Johnson's "Stoicism"

Samuel Johnson was an essayist rather than a philosopher, but he was given to the contemplation of moral issues, and so perhaps thought that essays on morality were akin to what he said about pastoral poetry, which was that such poetry was the most primitive and natural because it was the result of rural people reflecting on their surroundings, and so moral essays might be considered the natural outlet for people concerned about how to live their lives and so not like what is produced by philosophers, who are concerned about the status of moral language rather than the fruits of moral speculation. Let us consider the short essay “Stoicism”, from his early periodical work in the Rambler series, in that light, while setting aside questions concerning how such taut and terse arguments would have found favor with the reading public. I don’t think the Atlantic or Harper’s would publish them today, so demanding are they of the reader.

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The Free Will of Balaam's Ass

Naive readers often claim that story tellers should just summarize the point they want to make in a few sentences rather than dress it up in a story where the reader has to do the work of extracting meaning. The answer to that is that most of the time writers are doing other things than making particular points. They are describing the customs of a society or giving you a sense of a particular character or showing how dialogue advances or impedes people understanding one another. They are rarely making philosophical points and the ones who do, like Saul Bellow or other writers of the midcentury, will simply pause in the story to tell the reader what is on his or her mind. For the most part, writers will use their learning to give their descriptions greater detail rather than the other way around, use the detail to help make an abstract point. That was certainly true of Thomas Mann’s masterpiece, “Joseph and His Brothers”. Mann was steeped in all the Biblical scholarship of his time and that allowed him to create a story where the reader is enveloped in the ritualistic culture of the ancient Middle East and sees striking characters in actions detailed enough so that the reader gets a sense of how their minds work and the reader can draw from that the observation that in some ways all people whatever the age think alike while also thinking differently. That moral is drawn by the reader as a way to organize the material in hand rather than the purpose of the author, which is to describe what life is like. But there are exceptions, times when authors are indeed trying to give you a handle on a philosophical question. One of these is the story of Balaam and his ass, told in the Book of Numbers 21-23, where the author seems intent on resolving a philosophical dilemma, which is the nature of free will, even though, for the most part, the Old Testament is not given over to metaphysical speculation but, rather, avoids it.

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Religious Heroism

Heroism, so I have been told by real heroes, such as Medal of Honor winners, is neither planned nor done out of an excess of courage, but seems either a fluke or inevitable, people only doing what they do naturally, and so the title of “hero” is worn begrudgingly. I want to call attention to a minor form of heroism of my own, one that did not put my life but only my soul at risk, which happened when I was a teenager, and so at a time when I would be wont to take risks for no reason, only later to understand the reasons why. It was my youthful religious rebellion, which is a time honored story and my own might seem a naive one to people with better religious training than I had acquired at the time.

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Harmless Pleasures

“Harmless pleasures” is a conventional phrase for the description of activities that are satisfying without imposing any harm on anyone. Hobbies such as stamp collecting or raising roses or following the fortunes of a baseball team are considered harmless pleasures, that taken as a term of praise given how many awful things happen in the world. Harmless pleasures are to be indulged because human action could also be malicious and destructive. Its companion term is “guilty pleasures” which are also for the most part minor but do carry at least some threat of doing some damage, probably in the long run, to the person indulging in them. Examples of these would be eating chocolates, which make you fat and raise your cholesterol levels but taste so good; enjoying pornography, which appeals to the male desire to look at naked female bodies but may weaken one’s appreciation for the personhood behind the body; or following gossip columns so as to be in the know about celebrities but also encourage a disrespect for the privacy of a person. Guilty pleasures won’t do much damage to your soul or your body but they address an indulgent side of yourself and so are, in some way, sinful. Smoking, however, has been moved in the past fifty years from being a guilty pleasure to being an out and out evil in that the practice is very highly correlated with the development of lung cancer and other diseases. The tricky issue are those cases where it is not at all clear whether a pleasure is harmless or guilty or downright bad. Clarifying the status of some test cases will allow elaborating what are the criteria by which a harmless or guilty pleasure turns into something else, something downright unacceptable. What are the additional circumstances which turn a harmless or guilty pleasure into something more momentous: a tragedy or a comedy or a history or a romance, to use Shakespeare’s categories?

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The Question of Pilate's Guilt

Sometimes questions you had not thought to ask just leap out at you and sometimes they are prompted by the reading of a text new to you. That happened with me this week with regard to the question of what it meant that Pontius Pilate washed his hands of responsibility for the execution of Jesus. Washing your hands of a matter meant to me that the person doing the washing was unconcerned about the collateral damage that might result from a bargain fulfilled. Pilate did what the Elders wanted so as to maintain their political support and so was indifferent to whether Jesus was especially holy or even  the Messiah. How could he be indifferent to that? The event is a metaphor for the utmost cynicism. I had become so used to thinking of the event as a metaphor, that I had not focussed on the act itself until I came across a reference, in Bart Erdman’s "Lost Christianities", to an apocryphal gospel, "The Gospel of Peter", where Pilate washes his hands but the Jewish elders who met with him refused to. What could this mean? So let us engage in a bit of speculation about the significance of Pilate’s action.

