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PurgatoryReview - Purgatory
Philosophical Dimensions
by Kristof Vanhoutte and Benjamin W. McCraw (Editors)
Palgrave Macmillan, 2017
Review by Andreea-Maria Lemnaru-Carrez
Jul 9th 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 28)

This is a collection of sixteen exciting essays on the notion of Purgatory, not a from historical or cultural but philosophical point of view, unlike the other essays published on the subject in the last years. Due to space constraints, this review shall linger on only some of the papers.

The book is divided in three parts. Its first part is dedicated to a philosophical contextualization of the concept of Purgatory, mainly in regards to ethics and the idea of time. The first chapter of the volume, written by K.K.P. Vanhoutte and B.W. McCraw addresses the definition of Purgatory as "the state, place, or condition in the next world where the souls of those who die in a state of grace, but not yet free from all imperfection, make expiation for unforgiven venial sins (…) and by so, are purified before they enter heaven" (p. 5). In the second chapter entitled "Pugatory, Antonement and the Self", G. Graham analyzes purgatory with the theory of penal substitution, and the idea that is bears a fundamental injustice, already raised by Kant: how can the actions of a sinner be atoned by someone else than the sinner himself, as in Jesus Christ's sacrifice?

In the third chapter, T. Dumsday addresses Marian apparitions and near death experiences. He provides a fourfold taxonomy of experiential evidence for Purgatory, arguing that Dante's Purgatorio and Venerable Bede's History of the English Church and People were visions of the afterlife, and direct experiences of Purgatory, as opposed to direct implicit, indirect explicit and indirect implicit experiences. Both chapter 4 (D. Baggett and J. Pruitt's paper) and 5 (V. Lomuscio) contain an analysis of time in the notion of Purgatory. D. Baggett and J. Pruitt use popular references to serve a demonstration based on Kant's conception of time, trying to solve the contradiction between the fact that sinner can be "forgiven in a moment" according to the Bible, although "wholesale changer to character don't occur instantaneously" (p. 57).

In "Purgatory's temporality", V. Lomuscio's argument is based on one of the most interesting implications he sees in the notion of Purgatory, namely that one could change his past and that this purification means the actualization of an unrealized good. However, to purify a sin does not mean to change one's past. Although "the past continues to exist in the present, as a possibility waiting to be" actualized, just like V. Lomuscio argues, the purification of something committed in the past can be explained by a dissociation between the soul's eternal identity and its past actions on Earth.

In chapter 5, K.K.P Vanhoutte argues that the parallel emergence of the city and the notion of Purgatory is not a coincidence. The noun purgatorium as an intermediary place between the dualistic Heaven and Hell did not become autonomous in the Christian tradition before the XIIth century. The idea of the city-style living as purgatorial (p. 131) is very interesting indeed. For K.K.P. Vanhoutte, the arising of an autonomous notion of Purgatory is closely related to that of a new class of merchants in medieval cities, which implies the questionable thesis that mythological concepts would mirror social realities.

S.R.L. Clark, in his paper "Climbing Up to Heaven : the Hermetic Option" (chapter 9), provides us with an analysis of Hermetic ascent and Purgatory as the process of a cyclical purification of the soul after death, before its new reincarnation. This process would be the progressive purging of planetary influences, of the garments that the soul has acquired during its descend towards matter. If S.R.L. Clark correctly mentions Macrobius, Plotinus and Ibn Arabi along with the Hermetica, one may suggest that the explicit theory that the vehicle of the soul was composed of planetary efflux and that it dissolves after death originates in Porphyry. In his Commentary on the Timaeus, Proclus  exposes two hypotheses on the future of the vehicle of the soul: Porphyry's, Iamblichus's and his own. Whereas the vehicle acquired during the descent through the spheres dissolves for Porphyry, it is immortal according to Iamblichus and Proclus. Every planet is associated with virtues and vices, S.R.L. Clark argues, and Purgatory would therefore be the state of liberation from the vices – lust for Venus, melancholy for Saturn which issues in "either (or both) depression and academic learning". Identity does not reside in memory, nor in physical appearance according to both Neoplatonism and the Hermetica, a very relevant parallel drawn by S.R.L Clark.

In Chapter 14, "On the Metaphysics of Purgatory and Economy", M. Bauwens claims that Purgatory is here on Earth, and that it is labor and suffering – the price we pay for the original sin. The fifteenth chapter, "Issues of Impermanence : Christian and Early Buddhist Contemplations of time" written by C. Ketcham, is a comparative study based on the cosmological paradigms of Christianity and Buddhism : namely, anthropocentrism and cosmocentrism (p. 297), which would share despite this philosophical gap a common vision of Heaven or Nirvana, the end of time. This reconciliation between these remote religious paradigms would have needed the precise demonstration that impermanent being only exists because of time, based on the close analysis of the texts to support better C. Ketcham's hypothesis, which is otherwise very thought-prokoving.


© 2019 Andreea-Maria Lemnaru

Andreea-Maria Lemnaru, Université Paris Sorbonne IV




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