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Ontology and anthropology


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#1 Jesse Dominick

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Posted 12 November 2010 - 07:28 PM

in Orthodoxy is there a difference between ontology and anthropology? what would we mean by each term, and do the Fathers ever use the term "ontology?" for instance, at the Fall, did man suffer an ontological change?

#2 Jeremy Troy

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Posted 13 November 2010 - 08:16 PM

In the classical sense, anthropology can be taken as a subset of ontology. Ontology is the study of being as such. It asks the question, "What sorts of things are there?" Anthropology is the study of the human being. It asks the question, "What sort of thing is man?" So, saying that there has been an anthropological change is the same as saying that man's ontology has changed. I'm not certain how often the Fathers specifically use these terms, but many of them certainly do present detailed ontologies that include detailed anthropologies.

St. Theophan the Recluse has the following to say regarding the fall:

"What exactly happened to us as a result of the transgression of our forebears? Our nature remained the same, the parts and forces of our substance remained the same, with the same laws and needs. Our consciousness, however, did not freely set out in the same direction. The passions disturbed the mutual correlation of our parts and forces, and, by violating their original order, introduced disorder into the overall activity and life of man, engendering from themselves a special class of destructive forces. These passions are not natural to us, but have such power as to control all of our forces as it suits them. That is what happened." (The Spiritual Life and How to Be Attuned to It, ch. 20)

In other words, man did not suffer an ontological change in the fall (ie, he was not a different sort of thing afterwards), but rather something outside of his nature (the passions) acted on him, putting him into a state of disorder.

Jeremy

#3 Owen Jones

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Posted 14 November 2010 - 01:54 PM

The word "ontology" did not exist until the 17th Century. The Fathers did not use the term. They did use the term Being -- most notably Maximos the Confessor. But as far as I can tell, it is not used as an "objective" term. In other words, Being is a symbol. The Fathers did not engage in an "ontological argument" per se. By setting forth an absolute distinction between the Creator and created things, the Fathers view Being and Existence as contingent realities. With respect to anthropology, St. Paul lays out the essence of Orthodox anthropology -- i.e. a theory of what man is. Pretty much everything else flows from this. The tripartite soul and the somatic body and the various relationships. One of the problems in understanding the Fathers today is that, while the terms human nature and divine nature are employed, they mean different things by this than is conventionally meant today. Hopko has some good stuff on this in his Ancient Faith Radio commentary on Darwin and evolution.

To understand classical philosophical anthropology, see Plato's "Symposium" and John Wild's "Plato's Theory of Man." For the Orthodox anthropology, which is in many ways consistent with Plato with the obvious difference, see "Spiritual Counsels" by St. Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Hope this helps.

The problem with philosophical and theological terms today is that over time there transpires an objectification of concepts that were not originally intended to be objective. So, for example, there is a fundamental problem with the term "metaphysics." It comes from the title of a work from Aristotle called the "meta ta physica," or "beyond the physical." So you have the key concept of the Beyond that is typically employed by the Fathers, but especially Maximos, to describe physical properties and processes, in relation to or contingent upon the non-physical "things." Aristotle never intended that there be some independent body of philosophical knowledge called "metaphysics." One might call it a hardening or reification of symbols, and the same thing happens over time with theology. So one of the challenges today for Orthodox people is to recover the experiential and symbolic basis of theological language and not treat theological ideas as if they had some separate existence of their own and are just showered down upon us in the form of eternal verities. This is why the study of theology is problematic for believers, because it can easily become a substitute for actually living a spiritual life, and a kind of perversion of the true knowledge of divine things. The danger is that we pick up a theological text, read it, and think that we actually know anything!

#4 Anna Stickles

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Posted 15 November 2010 - 01:11 AM

There is an excellent passage in City of God bk 5 ch 11 which sums up Orthodox anthropology.

He is the God omnipotent, creator and maker of every soul and body; participation in Him brings happiness to all who are happy in truth and not in illusion; he has made man a rational animal consisting of soul and body; and when man sins he does not let him go unpunished, nor does he abandon him without pity. He has given, to good men and bad alike, the existence they share with the stones; he has given man reproductive life which he shares with the plants, the life of the senses, which he shares with the animals, and the life of the intellect, shared only with the angels.

Owen, Thanks I like how you said this.
One might call it a hardening or reification of symbols, and the same thing happens over time with theology. So one of the challenges today for Orthodox people is to recover the experiential and symbolic basis of theological language.

I have noticed as well how being and existence in the Fathers are not talked of in terms of abstracts but rather in terms of contingency
example

"23. In my view the definition of truth is this: not to have a mistaken apprehension of being. Falsehood is a kind of impression which arises in the understanding about non-being; as though what does not exist does, in fact, exist. But truth is sure apprehension of being. So, whoever applies himself in quietness to higher philosophical matters over a long period of time will barely apprehend what true being is, that is, what possesses exitence in its own nature, and what non-being is, that is, what is existence only in apprearance, with no self-subsisting nature." St Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses.

also non-existence seems to be talked of in terms of the disintegration of the person that happens due to sin as referred to in St Theophan above. At least this seems to be the way St Athanasius talks about man going back to non-existence when he looses communion with God, in On the Incarnation. Being (existence) in this context is not something winking into and out of existence in the way we normally think of it, but rather the essence of what makes the thing what it is slowly being lost.

#5 Owen Jones

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Posted 18 November 2010 - 12:55 PM

thanks, Anna, I think that is technical referred to as the hierarchy of being in which man uniquely participates at all levels. As for the quote from St. Gregory, this was the work that got me initially to rethink everything I had been taught or observed about what Christianity was.

#6 Anna Stickles

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Posted 19 November 2010 - 12:31 PM

Yes, and as far as I understand it the Fall is primarily seen in terms of a reversal of this hierarchy of being. Instead of the lower being subjected to and adopted into the higher- leading us gradually toward greater degrees of likeness to God at all levels; the higher faculties have become distorted, fragmented and weakened by a subjection to, and participation in, the lower - leading us toward greater degrees of likeness to those natures.

Modern science from their observations have said we are just animals - maybe they are in some sense justified. But they also tell us that this is our natural state. There is a trap in this because then there is no responsibility for our condition- after all animals are not intellectual beings - they are not responsible for their impulses and behavior.

The whole Patristic push toward learning to blame ourselves, (ie taking responsibility for all our thoughts, emotions and actions and how these impact the world around us at levels psychology would see as unrealistic) makes more sense when we consider that man in his intellectual (noetic) aspect was created to be sovereign over, responsible for, the lower orders of creation. And that what we are trying to do is regain the reality of living in our proper hierarchy of being. (starting with that within our own person)

But of course this starts with bringing the intellect into subjection to God. Otherwise in an attempted subjection of the lower orders in our own will, we simply become more like the devil rather then like the animals.

#7 Owen Jones

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Posted 21 November 2010 - 01:22 PM

Yes, Anna, Plato, for anyone who is interested, would call that an inversion of the true order of things. Very good thing or image has its inverted thing or image. I'm not sure just offhand what the Patristic equivalent would be. But they agree on the image of man as an in-between or intermediate being, neither good nor evil but in-between. And that is a key ingredient in a theological/philosophical anthropology, because there must be a dynamic aspect included. One cannot simply speak of a human "nature" apart from its dynamic aspect, as well as its composite aspect. I hear the latest babble on the subject which is that we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. This is a kind of gnostic inversion of our real experience which is that we are a composite being and there is no such thing as a purely spiritual or purely material person.




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