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The Evolutionary Perspective
Category Archives: Rationalism
Posted: April 9, 2020 at 6:01 pm
The Hebrew word Pesach connoteshovering in a protective way,much as a mother bird might hover over her nest,protecting her offspring.
The common translation of Pesach as Passover comes from an erroneous rendering by 16th-century English translator William Tyndale.
Understanding the word asGod hovering over the houses of the Israelites in a protective posture is more resonant.Godguardsthe most vulnerable in that moment of danger.
Similarly, weare called upon toprotectthe most vulnerable in society. This is a Jewish value thatextendsfrom the biblical text, through the prophets (plead the cause of the widow and orphan) to the Talmud and beyond.
Throughout history, Jewish communities have risen to this challenge.
A question before us today as lives hang in the balance: Are we going to subscribe to an ageist and ableist medical model of decision-making driven by profit,numbersand outmoded ideas about the infallibility of science or are we going to seek ethical alternatives which make life-and-death choices more equitable?
During this pandemic,health care professionals areweighingwho getsprotectedand who getspassed over in the face of what should have been an avoidable resource crisis.
The choice between who receives the benefits of limited medical resources (such as a ventilator) is often based onthelikelihood of recuperation. This, of course, favors the young and healthy those who theoretically have longer to live and have better outcomes leadingtodiscrimination against the ill, the aged and the disabled.
By contrast, in our broader society,the value of our fellow human beingsis not determined by illness, age or disability. Certainly not in Judaism. Yet when we enter a hospital,many of us have had the experience of being seen primarily as our condition or disease, and not for who we are.
What are our values? Is denying treatment to anyone over 65, or denying life-saving interventions to those with mental disabilities (as proposed in Alabama), the route we want to go down? (From the New York Times, March 31: A triage plan on the Alabama health departments website suggests that persons with severe mental retardation are among those who may be poor candidates for ventilator support.)
Is this thelogical,inevitable road we have to take?
Ifwethink medicine stands as a solid,immutable beacon of reason and neutrality,lets rememberthatin the not-so-distant past,under this same guise of scientific rationalism,medicineoperated segregated hospitals, embraced eugenics and conducted unethical experiments on unwitting minorities, along with a host of other questionable practices.
Health care professionals are not the sole experts in medical ethics. Theirdecisions are not infallible.
What are the values on which health care decisions ought to be based?
We would do well to consult the teachings ofthe philosopher and ethicist Martin Buber andthe British Jewish philosopherIsaiah Berlin.
Buber, in writing about the I-Thou relationship, emphasizes the subtlety and primacy of relations. The I should not objectify anyone as an it, asthe elderly,illanddisabledare objectifiedduring this pandemic.A persons supposed usefulness, or assumed lack thereof, is weighted against relational considerations. We are seeing this now in ItalyandSpain, and as an emerging proposition in certain U.S. states.
According to Buber,the I needs insteadtoacknowledge and integrate a living relationship. For Buber,an ethical and even sacred choice is to view our fellow human beings, first and foremost, in relationship to, and not through the lens of, objectified categories. Yet medicine, as a form of scientific discipline, naturally categorizes.
By at least considering, if not restoring, the Buberian model of relationship,we also reclaim a better qualitative discernmentabouthow life-and-death decisions are made, particularly during this crisis.
Are we going to subscribe to an ageist and ableist medical model of decision-making driven by profit, numbers and outmoded ideas about the infallibility of science?
Those who go into medicine want to be of service to their patients. Yet doctors and nurses are increasingly confronted by administrative directives based on financial business models which compel them to increase their hourly patient countandto spend more time enteringdatainto a computer.
During the past 20 years,the medical field has shifted even more toward the it and away from the I-Thou by deploying hospitalists who are limited in their ability to know their patients beyond what is contained in medical profiles, as compared to primary care physicians who sometimes know more about the whole person.
Relationship on multiple levels has been cast aside in favor of expediency and profit.
With so many forces arrayed against the relational, what is the path forward?
Berlin, the British Jewish philosopher, wrote: To force people into the neat uniforms demanded by dogmatically believed-in schemes is almost always the road to inhumanity.
When elderly, disabled and ill people are categorized as less important, thatpotentially leads us down that same road of inhumanity and bad choices.
Berlin further notes that the precondition for decent societies and morally acceptable behavior, and the reconciling of conflicting values, is based on constant and continual evaluation and repair.
Berlins theory echoes an essential refining and repairing aspect of Talmudic discourse. RabbiYohananandResh Lakishengaged in exactly this kind of process one in which for every halachic (Jewish legal) answer that Rabbi Yohanan gave, Resh Lakishcould come up with multiple countervailing responses. When Resh Lakish died, RabbiYohanandeeply mourned the loss of a partner with whom he could hone answers.
In this way,ethics operates much in the same way as science always questioning, always looking atnew circumstances.As medical research seeks new ways to address a new virus, so should medical ethics avoid older, inherited values that no longer apply in this crisis.
There are hospitals which, in the midst of this Covid-19 emergency, are seeking to turn the tide. They are calling upon and gathering representatives of various humane disciplines in order to avoid going down the path of inhumanity. They recognize the problematic factors which go into decision making, particularly in the face of a global emergency.
They are considering ways to integrate more of the I-Thou relationship. Theyare making the conscious choice to not discount the sick and disabled when it comes toallocatingmedical supplies anddemands for an increase in billable patient hours.
If a few hospitals can do this, its likely many more can as well. Decisions that are made today may be models for the future.
It is incumbent upon each of us during this crisis to continue to support the medical field in making moralchoices not mechanistic and cost effectiveones when it comes to saving lives.
