Saints are commonly thought to embody the epitome of moral righteousness. Given that ethics is one of the principle schools of Philosophy, it is of little surprise then, that philosophers have long made use of the concept of 'saintliness'. What may be unexpected however, is how critical philosophers have been of all things saintly. This course explores the historical development, legacy, and changing critique of saintliness, which dramatically culminated in the outright repudiation and inversion of this otherwise positive notion, in the works Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Lecture 1: Pre-Modern, Christian Conceptions
We begin with a general introduction to the standard Christian interpretation of the concept of saintliness, conceived by philosopher saints, St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine of Hippo. Although Aquinas openly decries biblical literalism, his conception of the saints is strictly scriptural. Augustine’s notion of saintliness is far more metaphysically imaginative, and yet similarly belongs more in the theological, than the philosophical tradition. We therefore quickly move on to note early ethical criticisms made by Desiderius Erasmus and Martin Luther, not so much of saintliness itself, but of the phenomena surrounding all things saintly, such as relic collecting, votive offerings, and even idolatry. In Voltaire and David Hume we see the true beginnings of the philosophical tradition of criticising saintliness emerge, as both attack the saints themselves for being immoral. As their criticisms are still in keeping with the Christian morals that the saints are ideally to embody, for this reason, they are nonetheless seen to belong to the pre-modern, Christian era in the philosophy of saintliness.
Lecture 2: Schopenhauer and the Transcendental
Arthur Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Idea marks the advent of the modern era in the philosophy of saintliness. By employing the conceptual resources of Immanuel Kant to best articulate his understanding of then newly imported Eastern religious texts, we see Schopenhauer describe a metaphysical system that is both self-contained and incommensurable with the pre-modern, Christian worldview. As the arch-pessimist, Schopenhauer argues true saintliness to be the denial of the will to life, and further, that all morality is on a continuum to this most ascetic ideal.
Lecture 3: Nietzsche and the Anti-Transcendental
Schopenhauer was Nietzsche’s ‘great teacher’. That is to say, the metaphysical picture Schopenhauer described to Nietzsche, far from being in any way convincing, nonetheless revealed to Nietzsche the flimsiness of his own Christian heritage. Nietzsche argues that the saintly type perversely extols their anti-natural asceticism above all other natural goods, firstly, so as to gain rule over the weak by thereby appearing supernatural, but further to trick the strong into mistrusting the worth of their strength. As we shall see, Nietzsche’s views arise not only from his deep-seated anti-transcendentalism, but moreover from a growing understanding of his own strengths and failings.
Lecture 4: Sartre and the Consumeristic
Sartre continues Nietzsche’s polemic against what they take to be the sophistry of saintliness. But rather than Nietzsche’s anti-supernatural basis, Sartre’s argument arises out of a metaphysics of consumerism. Sartre argues that the saint can only be construed as a positive phenomenon, by a consumerist culture that is all-too-willing to overlook the shortfalls of production for the sake of the product. We shall dwell on this insight and what it might mean for our own ability to understand, not only the morality of saints, but everyday ethical issues also.
Lecture 5: Contemporary, Ethical Legacy
The philosophy of saintliness post-modern clearly bears the legacy of the antichristian sentiments of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Sartre, and is strictly ethical in nature. J. O. Urmson argues for a conception of saintliness based solely on ethical superogation. Susan Wolf, on the other hand, claims that the moral saint is too perfect to be likable. And finally, Raimond Gaita invokes a non-metaphysical conception of saintly love to serve as the absolute bedrock of non-relativistic morality.
- SCHOPENHAUER, Arthur. ‘Ethics’ (i.e. Vol. 1, Bk. 4) in The World as Will and Idea
- NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. ‘What do Ascetic Ideals Betoken?’ in On the Genealogy of Morals
- SARTRE, Jean-Paul. Saint Genet
- WOLF, Susan. ‘Moral Saints’