Caritas in Veritate and Human Ecology

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I won’t attempt a general appraisal of Caritas in Veritate.  However, I would like to comment on a single idea in the encyclical, a phrase introduced by John Paul in Centesimus Annus and developed by Benedict throughout his pontificate: the “human ecology” (or the “ecology of man”—but why make needless enemies?).  The phrase strikes me as a rather clever reintroduction of the patristic idea of the human person as microcosm, the one who sums up the diverse elements of creation—visible and invisible—in his own person.  It is clever of course, because it makes the connection between the moral order (which conjures only the specter of grim religious duty) and the ecological order (which is perhaps the only “cause” with broad appeal to the unchurched).  According to the principles of the “human ecology,” we would expect to see our self-concept mirrored in our organization of the world, such that the ecological crisis becomes a large-screen projection of our ethical crisis.  Benedict suggests this pointedly:

In order to protect nature, it is not enough to intervene with economic incentives or deterrents; not even an apposite education is sufficient. These are important steps, but the decisive issue is the overall moral tenor of society. If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death, if human conception, gestation and birth are made artificial, if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology. It is contradictory to insist that future generations respect the natural environment when our educational systems and laws do not help them to respect themselves.

In other words, we can only respect those things that have an order, integrity, and meaning of their own.  When we ignore the intrinsic language of the human body, so too do we lose sight of the natural environment’s “grammar,” which “sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation.”  A body that is no longer transparent of the human spirit, becomes a mute appendage to our mental life.  Having no shape or destiny of its own, we treat the body as the putty of human desire.  Inevitably, we also view the environment as having the same plastic indifference.

Jewish Phenomenologist Hans Jonas called this vision “anthropological acosmism,” according to which the desiring self stands apart from the concerns and ends of the rest of the physical world—including the body. It goes without saying that this “acosmism” opposes the Christian notion of microcosm, according to which man integrates the realm of nature harmoniously into his spiritual life.  Though once a student of Heidegger, Jonas was horrified to discover his mentor’s acceptance of the rectorship at Freiburg (which signified Heidegger’s acquiescence in the Nazi party).  He began to reevaluate the existentialist philosophy he had received.  Ultimately, he decided that the root of Heidegger’s susceptibility of Nazi ideology was his uncritical acceptance of the “spiritual denudation of [the concept of nature] at the hands of physical science.”  Once man lost a view of nature with a striving and meaning of its own, the pole star of traditional moral reasoning, the important thing become not what one decided, but that one decided.  He says in the Phenomenon of Life

The indifference of nature also means that nature has no reference to ends.  With the ejection of teleology from the system of natural causes, nature, itself purposeless, ceased to provide any sanction possible to human purposes.  A universe without an intrinsic hierarchy of being, as the Copernican Universe is, leaves values ontologically unsupported, and the self is thrown back entirely upon itself in its quest for meaning and value … Will replaces vision … Now man is alone with himself. Macrocosm

Prophetically, Jonas saw the surest philosophical bulwark against the resurgence of totalitarianism—whether political or technological—to be the acceptance of an Aristotelian metaphysical biology.  He worked in the direction of macrocosm to microcosm.  Benedict agrees, of course, but works in the direction of microcosm to macrocosm.  The traffic goes both ways.

The upshot is a bit disconcerting.  The perspective on nature that would both give environmentalism intellectual teeth and unmask totalitarian ideology, is also the perspective that generated Humanae Vitae.  For the consistent thinker, “chaste” is the new “green.”

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3 Responses to Caritas in Veritate and Human Ecology

  1. Ed says:

    Interesting to think here of Heidegger’s advice to Arendt (another student of his, like Jonas) about the scholarly life, when she was quite young: that she would be undertaking a lonely, solitary existence, lived in libraries and stacks, friendless and arduous, nearly inhuman.

    In Jonas’ “Phenomenon of Life” I believe he writes about the connection between study and living, the inextricable link between what is learned and what is lived, which Heidegger could not grasp. Thus the disaster of H’s political commitments, and his inability to really see the inextricable metaxu, as S. Weil wrote, between thought and life, between thinking and life in the polis. Strauss also knew this of Heidegger — and I’m paraphrasing — when he wrote of him, that it is rather naive, is it not, to simply think that life is all about pondering Being (and being without telos, to be sure).

    Heidegger later told a group of students in France in the 1960s that “you can see my limits; I cannot,” which to me, seems a remarkable description of a lack of philosophic integration from someone who felt himself to be a kindred spirit with the pre-Socratics. I don’t think he really understood them at all. But that might just be my own limitations at work, which — alas — I see rather clearly.

    When Jonas met Heidegger in Rome in 1936, and Heidegger still sported the regalia of the German state on his arm (long after he had given up the rectorship at Freiburg and recognized what he had done) it is sad to think that Heidegger had already been subjected to the withering rebuke of a colleague: “Back from Syracuse?” Yet he still wore the armband.

    Plato’s mistakes in engaging with Dionysius resulted in the teachings contained in the 7th Letter and The Laws (and of course Plato’s earlier musings on writing and the Garden of Adonis in the Phaedrus); Heidegger turned to poetry and mysticism and the faint hope that “nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten.”

  2. […] of the hope that is within [him]” (1 Pt 3:25).  In that spirit, I thought I would follow up my first thoughts on Caritas in Veritate and Human Ecology with some thoughts on the beauty of the cosmos conceived […]

  3. […] It could be argued at several levels that such a dorm culture, i.e., one which encourages both eco-friendly living and chemically modified sex, is inconsistent.  Most obviously, one might simply point out that common contraceptives are pollutants–responsible both for harm to wildlife and infertility among human males.  At a deeper level, the dorm policy fails to acknowledge the profound link between our body and the cosmos.  If we learn to resolve the conflict between desire and the limits of our body by artificial means, then–when push comes to shove–we will similarly resolve conflicts between desire and the limits of the natural environment.  Pope Benedict makes this point in Caritas in Veritate (noted previously here). […]

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