The prophetIsaiahproclaimedthat our rituals and sacrifices mean nothing without good works and without defending the oppressed.
DuringPesachthis year, wecantakeup Isaiahs baton and truly focus on a central message of the occasion: protecting, and advocating for, the lives of those of us who are most vulnerable.
That is what God did in the central part of theExodusnarrative.
That epic act of protection hovering over and guarding those at risk is precisely what gives the holiday its very name:Pesach.
Let this Pesach holiday season be one in which the best of our tradition informs the moment and converts our rituals into action in support of protecting the lives of those of us who might otherwise be discounted.
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Posted: at 6:01 pm
Throughout history plagues, epidemics and other outbreakshave caused havocacross the world. The fatal diseases like Cholera,Plague, Small pox, Tuberculosis and Malaria killed millions in the past. Withno better solution, the sick were removed away from the healthy populationuntil the epidemic ran its course. The people were superstitious and believedin fairy tales, myths, spirits, dark magic, quackery and that gods inflicteddisease and destruction upon those that deserved their wrath. Little did they knowabout the existence of bacteria, viruses etc. This perception often led todisastrous responses that resulted in wiping out entire population of a placeand the deaths of millions. With scientific progress humans have been winningwars againstinfectious diseases through scientific inventions anddiscoveries. The evolution of scientific theories and the technologicaladvances during the last few centuries revolutionized our outlook and modes ofliving on earth. A better understanding of infectious diseases, antibiotics andvaccinations allowed humans to have the upper hand against its invisiblepredators. Today when the world is facingtheunprecedentedsituationof the Coronavirus, it is only the science that can help us find a drug or avaccine, for its cure.
However, we find a big section of people having irrationalbeliefs, slanted bias and emotional inflexibility to be an issue far moreconcerning. One Federal Minister in Pakistan recently stated that that globaloutbreak of Coronavirus has spread in Pakistan due to ignorance of thereligious community and now they say Coronavirus is a punishment from God andwe need to repent, adding that the scholars who have the knowledge and theintellect are the blessings of Allah, but to give an ignorant a status of a scholar is destruction. Thereligious mass gatherings in different countries particularly Saudi Arabia,Malaysia, Iran etc and the subsequent transport of virus by those returninghome afterwards triggered the spread of Coronavirus in different parts of theworld. We also experienced it in Kashmir where most of the Coronavirus casesthat were confirmed till date have links with such gatherings. Kashmir is alandlocked place, remote and cut-off with only two locations Jawahar Tunnel andthe airport where from the people can access this place. The possibility ofvirus reaching here was remote and could have been controlled otherwise. Whenthe religious scholars ask people for congregation of prayers and vehementlydeclare that we can beat Coronavirus the virus spreads to large number ofpeople. It was not the advisory/guidelines but the societal pressure thatreligious scholars latter changed their viewpoint and advised people to pray intheir homes. Alas! It was too late. The virus had already spread in Kashmir tounknown number of people who are currently being tracked. People dontchallenge theology but we must understand that we are living in the age ofscience and technology. We cannot challenge science; it has been the mostexciting intellectual pursuits humans have ever carried out. The world haschanged more during the last 200 years than in the past 4000 years.
It is a fact that we cannot exclude the role of religion inour lives. The religion has been our guide and savior all along our lives andmore so in times of extraordinary situations. Today we are facing the uniquechallenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic. We are helpless and turning toAllah for supernatural response as it is His desire that servants turn towardsHim, to free them from the snare and from the pestilence before it is too late.Allah is generous, merciful and He alone can heal us of our fear. Look atAmerica, the most powerful country of the world; it has also been badly shakenby the threat of the virus. President Trump recently made a number of tweetsasking people of all faiths, religious traditions and backgrounds to offerprayers. He declared Sunday, March 15th as a National Day of Prayer, eventhough he was criticized for this stand. But, it is also a fact that prayersalone cannot stop the Coronavirus. Praying for a swift end to the disease is agood thing to start with but we must not cease asking God to add wisdom to ourunderstanding. Religious illiteracy has become a serious issue in the moderntimes. We dont have one group of religious people but there are so manygroups, sects with so many views all claiming to represent the true face ofreligion. When we say that Coronavirus is natures fury, we must repent, theforces of nature are inevitable; it lets us off of the hook from doing anythingto prevent its worst effects. Our religious scholars need to bring people onone platform, understand and discuss science, interpret scriptures in the lightof modern rationalism. Superstitions and irrationality has no place, neither inthe religions nor in the sciences.
Richard Feynman, noble laureate and one of the all timegreat teachers of Physics compared human knowledge to an expanding balloon. Asthe volume (i.e. knowledge) of the balloon grows, its surface (i.e the unansweredquestions) also grows. As an invisible stealthy killer is stalking the earthssurface and moving from person to persons growing exponentially, theres apandemic of fear unfolding alongside the pandemic of the virus. The globalreach and the modern media make the fear of contagion to spread faster than thedangerous virus itself. The big issue is how to stop worrying and not succumbto the fear in the face of uncertainty and unpredictability. The best way toconquer fear is to confront it and challenge the fear of death. We need tolearn lessons from the Chinese resilience which recently reported no new casesof the virus. Furthermore, we need to follow all the scientific guidelineswhich come from the administration. The religious scholars can boost the moraleof the people and appeal them to avoid mass gatherings. Of course, there is noreason to fear, when Allahs power and love is pervading in infinite measureall around. Science can help us in dealing with the Coronavirusissueswhile the religion can help to copeswithits fears.
