The Circle of Theory and Practice in the work of Thomas Stephens

Fr. Thomas Stephens SJ Image Source:

What has let Thomas Stephens to chose the smrti tradition of Vaishnava faith  has not yet been settled.  The Fact that he chooses Purana tradion over shruti that is regarded as revelation requires explanation.  One of the common reasons that are given is that it was in accordance with the popular choice. There is truth in this elucidation.  We need to deepen it.  Stephens skilfully interprets Christianity into the purana motif of the Vaishnava faith of  his time. But we have to still trace what led to this hermeneutics. Gadamer has taught us that Hermeneutics has both theoretical and practical tasks. Stephens seems to have excelled  in both the tasks. It is practical wisdom that led him to the choice of the form ( purna) to incarnate Christianity in Goa. We may be able to find how these to tasks unite in the work of Thomas Stephens. We may call the  interpretive and theoretical task as hermeneutics and practical wisdom that informed his choice form, symbols, words, interlocutors etc as phronesis.  

Several scholars find this unity of the theoretical and the practical  in what has been called Phronesis in Greek  which is translated as Prudentia in Latin.  Gadamer has used the term practical wisdom to designate it.  He teaches that phronesis designated both practical and theoretical knowledge.  It reached as theoretical fixation as separated from theory  in Aristotle’s Nicomachean ethics which separates metaphysics from ethics.  Aristole writes the book to his son Nicomachus to teach him the path to happiness. This path to happiness is through phronesis. This is why prudence is the queen of all virtues to him. Stephens also presents the story of Christ  into the form of Purana not just to understand it but to live it. Thus, is goal was one of guidance towards the self creation or Christian discipleship.  this means he was aiming at poesies, which is a making of one-self unto the image of Christ.  

We may trace an echo of practical wisdom in Socates who teaches that Knowedge is Virtue. Socrates does not consider all knowledge as virtue but knowledge that is sophrosynes, knowledge of one’s own good, the knowledge of the self.  It is from this presupposition his dictum, ‘Know thy self’ flows.  This knowledge cannot be compared with knowledge as techne (technique/ art) or even as epistme ( knowledge of essences/ science).  In the broadest sense, we may view this Socratic call as an invitation to live in accordance to virtue. Plato seems to move from the individual Good of Socrates to communitarian good (Koine Sympheron). Therefore, for Plato the good of the individual becomes one that serves the good of the community (Oeikeion Agathon). We may say that it is in this sense of phronesis was lived by Thomas Stephens. His hard work and sacrifice was at the service of the greater good of the Christian community of his times. He shaped himself by serving the community.  Gadamer teaches that it is Aristotle who breaks the unity of that which both Socrates and Plato held together.  This means he traces in Aristotle the roots of separation between from theoretical and practical wisdom. Thus, Aristotle is the villain of this dichotomy theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge.   

With Aristotle the emphasis shifts to practicality in the understanding of phronesis and strict separation between Sophia and Phronesis  begin to appear. Phronesis then become practical knowledge that is allied to cunningness of the politicians. It sills retain the communitarianism of Plato as the politician is supposed to work for the good of the city. The citizen that chooses to be guided by the politician chooses the good of the city/ community. Being practical knowledge, it is knowledge that is capable of producing its own good. We can find it linked with the ethics of self care / sorge of Heidegger or the being   profoundly interested in the one’s existence as presented by Kierkegaard. Thus, we find a kind of return to  Socratic indivual’s own good in existentialism.  Thus, phronesis leads to the ethics of self care leading to the full realization of oneself. Gadamer teaches that it is everyone’s rational reflection for is useful for him. It is continues practice of forming oneself while techne is knowledge acquired while practicing. It is a watchful care of oneself. Because it is a continues exercise it is habitus. This is why a continues praying and singing of Kristpura become embodied and shaped the life and being of several people in Goa, konkan and Manglore.  Thus disciples is not a theoretical but also involves practical. It is through the practice one understands and live ones faith. The opposite is also true. Understanding of faith leads to its practice.  No discipleship is simply linear and progressive. It is more circular or spiral. Understanding leads to living and living leads to further understanding and so on. This theory and praxis are two sides of the life of a disciple. Thomas Stephens become the best exponent of these two sides.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao