Friday, November 17, 2017

The Hesperado Book Club: Simone Pétrement

This is a series on my blog that has had installments few and far between.  My recent posting, The Education of Hesperado, neglected to mention the books I've been adverting to in this series (though I alluded to the fact that I've read more than I implied there).  For one thing, that previous posting mostly left out my college years -- six and a half total.  Six of those years I spent garnering two Bachelor of Arts degrees, during which only the last two years out of the six were spent actually getting into my studies, once I realized I wanted to be a History major and then a little later also a Comparative Religions major; followed by an ever so evanescent stint as an ephemeral grad student at the Harvard Divinity School (which for reasons I won't go into here I precipitously abandoned after six months).  During those years and after, I devoured all manner of books (the entire corpuses of Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme and Arthur Conan Doyle, for example; or pretty much every short story by H.E. Bates I could find; or countless books I would find adventitiously on the shelves of remote stacks in the university library), which I will not recount in detail today -- other than to add that the last habit noted parenthetically is relevant for today's notice.

Today's book from the shelf is one largely unknown except to scholars in the subspecialty of Intertestamental Studies with a focus on Gnosticism:  Le dualisme chez Platon, les gnostiques et les manichéens, ("Dualism in Plato, the Gnostics, and the Manicheans"), by an obscure French historian, Simone Pétrement, published in 1967.

Previous Hesperado Book Club postings featured the following:

From Enlightenment to Revolution (1975). by Eric Voegelin (1901-1985);

Catholics and unbelievers in 18th century France (1939), by historian R.R. Palmer;

Before Philosophy: The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (1949), by Henri and Henriette Frankfort;

Geek Myths and Christian Mystery, by Catholic theologian Hugo Rahner (brother of the more famous Catholic theologian Karl Rahner), written in German in 1957 and translated into English in 1963;

Classics Revisited (followed up by More classics revisited), by the polyhistor Kenneth Rexroth in the late 1960s;

The Symbolism of Evil (1960), by Paul Ricoeur;

my essay on Dante's idea of the "dual ultimate" (duo ultima) from his treatise De monarchia;

and my extended analytical meditation on a short piece by Albert Camus, La mer au plus près ("The Sea Up Close"), published in 1954.


I was turned on to Simone Pétrement's book by a brief mention of it in a footnote in one of Eric Voegelin's books (I think it was his slender 1968 paperback, Science, Politics and Gnosticism) in which the old curmudgeon who always complained about nearly everyone noted her scholarship on the subject of Gnosticism with unalloyed approval.  Once I found it at the college library and began delving into it, I was entranced by her searingly apposite instincts to find in Plato the essential core -- the paradoxical mystery of existence.

This paradox at the heart of reality may be put many ways, for its tension has many poles, all perhaps variations on a single theme.  In Pétrement's studies (both the book I feature here and an article she wrote, La notion de gnosticisme ["The idea of Gnosticism"], published in Revue de Métaphysique et de Morale in 1960), perhaps the overarching poles are between what have been known in Christian history as "this world" and the "next world" (or "this life" and the "afterlife").

Pétrement often frames this as a "dualism" though she doesn't herself succumb to dualism in probing it, leaving the way open for the posture of a Bergsonian âme ouverte in its questions before the mystery.  She also unfolds a respect for Plato as someone who may have been tempted by the Gnostic Answer, but who did not allow himself to be bewitched by it -- a thesis articulated in greater depth by Eric Voegelin in his chapter comparing Plato and St. Paul, in the 4th volume of his series Order and History; and more broadly in his essay, "Wisdom and the Magic of the Extreme".

Overall, Pétrement demonstrates a remarkably intelligent, historically literate, and perceptive grasp of the phenomenon of Gnosticism and its relevance to the deeper, ultimate questions of philosophy.  If one has come to know Voegelin, one can see why he liked her:

We live under the magisterium of the philosophy of Hegel. The trinity -- thesis, antithesis, synthesis, still seems to guide, if not physics, at least the history of the human spirit. But what I wanted to show is that such an evolution is not necessarily progress, for in surmounting opposition, one loses something very precious. The view of opposition is lost, once one enters into reconciliation. (350-351)

This is another way of articulating what Voegelin called the Tension of Existence, which is also a "tension towards the Beyond".  Interestingly in this vein, the great pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus (535-574 B.C.) is part of that rare pantheon of thinkers about whom Voegelin seemed to have had no reservations, perhaps because he too saw reality as a tension (or put more robustly as "strife", Eris).  About Heraclitus, Pétrement points out a distinction between his seeming dualism of opposition of forces, and the dualism of the Gnostics:

Sometimes dualism is confused with this theory of contrarieties. In reality, dualism is something else. Nothing shows better the distinction than the fact that, for the dualists, it is the mixture which is evil and separation which is good; while for the theorists of contrarieties, it is the inverse. (206)

