Styles of piety : practicing philosophy after the death of God

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Styles of Piety explores questions of value in light of the problem of nihilism articulated in Nietzsche's pronouncement of the death of God. With the accomplishment of a thoroughly rationalized world, the categories that had promised to give meaning to experience proved untenable. The problem of the irrational appeared to be immanent to reason rather than merely an aberration from its proper functions, the aspirations of philosophy appeared to be inherently contradictory, and its ideals seemed to harbor coercive deceptions and tyrannies.

Nevertheless, philosophers since Nietzsche have continued to pursue questions of value; indeed, they have found new avenues to address the problems conventional to philosophy within this crisis itself by exploring the concrete conditions that qualify reason rather than dogmatically defending its pretense to self-transparency. Philosophy's project has developed as a critical turn against its own abstract ideals. And yet, paradoxically, this immanent critique of philosophy simultaneously serves as a defense of the problems of value conventional to it.

In this way, the problem of piety defines the fault line along which philosophers now tread. They work critically to deconstruct philosophy's pieties, but in the name of those same values to which philosophers have been so devoted. How, we ask, are these contradictions to be best negotiated? An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.

He read widely and published numerous editions and translations of patristic writings, among them Jerome, Augustine, Chrysostom, and Origen, and in many cases established the first reliable critical text of their works. In the last two decades of his life, Erasmus wrote numerous apologiae, refuting critics of his New Testament edition and battling the accusation that he had inspired the Reformation and was a supporter of Luther.

For some years Erasmus held out and refused explicitly to endorse any religious party. Maintaining scholarly detachment was, however, impossible in the militant climate of the Confessional Age.

A politely worded disquisition addressed to Luther, it showed their fundamental disagreement on a crucial theological question. It was undeniable that Erasmus had been in sympathy with the reformers for a time, although he was not prepared to challenge the authority of the church and never promoted schism. In when the city of Basel, where he resided at the time, turned Protestant, he voted with his feet and moved to Catholic Freiburg. In the 16 th century the word denoted a student or teacher of the studia humanitatis , a curriculum focusing on the study of classical languages, rhetoric, and literature.

At northern universities, where scholasticism and the dialectical method reigned supreme, the trend-setting humanists were regarded as challengers of the status quo. To a certain extent, the tensions between the two schools of thought may be explained in terms of professional jealousy, but at its core was the dispute over methodology and qualifications. Humanists favored rhetorical arguments; scholastics insisted on logical proof.

Scholastic theologians in particular regarded the humanists as dangerous interlopers. They questioned their orthodoxy because of their inclination to use the skeptical ars dubitandi and denied their right to apply philological principles to the biblical text.

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Scripture, they insisted, was the exclusive domain of graduate theologians. Humanists in turn saw the dialectical method used by the scholastics as a perversion of Aristotelian logic and derided their technical terminology as a corruption of the Latin language. In the Praise of Folly Erasmus lampooned scholastic theologians in a passage that became notorious:. They are fortified with an army of scholastic definition, conclusions, corollaries, and propositions both explicit and implicit….

Such is the erudition and complexity they all display that I fancy the apostles themselves would need the help of another Holy Spirit if they were obliged to join issue on these topics with our new breed of theologians. CWE —7. Scholastic disputations honed intellectual skills but failed to make better Christians of the protagonists. He further insisted on the right of humanists, who were trained in the classical languages, to apply their philological skills to both secular and sacred writings.

While the need for language studies and the use of philological methods found gradual acceptance among theologians, the skeptical ars dubitandi , which was also closely associated with humanism, remained anathema. They expressed their skepticism through the use of open-ended dialogue or rhetorical compositions that argued opposing points of view. Erasmus used these means to argue for and against marriage, for and against monastic vows, and for and against doctrinal positions.

Rather surprisingly he admitted to his preference for skepticism in A Discussion of Free Will. He begins his argumentation in the classic skeptical fashion by collating scriptural evidence for and against the concept of free will and demonstrating that there is no consensus and no rational way of resolving the resulting dilemma.

The method of arguing in utramque partem , on both sides of a question, was first developed by the Greek Sophists as a demonstration of their rhetorical prowess.


