The first philosophy course I ever taught was in a university department where there were textbooks that were prescribed by the department for all introductory courses. I had to begin the course, then, lecturing on materials in a book of readings from the pre-Socratic philosophers. Actually “readings” is a bit of an exaggeration. Most of what we have from those early Greek thinkers are mere fragments. And even when we have a little more to go on, it isn’t always easy to figure out what they might have been getting at in some of their mysterious sayings—although we get a little help from some later commentators, like Aristotle, who seemed to have some idea of the basic thrust of what some of them were thinking.
I did manage to get a whole one-hour lecture out of Thales of Miletos (624-546 BC). He is generally considered to be the first philosopher, and he is best known for his statement that everthing is ultimately composed of water—the stuff, he said, “from which is everything that exists and from which it first becomes and to which it is rendered at last.” It was actually an enjoyable challenge to get students thinking about the fact that, while his answer may not be all that interesting, his asking of the question about the basic “stuff” of reality was a creative initiative that got an important conversation going in Western thought.
After spending some time on Thales, though, I had a hard time holding the students’ attention—and my own!—until I felt I had given enough attention to those thinkers and could get on to the really interesting ideas in Socrates and Plato.
Once I confessed to a fellow graduate student, who was also teaching a section of the course, that I was happy to be moving on from the pre-Socratics. He looked at me in disbelief. This was the most exciting part of the course, he enthused. “Why, I spend three lectures on Anaxagoras alone!”
This both shocked and puzzled me. Three lectures on Anaxagoras! The only material we had from Anaxagoras was some fragments, preserved by a much later philosopher named Simplicius of Cilicia. And many of the fragments were rather enigmatic sayings.
I was surprised, then, to come across again recently an interesting quotation from Anaxagoras in a delightful little book by Josef Pieper, a fairly well-known Catholic philosopher who produced some significant works in the past century. Only the Lover Sings is a very slight volume of talks that he gave to a group gathered in the studio of a sculptor friend. In one of those talks Pieper reports that Anaxagoras, while engaging in a catechetical-type exercise, answered the question, “Why are you here on earth?” with the stark reply, “To behold.” I don’t know where Pieper found that quotation. If it had been one of the fragments that I had in my textbook, I might have been able to milk another lecture on Anaxagoras from that simple remark!
Pieper applied Anaxagoras’s comment to the artistic task, but it holds as well for the Christian life as such. And it is a nice spiritual assignment to take with us into this new year. God has placed us on this earth “to behold.” Beholding is that special kind of “seeing” that, as Pieper puts it, is directed to more than “the tangible surface of reality.” This kind of seeing, Pieper further observes, must be “guided by love”—as the ancient mystics put it, ubi amor, ibi oculus (roughly, “where there is love, there is seeing”).
We serve a God who wants us to concentrate on more than the surfaces of his creation. He wants us to behold the depths—and the breadth and the heights—of the reality that he has created: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof, the world and all who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1). All that we encounter in our daily lives is a part of the fulness of a created reality that we are also called to love—and in loving to see, to behold, so that we can make connections and cultivate a proper sense of awe and mystery in the presence of the depths of created being.
The world desperately needs lovers of created reality, people who look deeply into the fulness, and especially—but of course not exclusively—into the complex created fulness that is displayed in human beings—the “all who dwell therein” of Psalm 24–in all of their marvelous diversity. To love reality in its depths means that we cannot help but grieve over the brokenness and woundedness of God’s world in its present condition. And we know that to do so is to share in the sorrows that reside in the deep places of God’s own being. As Abraham Kuyper reminded us, to abuse human beings who are created in God’s image “is to defy the love of the Maker for His handiwork, willfully giving offense, and grieving the Maker in that about which His heart is most sensitive.”
Beholding. Concentrating on the depths. Grieving over that about which God grieves and rejoicing in that which God rejoices. A good assignment for 2008!