This post is the inception of a new series on hypnosis and related topics.
I want to begin this inquiry by making it perfectly clear that I do not hereby endorse the practice of hypnosis in any way. The essential pursuit of this study—and I think it has, in this regard, proved itself acceptably, and indeed, even exceedingly, fruitful—is to better understand the human condition, and in so doing, to better understand God Himself, the designer of that condition, which is the central pursuit of all scholarship that I here publish. Mind you, this is primarily a philosophical argument, not a theological one, and so, God willing, there should be many useful ideas to be found in it for my honourable, non-christian friends as well.
You might just skip this section if these things bore you. I hope you don’t mind my sort of informal use of the first person plural–although it’s a little unprofessional and conceivably, to some, pretentious, I think it makes this stuff a little more enjoyable to read, or perhaps, only slightly less dull and unbearable.
We will begin the argument with this theological post–of course I use the term ‘theological’ loosely–on the morality of the argument itself. The question here is whether it is moral to even study something like hypnosis. In this sub-argument, we will explore the requisites that Christian doctrine entails for acceptable and pious scholarship, and then ask whether the pursuit in which we are about to engage, with its particular ends and means, satisfies such requisites. We will conclude that it does so.
We will then proceed, in a following post, to layout a philosophical framework for and model of the metaphysics of hypnosis. In this post, we will ask whether the possibility of hypnosis is self-evident. In the second volume of his Summae Theologiae Thomas Aquinas writes Dicendum quod contingit aliquid esse per se notum dupliciter, uno modo secundum se et non quoad nos, alio modo secundum se et quoad nos, “It must be argued that the fact that something is self-evident touches us on two accounts, in one way according to itself and not to us, in the other way, according to itself and to us”. The former of these manners is that in which we shall expect the possibility of hypnosis to be self-evident. On the surface, it is not known to everyone that people can be hypnotised, but logically, it can be deduced, by anyone who so chooses, without any reference to empirical observation. This is the task we shall undertake in answer to the question, and is the true end of asking the question. What we will end up with is a metaphysical model of what happens when a person enters into a hypnotic state, and such a model will be valuable for the critical evaluation of the practice of hypnosis and related occurrences.
In posts following that one, we will explore the way our philosophical model relates to current psychological theories, and then, ultimately, we will evaluate the morality of hypnosis and discuss several other applications of the theory of dissociation (which we will have derived by that point). I’ll write a separate abstract for those posts if I believe it to be necessary.
Is the Study of Hypnosis Moral?
It is a curious proceeding to begin this argument with an inquiry into the morality of ‘hypnosis’, before we have even so much as trifled to define the term. However, it is also, to some degree, a necessary prerequisite to a discussion of the matter; before we study hypnosis, we must confirm that such a pursuit is not itself immoral, lest we should find ourselves seeking plus sapere quam oportet sapere, ‘to know more than is fitting’ (Romans 12:3). And so we must begin this essay with an inquiry into the essay’s own morality. Hence the question follows: Is the study of hypnosis a moral one?
Notice, I have quoted the Biblical passage from the Latin Vulgate, not the original Greek New Testament; this is because the Vulgate is, for that particular verse, as for many others, a slight mistranslation. The actual Greek appears to concern itself, as we conventionally interpret it, with pride, and not directly with seeking more knowledge than is fitting. In it, Paul cautions against ὑπερφρονεῖν παρ᾽ὃ δεῖ φρονεῖν, ‘thinking more highly [of one’s self] than it is necessary to think’. There is some ambiguity—which I believe is intentional. Paul has left out the personal pronoun, so that, in a sense, the passage could have a double meaning; it could in fact be a warning against thinking of loftier things than is fitting. However, the sort of pronoun that should have been included, an ‘accusative’ personal pronoun, would have created a sense of ‘thinking with respect to one’s self’, and the pronoun is very clearly implied due to the impersonal construction in the restrictive relative clause;˚ in fact, it is so clearly implied that the sentence doesn’t make sense without it. Most literally, Paul tells us not to think ‘beyond what thing, with respect to us, it is necessary to think’, where the accusative of respect—the part that translates, ‘with respect to us’—would seem to apply to both the necessity and the thinking; thus, ‘it is necessary for us to not think too highly about us‘.
In English, the phrase is generally rendered, ‘do not think higher of yourselves than is necessary’—it is a warning not against thinking ‘to highly’ in general, nor even against thinking highly of one’s self, but against thinking higher of one’s self than is necessary or fitting. This interpretation particularly makes sense in the context: Paul has just finished encouraging the Romans to seek to know the Good and Perfect Will of God through τῇ ἀνακαινώσει, ‘the renewing’, of their minds, and has told them to present their bodies as a living sacrifice. He follows the aforementioned warning by saying, “but think toward being sober-minded, each individual as God appointed the measure of faith. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members have not the same purpose, thus are we, many individuals, one body in Christ, and each individual is a member of the other.” So the focus is on sacrificing one’s individual identity to a new identity in Christ. The old body is to be laid down in order to become a unique member of a larger body; to gain a purposeful identity. Thus, Paul tells the Romans to not think higher of themselves, as individuals, than is fitting, lest they should, in so doing, fail to see their proper πρᾶξις, ‘purpose’, ‘action’, or ‘function’ in the larger body of Christ, which they must seek to discern by continually renewing their minds. In this way, the focus is on what they should seek to know more than it is on what they shouldn’t.
