Chapter 29. Piety: the natural grain on film

I’ve had the chance, in one of my doctorate classes, to discuss with my students the notion that in the ancient Greek world, there was this idea that things had, of themselves, a particular grammer, a kind of normative rule, and that the recognition and a kind of cohering response to these normative rules was important and fitting. There is a similar idea, perhaps, as one of my students rightly pointed out, in early Chinese metaphysics, in Daoism for instance, which spoke of a certain grain of things, which one should accord with. Much of this emerged in the context of my discussion of natural law theory, which seemed to me to acknowledge that nature or physis imposes its demands ; in the case of the human person, this nature finds expression as the normative first principles of practical reason, which impresses its self-evident logic across different scenarios of thought experiments, such as for instance when offered the opportunities to plug in, for life, in an experience machine. Our hesitation and ultimate rejection of such an offer is a kind of testimony to certain grammars, with their own rules, of our thinking, and then of ourselves as living persons – our nature.

But what I remember most keenly is Martin Heidegger’s meaningful retrieval of the Greek metaphor encapsulated in the word theoria: the gazing of the gods at us, which requires then that we gaze back – with piety – with a respectful awe and cohering, with an according obedience. Of course by gods is meant really any kind of insight that our engagement with the world or with phenomenon emerges. This is nothing to do with polytheism, as I’ve explained elsewhere in Sancta Familia. This compares quite differently to the (sometimes derogatorily called) neoliberal ideology, which says we should be free to do what we want (although even a neoliberal could perhaps be desirous to obey the giving of the gods, when left to do as his wishes).

In any case, this notion of piety has captured my intellect and imagination, for a while. Just as well: the idea of piety as a photographer, and being a photographer of piety. Perhaps at this stage, more of the latter, although the first needs also elaboration, viz. the ethics of being a photographer, rather than the ethical unconcealed through one’s photographic subjects. I am keen to capture such piety, such respectful accordance with the gift of the gods. It’s interesting to me that Heidegger says that it is gods’ giving that enables our gazing back, our piety. Whatever he means by that, I think there’s a sense that this is true if our experiences show us things of ourselves that we previously had not expected – just like our own moral intuitions surface certain ideals that we previously had not been particularly cognicent of. We are surprised awed, and put into wonder, by the gods, i.e., by these surprising normative knowings…

In speaking like that, it is clear I’m most interested in the way the gods are revealed through us as human beings. Could the gods be revealed independently of us? If they could we would not know, since unless we were present and made to grasp these revelations, who will tell us? But it is perhaps also true that when such revelations occur, as Heidegger likes to say, through techne, through our engagement with tools in the world, which surfaces a deep intimate knowing of the tool (and not just skillful, instrumental know-how) exposing exciting affordances proper to the tool, such revelation is not through the tool and then witnessed by the agent, but through that agent who is engaged with the tool. That is, although such revelation occurs in the context of our engagement with tools in the world, as beings-in-the-world, it is strictly speaking the unconcealment of ourselves rather than the tool. Techne in this sense is self-revelation, the exposition of our human nature, by way of , first and foremost, our normative first principles and their directives. And our piety displays and unconceals ourselves, rather than the tools and the world in which we exist, although such piety emerges, inevitably, -in-the-world. They reveal not the things in the world or the things themselves, but us, qua beings, human beings, and more completely, human beings-in-the-world. Hence, the gods are in us, and with and amongst us.

Just in case you accuse me of heresy, if we translate this into Catholic scholarly jargon, it is the natural law that comes through us, our certain participation in the eternal law, the One God, that is the basis of our piety, and in accord with the idea that being is given as in the world, the natural law, as principles of practical reason, kick in when we think about what we ought to do in this world, rather than speculatively about things in the abstract.

Of course all this begs the question whether the godliness revealed through us implies by its sheer showing that we should continue to show it. It begs the question whether our piety is good, whether we ought to be so pious? It asks the question whether the first principles of reason should be reasonable. An answer in the positive which appeals to the fact that these are principles of reason and therefore reasonable to obey will not satisfy, since we are not asking if someone may be called reasonable who obeys reasons, but whether it is good to obey reasons. We are keen to discern if it is appropriate, and such appropriateness is sometimes called being reasonable, yet such reasonableness is an equivocal idea that is not the same as that reasonableness which means being practically rational.

But if we photographers consider it a great joy to notice and record such piety, that such decisive moments captured make the great photograph, then to us it is evident that such piety is welcome, or indeed admirable. Who can prove this to be true? I would like to know such a proof. Even he who already believes needs to wrestle with the Euthypro dilemma…is piety good due to a special property, or because of its sheer showing? The real worry is the arbitrariness of our obedience, given the arbitrariness if these shown divine commands. Ah the questions of the gladfly! Lest one will begin to be skeptical of piety, such metaphysical clarifications are possible, as my published works in Angelicum demonstrate: the key is to accept the ontic presuppositions of an unchanging God in all possible worlds, about whose decisions that charge of arbitrariness has no bite, worked out via transcendental arguments, that help such piety escape the charge of arbitrariness. Nonetheless it remains true that such pieties are sublime events, and draw from us something that moves deeply, a very special punctum. For the photographer, the eventing of the natural law or other pieties is putatively good, and other clarifications merely save the belief, rather than found it. For us there is no doubt. Practical reasonableness is itself hence, a basic good. So too, those who see our works, and rejoice like us, in their sublimity. Get thee behind me, lord of the flies, for us who believe in reasons, though we do not yet see why.

There is more to be said, of course. But this may be enough for a day. In any case this project delights me greatly: to capture piety, which is the evidencing of the beautiful grain of physis on film.