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Posted: at 6:01 pm
April 7, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) An Anglican philosopher, Stephen R.L. Clark, just published an interesting book, titled Can We Believe in People? Human Significance in an Interconnected Cosmos (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2020). Clark is an expert in ancient Greek philosophy Aristotle, Plato, the Stoics, Plotinus, and the Neoplatonists; in questions concerning animal rights and ethics; and in the thought of G.K. Chesterton. Clark has published many books and articles in a long and distinguished career, and this book appears in some ways to be a culmination of his varied interests.
As a philosopher, I found much to enjoy and much to disagree with in the book. On the negative side, some of the assumptions concerning the evolution of mankind did not seem well supported; he takes too much for granted from the Darwinian paradigm without giving due credit to its critics. He too readily, in my opinion, attributes quasi-human intelligence and motivation to subrational animals and dismisses traditional accounts of human distinctiveness. Seemingly unaware of Marie Georges substantial body of work against the possibility of extraterrestrial life, Clark also seems to assume, or at least to consider it highly probable, that there are other species of rational animal in the universe.
However, it is in the books defense of moral absolutism that Clark shines brightest. His third chapter, on moral realism, shreds atheism to pulp by arguing that atheists should have no absolute moral convictions whatsoever, should not indeed acknowledge justice, rights, fairness, conscience, freedom, or any other ethical concept that cannot be reduced to atoms and void. He argues that they cannot rationally object to Gods existence on the basis of the evil in the world or the unfairness of life or whatever it might be that they consider somehow inexplicable if a God were to exist, since without a God or, to put it more loosely, without an objective order of being that culminates in an absolute good there could be no good to love or evil to hate at all.
His chapter 5, on human dignity, is valuable for its consistent and well argued defense of human life at all stages. He probes and finds wanting the assumption made by secular philosophers that adult-centered utilitarianism is the only form of reasoning possible:
One of the oddest features of much secular moral philosophy, as well as more theologically inspired enquiry, is the assumption that our primary obligations can only be to actually rational people: that is, to those with whom we could be expected to have made bargains, and who can themselves acknowledge congruent obligations. This is explicit in most post-Kantian moralizing, drawing on ancient Stoic notions: we can be obliged to do only what all other rational beings can also be obliged to do. Even those who have adopted a more consequentialist outlook, for whom our primary duty is to do as much good as possible (sometimes interpreted as ensuring as much pleasure, for as little pain, as possible), think chiefly of their effect on adult, rational beings. Utilitarians may insist, in Benthams familiar words, that creatures are morally significant because they can suffer, and that we should minimize their suffering but even those who emphasize the moral considerability of animals will usually add that most biologically animal organisms have no conception of their own continued being, and that their pains and pleasures are therefore transient, and easily to be ignored in favor of the conscious enjoyments and torments of the adult human. (p. 110)
When I read this, I thought with a groan: we cant even get fetal pain bills passed. Even the minimalist idea that we should at least not cause suffering has been thrown out; we have fallen below even Benthams utilitarianism. Modern Westerners would sooner give rights to pigs than protect unborn children from pain or distress or lethal violence.
In chapter 1, Clark had noted that the image and likeness of God in man does not concern solely mans rationality; after all, reason is also the power by which we subjugate, torment, and destroy in a manner and to a degree that no subrational being can equal. Reason is therefore ambivalent. It may be truer that we should search for mans likeness to God in the realm of moral qualities, and strive to live according to it:
But what is the likeness that we lost? And what is it that we are required to seek again? The answer to both questions lies in the declaration that God is holy, and that we are to seek that holiness, qadosh (1 Pet 1:15). It is not wrong to see that the term has associations also with purity: Gods people are to separate themselves from iniquity, from all forms of self-indulgent greed and cruelty, and adopt strict dietary and other rules to help them (see Lev 11:44). But the principal association of the term qadosh in the Hebrew texts is with compassion: we are to seek to imitate and express Gods generosity, to orphans, widows, strangers and the wild things in our country (that is, the country we are given to help guard and garden). We are not to seize all things for ourselves alone, but leave resourcesor more actively provide resourcesfor all those in need (see Lev 19:910; 23:22; 25:67). Conversely, our failure to do this deserves deep condemnation. We are not to steal or cheat or keep back an employees wages, nor deprive the poor and the stranger of the chance to glean the harvest, nor treat the deaf with contempt nor put an obstruction in the way of the blind (Lev 19:1314). This was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride of wealth and food in plenty, comfort and ease, and yet she never helped the poor and wretched (Ezek 16:49). (p. 78)
We are to avoid greed and cruelty, and to imitate Gods generosity. What does that say for our modern Western ethic (or anti-ethic), which is based on hoarding pleasure for oneself and destroying any beings that interfere with ones egoistic project, however dependent on us they may be, pleading for our mercy? Orphans, widows, strangers, and wild things do not fare well under cancer-phase capitalism.
In a particularly beautiful passage, Clark notes again the serious narrowing of vision required to think and to live as if the only worthy object of moral concern or virtuous behavior were another fully functional, reasoning and speaking adult against whom one could stand as an equal:
Infants, the very ill, the elderly may all be unable to speak or even reason (in the sense of calculating outcomes and possibilities), but they are all the proper objects of love and reverence. They are made in the image of God, and so to be reckoned sacred: any disrespect or injury to them is to be taken as disrespect or injury to God (Mt 25:40; see also Mt 18:6). (p. 111)
For this reason, Clark argues, an ethic of justice should place greater emphasis on care of infants and the elderly who cannot care for themselves, since the tiny and the frail call forth our mysterious gift of compassion and show that we are not merely sophisticated brutes, ready to hurl a rock at the next cousin who interferes with our bananas, but really gods as Jesus said (Jn. 10:34; cf. Ps. 82:6), who can go out of ourselves in affection. The author notes that in fact we love our babies not just because of their probability of someday being adults, or because they have a potency to be adults; we love them right now for who and what they are: little humans, dependent on us. It is part of our nature (yes, we do have a nature) that we long for our own offspring and we consider ourselves obliged and beholden to our elders. We feel the pull of care and the pull of reverence:
It should be obvious that any moral theory which explains our concern for babies, infants, toddlers and so on solely because these creatures are potentially adult, rational beings, is missing the point. It should also be obvious that any obligation we may have to obey or to revere authority cannot depend either on our having agreed to such obedience, or to our current calculation of the eventual consequences of obedience or disobedience. There are, in short, at least two sources of obligation: the pull to care for the young and the defenseless, and the pull to revere those placed above us, by their age, experience or obvious virtue (even if they are no longer what they were). (ibid.)
