Chapter 9. Madonna and Child: Absolving Idolatry

(for A. T. and M. C.)

The French phenomenologist Jean-Luc Marion has spoken of what he calls “idol gazing”. What this means is that you project in front of your own field of vision your own crafted imaginings, and you cannot see reality for what it is. You gaze upon—see, find and discover—your own idol, your own fantasies.

Marion speaks of this in the context of metaphysical thinking; he suggests that Aquinas’ metaphysical account of “God” suffers from conceptual idolatry just as Aquinas in his description of “God” as “pure being” imposes the anthropomorphic conception of “being” (ens) on a God whose nature it is to not be a being. The epistemic error is perhaps unintentional, the result of our natural tendency to “read into” phenomena, rather than to let phenomena or appearances to “be received exactly as they give of themselves”. And since the mind is inclined to read into all phenomena a “being-ness”, therefore, Aquinas has mistakenly read into the undeterminable God a certain being-ness. Marion has since absolved Aquinas, because as Etienne Gilson has suggested (rightly or not), to say that God is being is really for Aquinas to mean that God is be-ing (esse), a dynamic unlimited power of exist-ing, rather than to say that he is a thing-being (ens) constrained by a determining essence or form.

I have introduced Marion’s discussion not to indulge in obtuse metaphysical speculation, but rather to reflect on the more general point regarding the formation of concepts that Marion alludes to: there are epistemic habits that attend our knowledge construction, and these can be beneficial or vicious. Marion’s point is that our phenomenologically undesirable natural epistemic habits can generate a substitute, or what he labels an “idol”.

Likewise, John Finnis argues that our epistemic habits when thinking practically about the good(s) also affects our attempts to theorize speculatively. Finnis suggests rightly that one’s evaluative viewpoint determines the way one grasps or makes sense of concepts. One’s grasp of what is valuable has direct implications for the way we develop concepts, and while Finnis recommends that we ensure our grasp of what is valuable is sound so that our construction of concepts is guided by such normative criteria, the associated warning is that, if one’s grasp of what is valuable is distorted, then the concepts one forms will also be likely guided by the unreasonable normative criteria.

Thus Finnis argues that, in legal philosophy, the development of one’s important concept of “law” can be guided by practically unreasonable judgments about what matters, and persons whose viewpoints are guided by such an axiology could well end up thinking about “law” in senses that betray such unreasonable criteria. For instance, a tyrant who thinks nothing except of his own pleasure, might judge something to be true “law” only if it serves his arbitrary will, whereas someone who has care of the common good might think otherwise, and define valid “law” to be something in the service of the common good.

The examples above suggest, whether or not one is interested to develop a scholarly general theory about “God” or “law”, that there are day-to-day practical implications of the insight that our normative viewpoints determine our concepts. In other words, both Marion’s and Finnis’ point for the construction of concepts in academic settings is immediately relevant for ordinary folks like us who think about our mundane lives, outside of the ivory towers of universities. Our view point determines our concepts. What we think matters shapes how we think of things. By the same logic, what we think matters shapes our conceptions of –i.e., how we think of—other people, and this in turn surely shapes how we relate or treat them, with all other possibly practical implications.

My concern here is of our conceptions of our “spouse”, or “wife”, or “partner” or “better half”… If our axiology drives us to think of nothing except our own well-being, then surely, our conception of what is a “spouse” or “wife” might well turn out in the last analysis to be nothing other than “someone who can serve my good”, and very soon, one might begin treating one’s wife or spouse as a slave in service of one’s own good, to begin by and by to neglect her welfare, unless it serves one’s own benefit to be concerned about her. Indeed, one might value the person qua “wife” or “spouse” not for her own sake, but only for the “parts” of that person which best serves one’s own benefit, and wish only to support the growth and development of those “parts”, and repressing or discouraging other unhelpful “parts”, shaping over time that person according to one’s conception of her, thus benefiting not her own good and development according to her potential for human flourishing, but rather grooming her into and using her as a mere tool or means in exploitation for one’s own benefit.

