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Life Arts    H4'ed 6/2/21

Michel Foucault on Ancient Western Christianity (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 2, 2021: My favorite scholar is the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955). When he was working on his massively researched doctoral dissertation on the history of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (also known as dialectic) and the French Renaissance logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572), Ong had an "Eureka!" insight.

Ong promptly set to work trying to articulate to the best of his ability the "Eureka!" insight that he had had. Indeed, from the early 1950s onward, he persisted in explaining his "Eureka!" insight to the best of his ability - in one iteration after another.

For example, in Ong's massively researched 1958 book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason [in the Age of Reason; also known as the Enlightenment] (Harvard University Press), Ong describes his "Eureka!" insight as involving the shift from aural to visual inner cognitive processing. Incidentally, in it, on page 338, in note 54, Ong credits the late lay French Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle with suggesting the aural to visual shift to him in one of his books in the 1940s.

What Ong refers to in his massively researched 1958 book as the aural to visual shift was arguably involved - indeed, perhaps even pioneered - in the much earlier shift in antiquity that James L. Kugel discusses in his 2017 book The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin).

For further discussion of the aural to visual shift, see Werner H. Kelber's 1983 book The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneutics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul, and Q (Philadelphia: Fortress Press).

In any event, two of the persistent themes in Ong's mature work from the early 1950s onward are (1) the theme of orality (as Ong himself came to refer to it, instead of referring to aurality); and (2) the theme of visuality (as I would characterize it).

Ong's next big book-length articulation of his "Eureka!" insight came with his 1967 book The Presence of the Word: Some Prolegomena for Cultural and Religious History (Yale University Press), the expanded version of his 1964 Terry Lectures at Yale University.

In any event, Ong was off and running, so to speak, in his lifelong project of describing our Western cultural and religious history to the best of his ability in each successive iteration.

For further discussion of Ong's philosophical thought, see my lengthy OEN article "Walter J. Ong's Philosophical Thought" (dated September 20, 2020):

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Now, the late Michel Foucault's latest posthumously published book Confessions of the Flesh, translated by Robert Hurley; edited and with a "Foreword" by Frederic Gros (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021) can be related to two key themes in Ong's mature work: (1) the theme of agonistic structures (i.e., the spiritual combat theme in Western Christianity) and (2) the theme of the inward turn of consciousness (i.e., the distinctively Christian self that emerged in ancient Western Christianity).

These two key themes in Ong's mature work are both exemplified in the Spiritual Exercises of the Spanish Renaissance mystic St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Jesuit order (known formally as the Society of Jesus; abbreviated S.J.). See The Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius: A Translation and Commentary by George E. Ganss, S.J. (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1992).

Now, whatever else may be said about Foucault's latest posthumous book, it is not a completed book. For example, it has no introduction and no conclusion. The main text (pages 1-285), which is well-developed, is followed by "Appendices" (pages 287-384), "Notes" (pages 325-384), "Bibliography" (pages 385-396), and a "Translator's Note" (page 397).

"Appendix 2" (pages 291-314) is a reasonably well-developed essay. Perhaps Foucault planned to include it somewhere in the well-developed main text (pages 1-285). But it is not clear where exactly this essay might be worked into the main text.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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