An ethical theory that fails to explain this dual pull or explains it away as a byproduct of evolutionary biology is simply bad philosophy, Clark suggests like sloppy chemistry or imprecise mathematics or rigged sociology.
The failure to take seriously the insights that come from a religious tradition now many thousands of years old is symptomatic of the self-inflicted blindness of modern ethics. Clark implies that the image of Christ in the bosom of His Mother and Christ in agony on the Cross tell us more about what it means to be in the image and likeness of God than a legacy of Cartesian rationalism, Baconian mastery of nature, Benthamite utilitarianism, and self-interest magnified into the social contract:
The most familiar pictures of Jesus, whom Christians identify as the very Word of God, are of his infancy in Marys arms, or on the cross. And yet it is this Jesus who is exalted (Acts 2:2236; Eph 1:2023; Phil 2:9). There is a fairly easy reading of the story that has no metaphysical implications: whenever a clear innocent is condemned, especially to death, by the powers and principalities of this world, it is those powers and principalities which are themselves condemned, and lose the moral authority they abused. We owe, or feel we owe, a primary obedience to authoritybut that authority is borrowed from a higher source, and can be lost. Those who observe the event can feel themselves released, if not from reasonable fear of what the abusers can do, at least from any sense that the abusers have a right to do it.
But the more strongly metaphysical sense of the Christian gospel should not be simply ignored, or allegorized away. The serious claim is being made that it is in the defenceless, the overtly powerless, the pitiable whose only power lies in the love they somehow evoke, that we see what God is like. Deane-Drummond, while offering some support to the traditionally Thomist view that it is only human beings, in virtue of their intellectual potential, that can be considered images of God, adds that we might want to push the idea [that human image-bearing applies even in those who have, in different circumstances, lost their use of reasoning powers] even further than Aquinas does and suggest that it is when human beings are at their most vulnerable that the veiled grace of God in image-bearing becomes most visible. (p. 113)
Is it true that we see God in the powerless who have only the power of evoking love? I do not know how to analyze or defend this claim philosophically, but it seems true to life, irrefutable, and strangely appealing. Throughout the frightful history of human evils, and in the life of most if not all human beings, there are moments when it is our own powerlessness or that of another that triumphs over the normal (fallen) self-interest that drives us to our misery and, for a blessed moment, or perhaps even for the rest of a lifetime, renders us capable not only of eating and sleeping, but also of communing with another, and for the others good.
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Posted: March 24, 2020 at 5:23 am
Actress Gal Gadot recorded a video in which she and a bunch of celebrity friends like Natalie Portman and Mark Ruffalo sang an inspirational song to cheer people up during the coronavirus pandemic and associated social isolation and economic collapse. Many critics quickly rushed to mock Gadot's off-key rendition. I'd like to take a minute to dump on the song she chose. John Lennon's "Imagine" has always been terrible.
"Imagine" was originally released in 1971, with full overblown Phil Spector muzak production and Lennon's voice drenched in unnecessary echo effects. The repetitive keyboard hook is as ostentatiously glib as the worst work of Lennon's Beatle co-writer Paul McCartney, and the string section saws away with sententious sentimentality. The tune is simultaneously pompous and simplistic. It's no accident that Gadot decided this was the song that would best project her irritating smugness to the world.
And then there are the lyrics. Inspired by his wife Yoko Ono's poetry, Lennon wrote a paean to the liberating and pacifist potential of atheism. "Imagine there's no heaven/Its easy if you try/No hell below us/Above us only sky/Imagine all the people living for today," he warbled.
As an atheist, I appreciate the mildly subversive provocation here; gloppy pop isn't usually forthrightly anti-Christian. But it's depressing to see the bland Christmas-song faith in a God wholl set everything right replaced with a bland anti-Christmas-song faith in a lack of a God wholl set everything right.
I'm aware that Christians, and proponents of other religions, have done terrible things to each other over the centuries. The Inquisition, the Crusades, the genocide of native peoples in the name of conversion, and the white Christian evangelical nationalist fervor that helped elect Trump so he could set up concentration camps at the border. If you were an atheist and committed to puffing yourself up, you could look at the sins of religion and convince yourself that without heaven we'd all be at peace.
But the record of actual atheists who don't believe in heaven isnt great either. Stalin's atheism didnt make him non-violent. The new atheist rationalism led by Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens is characterized by rabid, militarist Islamophobia and enthusiastic support for various wars in the Middle East. And John Lennon was not the shining icon of anti-saintly virtue his song suggests. He was a negligent father and an unfaithful and abusive husband to his first wife. And though she inspired his anti-war activism and embrace of social and political causes, he didn't treat Yoko Ono especially well either.
