeur if you wanted, but these weren’t discussed in the lecture).

Suggestion for further reading: Phenomenology and the ‘Theological Turn’: the French Debate by Dominique Janicaud.

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The members of the Philosophy Department were asked which book they thought would be important to teach to students in an introductory philosophy course. Their answers are below. You can listen to them all at once or you can click on the name of the individual professor below to listen to each professor’s answer.

All answers in one mp3 file.
click the link to play or right click to download.

-Professor Robert Anderson

David Hume-An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding


-Professor Robert Augros

Professor Augros argued that the dialogue between teacher and student was more essential to the philosophical process than any book.

-Professor David Banach

Euclid’s Elements


Albert Camus- The Stranger


-Professor Montague Brown

Plato- The Republic


Online edition


Saint Augustine’s Confessions


Online edition


-Professor Drew Dalton

Marcus Aurelius-The Meditations


Online edition


Slavoj Zizek



-Father John Fortin

Saint Anselm- Monologium




-Professor Susan Gabriel

Bertrand Russell- The Problems of Philosophy


Online edition


-Professor Sarah Glenn

Sophocles- Oedipus Rex


-Professor Matthew Konieczka

Leo Tolstoy-The Death of Ivan Ilyich


Plato- The Apology


Online Edition


-Professor Thomas Larson

Plato- The Republic


Online edition


-Professor Max Latona

Josef Pieper-The Philosophical Act


Professor James Mahoney
C.S. Pierce, “The Fixation of Belief”


Michael Novak, Belief and Unbelief


-Professor Joseph Spoerl

Plato- The Gorgias


Online edition


Plato- The Republic


Online edition


Plato- The Apology


Online Edition


-Professor Kevin Staley

Plato- The Euthyphro


One of the most perennial human fears is the fear of the dark. It is also, strangely (at least to me), one of the least explored of human phenomena. Though countless articles and books have been dedicated to the examination and elucidation of every nearly every other fear, from anxiety to xenophobia, little to no scholarly work has been done on that most basic of fears, the fear of the dark. The little that has been done, usually from early childhood educators and psychologists, has not focused so much on examining the nature and reason behind the phenomenon as proffering possible solutions to it (for example, one such article I read spent a turgid 30 pages weighing the pros and cons of night-light use and concluded by suggesting the best brand of night-light to purchase if the reader, having weighted said pros and cons, ultimately decides to purchase a night-light. It read more like a consumer report than a scholarly article, though it was recommended to me by a colleague in early-childhood education as one of the leading pieces on the subject). I think this approach to the fear of the dark, and indeed all fears, as problems to be treated rather than as phenomena to be studied, explains in part the general lacuna within scholarship. But, I think another motivating factor of this gap in research is due to the fact that the fear of the dark is generally treated not as a human phenomenon, but as a childhood phenomenon, one which is naturally grown out of at a reasonable age. I am not at all convinced that this is the case however. Who hasn’t woken in the night to be seized by an irrational fear of the darkness even late into life? Who hasn’t switched on a light in the middle of the night not merely to guide their nocturnal wanderings (say to the kitchen for a drink of water), but to comfort their fears and discomfort with the darkness? It seems to me that the persistence of this fear nominates it as a worthy candidate of study motivating at least three deeply philosophic questions: 1) Whence this fear of the dark? What is it that terrifies us in the dark? What possibility is presented by it that is so threatening to us? 2) What is the meaning of our fear of the dark? What does it reveal about our nature? And, 3) Why the tendency, or, more provocative still, the need to relegate (or perhaps repress) such fears to childhood? Clearly there is more here to explore than can be treated in one blog posting (and it is my hope to explore these questions more extensively elsewhere), but let me try for now to treat at least the first of these three questions.

Whence our fear of the dark? On first glance this question strikes us as facile and simply answered. Indeed, we think, it belongs to the cannon of common knowledge. Everyone knows, we think, that what we fear in the dark is really the unknown. Put more philosophically, the general assumption is that fear of the dark is really just a species of a larger genus: fear of the unknown. In this regard, it is really no different from those other fears much more extensively explored and mentioned above: anxiety, which is fear of the unknown with regard to the future, and xenophobia, which is fear of the unknown as applied to geography and culture. So it is that our question is answered before we even begin. But let’s assume for the moment that it is not at all clear that this is the case, and that the question still remains as to the nature and origin of our fear of the dark? In this state of suspended belief, let us turn momentarily to examine the phenomenon itself, or, even more specifically, one of the accompanying phenomenon of this fear (one of its symptoms we could say), what I will call here: whistling in the dark.

