Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben and the Natural Law

IN HIS THE CHRISTIAN FAITH (Der Christliche Glaube nach den Grundsäzen der Evangelsichen Kirchen im Zusammenhange Dargestellt, Vol. 1, p. 17 (§ 4) (2nd ed. 1830), the great German classicist and Romantic philosopher Friederich Ernst David Schleiermacher (1768-1834) refers to the awareness that one has not brought existence upon himself as Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben, "not-having-posited oneself," or a feeling of Irgendwiegewordensein, a "somehow-having-come-to-be." While Schleiermacher sees this as a subjective sentiment, a feeling, and it surely is, it seems that this is also an objective, self-evident reality, a truth of the objective order which cannot be denied without absurdity.

[I]n every self-consciousness there are two elements, which we might call respectively a self-caused element (ein Sichselbstsetzen) and a non-self caused element (ein Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben); or a Being and a Having-by-some-means-come-to-be (ein Sein und ein Irgendwiegewordensein). the latter of these presupposes for every self-consciousness another factor besides the Ego [dem Ich], a factor which is the source of the particular determination, and without which the self-consciousness would not be precisely what it is.
(Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, H. R. Mackintosh, trans. (New York: Continuum Publishing, 2000), 13)

As Louis Dupré summarizes this aspect of Scheiermacher's thought: "However powerful a person may be, he remains aware of the fact that he is not responsible for his being-there: he has not brought himself into existence." (Religion and the Rise of Modern Culture (Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2008), 102.) It is self-evident that none of us had any role in bringing ourselves to be, and that we owe both our existence and our essence to Someone other than ourselves, and so, at best, are only relatively autonomous, and not absolutely so. Because both our essence and existence rely on an Other, the question arises as to whether that Other has a claim of right upon us: whether there is a Law promulgated by this Other which we must acknowledge at the risk of absurdity by contradicting something that is self-evident: that, in a fundamental way, we have not made ourselves to be. Naturally, the awareness of Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben ought to lead us to ask that question with which the Baltimore Catechism begins:

1. Who made us?

And we ought to at least acknowledge that a possible answer may be: God made us.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the Protestant (Pietist) Schleiermacher is to be regarded as reliable in all things, and from the little I know of his thought I would not give him a ringing endorsement. There are problems with his theology which relies excessively on "feeling" (Gefühl) at the expense of reason, and his theism is at best ambiguous, as he tends toward pantheistic or panentheistic expressions. Similarly, his notions of dogma are deficient, at least from an orthodox Catholic perspective. (Dupré, 100-01, 104). His biblical exegesis and hermeneutics are also to be wary of. But in his notion of Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben, Schleiermacher seems to have hit on a great truth, even if obliquely. Both in our subjective awareness of Sichselbstnichtsogesetzthaben, and, more importantly, as a self-evident datum of speculative reason, we can predicate a reasoned argument for the existence of an Eternal Lawgiver and his Eternal Law in which we participate, a law in our hearts and in our conscience, and this participation is the Natural Law.

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