Metanoia and radiance: A morning meditatio

We are speaking again, as if for the first time or final day, about the puzzle of self-transformation. We say that self-transformation is final yet ongoing. We say also that it has an aim yet that its aim is not external but rather internal to the practice of philosophy. This makes self-transformation out to be something mysterious. In one sense, the mystery will remain with us, since we will be unable to provide a sufficient reason (cf. the principle of sufficient reason) for why this person was transformed, was able to be transformed, but not that one, or why it happened at this time as opposed to some other, or why with these people and not with those… In another sense, however, the mystery can be solved because we can unravel these paradoxes as much as reason will allow.

In The Guidebook for Philosophical Life, I write,

We [i.e., those committed to philosophical life] are in search of wisdom, and this search is metanoia: a change of heart, a change of life.

On the one hand, the change in our way of being will indeed be gradual, incremental, almost imperceptible, each day the becoming of the one before. On the other hand, the change will be dramatic and ‘final’ such that, retrospectively, we will be able to say that our current self becomes absolutely incomparable with our previous self, a non sequitur as it were. The key is to see that the previous selves are the coming-to-be of our current self even as we comprehend that the current self is of a different order of being from all previous ways of being.

The new self is impossible without the death of the old self, yet the death of the former is simultaneously the seed or seedbed of the latter. Change not in degree (B is ‘more than’ A) but in order (B is heterogenous to A) is therefore possible.

Now, to say that the change is ‘final’ as well as ‘provisional’ is to make two related claims. Firstly, there is the need to exercise vigilance lest one return to a former way of being. As Pierre Hadot writes in Philosophy as a Way of Life, “Attention (prosoche) is the fundamental Stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind…” (84). The habits of mind and hand that have accumulated over the course of unphilosophical life–inattention, lack of compassion, shortness of temper, miserliness, coldness–can show themselves without an introduction and especially during difficult, unforeseen circumstances. Vigilance, therefore, as a spiritual exercise maintains us in this state, serving to fortify us against moral slackness. Secondly, a transformation is also, as St. Benedict everywhere assumes in The Rule, a path consisting of steps. These steps are not ordinal (first, second, third), not those of an amateur chef following a recipe, but rather those of a dancer. They too are an ‘art.’ Consequently, self-transformation brings one into philosophical life but, once there, once within philosophical life, ‘change of heart’ is ongoing.

Let’s now turn to the second puzzle. It would seem that the final aim of radiance lies at some great remove, exists–if it does–as some vanishing point beyond our understanding. But this mistakes what it means for an aim to be immanent to a practice (cf. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue). For instance, the gardener who aims at making good food is cultivating the virtues that already manifest the end that is already in view. It is not the case that the means are distinct from the end. It is also not true that the means are only of the ‘more efficient’ or ‘less efficient’ kind, as if some other means could be employed. (In a word, the gardener is not a manager.) It is rather the case that growing this good food is an aim internal to what it means to be a good gardener.

By analogy, the same can be said of radiance. Exercising the virtues of compassion, openness, patience, and courage–providing these are exercised in the right way–manifests beauty in the demeanor of the practitioner. We say that this person radiates. The manifestation occurs in the present, not in some possible future. As David E. Cooper and I have argued, radiance (or, what is the same thing, beauty of soul) is the achievement of the harmony of the salient virtues, where this achievement is envisaged in the demeanor of the beautiful soul. Consequently, radiance is already here yet also ‘more’ and ‘again.’

We should regard this post as a morning meditation, a rewriting in ink, a protestation and prayer, a vigilant reminder of what we have already said and thought many times before. This time, hopefully, with more illumination of spirit.