“This is the original meaning of the givenness of being: a generosity of being that gives for no reason beyond the goodness of giving being”

I am sometimes visited by the mockery of Dostoevski’s Underground Man when he sneered: If man is not stupid, then certainly he is monstrously ungrateful! Agapeic being? Come, come! Lear learned about ingratitude from his daughters and paid for his folly with madness. Agapeic being? Come now!

I did say before that being agapeic is almost an impossibility for us. We are spiteful, grasping, thankless. And if there is something monstrous about the Underground Man, there is also, it seems, a monstrous audacity in the thought of agapeic being. That audacity drives us to think of agapeic being in relation God. How then might the matter look? We would have to break with any dualism of being and the good, and any divorce of ethics and metaphysics. Consider how Levinas, for instance, claims that the concern of traditional ontology with being ends in a philosophy of power and a subordination of the other to the same. He does grant that what he calls “metaphysics” allows for the other as other. Plato’s Good beyond being is invoked by him, and the claim is made that metaphysics in his sense must become an ethics of the other. What I call erotic mind and the ontological outlook going with it might be correlated with what Levinas calls “ontology.” By contrast, agapeic mind is related to metaphysics. But agapeic metaphysics is a philosophy of being, agapeic being. Contra Levinas we do not need to dualize being and the good. It is crucially important not to do so. If the ultimate is agapeic, it is the good. To be is to be good. Absolute being is the agapeic good.

If we think of God as agapeic being, God could not be defined just as thought thinking itself. The latter suggests the closed circle of absolute self-mediation. Ultimately it stems from an understanding of the good primarily in relation to erotic being. By contrast, agapeic mind makes way for the thought and the being of the other, beyond the circle of thought thinking itself. Every closed circle is broken open. Moreover, the model of exit and return, exitus and reditus, monas, prohodos, and epistrophe, so dominant in the tradition of speculative theology and metaphysics, must be qualified. What I mean is the following.

The erotic absolute might be said to mirror this movement: origin as the indefinite abstraction or lack; self-exit into otherness; return to self through and from the otherness; now in the end explicit self-constitution, finally determined as fully real. By contrast, the metaphor of the agapeic absolute would run: origin as excess plenitude, transcendence itself as other; creation as finite concreteness, but not for the return of the origin to itself; the “exitus,” if we call it such at all, is for what is given as other in the middle; and while there may be a different “return” in the metaxological middle, this is not dictated by the logic of a circular erotic self-becoming; it is gratuitously emergent in the created other as itself trying to be agapeic being; “return” is the cocreation of community by the finite other. In other words, the teleology of erotic being is finally closed, or looks forward to a closure in a completely self-determined whole. By comparison, the teleology of agapeic being is there at work as the opening of being as free community. It is also more rupturing, more anarchic relative to finite ends.

Were the origin conceived in terms of agapeic being, the origin would be creative in a more radical way than could be ascribed to any finite being or process. In this absolutely singular instance, agapeic mind would be creative of the finite other. Would this finite other be simply the externalization of the agapeic original? If that were the case, the origin would not be agapeic at all but erotic, and the created finite other would be the mirror in which the self-relativity of the origin was effected. Instead the agapeic creation of the finite other is for the finite other as other. Finite creation is given its true otherness; and this is irreducibly given, given as irreducible.

This, in fact, suggests the primal meaning of gift. This is the original meaning of the givenness of being: a generosity of being that gives for no reason beyond the goodness of giving being. This, I believe, is the ultimate basis on which also we must think the value of finite being. The worth of being is its being agapeically given. We might say that the “yes” to the being of the gift is ontologically inscribed in the being of that gift. The very giving of the being is itself an ultimate “yes” that is for the being that is given. This is why, as we saw before, when God says “It is good,” He does not say simply “I am good,” or that it is good for me, or for humans, or for some extrinsic purpose. It is good. It, the being there of the being, is good in itself. This is the primal “yes.” This is something different to the elemental “no” and “mine” shaping the psychogenesis of the human self. These are themselves given by the primal “yes,” which they ambiguously reveal, and inevitably can come to disfigure. The power of freedom is the power to let the ”no” shut out the primal “yes,” closing itself in, by closing transcendence as other out.

Here we come across the generosity of freedom as a gift. The absolute origin as agapeic, as it were, sacrifices its own for-itself. It gives, and supports, and preserves the other as other. It lets it go as other. Freedom is not originally given in the expectation of a return on the gift. One gives for nothing. God gives for nothing. This is why in one respect being is for nothing. Being is without a why. There is a kind of agapeic nihilism implied by this, but the nihil is not any negating or destructive nihil. God does nothing for Himself; everything is done for the other. There is a sense in which nothing is for God. God lets be, since everything given by God is for that thing, given for that thing itself.

William Desmond

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4 Responses to “This is the original meaning of the givenness of being: a generosity of being that gives for no reason beyond the goodness of giving being”

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    A question for Dr Desmond, but since he does not visit my blog, perhaps Brian Moore can answer: Would Desmond have discovered agapaic being in his contemplation of being if he had not been formed by the Catholic faith and the Church’s doctrine of creatio ex nihilo?

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    • He is very keen on the point that metaphysics is able to ask and answer questions on its own, and does not need to be absorbed into other sciences, but he also has stated numerous times that he often finds theologians to be more subtle and better resources for these questions, so maybe I guess.

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  2. brian says:

    Father, clearly Desmond has been shaped by Catholic formation. One can speculate that wisdom traditions outside of Christianity could permit some similar insights, but I doubt that specific insight into agapeic being is fully discoverable outside of the revelatory power of the gospel. Indeed, even in Christian theology, it is often distorted to the point of disappearance. Can one imagine a thought located at a further antipodes to the generosity of agapeic giving than the jealous Divinity imagined by some Calvinists, where the world exists primarily as temptation and trap, necessarily abjured as a wicked theft of the solitary glory of an angry god who is implicitly threatened because covertly located within the same univocal plane of being as creatures?

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I agree, Brian. I am reminded of Robert Sokowski’s observation regarding the Christian innovation of the creatio ex nihilo, formulated against all Greek philosophical wisdom.

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