Similarly, if one is obsessed with the gratification of one’s hedonistic or sexual desires, then one might end up thinking of and treating one’s “spouse” as nothing more than a doll to dress up or reconfigure, so that one can use her to stimulate one’s senses for maximum pleasure, and when she is, over time, unable to fulfill this function, to begin to question what the point of having her might be. Here too is a kind of conceptual idolatry: one makes up, in one’s mind’s eye, a sexually appealing ideal of a “spouse” as the primary object of interest, and tries to find through the real person an instantiation of one’s conceptual idol, instead of being open to the real person’s self-disclosure.

The analytic implication of such a viewpoint and its conception of the “spouse” is that one is completely caught up with the business of manipulating or instrumentalizing her for one’s sexual gratification, and while this is happening, one does not care about the achievement of her human flourishing understood as her achievement of other axiologically positive goods. And since an important aspect of friendship is that one seeks to realize the other person’s human flourishing, then while such a viewpoint lasts, one’s capacity for friendship is diminished. In short, the idolatrous, hedonistic viewpoint, while it lasts, harms one’s capacity for friendship.

Yet photography has sometimes serviced precisely this cult of idols. Professional advertising photography quite often studies the feminine form. The line that circumscribes only some of these bodies as ‘art’ is sometimes very thinly drawn, and so some slip through from the wild outer bounders, and crawl the walls of our cities. Sensual and erotic, these seductive forms excite the hedonistic love of pleasures. They are fully intent on drawing men to idol worship. Their very purpose is to lead by semiosis to thoughts of pleasurable indulgence with the nameless female form, an association which is believed to rub off in further semiosis to the merchandise advertised, so that the thought of those products may trigger yet again the thought of these indulgent pleasures, in a very dynamic and infinite semiosic orgy. Whatever their commercial value, their social effect is the adulterous invasion of hedonistic imaginings into the otherwise loving gaze between man and wife, leading to all the harmful effects analyzed above.

Contrari-wise, photography which captures and displays images of one’s spouse featuring the projects which one has realized exclusively with her may have the opposite (and in relation to the above) curative effect. These pictures, appropriately placed about, keep one’s mind in the good company of this (haec) real person whom one loves.

It is not enough, I suspect, to down-play the erotic possibilities in these photographic compositions to set moderating limits on our visual encounters with the sensual. Lest saying this breeds misunderstanding, it should be explained that the point here is not the puritanical rejection of the desirable femininity that is fittingly part of the constitution of one’s spouse. This is no Manichean hatred of the bodily and the material. The erotic attraction between man and wife is natural, because when well tempered, supports rationally ordered projects which lead to a whole host of life-giving benefits.

What rather is the point is the daily consideration of this female. It is not about filling our thoughts with less of the woman, but with more. As scholastics might say, it is a question of arriving at the individuated substance, which is ultimately what real human beings are. The basic feminine form which attracts the masculine—as it should!—is the one ‘universal’ or ‘general’ principle which all women share, but no female human being exists merely like this. Instead each is a real human being by the individuation that makes her a separate human being from all others. And individuation is the effect, firstly of her prime as well as other bodily matter when the form is received and limited by these, and then insofar as it is pertinent to this discussion, also the effect of her particular accidents, which are unique to this-her: her specific physical features, and more so her actions in history, so that with the latter predicated of her, she may no more be indistinguishably confused with similarly hylomorphic female individual substances.

Thus conceived, photographic narratives of one’s loved one over time are tender records of the real person one now knows so well—not so much how she appears over the years, even if always to you attractive, but also what she has done together with you, exclusively: the life you both have built together, with each other. Again, pictures that capture her feminine form—as do artistic nude photographic studies—are surely beautiful and welcome. But even these tell us no more than that she is a member of the genus of ‘women’, and in this respect not separable from all of the rest, and so not any more special compared with the others. Yet pictures which further call to mind what she has done, especially what she has done with you which could not have been done with another, call to mind the ideas that best represent her as an individual person, and, as the case may be, ennobles the mind so that it may look past—i.e., forgive—the commoner, feminine ‘universal’. Working as counter-signs, they return our thoughtful gazes in semiosis to the real and present ‘particular’. Family portraits, of the madonna and child, framing the lives husbands and wives have built exclusively and together, are therefore reconciliatory sacramentals absolving idolatry.


Mother and Son

Mother and Child