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Virtues and vices are supposed to be universal, which means that they apply at all times and in all circumstances. That is what Kant meant when he spoke of honesty. You are supposed to tell the truth even if a policeman is at the door asking you for the whereabouts of a friend. You never know but that the inquiry is harmless. I guess Kant never met a Nazi stormtrooper but the point that Kant was trying to make was that a virtue applies even in hard cases. The same is true of what the Catholics call the seven deadly sins. Gluttony is bad even if everybody has to eat to keep alive because gluttony refers to an obsession with eating and so would apply to present day people who let themselves go as well as to Saint Thomas Aquinas, who had a weight problem. In similar fashion, lust is and always was a vice in that it doesn’t refer to appetites fulfilled within marriage so long as the conjugal relation is clothed in modesty and darkness; it applies, rather, to people who have no respect for custom and are insatiable, whether that is cloaked by marriage or not. As a sociologist, however, I am uncomfortable with such categorical assertions. I look to make comparisons of situations in which a virtue or a vice seems to be that as opposed to situations in which a virtue or a vice appears to be the opposite of what it is usually taken to be. I want to consider the virtue of compassion in that light. What are the circumstances under which it makes sense to feel compassion and what are the circumstances under which compassion changes from being a virtue into being a vice? A lot of morality, as well as the central question of Christian theology, which is the status of Jesus, hangs on what compassion is.

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Peter Brown's Christianity

A sociologist looks at a great historian.


That extraordinary scholar Peter Brown’s latest book “Through the Eye of a Needle” is a magisterial account of the social, economic and theological structure of the late Roman Empire. His guiding thesis as he states it in his introduction is that as a result of that great outpouring of theological genius in the later part of the Fourth Century the Church came from regarding wealth as a sin, which it was in the Gospels, to regarding contributions to the Church as justifying great wealth. Wealth was good when it went to the Church, and that explains the prevalence of the Church in the Middle Ages. I think this thesis basically wrong, first of all, because, as Brown himself shows in an early chapter, contributions of mosaics and other church naming occasions were already part of Church life right after Constantine converted to Christianity and, indeed, I might add, are part of every religion known to mankind, whether that means putting up a cathedral or getting a seat in a synagogue named after a deceased family member.


More important, the thesis is wrong because Brown imposes his thesis upon a description of social life where economic motivation is taken for granted as the reason for doing things, while the idea that people can earn favor with God by making contributions provides a motivation of the sort envisioned by Max Weber when he spoke of the decisive importance of the Protestant Ethic in liberating Europe to become capitalist, while Brown imagines that religious motivation for the accumulation of wealth results in the economic stagnation of medieval times, when it ought, by his logic, have led to capitalism in the Sixth and Seventh Centuries.


Most of all, why is it necessary to reconcile the remark about the camel and the needle with the practices of rich members of the Church? People join and support churches for a variety of reasons. They like the liturgy or they like feeling part of the community of respectable people. They can take theology or leave it. The New Testament has a great many passages that are in spirit contradictory. You are supposed to welcome the prodigal son, which is supposedly a tribute to the idea and feelings of family as well as an allegory for dealing with believers who stray, and yet Jesus also came to separate sisters from brothers. Which is it? A believer can live with the admonition about rich people because what he likes about Christianity is that it offers salvation to everyone, even including rich people, and maybe in a particular believer’s case, a depth of conviction must surely make up for the fact that the person is rich. Moreover, maybe the remark about rich people came from the looney or radical fringe of the movement-- though that is an insight that would come to a modern mind, one less trusting to texts than the great Fathers of the Church. At any rate, there is no need to pose this as a crucial matter, as Brown does, unless there is reason to think a doctrinal point is not only central but fraught with consequences, which is what Weber did when he said that a belief in good works was key to Protestant Christianity even if predestination ruled out those good works being the cause of salvation. Practice rather than meaning has consequences.


A Seventh Century capitalism did not happen. What did happen, according to Brown’s brilliant interpretation, The Church had accumulated wealth and that made it powerful with a soft power that could counter the power of the state, which was the power of the various kingdoms that had arisen after the fall of Rome. It invoked this power in the name of the poor, which is to be taken to mean not only those in poverty but all those well into the middle class who were not part of the aristocracy or the wealthy. So the Church had a constituency to be looked after and its wealth made that possible, and that is what made it the dominant institution of the Middle Ages. That is very different from saying that the Church was the progenitor of a kind of capitalism, though this claim could indeed be made in that monasticism, which depended on generous contributions from the wealthy, did see the origins of a countryside based capitalism that did not survive for more than a few centuries before efficient economic activity was eventually moved from the countryside to the city in part due to the efforts of Pope Innocent III in the early Thirteenth Century.


