Saturday, May 28, 2011

Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology: Chapter 3, "A Terminological and Methodological Cross Section of the Idea of Truth"

In this chapter Blumenberg takes a break from tracing truth metaphors through time. He notes that this approach presupposes that each chosen appearance of the metaphor has been properly understood in its contemporary conceptual context. He proposes to provide such an accounting for a truth metaphor in one instance -- to show that a "cross section" can be provided at an arbitrary point along a given temporal "longitudinal section." He chooses Lactantius as suitably mediocre thinker to investigate -- one who represents the ideas of his age but poses no threat to overturn them.

Lactantius constrains the effect of the metaphor of the force of truth (vis veritas) with a second metaphor: the truth as God's property, which he has the right to reveal or conceal. In consequence, in the introductory passage to his "Divinae institutiones," Lactantius holds that men are not able to grasp truth simply by their own efforts, and that the pagan philosophers thus failed to find it. The evidentness of truth only makes itself felt when, in an act of grace, God chooses to reveal it. Among other things, the status of truth as a secret of God (arcanum dei) preserves the proper distance between man and God.

Lactantius does not strictly maintain this view strictly throughout his work. He finds all sorts of "advances" of revelation to the pagan philosophers. Since he conceives of truth as homogeneous -- that is, since he has no place for truths which are only accessible through faith -- this means that in principle all of the truth was accessible to the ancient philosophers. This means he has to account for their failure to find it, and he uses a number of metaphors for this purpose. He depicts the pagan philosophers as looking in the wrong direction, because God had not shown them the right one: truth is "above" but they looked for it "below." Or he describes their encounter with truth in terms of of perception, particularly of touch or smell, which lack real certainty. The key point, for Lactantius, is that they lacked the criterion to verify the truths they had. So he is able to hold that truth was widely dispersed -- all sects had at least some part of it -- but was never recognized as a whole because men lacked the capacity to distinguish truth from falsehood. Revelation provided the criterion by which truth could be recognized and integrated.

Another way Lactantius depicts the philosophers as leading up to Christianity is by treating falsehood as a kind of world in its own right and the apprehension of falsehood as a separate matter from discerning truth. Then the pagan philosophers can be conceded to have done the easier task -- recognizing what is false -- without being able to find truth. This trope depends upon a reversal of classical predicates: now the false is evident and the true is hidden. Truth compels men with its essential force only when God releases it from concealment.

Lactantius struggles, without real success, to account for the role of rhetoric when truth is supposed to have the power to convince all on its own. His own experience may lead him to feel the power of rhetoric, but his commitment to the compelling force of truth on its own leaves no place for rhetorical assistance.

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