Lennon's song "God" from his Plastic Ono Band album is a much more effective anthem. The music is raw and trudging, and Lennon sounds like each word is being torn from him as he hoarsely sing/screams that he doesn't believe in Jesus, Kennedy, yoga, Elvis, or the Beatles. "I just believe in me/Yoko and me." The song is a personal assault on his own idols and gods, in an effort to strip away the inessential and find what actually matters to him. It's solipsistic, in the way of all confessional art. But it's also abrasive, off-putting and mean. If you're going to go after God, the least you can do is bring a little hellfire.
"Imagine," though, has no hellfire. It congratulates its audience on their snug (lack of) beliefs. It asks people to imagine a better world, but does so without demanding either rigor or much imagination. If "Imagine" really challenged the comfortable, as it pretends, the comfortable wouldn't be so eager to sing it, off-key or otherwise.
Posted: February 27, 2020 at 2:03 am
The start of the sixteenth century broughtabout a commercial boom in Europe. It was the Golden Age of Exploration. Traderoutes opened to the New World and expanded to the East, bringing unprecedentedtrade and wealth to Europe. To fund this trade, to supply credit for commerceand the beginnings of industry, banks were established throughout Europe.Genoese and German bankers funded Spanish and Portuguese exploration and theimportation of New World gold and silver. Part of what made this financialactivity possible was the new tolerance, in some cities, of usury.
The Italian city of Genoa, for example, had arelatively relaxed attitude toward usury, and moneylenders created many ways tocircumvent the existing prohibitions. It was clear to the citys leaders thatthe financial activities of its merchants were crucial to Genoas prosperity,and the local courts regularly turned a blind eye to the usurious activities ofits merchants and bankers. Although the Church often complained about theseactivities, Genoas political importance prevented the Church from actingagainst the city.
The Catholic Churchs official view toward usury remained unchanged until the nineteenth century, but the Reformation which occurred principally in northern Europe brought about a mild acceptance of usury. (This is likely one reason why southern Europe, which was heavily Catholic, lagged behind the rest of Europe economically from the seventeenth century onward.) Martin Luther (14831546), a leader of the Reformation, believed that usury was inevitable and should be permitted to some extent by civil law. Luther believed in the separation of civil law and Christian ethics. This view, however, resulted not from a belief in the separation of state and religion, but from his belief that the world and man were too corrupt to be guided by Christianity. Christian ethics and the Old Testament commandments, he argued, are utopian dreams, unconnected with political or economic reality. He deemed usury unpreventable and thus a matter for the secular authorities, who should permit the practice and control it.
However, Luther still considered usury a grave sin, and in his later years wrote:
In other words, usury should be allowed bycivil authorities (as in Genoa) because it is inevitable (men will be men), butit should be condemned in the harshest terms by the moral authority. This isthe moral-practical dichotomy in action, sanctioned by an extremely malevolentview of man and the universe.
John Calvin, (15091564), another Reformation theologian, had a more lenient view than Luther. He rejected the notion that usury is actually banned in the Bible. Since Jews are allowed to charge interest from strangers, God cannot be against usury. It would be fantastic, Calvin thought, to imagine that by strangers God meant the enemies of the Jews; and it would be most unchristian to legalize discrimination. According to Calvin, usury does not always conflict with Gods law, so not all usurers need to be damned. There is a difference, he believed, between taking usury in the course of business and setting up business as a usurer. If a person collects interest on only one occasion, he is not a usurer. The crucial issue, Calvin thought, is the motive. If the motive is to help others, usury is good, but if the motive is personal profit, usury is evil.
Calvin claimed that the moral status of usury should be determined by the golden rule. It should be allowed only insofar as it does not run counter to Christian fairness and charity. Interest should never be charged to a man in urgent need, or to a poor man; the welfare of the state should always be considered. But it could be charged in cases where the borrower is wealthy and the interest will be used for Christian good. Thus he concluded that interest could neither be universally condemned nor universally permitted but that, to protect the poor, a maximum rate should be set by law and never exceeded.2
Although the religious authorities did little to free usury from the taint of immorality, other thinkers were significantly furthering the economic understanding of the practice. In a book titled Treatise on Contracts and Usury, Molinaeus, a French jurist, made important contributions to liberate usury from Scholastic rationalism.3 By this time, there was sufficient evidence for a logical thinker to see the merits of moneylending. Against the argument that money is barren, Molinaeus (15001566) observed that everyday experience of business life showed that the use of any considerable sum of money yields a service of importance. He argued, by reference to observation and logic, that money, assisted by human effort, does bear fruit in the form of new wealth; the money enables the borrower to create goods that he otherwise would not have been able to create. Just as Galileo would later apply Aristotles method of observation and logic in refuting Aristotles specific ideas in physics, so Molinaeus used Aristotles method in refuting Aristotles basic objection to usury. Unfortunately, like Galileo, Molinaeus was to suffer for his ideas: The Church forced him into exile and banned his book. Nevertheless, his ideas on usury spread throughout Europe and had a significant impact on future discussions of moneylending.4
The prevailing view that emerged in the latesixteenth century (and that, to a large extent, is still with us today) is thatmoney is not barren and that usury plays a productive role in the economy.Usury, however, is unchristian; it is motivated by a desire for profit and canbe used to exploit the poor. It can be practical, but it is not moral;therefore, it should be controlled by the state and subjected to regulation inorder to restrain the rich and protect the poor.
This Christian view has influenced almostall attitudes about usury since. In a sense, Luther and Calvin areresponsible for todays so-called capitalism. They are responsible for theguilt many people feel from making money and the guilt that causes people toeagerly regulate the functions of capitalists. Moreover, the Protestants werethe first to explicitly assert and sanction the moral-practical dichotomy theidea that the moral and the practical are necessarily at odds. Because oforiginal sin, the Protestants argued, men are incapable of being good, and thusconcessions must be made in accordance with their wicked nature. Men must bepermitted to some extent to engage in practical matters such as usury, eventhough such practices are immoral.
