Kohák: The Human Place Within the Universe
On any given evening in winter, the biting cold of a Winnipeg wind can remind you of your existence; in the crude twist I hurt, therefore I am a solipsism is coded, but no less the feeling is real: I does exist. But the existence of my being is not the question here, for an answer to such can be reached through multiple other avenues - be it pleasure or the Cartesian doubt, to name two. Instead, the question asked by so many—and raised again by Erazim Kohák—is, in brief, of purpose and belonging. The question is therefore, to put it pithily, not one of if but one of why. In the search for an answer, any solipsistic tendency is pushed aside and out, for the worldview Kohák advocates is not merely one of co-habitation, but one of peaceful, respectful, and personal incorporation into creation. In fact, it is not the human who is the center of the cosmos, but the human is instead a part of that cosmos, which is, as Kohák rightly asserts, die Lebeswelt Gottes, or as an direct English translation would fittingly render it, 'God's living world.' Thus, a self-indulgent narcissist misses the mark for it is not about the ipse, the εγω, the self, but is instead about the person-al, the relational—the κοσμοs. Indeed, our self-definition comes from interaction with 'God's living world'—the φυσιs which is the universe—as a result of our belonging within that cosmic scheme, not as beings over-against it who provide its meaning but as beings in and of it.
Importantly, Kohák posits the κοσμοs as person-al in his quest to resist the worldview of the universe as 'artifact,' as mechanical, and as means. To be sure, not only is he attempting to refute the notion that the universe merely functions like clock-work—as in the claims of Deists—but he is in addition, and perhaps centrally, disputing the idea that the universe is simply a means to not only an ends but in fact a means to our ends. Kohák, as an alternative to the universe-as-material perception, begins by urging us, in the tradition of St Thomas Aquinas, to recognise and appreciate 'the truth, goodness, and unity of all beings, simply because they are, as they are, each in his own way.'1 That is to say, the universe and every particular creature within it is an end in and of itself, for animals exist, in the most elementary way, to the degree that humans do - and being itself is good.2 Though so straightforward and so eloquently spoken by Kohák, this worldview is, painfully, not widely held—but of course Kohák is aware of this, for he names the separation between the human and the rest of creation in the formula of the human being setting itself not merely beside creation but in fact above it, in a god-like posture.
Indeed, the human posits itself as an 'arbitrary freedom to whom - or to which - nature, dead, meaningless, material, is at best irrelevant and typically threatening, to be conquered by an act of the will.'3 In this process, humans have alienated themselves from their world—and the world from themselves—not only in coldly possessing it, rendering it dead, lifeless and without meaning, but also by blinding ourselves in the misuse of what Kohák names τεκνη. 'Misuse' for it is not the development of technology, Kohák argues, that has resulted in our estrangement within our dwelling, but it is the definition and significance we place within it. When we pack upon the shoulders of τεκνη an autonomy, a definition separated from its initial conception and construction, then does that τεκνη become too big a wedge and veil4—and then do we become surrounded by 'artifacts' which prohibit us to recognise the rhythm and life of the cosmos; 'artifacts' which are, for the most part, the result of the instrument instrumentalisation of everything around us. In such a schema we humans rise above as the givers of meaning: if the universe is nothing but material to be used, we humans then are the ones to use it thereby fulfilling its purpose.
This dichotomised relationship between humanity and its dwelling - between human beings and the universe—is also acknowledged in the relatively recent Radical Orthodoxy movement. According to their foremost thinker, John Milbank, this estrangement came as a result of the shift in understanding dominium. That is, God's gift to humanity of dominion in Genesis 1:26-29 became, primarily by way of medieval thought, re-defined as power and subsumed as 'right' instead of properly remaining as 'gift,' thereby justifying the shift of the human being from 'fellow creature' to 'possessor.'5 It appears unshakably and unfortunately true that the quest for the meaning of human life and its place within the cosmos has led humanity to grow egotistical and assume a god-like self-definition, for it seems as though in the need and fulfillment of unhindered, unrestrained, and ostensibly sovereign property rights humanity feels it has come closest to the imago dei.6 But it is, ironically, at this point where humanity, as Kohák would have it, is the farthest from its humanness. It is, to blend these two thought patterns, out of human hubris that humanity invents dominium as power over the universe 'to possess it, free to use or abuse, destroy and alienate it as they see fit'7—which is a plight upon the world.
- Erazim Kohák, The Embers and The Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 128.
- Thomas Aquinas, "Summa Contra Gentiles," Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 2, ed. Anton C. Pegis (New York: Random House, 1945), 13.
- Kohák, Embers and Stars, 4.
- Ibid., 24.
- John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd Ed. (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2006), 13-22.
- Ibid., 16.
- Kohák, Embers and Stars, 104.