And in this context, she distinguishes the Jewish Neo-Platonist Philo, who was perhaps a bit too fascinated by Gnosticism:

There is in him [Philo] an obsession with division, with tension; he believed in the necessity of separating contraries, of removing them from each other. The Logos, for him, is the Divider… For Philo, evil supports the opinion of Heraclitus; it introduces “the unity of everything and the reciprocal exchange which produces everything”. (219)

Thus Philo saw in the Heraclitian tension an overarching monism, and recoiled from it. But this overarching monism, in a sense structured by dualism, would be the stance of Voegelin as well; for what is the alternative, but to succumb to the siren song of the Gnostic Answer and cut the cord of the Tension to free-float off to one's esoteric Salvation... ?  A false Salvation, that is, whose alluring magic lies precisely in its offer of the Answer to the pain, the Dukha or fundamental "Frustration" (as Buddha would have it), of the paradoxical Mystery.  Of all the analytical philosophers I've read -- other than Voegelin -- Pétrement comes the closest to recognizing that the Tension is itself a tension between Dualism and Monism, or perhaps the more crystalline Tension between Tension and Non-Tension.

“In the Parmenides and in the Sophist, there is admitted participation despite the logical objections which sublimate duality, and without destroying duality.(55-6; author’s italics)

From all this [hints in Plato of monism or dualism], we could well infer that there are strong appearances in favor of a dualist interpretation of Platonism. But above all, one can posit an impression of something unfinished, of a thought open and free, of constant oppositions, of a reality full of problems incompletely resolved. In this metaphysics, there is a certain something that would scandalize a metaphysician. And that, perhaps, is the dualism factor. (81)

… for if it is true that dualism resolves certain difficulties, it is well known that it no less arouses other difficulties; and nothing demonstrates better that the human spirit is not wholly capable of metaphysics. (2)

֍ ֍ ֍ ֍ ֍

There is so much more in Pétrement's book which would expand my blurb into a monograph (which someday I may do).  I'll end on insights she penned on the Founding Father of Philosophy; and in doing so, showing she carefully read the original Greek of Plato's Dialogues:

As the soul is a stranger to the world or to life, the philosopher is a stranger to the civilized world. He is “bizarre” and “useless”. (52; Rep. VI, 487d, 497b)

Socrates himself said that in the eyes of others, he appeared ἀτοπώτατος, “completely absurd” (52; Théétète, 149a)

The Philosopher is opposed to the wise man, to the sage, to the sophist. The Philosopher is one who loves science, or wisdom, but doesn’t have it. The type of the Philosopher is Socrates, who doesn’t know, who has nothing, who is poor in spirit, who ascribes his better inspirations to his ‘demon’, who says in [the Dialogue] Hippias Major: ἁπορῶ αεἰ [“I am always perplexed.”] (343)


Hesperado said...

Trigger-happy, seemingly at random. Phillip Jihadski (above) still hasn't answered the more apposite question, why he takes money from Muslims for teaching their children useful knowledge.

Hesperado said...

"Better yet - if you're so damned well-educated, why haven't you gotten a Doctorate, like many of us?"

Sorry, Robert Spencer doesn't read this blog. You'll have to ask him over there.

Hesperado said...

Well, there are two things we can know -- or reasonably infer -- about "steve": he latches on to the less important points (for some reason); and he doesn't seem to value or can't detect (or both) reasonable inferences.

One reasonable inference, for example, is that when a new commenter to one's blog pops up in May, proceeds to deposit a flurry of turds, and then (there IS an Allah!) leaves what seems to be his last comment on July 4, and suddenly is completely absent for the rest of July, then all of August, then all of September, then all of October, then more than half of November -- and in the meantime the other "Anonymous" (Phillip Jihadski) has deposited his own brand of turds (which he has done here off and on going back at least a year or two) -- and when we know for a fact that most often "steve" signed off his comments as "steve12" and not "Anonymous" -- and that the "Anonymous" Phillip Jihadski "Anonymous" actually recently deposited a couple of angry turds about a theme very closely related to this article ("The Education of Hesperado") -- we then assume that this "Anonymous" here is Phillip Jihadski rather than "steve".

"1.) How do you know Spencer doesn't read this blog? Are you psychic?"

I didn't say I "know" that. But it would be ressonable to infer that I reasonably inferred that (and there are facts to lead to such a reasonable inference; though I'm not going to waste my time telling this steve fellow what they are). What I will add here is that add here is that the reason I mentioned that even the obtuse dunderhead Phillip Jihadski would probably be able to guess -- namely that Robert Spencer supporters (such as Phillip Jihadski) often point out to Spencer's detractors that Spencer doesn't need a PhD to qualify him to analyze Islam; his Master's degree is enough. But usually they argue (cogently) that one doesn't need an academic degree at all to be able to see that Islam is a steaming pile of evil, dangerous camelshit.