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In spite of its horrific view of man, life,and reality, Luther and Calvins brand of Christianity allowed individuals whowere not intimidated by Christian theology to practice moneylending to someextent without legal persecution. Although still limited by governmentconstraints, the chains were loosened, and this enabled economic progressthrough the periodic establishment of legal rates of interest.
The first country to establish a legal rate of interest was England in 1545 during the reign of Henry VIII. The rate was set at 10 percent. However, seven years later it was repealed, and usury was again completely banned. In an argument in 1571 to reinstate the bill, Mr. Molley, a lawyer representing the business interests in London, said before the House of Commons:
Since to take reasonably, or so that both parties might do good, was not hurtful; . . . God did not so hate it, that he did utterly forbid it, but to the Jews amongst themselves only, for that he willed they should lend as Brethren together; for unto all others they were at large; and therefore to this day they are the greatest Usurers in the World. But be it, as indeed it is, evil, and that men are men, no Saints, to do all these things perfectly, uprightly and Brotherly; . . . and better may it be born to permit a little, than utterly to take away and prohibit Traffick; which hardly may be maintained generally without this.
But it may be said, it is contrary to the direct word of God, and therefore an ill Law; if it were to appoint men to take Usury, it were to be disliked; but the difference is great between that and permitting or allowing, or suffering a matter to be unpunished.5
Observe that while pleading for a bill permitting usury on the grounds that it is necessary (Traffick . . . hardly may be maintained generally without [it]) Molley concedes that it is evil. This is the moral-practical dichotomy stated openly and in black-and-white terms, and it illustrates the general attitude of the era. The practice was now widely accepted as practical but still regarded as immoral, and the thinkers of the day grappled with this new context.
One of Englands most significant seventeenth-century intellectuals, Francis Bacon (15611626), realized the benefits that moneylending offered to merchants and traders by providing them with capital. He also recognized the usurers value in providing liquidity to consumers and businesses. And, although Bacon believed that the moral ideal would be lending at 0 percent interest, as the Bible requires, he, like Luther, saw this as utopian and held that it is better to mitigate usury by declaration than suffer it to rage by connivance. Bacon therefore proposed two rates of usury: one set at a maximum of 5 percent and allowable to everyone; and a second rate, higher than 5 percent, allowable only to certain licensed persons and lent only to known merchants. The license was to be sold by the state for a fee.6
Again, interest and usury were pitted against morality. But Bacon saw moneylending as so important to commerce that the legal rate of interest had to offer sufficient incentive to attract lenders. Bacon recognized that a higher rate of interest is economically justified by the nature of certain loans.7
The economic debate had shifted from whether usury should be legal to whether and at what level government should set the interest rate (a debate that, of course, continues to this day, with the Fed setting certain interest rates). As one scholar put it: The legal toleration of interest marked a revolutionary change in public opinion and gave a clear indication of the divorce of ethics from economics under the pressure of an expanding economic system.8
In spite of this progress, artists continued to compare usurers to idle drones, spiders, and bloodsuckers, and playwrights personified the moneygrubbing usurers in characters such as Sir Giles Overreach, Messrs. Mammon, Lucre, Hoard, Gripe, and Bloodhound. Probably the greatest work of art vilifying the usurer was written during this period The Merchant of Venice by Shakespeare (15641616), which immortalized the character of the evil Jewish usurer, Shylock.
In The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio, a poor nobleman, needs cash in order to court the heiress, Portia. Bassanio goes to a Jewish moneylender, Shylock, for a loan, bringing his wealthy friend, Antonio, to stand as surety for it. Shylock, who has suffered great rudeness from Antonio in business, demands as security for the loan not Antonios property, which he identifies as being at risk, but a pound of his flesh.9
The conflict between Shylock and Antonio incorporates all the elements of the arguments against usury. Antonio, the Christian, lends money and demands no interest. As Shylock describes him:
Shylock: [Aside.] How like a fawning publican he looks!
I hate him for he is a Christian;
But more for that in low simplicity
He lends out money gratis, and brings down
The rate of usance here with us in Venice.
If I can catch him once upon the hip,
I will feed fat the ancient grudge I bear him.
He hates our sacred nation, and he rails,
Even there where merchants most do congregate,
On me, my bargains, and my well-won thrift,
Which he calls interest. Cursed be my tribe,
If I forgive him!10
Shylock takes usury. He is portrayed as the lowly, angry, vengeful, and greedy Jew. When his daughter elopes and takes her fathers money with her, he cries, My daughter! O my ducats! O my daughter!11 not sure for which he cares more.
It is clear that Shakespeare understood the issues involved in usury. Note Shylocks (legitimate) hostility toward Antonio because Antonio loaned money without charging interest and thus brought down the market rate of interest in Venice. Even Aristotles barren money argument is present. Antonio, provoking Shylock, says:
If thou wilt lend this money, lend it not
As to thy friends, for when did friendship take
A breed for barren metal of his friend?
But lend it rather to thine enemy:
Who if he break, thou mayst with better face
Exact the penalty.12
Friends do not take breed for barren metal from friends; usury is something one takes only from an enemy.
Great art plays a crucial role in shapingpopular attitudes, and Shakespeares depiction of Shylock, like Dantesdepiction of usurers, concretized for generations the dichotomous view ofmoneylending and thus helped entrench the alleged link between usury and evil.As late as 1600, medieval moral and economic theories were alive and well, evenif they were increasingly out of step with the economic practice of the time.
