The Ethics of Time

A Phenomenology and Hermeneutics of Change

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John Panteleimon Manoussakis
Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     2017.
     232 pages.
     $114.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781474299169.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is an engaging, erudite, and frequently beautifully written book by an increasingly formidable voice in the contemporary continental philosophy of religion. John Panteleimon Manoussakis’s second book synthetically employs the methods of postmodernism, hermeneutics, psychoanalysis, biblical exegesis, Christian apologetics, literary theory, and patristics to advance a broadly (and quite novel) eschatological theodicy. This is a book that deserves to be widely read by anyone working in and around the traditions and themes this book considers. In the brief space available, I shall sketch the major themes and figures of The Ethics of Time and provide my understanding of this work’s title.

The overarching theme of the work is eschatology, one that challenges the standard Platonic and Neoplatonic pejorative accounts of change (time) and ethics (good and evil) by following an Augustinian rejection of Manicheanism (about which more shortly) (75-77). For Manoussakis, time is not something lamentable or tragic (77), and although it also may not be something punitive, it certainly is not an impoverished (imperfect) version of the Good (perfect). Rather, time is, when eschatologically understood, a part of the process of perfection—“a movement toward perfection” (61).

Manoussakis presents the framework for such a claim cosmologically and anthropologically in the first part of the book, “A Prolegomena to any Future.” Concerning the cosmological, he develops a counter-narrative to “the negative Platonic views [of] time and history…as...the byproducts of being’s fall into materiality” (xiii). This alternative view of time comes through an examination of the theme of movement and change in the work of Anaxagoras, Maximus the Confessor, and Søren Kierkegaard. The treatment of Kierkegaard functions as a pivot (as I see it) to the anthropological side of the coin, wherein Manoussakis works out “the eschatalogical constitution of consciousness” (xi) through a hermeneutics of the experience of absence (past and future or sin and boredom/waiting) in a dialogue with thinkers such as Augustine, Origen, Edmund Husserl, Henri Bergson, and Martin Heidegger (60-62). In light of having considered its cosmological and anthropological sides, when we take this coin as a whole we arrive at the “controversial position that affirms the existence of sin already at the beginning of history, dispelling any notions of primordial perfection” and holds, moreover, that “evil is a moment in the temporal unfolding of the good” or that “time as a movement toward perfection is…the means of sin’s undoing” (61, 76, 61).

Such provocative remarks set the stage for the second, much longer part of the book, “The Scandal of the Good.” Here, Manoussakis develops his eschatological theodicy around three narratives inspired by the garden motifs in Augustine’s Confessions: a narrative of three gardens that (as I read them) convey features of the personal and historical journey to salvation. These are the gardens of Eden, Gethsemane, and Paradise: past, present, and future; or beginning, present, and end (or final good) (xliii). This section treats an array of themes—creation and sin (taken, provocatively, together), language, selfhood, will, grace, desire, despair, embodiment (incarnation), hell, salvation, and so forth—examined through a dialogue Manoussakis creates between Augustine’s Confessions and figures as diverse as Sophocles, Sigmund Freud, Jacques Lacan, Lars von Triers, Emmanuel Levinas, Kierkegaard, St. Paul, Origen, and others. Such a dialogue occurs, moreover, across various and varied genres, including literature and film.

To reflect for a moment on this book’s title—The Ethics of Time—I flag a couple of passages that helped me anchor my understanding. On the one hand, Manoussakis makes one observation that both follows from the way he develops “phenomenological theodicy” and yet, perhaps, torments from within (xiv). Recalling G. F. W. Hegel’s phenomenology—if we can apply his phenomenology to post-Husserlian phenomenology or even to Hegel’s own lectures on the history of philosophy—Manoussakis holds that “history, which was never for the Creator an afterthought, even if man had not sinned, is God’s means of a perfection yet to be achieved, the means by which such a perfection can be reached, as we expect eschatologically” (61). I do not know if Manoussakis wants to include the “slaughter bench” view of history in his phenomenological theodicy.

Yet, as we turn to the matter of sin and a particular sinner, we find the more compelling and convincing narrative (which is also, I think, the dominant portion of Manoussakis’s narrative). Making a hermeneutic (if not also deconstructionist and thus perhaps vexed phenomenological) move, Manoussakis notes that “a sin recognized as sin constitutes already a moment after sin…a sin already delivered at the hands of time” that are “nothing else than the hands of God” (61). Here, we find one entry into the matter of ethics and time, for “that which makes sin perceptible as sinful…is mediation as… the reflection that can be afforded only by distance in time…and, secondly, as intermediation through the relation with the Other…against whom I sinned” (62).

From these points, Manoussakis cleverly develops his hermeneutics (or deconstruction) of sinfulness and redemption into a challenge to “the danger of ethical relativism” rooted in a residual “Manichean system” that posits good and evil alongside one another and contemporaneous (such that one could be led, from such an assumption, to ask what makes the good good and evil evil if each are separate, coexisting phenomenon) (76). But Augustine’s view of evil as the privation of goodness holds that “evil is a moment in the temporal unfolding of the good” rather than an independently subsisting phenomenon. I cannot do justice to the subtlety and complexity of this argument, but we find in his view the claim that the truth of this scandal of the good is that “an evil that judges itself as evil cannot do this but in the name of the good, by becoming good,” which realization (as I have reconstructed it) occurs when the sinner becomes aware of him or herself as such, despairs over this state, and thus opens the way for repentance and salvation (76, 61).

In all of this, we find perhaps a hermeneutics that itself points beyond “beyond good and evil.” On the one hand, Manoussakis’s book invites the consideration that one who seeks such a going beyond does so only upon first having missed the inextricable interplay between time and ethics. On the other hand, also leaves us reeling over the “Scandal of Grace,” for grace appears scandalous to our egalitarian view of justice insofar the “exceptions” it makes—especially in the case of the making of an exception?—entail “inequality” (161).

This is a bold book. And with it Manoussakis continues to ascend to the ranks of the very best scholars working in the contemporary continental philosophy of religion, including Jean Luc Marion, Richard Kearney, and Merold Westphal, to name a few.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Michael R. Kelly is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of San Diego.

Date of Review: 
February 21, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Panteleimon Manoussakis is associate professor of philosophy, College of the Holy Cross, USA and Honorary Fellow of the Australian Catholic University, Australia.

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