"Typical bullshit deflection. Answer the question: why no Master's or Doctorate?"

None of your beeswax.

"3.) I keep looking at JWatch for this Jihadski fellow you seem obsessed with. I can't find anything there by him. Is he a figment of your imagination?"

a) Yes, regular commenters on Jihad Watch never change their nicknames; b) Yes, you must have looked through all the thousands of archived comments going back the last 10 years; c) it's Phillip Jihadski who's obsessed with me, not the other way around (a distinction which Projectors like "steve" understandably fail to appreciate.

Now get the fuck off my blog you peanut brain.

Anonymous said...


I don't doubt for a moment that the "anonymous" above is, again, that Jihadski/Hijabski lunatic! The same howling style, same pathetic crudeness the same maniacal hope in trying to "get even" for having his sorry ass kicked again and again. He can't forget the humiliation he suffered by you. But, hey, neither do I - it was always a sight to behold!
The funny thing is that the delirious ape is too stupid to see he is revealing his stolidity admitting he is unable to find "Jihadski" on the "Jihad Watch" despite that a simple google search returns at least ten entries. OK, he may be lying, but then he is doubly stupid if he believes it won't be noticed.
But really, why don't you just ignore the unhinged ape? Moreover, if the blog is yours then there probably is a way you may block him, or simply remove his ravings when you spot it.

Another thing is I don't understand your beef with Robert Spencer. It's rather obvious that your approach to the problem of islamic expansion is different, but is the difference of such a principally irreconcilable nature as to generate resentment? Besides, there are some good and intelligent people commenting there - I don't know about you, but I like "Wellington" very much. And, of course, many of the essays and articles by R. Spencer are simply excellent and globally appreciated. His courage is as great as his insight and intelligence. I think it will be good "for the cause" if you decide to tolerate and find a platform where you complement rather than reject each other.
Well, well. It's past midnight here. Good night.



Hesperado said...

Thanks Muke for your thoughts.

I'm pretty sure this last troll is a different guy from Phillip Jihadski; he posted a lot of comments back in the summer that don't square with PJ's style. I told him to stay off my blog and then I deleted two subsequent comments he tried to post here. Plus after I engaged with him initially way back in May or June, I just stopped engaging with him altogether. Pretty much my same procedure with Phillip Jihadski. As I said before, I've probably responded to 10% of PJ's comments on my blog over the years he has been pestering me.

As for Spencer, I don't "resent" him (though I do resent his devotees for their treatment of me in JW comments over the years). My beef with Spencer is on the level of his analysis of the problem of Islam, which I find incoherent. I'm not sure I can explain that in some kind of short and sweet way right now; I do know I have analyzed it in probably over 100 essays over the years, but I don't know how to boil it down, other than to say that I find him routinely equivocating on the proposition that if we agree that Islam is a dangerous and evil ideology, and if we acknowledge the problem of taqiyya and stealth jihad (both parts of the danger and evil of Islam), we perforce are, by rational inference, condemning all Muslims. Not only is Spencer unwilling to "go there" he is on record as saying he is "not anti-Islam" -- and, as I have documented in various essays, he years ago got embroiled in arguments with readers who were dismayed that he not only said he is "not anti-Islam" but then went on to persistently defend that stance in, I maintain (and those readers seemed to agree), an incoherent fashion. Having said this, I'm not saying Spencer is not doing good work in many ways for "the counter-jihad". But that also doesn't mean his stance is not flawed. This then brings up again the problem of his movement of followers, who affect an irrational attitude of defensiveness, essentially intolerant of anyone who wants to take issue with Spencer at all as some kind of "enemy" or "traitor". That attitude I find particularly odd, if not chilling, given that no individual, family, or movement can be healthy if it doesn't allow -- nay, encourage -- internal dissent and disagreement.

Hesperado said...

"That attitude I find particularly odd, if not chilling, given that no individual, family, or movement can be healthy if it doesn't allow -- nay, encourage -- internal dissent and disagreement."

Within reason, of course. PJ and "steve12" have shown they are not disputing rationally (as I have been with Spencer over the years) but are just trolling in one way or another (one way is to ignore the more important points I make and go after less important things and make hay out of them).

Hesperado said...

...yet pose as a "Religious Expert" to the point of nausea for all of your imagined readers.

He'd have to admit that's quite a feat I've pulled off all these years -- causing non-existent, imagined readers to experience nausea! As for posing as a Religious Expert -- that's yet another strawman. I'm just sharing my perspective and what I've learned, and applying it to various problems.