During the Enlightenment, the Europeaneconomy continued to grow, culminating with the Industrial Revolution. Thisgrowth involved increased activity in every sector of the economy. Bankinghouses were established to provide credit to a wide array of economicendeavors. The Baring Brothers and the House of Rothschild were just thelargest of the many banks that would ultimately help fuel the IndustrialRevolution, funding railroads, factories, ports, and industry in general.
Economic understanding of the important productive role of usury continued to improve over the next four hundred years. Yet, the moral evaluation of usury would change very little. The morality of altruism the notion that self-sacrifice is moral and that self-interest is evil was embraced and defended by many Enlightenment intellectuals and continued to hamper the acceptability of usury. After all, usury is a naked example of the pursuit of profit which is patently self-interested. Further, it still seemed to the thinkers of the time that usury could be a zero-sum transaction that a rich lender might profit at the expense of a poor borrower. Even a better conception of usury let alone the misconception of it being a zero-sum transaction is anathema to altruism, which demands the opposite of personal profit: self-sacrifice for the sake of others. In the mid-seventeenth century, northern Europe was home to a new generation of scholars who recognized that usury served an essential economic purpose, and that it should be allowed freely. Three men made significant contributions in this regard.
Claudius Salmasius (15881653), a French scholar teaching in Holland, thoroughly refuted the claims about the barrenness of moneylending; he showed the important productive function of usury and even suggested that there should be more usurers, since competition between them would reduce the rate of interest. Other Dutch scholars agreed with him, and, partially as a result of this, Holland became especially tolerant of usury, making it legal at times. Consequently, the leading banks of the era were found in Holland, and it became the worlds commercial and financial center, the wealthiest state in Europe, and the envy of the world.13
Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (17271781), a French economist, was the first to identify usurys connection to property rights. He argued that a creditor has the right to dispose of his money in any way he wishes and at whatever rate the market will bear, because it is his property. Turgot was also the first economist to fully understand that the passing of time changes the value of money. He saw the difference between the present value and the future value of money concepts that are at the heart of any modern financial analysis. According to Turgot: If . . . two gentlemen suppose that a sum of 1000 Francs and a promise of 1000 Francs possess exactly the same value, they put forward a still more absurd supposition; for if these two things were of equal value, why should any one borrow at all?14 Turgot even repudiated the medieval notion that time belonged to God. Time, he argued, belongs to the individual who uses it and therefore time could be sold.15
During the same period, the Britishphilosopher Jeremy Bentham (17481832) wrote a treatise entitled A Defenseof Usury. Bentham argued that any restrictions on interest rates wereeconomically harmful because they restricted an innovators ability to raisecapital. Since innovative trades inherently involved high risk, they could onlybe funded at high interest rates. Limits on permissible interest rates, he argued,would kill innovation the engine of growth. Correcting another medievalerror, Bentham also showed that restrictive usury laws actually harmed theborrowers. Such restrictions cause the credit markets to shrink while demandfor credit remains the same or goes up; thus, potential borrowers have to seekloans in an illegal market where they would have to pay a premium for theadditional risk of illegal trading.
Benthams most important contribution was his advocacy of contractual freedom:
My neighbours, being at liberty, have happened to concur among themselves in dealing at a certain rate of interest. I, who have money to lend, and Titus, who wants to borrow it of me, would be glad, the one of us to accept, the other to give, an interest somewhat higher than theirs: Why is the liberty they exercise to be made a pretence for depriving me and Titus of ours.16
This was perhaps the first attempt at a moral defense of usury.
Unfortunately, Bentham and his followers undercut this effort with their philosophy of utilitarianism, according to which rights, liberty, and therefore moneylending, were valuable only insofar as they increased social utility: the greatest good for the greatest number. Bentham famously dismissed individual rights the idea that each person should be free to act on his own judgment as nonsense upon stilts.17 He embraced the idea that the individual has a duty to serve the well-being of the collective, or, as he put it, the general mass of felicity.18 Thus, in addition to undercutting Turgots major achievement, Bentham also doomed the first effort at a moral defense of usury which he himself had proposed.
An explicitly utilitarian attempt at a moral defense of usury was launched in 1774 in the anonymously published Letters on Usury and Interest. The goal of the book was to explain why usury should be accepted in England of the eighteenth century, and why this acceptance did not contradict the Churchs teachings. The ultimate reason, the author argued, is one of utility:
Here, then, is a sure and infallible rule to judge of the lawfulness of a practice. Is it useful to the State? Is it beneficial to the individuals that compose it? Either of these is sufficient to obtain a tolerance; but both together vest it with a character of justice and equity. . . . In fact, if we look into the laws of different nations concerning usury, we shall find that they are all formed on the principle of public utility. In those states where usury was found hurtful to society, it was prohibited. In those where it was neither hurtful nor very beneficial, it was tolerated. In those where it was useful, it was authorized. In ours, it is absolutely necessary.19
Although the utilitarian argument in defense of usury contains some economic truth, it is morally bankrupt. Utilitarian moral reasoning for the propriety of usury depends on the perceived benefits of the practice to the collective or the nation. But what happens, for example, when usury in the form of subprime mortgage loans creates distress for a significant number of people and financial turmoil in some markets? How can it be justified? Indeed, it cannot. The utilitarian argument collapses in the face of any such economic problem, leaving moneylenders exposed to the wrath of the public and to the whips and chains of politicians seeking a scapegoat for the crisis.
Although Salmasius, Turgot, and Bentham made significant progress in understanding the economic and political value of usury, not all their fellow intellectuals followed suit. The father of economics, Adam Smith (17231790), wrote: As something can everywhere be made by the use of money, something ought everywhere to be paid for the use of it.21 Simple and elegant. Yet, Smith also believed that the government must control the rate of interest. He believed that unfettered markets would create excessively high interest rates, which would hurt the economy which, in turn, would harm society.22 Because Smith thought that societys welfare was the only justification for usury, he held that the government must intervene to correct the errors of the invisible hand.
