Origen is one of my great heros. By my reading of his work, he had a very specific (if not very novel) idea of how we acquire knowledge about what is good. Being a christian theologian, he was very much concerned with the bible, which was the foundation of his ethics. His idea basically runs thus: read the bible and do what it tells you to do, then you will become a better person and will then be able to re-read the bible and understand it better, do what you now understand it to be prescribing, etc. Origen didn’t think one ever arrived, having become perfect, but that this back and forth movement (hence my calling it a dialectic) should accompany one throughout one’s life. Before i re-work this into a more contemporary form, i should point out a few specifics: first, Origen assumes that you really only understand something when you do it. This is admittedly not very novel and might seem self-evident, but nevertheless runs afoul of every current brand of ethics – all those theorists trying to tell us what to do without ever trying their ideas out (on themselves or anywhere). Second, it is a basically optimistic view, one that assumes things can get better, but never assuming that they must (as a Hegelian would): this doesn’t happen on its own, but requires a fair amount of personal involvement. Finally, Origen is here giving us a nothing more than a reworking of the johannine Jesus: “if you hold to my teachings, you are truly my disciples, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” We will return to the freedom idea at the end of this post.
Now, some might object to using the bible as a foundation; dispensing with it will not, however, change much of Origen’s conception, structurally speaking at least. Origen used the bible as a home port to which he returned after each of his moral voyages of discovery. Today, we no longer have the luxury today of such a safe haven. Few people are actually willing to take the bible for an infallible guide to life; as Lyotard was fond of saying: we have become suspicous of grand meta-narratives. And we will just have to deal with that aspect of our societies. Origen would read the bible, apply it, and then go back and re-interpret it in light of his new, better way of life. Without resorting to the bible or any other authoritative work, we can actually simplify the process and use our previous ethical position as that which, once we’ve tried it out, we then re-formulate. This ethical process then becomes: do what you think is right and good; see what happens; modify your ethic accordingly; start over. This is admittedly no more ground-breaking than Origen’s original idea, though when systematically applied, can prove most useful.
In effect, this can also be understood as a type of experimental ethics: (1) formulate a hypothesis about, say, how you should behave in a certain type of situation; (2) try your idea out and observe what happens; (3) re-work your original hypothesis to account for what actually happened. Where this ethic moves (if ever so slightly) beyond everyone’s normal daily habits, is that the ethical positions are explicitly formulated, that is carfully written down – and therefore thought through. Moreover, when implementing your current ethical position, you will find yourself immediately thinking through what you are doing and already formulating a new hypothesis. In the end, you are simply trying to avoid repeating your mistakes by learning from them.
The promise at the end of the verse quoted above is that doing this will make us free. If we understand freedom in a kantian sense, then this experimental ethics will surely make us free: we are obeying rules that we have set for ourselves; moreover, we are also continuously tweaking them, hopefully for the better. And that is exactly what Origin, as per my reading, was aiming for.
(There is clearly many a loose thread in this post, the most glaring one being that i have not defined what good is, nor how we are to know if our experiments succeded or not. That is, however, a very big question, and one that will have to be left for another day.)