The Gospel Truth

A Touch of Aristotle | September 12, 2014

I was recently reminded of the old Broadway play Funny Girl, starring Barbra Streisand. I remember taking a friend during Christmas week in 1965 to see what proved to be her last performance.

I most remember the song People. It was a wonderful ballad that expressed the deep human need that we have for other people.

In retrospect, I guess the lyrics expressed comedian and heroine, Fanny Bryce’s sad lament on how she envied those who really needed people. To her they were the luckiest people in the world. Even today I tend to well up every time I hear that song.

This brings me to a fascinating article in the New York Times a few weeks ago.

Boston College Professor, Richard Kearney, wrote the article, based on a discussion he had with his students in a class on Eros, entitled From Plato to Today.

Some of his students were bemoaning the fact that most of the romance  they were having had been impersonalized by the Internet and the social media. They missed that real human connection that virtual or casual hook-up sex can never provide.

Many of Kearney’s students realized the tragic irony of this kind of physical connecting: that what is often thought of, as a ‘materialist’ culture was arguably the most ‘immaterialist’ culture imaginable — vicarious, by proxy, and often voyeuristic.

These are prophetic words for a culture on a downslope.

The professor then took this mundane and earthy discussion to a much higher plane, as he outlined the philosophical and moral dichotomy between Plato and Aristotle that has plagued Western relationships for 2000 years.

Today’s cyber world of virtual dating reminded him of an updated version of Plato’s Gyges, who could see everything at a distance but was touched by nothing! Kearney questioned whether we were entering an age of excarnation, where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways.

As Kearney states if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image

It is not surprising that Aristotle would see things in a completely different light.   In perhaps the first great work of human psychology, his De Anima, (The Soul) Aristotle declared the human touch to be the most universal of the senses.

Touch, thought Aristotle,  is the most intelligent sense because it is the most sensitive. When we touch someone or something we are exposed to what we touch. We are responsive to others because we are constantly in touch with another person.

Aristotle was challenging the dominant prejudice of his time–against the human body–one he himself had embraced in earlier works.

The Platonic doctrine of the Academy held that sight was the highest sense because it is the most distant and mediated; hence most theoretical, holding things at bay, mastering meaning from above.

Aristotle lost this battle of ideas!

The Platonists prevailed and the Western universe became a system governed by the soul’s eye.  Sight came to dominate the hierarchy of the senses, and was quickly deemed the appropriate ally of theoretical ideas.

According to Professor Kearney Western philosophy thus sprang from a dualism between the intellectual senses, crowned by sight, and the lower ‘animal’ senses’ stigmatized by touch.

It was ironically Western theology, despite its proclaiming the Christian message of the Incarnation The Word made flesh — that all too often confirmed the strange dichotomy with its anti-carnal doctrines.

How many millions of souls grew up thinking that their souls were housed in some kind of evil monster.

Kearney believes that  this negative attitude prompted Nietzsche’s declaration that Christianity was Platonism for the people who gave Eros poison to drink.

Plato’s thinking prevailed for over 2,000 years, culminating in our contemporary culture of digital simulation and spectacle.  The eye continues to rule in what Roland Barthes once called our civilization of the image. The world is no longer our oyster, but our widescreen.

His way of thinking on the inferiority of the human body has infected Western culture ever since. Its presence has been noted in Gnosticism, Jansenism, Puritanism and the Victorian attitudes that still bear poisonous fruit in the 21st century.  He was also responsible for the Manicheanism that infected the early mind of St. Augustine on sex and marriage.

Like Aristotle before him, Saint John Paul II fought some of the prejudices of the times with regard to nudity and the sanctity of the human body in his once highly celebrated but largely forgotten series of sermons on the Theology of the Body.

For all the fascination with bodies, our current technology is arguably exacerbating our carnal alienation. While offering us enormous freedoms of fantasy and encounter, digital Eros may also be removing us further from the flesh.

Kearney offers a fascinating twist on pornography, which is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. Seen by some as a progressive sign of post-60s sexual liberation, pornography is, paradoxically, a twin of Puritanism. Both display an alienation from flesh — one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.

This movement toward privatization and virtuality is explored in Spike Jonze’s recent movie Her where a man falls in love with his operating system, which names itself Samantha. He can think of nothing else and becomes insanely jealous when he discovers that his virtual lover, Samantha, is also flirting with thousands of other subscribers.

I have to confess my early infatuation with ‘Siri’.  She was the only woman I have ever encountered who would do anything I asked her…until she got sort of …Dumb!  She must have been a blonde.

Eventually, Samantha feels sorry for him and decides to supplement her digital persona with a real body by sending a surrogate lover. But her plan is a complete failure — while the man touches the embodied lover he hears the virtual signals of Samantha in his ears and cannot bridge the gap. The dichotomy between digital absence and physical presence is unbearable. Something is missing: real love in the flesh.

Full humanity requires the ability to sense and be sensed in turn: the power, as Shakespeare said, to feel  what wretches feel — or, one might also add, what artists, cooks, musicians and lovers feel.    We need to find our way in a world of touch again. We need to return from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth.

Since I started getting a regular massage twice a-week four years ago, I have come to relish the feel of a human’s touch. I think touch is one of the ways we will always need other people.  It is how God intended it.

Only an atheist like Jean Paul Sarte could define Hell as ‘other people’.

I touch people all the time…and relish when a friend puts a gentle hand on my back or shoulder…even for just a second…To me it is a form of human validation…I see you…you exist…I feel you..accept my hand as a communication of those feelings.

Massage therapy has helped me also take the full incarnational measure of my body as intimately fused with my soul. As I say in my unpublished short story, The Hands, in her hands his body and soul had quickly become whole again, dispelling any Platonic notion about separation…they were reunited in a paroxysm of emotion that transcended life and even death. To me that is the meaning of Aristotle’s touch!

 

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About author

After graduating from Holy Cross, Bill Borst earned an MA in Asian History from St. John's University and a Ph.D in American History from St. Louis University. (1972) A former New Yorker, he taught for many years in the St. Louis area, while also hosting a weekly radio show on WGNU from 1984-2006. He currently is a regular substitute for conservative Phyllis Schlafly on KSIV radio. (1320) He is the author of two books on social history, "Liberalism: Fatal Consequences," and "The Scorpion and the Frog: A Natural Conspiracy." He just retired as the Features editor of the Mindszenty Foundation Monthly Report. In his 11 years from 2003-2013 he wrote nearly 130 essays on Catholic culture and world affairs. Many in St. Louis also know him as the "Baseball Professor," because of a course that he offered at Maryville College from 1973-74. It was arguably the first fully-accredited baseball history course in the Midwest.The author of several short books on the old St. Louis Browns, he started the St. Louis Browns Historical Society in 1984. In 2009 his first two plays were produced on the local stage. "The Last Memory of an Ol' Brownie Fan," ran six performances at the Sound Stage in Crestwood and "A Perfect Choice" ran for two performances at the Rigali Center Theater in Shrewsberry. His third play, "A Moment of Grace," ran six performances at DeSmet High School in January of 2011with First Run Theater in January of 2011. He is currently working on a 4th play, "A Family Way," which is a comedy about a happy dysfunctional family. He can reached at bbprof@sbcglobal.net

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