Hence, Paul does not seem to explicitly discourage us from pursuing any study, and hence, my warrant for the discretion that must be taken upon entering a study is much more of an appeal to medieval, Christian philosophy and wisdom than to any direct Biblical principle. Dante (1265 – 1321) was fond of isolating just this verse, as it appears in the vulgate, and premising an argument on it—dealing with what one should and shouldn’t seek to know. (Of course, he did so using the vulgate, the only ecclesiastically accepted version at the time.) What further added to the power of such an interpretation in medieval times was the etymology of the word sapere. The original meaning of the word in classical times was ‘to taste’, and then, by metaphor, it came to mean ‘to discern’ or ‘to think’, a meaning that paralleled the original Greek more closely than what followed, which is probably how St. Jerome would have understood the word when he wrote it in the late fourth century AD. However, in modern Latin, it has come to have a meaning closer to its usage in Italian, ‘to know’. Hence, by the time Dante, the Italian, was writing, this verse about how highly one should think, presumably of one’s self, was instead considered a comment on how much one should seek to know. As a result, Dante, in his Vita Nuova and Commedia, offers us some wonderful insight into the ‘limits’ a virtuous Christian scholar should set on himself—the bounds within which it is fitting to think. But such arguments should be taken as the philosophical output of a Christian, medieval thinker, and not theological, for the reasons just discussed.
However, this does not all together deprive Dante’s discussion of its value; it is still, in any case, the philosophy of a wise man, and it may even yet hold some theological basis. It is interesting to note that, while we Christian thinkers have often lost an absurd amount of sleep over the difference between substantiation, transubstantiation, and all the like of ivory-tower nonsense, knowing, to our sheer horror, that all the while, people throughout the entire world will never even read enough to join the discussion, let alone find the right answers for themselves—while all manner of such scholarly worries pervade our minds and make us doubt the very point or significance of our work, even then, the whole substance of these minor interpretative issues, and even of archaeological issues, has a way of discreetly ironing itself out in the background. Such is the case here. As I have said, the Greek itself is a bit ambiguous. I believe this is on purpose. As we understand the text today, it warns us against pride, while at the same time, encouraging us to exercise the full capacity of our cognitive faculties. Hence, the verse remains, in part, an advisement as to how one should use his or her powers of reason: do not use them to think too highly of yourself, but to think of God—to pursue and to know Him, in short, to sapere Him.
So Paul’s advice to the modern scholar may be very close to Dante’s interpretation after all: a scholar is to think about and pursue the truth, not himself. The focus is to be on fulfilling one’s πρᾶξις, one’s function, and serving, with discernment and the renewing of one’s mind, the larger body, the Body of Christ, as apposed to that which will bring the scholar personal glory and with which he might cultivate a foolish sense of pride. This focus has been the essential guiding framework of the Christian mind, and consequentially, the Western mind, throughout the ages. It is what has given structural integrity and coherence to western philosophy, and I would argue that it’s exactly the principle to which the medievals were referring, though they discussed it in their more archaic manner. (For a good illustration of this, see Erasmus’ cynically brilliant Stultitiae Laus, trans. The Praise of Folly, or according to the Greek pun, The Praise of More, in the first section of which Declamatio, we find Stultitia, the female personification of folly, mocking the Christian thinkers of the day for the sort of vices as are illuminated by the aforementioned verse in Romans. Erasmus points out, to the condemnation of his contemporaries, that such esoteric exercises as calculating the number of angels that could fit on the head of a pin were of little service to the body of Christ.)
But our present discussion is about the morality of writing an essay on hypnosis. So the question is whether such an inquiry is fitting for a sober mind and whether it will help illuminate the Perfect Will of God, illuminate what is Good and Acceptable. And for this purpose, this function, I believe it will serve wonderfully. What this inquiry ultimately aims to accomplish is to pull the foggy mysticism of what shall be loosely termed ‘New Age philosophy’ (with its heavy emphasis on ‘meditation’ or, to use the more scientific term, ‘self-hypnosis’) into a scope of reason so that it may be critically assessed; however, I expect that we will discover a number of other valuable and useful insights along the way.
˚ I have emphasized the fact that the clause is restrictive because such an observation supports the translation here posited: “do not think higher than what is necessary with respect to yourself” makes it easier to borrow the accusative of respect from the relative clause; where as, if the clause were nonrestrictive, “do not think higher than something, which it is necessary for you to think”, our translation would be more of a stretch.