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Pyrrhonic skeptics adopted this method as a preliminary step in arguing a case. If the evidence was ambivalent, they advocated epoche , suspension of judgment. Academic skeptics modified this process, admitting probability as a criterion to settle an ambiguous question. A variant of the skeptical method also appears in medieval scholastic handbooks where doctrinal questions are argued sic et non , that is, on both sides, then settled by a magisterial decision or resolutio.

Erasmus stressed that he was not prepared to pass judgment on the question of free will himself.

Indeed his natural inclination was to take the Pyrrhonic route and suspend judgment since the evidence was not unequivocal. He substituted for his own judgment the authoritative decision of the Catholic Church, which affirmed the existence of free will.

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As her obedient son, he accepted this resolution. For several years he gave them his qualified support, but in the s when he saw Luther openly defy Catholic authorities, he decried his radical methods and distanced himself from the Reformation movement. The decision to disengage may have been prompted by considerations for his own safety and a desire to avoid inquisitorial scrutiny, but epistemological considerations also played a role in his withdrawal from the reformers and ultimate reversal of opinion about Luther.

Erasmus regarded consensus as an essential criterion of the doctrinal truth. Schism posed a threat to his decision-making process. If papal authority was questioned in principle and the decrees of the synods were not binding, Erasmus the Christian Skeptic was paralyzed in his decision-making process and unable to settle questions that did not allow a resolution based on clear scriptural evidence. Luther, who believed in the clarity of Scripture, did not accept skepticism as a methodological approach. He saw it as waffling. He was unwilling to put up with ambivalence and demanded a clear-cut judgment.

Up to this point he might be describing the position of an Academic skeptic, but he goes on to specify:. I explicitly exclude from Scepticism whatever is set forth in Sacred Scripture or whatever has been handed down to us by the authority of the Church. CWE In other words, he substitutes for the Academic criterion of probability, the criteria of Christian tradition and consensus.

His admirers, by contrast, praised his skillful use of language. In addition to the arguments rooted in skepticism, Erasmus also brings ethical criteria to bear on the question of free will. He argued that denying the existence of free will would destroy the moral basis of human action. Affirming the power of free will was socially expedient. To convince the other party, consensus was necessary.


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Erasmus earned his living as a teacher for only a few years, but education remained a lifelong interest and a central theme in his writings. Erasmus expressed confidence in the potential of human beings for self-improvement, a corollary of his acceptance of free will. He believed in the preponderance of nurture over nature, given the power of the will. It was therefore the duty of parents and teachers to ensure that children fulfilled their potential and of adults to live up to it. Is it not to live according to reason?

This is why he is called a rational being, and this is what sets him apart from animals.

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And what is the most harmful influence upon man? Surely it is ignorance. Citing Origen, Erasmus speaks of a tripartite human nature, made up of spirit, soul, and flesh. Erasmus accepted the classical doctrine of the three prerequisites of excellence—natural talent, instruction, and practice CWE —but he tended to blame a poor result on neglect and wrong teaching methods rather than a lack of ability or intention on the part of student.

This parallels the Catholic belief in the limited power free will.

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Without divine guidance human endeavours are in vain. Erasmus composed a number of treatises on the subject of education. In both tracts he emphasized the importance of learning the classical languages and studying the classics. In the case of secular education, he counseled early exposure of students to Greek and Latin and extensive reading in probati autores the approved canon of authors , like Homer, Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Horace, and Cicero. He recommended an all-round education but emphasized the study of history, the proverbial teacher of life.

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In contrast to the scholastics, whose core subject was dialectic, Erasmus privileged ethics over logic and the formation of character over factual knowledge. His ideas on the aims and methods of education are contained in De Pueris Instituendis On the Education of Children, and Institutio Principis Christiani On the Education of a Christian Prince, , but are expressed there in a rhetorical rather than a systematic fashion.

The rhetorical nature of the Education of a Christian Prince is self-evident. This creates a problem of interpretation for the modern reader. Four ideas are recurring themes in his writings on education: the humanizing effect of education; the effectiveness of cooperative rather than coercive methods; the ability of both sexes to benefit from education, and the importance of internalizing the material taught.