There are structural consequences when the clergy become the repositories of wealth. They have to become part of what Brown calls “the otherness” of the clergy, as was symbolized by their adoption of the tonsure and of celibacy, something Brown thinks was something desired by the laity and only then enforced by the clergy. Celibacy was necessary because the priests were the people who handled the Holy Eucharist, and so had to remain pure. (Brown does not deal with the prior question of why sexual chastity is more pure than an occasional romp in the hay.) In these and in other ways, Christianity was transformed less by its organizational skills and its growing monopoly of learning than by the responsibilities imposed on it by its wealth. Other religions also create liturgy and a heightened sense of the holiness of their clergy, but the Catholic Church did all of this so well that it dominated the Europe until the Reformation.  To Brown offers up a panorama of late Antiquity, something about which he seems to know everything. The reader is rewarded with a rich feel for the Late Roman Church. Brown explains how St. Augustine went down to meet the crowds that attended his sermons; he explains how barbarian armies were merely mercenaries recruited to deal with civil wars breaking out within the empire and these armies set up courts which local aristocrats found they could deal with as well as when Rome was in charge.


The original thesis about religious ideology changing the Church so that it is in favor of wealth is, therefore, not Brown’s true thesis. The true thesis is one that he never overtly identifies, perhaps because he thinks that it is too obvious. That thesis, which makes much more sense and is far more significant, is that structural considerations are enough to explain the evolution of spiritual experience of the Church, an experience which would stretch to the end of the Middle Ages. This is a profound insight into the way Christianity and all other religions operate: that they are subject to the give and take of economic and political forces and it takes no ghost come from the grave, whether that be religious ideology or religious emotion, to call it into being. Religion operates as do all other institutions.


As a sociologist, I have certain quibbles with Brown about his use of historical evidence. Early on, in his presentation of the economic and social situation in the early Fourth Century Roman Empire, he uses a farmer who eventually earned himself a position on the city council as illustrating the fact that power explained wealth rather than the other way around, though that is not what the instance he cites would support. You can’t be that loose. Moreover, as with most historians, Brown engages in anecdotal proof, however wide ranging and how many histories of particular communities he may draw upon. What is the basis for his generalizations other than that there are some places, even a great many, where what he says holds true? Now that may be the best evidence available, but it is not conclusive. But be that as it may, there is no gainsaying Brown’s mastery of and his deep insight into his material. This book stands as a worthy rejoinder to those, like me, who take the role of ideas as very important in expressing, creating and propagating new versions of old or eternal religious emotions, and who also think that the Protestant Ethic had always been there, latent in Christianity, and waiting upon events to bring it forward.


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Christian Compassion

“The Stone” is a column run in the New York Times that asks professional philosophers to contribute to the continuing cultural discourse. The June 19th column was “Is Your God Dead?”. It was written by George Yancy, a Professor of Philosophy at Emory University who wanted to make the point that the essence of the three great monotheistic religions was the emotion of compassion as that was recognized by Christians like himself who avert their gaze from the homeless and the destitute and therefore show themselves to be failed Christians in that they have not lived up to their religion. Commenters on the article said that atheists as well as followers of religion can appreciate the centrality of compassion, which is a point well taken if religion is reduced to the evocation of one or another of the human emotions that are available to all people rather than an esoteric emotion, such as faith, which is available only to the faithful. I want to make a more radical point, which is that compassion is, as moral virtues go, a relatively minor one because it largely has to do with people you don’t know who don’t impact on your life while other emotions and virtues do have a significant impact on your life.

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How God Behaves

The Book of Genesis tells stories that concern a time before the existential events that make up the Book of Exodus where, among other things, the idea of law as providing guidance for how people are to conduct themselves makes its entrance. The Book of the Covenant had indeed provided a kind of international compact whereby families that resembled those of the patriarchs were supposed to regulate their relations with one another through establishing rules of compensation for damages, but the editors of the Five Books of Moses chose to include this passage in Exodus, as if to indicate that the Book of Genesis was to be truly prior to the concept of law. But if that were the case, how were the people of the Book of Genesis “supposed” to behave, that term itself rushing us to impose the imperative of law--”should”-- on the pre-legal condition. Was it supposed to be that mere custom and godly edict would be enough to explain how people behaved and behaved themselves? Not so, because the pre-legal people of Genesis used their minds to consider their interests, however difficult it may be not to assume that they were making legal type judgments. When Jacob learns that his sons had killed the people who had offered to circumcise themselves as well as intermarry with Jacob’s tribe because one of them had taken one of their sisters for a wife, Jacob does not excoriate his sons for having been vengeful or otherwise done evil, but simply concludes that the tribe will have to move on now rather than settle there. That can be taken as an ironic understatement, meant to foretell that those descended from the Old Testament  families would always, sooner or later, have to move on, or that Jacob was making a silent judgment about their actions-- though I have done so myself in an earlier reading of this story of the rape of Dinah-- but, rather, that Jacob was simply not given to the moral reasoning that would come with the arrival of law.

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