The Three Temptations of Philosophy

The Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent always features one of the Synoptics on the temptation of Jesus in the desert. This year, we read from Luke. Spiritual writers have long reflected on the meaning of the temptations—for bread, for goods, for worship—that those temptations embody.

The temptations Jesus faced are temptations we all face individually. What is much less considered, however, is how those temptations are reflected in bad ideas and, specifically, bad philosophy. That matters because, as Richard Weaver once noted, “ideas have consequences.”

Almost eighty years ago a Polish priest (and later bishop), Jan Stepa, wrote a book detailing how Jesus’ three temptations in fact find expression in various philosophies. Except among historians of Polish Thomism, Stepa has been largely forgotten as has his 1937 book, Kuszenie współczesnego człowieka [The Temptation of Modern Man]. That’s too bad, because what he had to say before World War II makes even more sense today.

Stepa identifies three “temptations”: the “temptation of bread,” the “temptation of vanity,” and the “temptation of greed.” He associates each with a power of the human soul: bread with reason, vanity with will, greed with the human emotions.

Since man knows through his senses, the “temptation of bread” affects reason. While depending on the senses, reason can lift the human person far beyond the sensory world; Catholic teaching is, after all, that man can even arrive at a certain natural certainty of God’s existence. From the data the senses provide, reason can lift man even to the metaphysical.

Or not. Man can be content to wallow at the sensory level. That is why the temptation of bread often leads to theoretical materialism. Despite the Lord’s injunction, plenty of people have been content to live by bread alone, and to build societies based on bread and the occasional circus. Stepa, writing in the 1930s, had a direct view of a programmatically materialistic philosophy in action: the Soviet Union. (In the 1930s, he was a professor at the University of Łwów, now L’viv, then part of Poland, annexed in 1939 by the USSR, and today part of Ukraine.)

But the roots of materialism need not be found in Marxism alone. Stepa sought the roots of materialism among the ancient philosophers. In taking the data of the senses, Stepa argued, the philosophers could approach them in one of two ways: analytically or synthetically. To those who remained in a purely analytic frame of mind, there are lots of individual things, but no “big picture.” One can be a specialist in the individual, but at the price of a radical individualism that affects not only people but knowledge itself.

Consider, for example, the medical specialist. There are times one needs a cardiologist, an urologist, and a dentist. Each may be a leading authority in his field. But the diseases they each treat are in one body, affecting one person. The bad teeth may contribute to heart problems. The long term use of some cardiac medications may lead to hematuria (blood in the urine). While specialized knowledge is important, losing sight of the underlying unity of the “patient as person” (to steal Paul Ramsey’s phrase) can lead to the paradoxical situation of the famous adage: “the operation was a success, but the patient died.”

This parcelization of reality is especially prominent in the modern university, where one finds very narrow specialists but no place in the universum of the university where the sum of knowledge is integrated. Philosophy and theology are supposed to do that, but even in Catholic institutions of higher learning, they rarely achieve that integrative function.

Stepa’’s “theoretical materialists,” content with their limited proficiencies and their piece of the elephant, eventually leads to theories of knowledge that either limit reality to the measurable and perceptible (empiricism, including logical empiricism) or denies the reality of knowing things in themselves (Descartes, Hume, Kant). The “temptation of bread” thus gives us a lot of “modern philosophy.”

Stepa also admits of “practical materialism,” those who are content with the here and now and the comforts it provides, and—in the absence of faith in anybody/thing transcendent—make an act of faith in technology. “…[M]odern man, aware of his power over nature, trusting in the creative power of science, would even want to change stones into things necessary for him like his daily bread.”[1] One especially sees this practical materialism in the bioethics field, especially so-called “reproductive technologies,” where modern man considers even personal sexual differentiation of parents to be a disposable “extra” to manufacturing children.

In talking about “theoretical” and “practical” materialism, I also note that Stepa was decades ahead of himself. Vatican II used the same terminology in talking about the dangers of materialism in this world, warning that sometimes the one furthest from God was not necessarily the one with the philosophical premises of materialism as the one whom, although he might devote lip service to the deity, acts as if God does not exist.

If the “temptation of bread” strikes man at the level of reason, the “temptation of vanity” hits him in the will. For Stepa, the premier exemplar of this position is Kant and his “autonomous ethics.” Kant’s ethics of duty, in which right and wrong is built upon the absolute determinations of my will, destroys all authority, including God (as supposedly heteronomous). It also undermines the truth about man by failing to reckon with his fundamental flaw, original sin, which inclines that will towards “the evil that I do not want to do” and from “the good I want to do.” Protagoras’s “man is the measure of all things” comes back with a vengeance in Kant, which is essentially a return to the first sin, where man yielded to the temptation that he would define what is good and what is evil. One need only consider, even within the Church, various false notions of “conscience” to observe the corruptive force of this ethical autonomy.

Finally, the “temptation of greed” which, for Stepa, affects the emotions. Man wants. He may want concrete material goods, such as money, or he may want X—whatever X is—inordinately. He is led to believe that consumerism fulfills him. In the words of Shania Twain, “All we ever want is more / A lot more than we had before / So take me to the nearest store” (which, incidentally, is why our “religion … is shopping every Sunday at the mall”).

The obsession with things, of course, is a two-edged sword: double-edged, in that it undermines justice (what is due to another) and love (what one does out of benevolence and non-self-interest). That is why Stepa argues that Adam Smith is a great illustration of the “temptation of greed.” In Stepa’s reading, Smith turns predatory self-interest shorn of ethical referents into a virtue, and trusts that justice and love will be achieved by the workings of some “invisible hand.” The result is a system that approves all sorts of social disparities and injustices.

As we consider the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, we should first look into ourselves: how does our interest in bread, wealth and power, and pride shape my attitudes? But Stepa’s analysis suggests we also look a little further: how has modern thinking built those temptations into the warp and woof of modernity?

[1] Translation mine. I owe my introduction of Stepa to Michał Zembrzuski’s article, “Jan Stepa,” in Tomizm Polski: Słownik filozofów [Polish Thomism: A Dictionary of Philosophers] (Radzymin, Poland: Wyd. Von Borowiecky, 2014), pp. 89-96, to which this article is indebted.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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