It is a common phenomenon that children will sing or tell stories to themselves in the dark before falling asleep in order to calm their fears. Adults too, when walking down a dark street, are prone to whistle or hum a tune. Whatever its manifest form, there seems to be a basic human need when confronted with the dark for a voice or sound, preferably from another (someone else’s story or song), but in a pinch our own voice reverberating off of the walls around us will do (as a side note, it strikes me that much of what makes cell phone’s so popular is that they give us a voice to cling to in the dark – which is why we always call someone when walking home at night). Freud notes this need for a voice in the dark in an interesting footnote to his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality. There he writes that “[I once heard] a three-year-old boy . . . calling out of a dark room: ‘Auntie, speak to me! I’m frightened because it’s so dark.’ His aunt answered him: ‘What good would that do? You can’t see me.’ ‘That doesn’t matter,’ replied the child, ‘if anyone speaks, it get light.’” While Freud takes this as evidence of the fact that the fear of the dark is motivated by the loss of the loved object/mother, a more interesting note to make (at least to me) is the way in which the voice of another functions as a kind of illuminative power in the dark one which has the power to cast away all fears. Indeed, it seems that the reason that we whistle in the dark, sing, or tell stories to ourselves once the lights have dimmed and we are alone is as a kind of substitute for the voice of the other. We’d much rather have someone else to talk to, someone else calm our fears, but barring that possibility, we’ll take on the task ourselves. This need for a voice, for a sound from another (if only falsely imitated) is revealing of the nature of our fear of the dark. What it seems to suggest is that what we really fear in the dark is not the darkness itself, but being alone, for indeed it is this lonesomeness that is ruptured by the voice of the other. But, of course, this suggestion only leads to further questions. Why, for example, does the darkness seem to amplify our aloneness? After all, being alone in the light is not a source of fear in the same way that being alone in the dark is? To this I will offer a hasty answer and attempt to draw this already protracted blog entry to a close.

In the light, though we may be alone, we are not forced to confront ourselves. We are offered a myriad of possible distractions through which we may transcend ourselves. Our vision in a sense liberates us from being too intimately bound to ourselves. Our eyes may range over the horizon or delight itself in the goings on around us. In this way we are not properly alone (i.e. forced to confront ourselves), but are instead caught up in the object of our gaze, our surroundings. In the dark, however, we are denied these distractions. Our power to transcend ourselves is cut off and we are forced back upon ourselves, confronted irrevocably with ourselves. Only in the darkness, it seems, can we be truly alone. And, it is precisely this possibility which we find so frightening. What frightens us in the dark then is not any possibility held out in the dark itself, but the way in which the dark casts us back upon ourselves in an inextricable way. It is for this reason that we need a voice or a tune – to act, in a sense, as a kind of wedge which we can insert between ourselves offering us another mode of transcendence. The monsters which we fear in the dark are, it seems, nothing more than the exteriorization of the monster which we fear in our own being.

Of course this analysis leads naturally to the reformulation of the questions we initially asked. In light of this possibility we must pose them as such: 1) Why are we the kind of being that cannot bear to be alone with itself, 2) What does it mean about our being that we find it so intolerable, 3) and why are we as adults so scarred to admit what even the smallest child has the bravery to admit, that it is scary being left alone?

Again, I know this is a hasty conclusion to an already too long blog entry, and for that I hope that you will forgive me and offer me a bit of readers grace – but, I hope nonetheless, to have some important questions which we can, and should, investigate more fully elsewhere.

What is charity?  In what does it consist?  When is it present?  And, what does it require from us?  We typically think of charity as a kind of superlative, a kind of virtue.  Something not present in our everyday life, but something to which all people of good will esteem.  It thus not a kind of quotidian actuality, but a kind of excellent potentiality – a goal to be striven for.  As such it is exemplified in what we call “charity work,” a kind of extraordinary exercise deliberately engaged in at times, or in those rare cases, committed to as a kind of vocation.  In both cases charity is seen as something done “en plus” to the everyday and thus praise worthy.  In line with this, charity is typically seen as flowing out of a kind of generosity or as emergent from some kind of surplus or abundance which overflows from some spiritual or material storehouse.  This, I would argue however, is a contemporary corruption of the concept of charity and not at all in keeping with what the scriptures teach or what experience testifies to.

Our word charity, of course, has its origin in the Latin caritas meaning love, which is the romantic equivalent to the Greek agape.  Charity is thus what is referred to in John 4:16 when the apostle writes that “God is Love (Deus caritas est)” as it is what the faithful are called to in Matthew 22:36-40 when Jesus teaches that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves.  In order to understand the nature of charity then, we must attempt to understand the nature of love – we must ask: what is love? What does it mean to love one’s neighbor and what does this kind of love demand of us?  I propose to investigate the nature of love qua caritas/agape in two ways, first scripturally and then phenomenologically.

