January 13, 2014 by lucieromarin
In the late 1990s, Jacques Derrida came to Sydney and said, “The visibility of visibility is not visible,” whereupon his fans exclaimed, “Amazing!” while everyone else said, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
See, when a guy gets paid to tell everyone that he’s wowed by the difference between an adjective and a noun, it makes the people who already know that stuff wonder if, perhaps, philosophy is anything more than the worship of your own intellect (such as it is). A five-year-old child may wonder about her reflection in a mirror for a while, but an adult who seems to be getting paid to sit permanently frowning before that reflection…well, that’s a different story.
So, when I say that philosophy can alleviate suffering in general and burnout in particular, I’m not talking about modern philosophy. I’m talking about Thomism. One of the few people in the world who has the right to tell me what to do has suggested I write about potency and act, but I thought it would be prudent, first, to outline what good it might do, so here goes:
1) Suffering of any kind, where it goes unassisted and unchecked, can cause you to lose your grip on reality. This, in turn, can lead to all kinds of self-harm, from overeating to suicide. No, I’m not about to say that Thomism is all you need to combat these temptations; I’m just saying that, where it is has been absorbed and loved, sound philosophy can keep a grieving or exhausted mind from turning to something ridiculous or unwholesome as a remedy for that grief. Whether it does so or not depends on more than just the philosophy itself; I’m only saying that it can.
2) Not killing yourself out of fear of Hell is fine insofar as it means you don’t kill yourself, but, realistically, it’s a pretty grim way to live. Not smoking out of fear of cancer beats dying of cancer, but it’s not on a par with being too content to desire or need an addiction. Natural philosophy, being detached from the matters of reward and punishment, provides the intellectual joy and the satisfying connection to reality that can keep you from despair, without casting over you the shadow of a moral ought.**
3) Thomism is about certitude. A lot of modern philosophy is about the lack of it. This sounds very humble and open-minded to begin with, but the reality is that most people don’t want to live with permanent doubt, and a life of shifting principles is really only pleasant if you’re using them to cover up and/or justify your life of shifty morals.
4) Now, I’m as pro-Scripture as the next pro-Scripture person, but the fact remains that there are times when Scripture does not need to be (and even should not be) your first source of answers. A man once asked me, “Can you prove that the soul is immortal without referring to the Bible?” and he was right to ask it, because his underlying question was, “Can you prove to me that I don’t have to leave my intellect at the door in order to join your religion?” This applies both to the exhausted and to the hale and hearty; and if you’re exhausted, and sick of sermons, and sick of flowery treatises and revelation-peppered exhortations, you can find in philosophy a refreshing, adjective-free clarity of thought.
5) It is true that discovering the distinction between potency and act will do nothing to remove the pangs occasioned by tactless remarks about singleness or childlessness. Neither will the distinction help you get a pay-rise. However, it’s also true that once you discover the distinction between potency and act, however angry you are about your subculture and its characters, you’ll never waste your life becoming a pantheist or asking if you’re the same person you were yesterday, or concluding that half of reality is just an illusion. You’ll certainly never get sucked into any group that tells you that God has a body and lives on His own planet (yes; you’ll get this without reference to the Bible!), and you’ll equally certainly never be haunted by the fear that all of reality is just somebody else’s dream. You’ll never waste any money on a book by a professional skeptic. And if some crabby atheist publishes a book in which he claims to demolish Thomism, but, in fact, doesn’t even know what the words mean, you’ll be one of the fortunate few who can see his mistake for what it is.
So this is why I’m planning to write about potency and act!
** I’m not opposed to moral oughts. I have lots of them. However, they’re not meant to become tyrants, and they’ll cope fine if you don’t spend your whole life fretting about them.