Thursday, December 13, 2007

Hans Blumenberg: Philo Judaeus as Augustine's Predecessor (Curiositas)

aka "Philo Judaeus"
(Image from Wikipedia)

Hans Blumenberg devotes one chapter of his Legitimacy of the Modern Age to preparing his argument on how curiosity came to be enrolled in the category of vices by looking at a predecessor to Augustine, Philo of Alexandria -- also known as Philo Judaeus (Philo the Jew), who clad Jewish belief in the garments of Greek thought.

Concerning the status of curiosity (Greek: periergia) in Philo's De migratione Abrahami (On the Migration of Abraham), we read the following by Blumenberg:
The Augustinian conceptualization of curiositas had its most suggestive precedent in Philo's allegory De migratione Abrahami, even if we cannot assume that it directly influenced Augustine. Abraham's travels from Chaldea via Haran to Sichem and finally to Egypt give Philo the ground plan for a representation of the spiritual path from self-estrangement to self-appropriation. Chaldea is the land of curiosity (periergia), and specifically in the form of astronomy. Curiosity is understood as the independence of the senses, which have evaded their subordination to the intellect and instead of this deliver man up to what accords with them. Abraham's path leads from sense perception to spiritual wisdom. The sojourn in Haran represents a turning from astronomical curiosity to self-knowledge, which in turn leads through the self's discovery of its ignorance to recognition of God, and finally through this last to recognition of the world as God's work. The requirement of this detour on the way to the cosmos is explained as legitimate because of the Author's 'ownership' of the truth of His work, which can become accessible only through Himself. Philo's God does not, like the Platonic demiurge, find the cosmos already in existence in the form of the ideal reality of an independent objective sphere; rather He Himself produces even the spiritual plan of His Creation, the science of its coming into being.

This is a train of thought that leads to the critical epistemological principle of the identity of verum and factum [truth and fact], to the solus scire potest qui fecit [only he can know who makes (the object)]; but here it still stops with the metaphor of property and its reserved character: Legitimate knowledge can only derive from God, the origin and source of all skills and sciences, and should not try to found itself on unmediated, as it were, unauthorized inspection of the cosmos. The pseudowise men of Egypt stand for the dishonest and unjust claim to have seen 'directly': Their theories about the cosmos rest on the eyewitness claim to truth, since they presume to know the grounds of everything, "as if they had been present at the origin of the cosmos or had even helped the world's master builder with advice in his work."

God's sovereign right to the secret of His creation, which is communicated by Him alone on the condition of knowing and acknowledging His authorship, is one of the most enduring themes that were to enter into the curiositas complex. It found a place in the exegetical question why man came into existence as the last in the order of creation, the answer to which could be, so that he should not witness the work of creation and its secrets. This theme has not outgrown the mythical idea of the gods' jealousy of man. It still plays a role in the ideas of divine majesty held by late-medieval nominalism, to which admittedly man was no longer to submit with humble resignation, but which he would rather oppose with a new epistemological conception of the possibilities left open to him even with this reservation. (Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pages 284-285).
Blumenberg's quote from Philo critcizing the arrogance of the Egyptian 'pseudowise' men, who talk "as if they had been present at the origin of the cosmos or had even helped the world's master builder with advice in his work," recalls God's criticism of Job, who claims that he is suffering despite having done no wrong for which he should be punished, to which God counters:
Who is this that darkens my counsel
with words without knowledge?
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

Where were you when I laid the earth's foundation?
Tell me, if you understand. (Job 38:2-4, New International Version, 1984; cf. Judaica Press)
God then procedes to overwhelm Job with the complexity of His creation, overtaxing Job's knowledge and implicitly charging Job with ignorance. Job admits his insufficiency:
I am unworthy -- how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer --
twice, but I will say no more. (Job 40:4-5, NIV, cf. Judaica Press)
God then repeats his earlier challenge to take a different tack:
Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself? (Job 40:7-8, NIV, cf. Judaica Press)
The point seems to be that Job is far too limited in his knowledge of God's purposes in creation even to question the justice of his own seemingly unjustified suffering. The point is not easily countered, for if God is infinite in his knowledge and wisdom, then how can one knowingly assert that one is suffering unjustly? God might have some good reason for allowing suffering . . . though an innocent one engulfed in suffering might have doubts. At any rate, Job is persuaded:
I know that you can do all things;
no plan of yours can be thwarted.
You asked,
'Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?'
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know. (Job 42:2-3, NIV, cf. Judaica Press)
Job, of course, hadn't made any claims to knowledge of the cosmos, nor had he exhibited much curiosity about such things, but implicit in God's retort about Job's ignorance would seem to be that it is an ignorance invincible, for if Job could provide answers to any of the questions, the rhetorical effect -- grounded in the assumption of Job's ignorance -- would be lessened.

In such a complex of thought, curiosity might well be taken as an affront to God, a presumptiveness that one has the right to know what God has implied that one simply cannot know.

Blumenberg does not cite Job at this point, however, nor does the name "Job" appear in the "Name Index" to Legitimacy of the Modern Age, so I will stop at this point today but perhaps return tomorrow.

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