Perhaps the clearest scriptural call to this kind of love can be found in Luke 6:27-30 when Jesus teaches that we should love our enemies.  This he proposes we do by “do[ing] good to those who hate you, bless[ing] those who curse you, [and] pray[ing] for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also. If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”  Love, it seems here, is not about giving out of one’s surplus, but giving unto one’s very deficit.  It is thus not merely to clothe the naked from out of one’s excess (giving them our cloak), but to clothe the naked from that which is our very own, that which we seemingly cannot live without (our tunic, our undergarments).  Love, it seems, requires of us a kind of sacrifice, it requires that we go beyond the seemingly reasonable request for our excesses into the demand for our very own.  It seems to consist then in a kind of substitution, we must make ourselves naked to clothe the nakedness of the neighbor, we must make ourselves hungry to feed the hunger of the poor. Love is what the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas called “taking the bread from out of one’s own mouth.”  This sacrifice from out of one’s very own is exemplified in the love Abraham shows for God in his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac (Genesis 22) and in the Widow who sacrifices here last mite/penny to the coffer designated, ironically, for the poor (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:2) but is a theme which is equally present throughout the scriptures.  Think for example of Cain (Genesis 4:1-8) who offended the Lord by only giving out of his excess, the “fruits of the ground,” in contrast to his brother Abel who gave from his “first fruits,” offering the “first born” of his flock, and in doing so pleased the Lord (remember that it is the result of this difference in treatment that Cain murders Abel – drawing an obvious parallel that to merely give from one’s excess is tantamount to murder of one’s neighbor).  Remember as well that this practice of sacrificing from one’s own most, from one’s first fruits, became Law to the Jews (cf. Deuteronomy 18:4, 26:1-11, Leviticus 2:12-14, 23:9-14) the idea being that the first fruits of every harvest would be set aside either to be burnt as an offering to the Lord or to be consecrated to the poor (note here that love for the Lord is a blessing to the poor/neighbor).  Throughout the scriptures love is exemplified in this way, as a sacrifice, as a demand upon us that goes beyond our reasonable self-interest.  It calls us upon us to give to the point of our suffering.

One need not look to the scriptures to understand this point however; one may simply examine his or her everyday encounters with the poor, the object of our charity and love.  When confronted by the beggar who asks of us our “spare change,” almost all of us inevitably respond in the same way: filled with a sense of shame we almost always find ourselves looking away and apologizing – “I’m sorry,” we say.  But here’s the pertinent question: why this apology?  Why this sense of shame?  You don’t owe the beggar anything.  You work just as hard for the little money you have as I do, and frankly, you think, I haven’t really got that much to spare.  Whether that is the case or not, the beggars claim strikes us as somehow unreasonable.  “Why should he have the money that I work for?”  This is especially the case for those supporting others and/or on a limited budget.  Giving to the beggar in these cases is tantamount to sacrificing bread not only from one’s own mouths, but from the mouth of our loved ones.

The beggar’s request is unreasonable of course, as is God’s request for Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and yet we still feel a sense of shame, we still offer apology, we still feel as if we ought to give/sacrifice, even those who do not have enough for themselves to give; and, sometimes we even do give despite the sacrifice.  What is revealed here is that the love of the neighbor, the love to which we are called in the beggar’s request, goes deeper than self interest.  It goes beyond reason.  Love does not aim merely for our excess, a perfectly reasonable request, but aims for our very being, demanding from us a kind of unreasonable sacrifice, one that cuts right to the very marrow of our existence.  It requires that we substitute ourselves for the other, offering ourselves up in their place, exchanging our wealth for their poverty, our abundance for their lack and our clothes for their nudity.  This is love, “that one lay down his life for his neighbor,” (John 15:13).

Furthermore, what is revealed in the case of the beggar is that this love is not merely exceptional, but is always already a part of our existence, whether we choose to embrace and obey it or not.  We are always already exposed to the neighbor – he or she is always already a part of us.  The love to which we are called is not something is excess to our existence, it is our existence itself.  This does not mean that we all equally respond to it.  Many of us deny it, choosing to flee it and our very nature to the cold comfort of material objects.  Few of us give ourselves over to the love we feel pulling at our heart in the face of the poor and the suffering, the orphan and the widow – but, all of us are always already initiated into this kind of love by sheer fact that we exist.  None of us are spiritual bachelors.  None of us are closed off to the demands of the poor, unaffected by the sufferings of the downtrodden.  But not all of us are good lovers.  Very few of us are saints, most of us are accountants.

So what are we to do with this?  How are we to conduct our lives?  Can this kind of love be instantiated in the political realm?  I’m not sure.  I’m not sure there is room for this kind of excessive demand, this love, within the realm of political calculation.  In that realm the calculative reason or prudence and logic perhaps must rule; and in that rule the kind of excessive love explored here must necessarily be discounted.  Perhaps then this love is one which belongs solely to the personal realm marking one’s singularity and individual ethical responsibility.  The ethical responsibility to which one is called by the love of the neighbor does not seem then to be one which can be mediated by any corporal organization.  Instead, it is one which seems to pull us outside of the political sphere into a kind of higher sphere, the space of ethics and the Good.  Perhaps this is what is meant when Jesus reminds his followers that though they are in the world and must participate in political reason, they are not of the world and are called to something higher than it (cf. John 15:19 & 17:14-16)

But, then again, what do I know, I’m just an accountant.

The Meet the Philosopher Series are interviews with the members of the Saint Anselm College Philosophy Department. They aim at introducing you to the members of the department along with their interests and ideas. Dr Drew Dalton is the fourteenth profile in the series.

Drew Dalton will join the Philosophy Department in Fall semester of 2007. In this interview, Dr. Dalton talks about his initial attraction to philosophy and about his recent work on the nature of longing.

Saint Anselm Philosophy Podcasts can be found here.

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