Although Smith was a great innovator ineconomics, philosophically, he was a follower. He accepted the commonphilosophical ideas of his time, including altruism, of which utilitarianism isa form. Like Bentham, he justified capitalism only through its social benefits.If his projections of what would come to pass in a fully free market amountedto a less-than-optimal solution for society, then he advocated governmentintervention. Government intervention is the logical outcome of any utilitariandefense of usury.
(Smiths idea that there need be a perfectlegal interest rate remains with us to this day. His notion of such a rate wasthat it should be slightly higher than the market rate what he called thegolden mean. The chairman of the Federal Reserve is todays very visiblehand, constantly searching for the perfect rate or golden mean byalternately establishing artificially low and artificially high rates.)
Following Bentham and Smith, all significant nineteenth-century economists such as David Ricardo, Jean Baptiste Say, and John Stuart Mill considered the economic importance of usury to be obvious and argued that interest rates should be determined by freely contracting individuals. These economists, followed later by the Austrians especially Carl Menger, Eugen von Bhm-Bawerk, and Ludwig von Mises developed sound theories of the productivity of interest and gained a significant economic understanding of its practical role. But the moral-practical dichotomy inherent in their altruistic, utilitarian, social justification for usury remained in play, and the practice continued to be morally condemned and thus heavily regulated if not outlawed.
End of Part 2.
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Posted: February 19, 2020 at 3:45 am
This indirect approach didnt work well. We gave our bankers and business people greater freedom from government regulation, but they abused our trust. The lenience of regulators has seen business become remarkably lawless. Too much of the extra income the economy has generated has gone to the very highest income-earners, leaving too little going to middle and lower income-earners.
This era of economic rationalism and microeconomic reform has ended, leaving Scott Morrison with much damage to clean up. Meanwhile, many voters are disillusioned and distrustful of both main parties, and are turning elsewhere to populists such as Pauline Hanson, who not only have no answers to the problems that bother us, but also seek our support by blaming our troubles on unpopular scapegoats Muslims, city-slickers etc.
The economic rationalists solution to misbehaving businesses, caveat emptor let the buyer beware is good advice but, in the modern complex world, its impractical. There arent enough leisure hours in the day for us to spend most of them checking that all the businesses we deal with arent overcharging us or taking advantage of us in some way, and our employer isnt underpaying us.
So why dont governments cut to the chase and simply make treating us in such ways illegal? And when doing so is already illegal as it usually is why dont they resume adequately policing those laws?
Something almost everyone craves in their lives, but politicians and economists long ago lost sight of, is a high degree of security. We want the security of owning our own homes and we want security in our employment.
And yet weve allowed home ownership to become unaffordable to an increasing proportion of young people. Why? Because weve put the interests of existing home owners ahead of would-be home owners. We could fix the unaffordability problem if we were prepared to put the interests of the young ahead of the old.
Some degree of flexibility in the job market is a good thing provided it works both ways. Under economic rationalism, the goal was more flexibility for employers without any concern about what this did to the lives of casual workers mucked about by selfish and capricious employers.Its good that part-time jobs are now available for those who want one students, parents of young children, the semi-retired but we could do more to make part-time jobs permanent rather than casual.
Many young people worry that were moving to a gig economy in which most jobs are non-jobs: short-lived, for only a few hours a week and badly paid, with few if any benefits.
I dont believe we are moving to such a dystopia, mainly because I doubt it would suit most employers interests to treat most of their employees so shabbily. But, in any case, the way to avoid such a world is obvious: governments should make it illegal to employ people on such an unacceptable basis.
And governments will do that as soon as its the case that not to do so would cost them too many votes. That is, we have to make democracy work for the masses, not just the rich and powerful.Of course, the security many of us would like is to live in a world where nothing changes. Sorry, not possible. Economies, and the mix of industries within them, have always changed and always will often for reasons that, though they disrupt the lives of some people, end up making most of us better off.
New technologies are a major source of disruptive, but usually beneficial, change. Another source of disruptive change is the realisation that certain activities are bad for our health (smoking, for instance) or for the natural environment (excessive irrigation and land clearing, burning fossil fuels) and must be curtailed.
Adversely affected interest groups will always tempt governments to try to resist such change at the ultimate expense of the rest of us. The right answer usually is for change to go ahead, but for governments to help the adversely affected adjust. Just what we havent been doing.
Ross Gittins is the Heralds economics editor.
Ross Gittins is the Economics Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.
Posted: at 3:45 am
History and Eschatology:Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theologyby n. t. wrightbaylor, 365 pages, $34.95
In the broadest sense, natural theology attempts to describe God and his relation to the world by attending to nature or natural revelation, without taking special revelation or supernatural truth into consideration. For several centuries, natural theology has ignored historyspecifically the history of Jesus. So argues N. T. Wright in his Gifford Lectures, published by Baylor Press as History and Eschatology. Wright proposes to fill this gap. Even on the premises of natural theology, Jesus deserves a place. Jesus and the church he founded, after all, exist within the natural world. Natural theology can and should be evangelized.
Wright blames the truncated state of natural theology on the modern revival of Epicureanism. Epicureanism is popularly known as a hedonist philosophy of Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die. But the Epicurean lifestyle is founded on a metaphysics and physics that proved attractive to secularizing elites in the early modern period. God or gods may exist in an Epicurean universe, but he or they are too distant and indifferent to be relevant to us. Religion offers private comfort, but the enlightened know its merely a human invention to pacify the masses. Epicureanism is materialist atomism; the world hums along on its own steam as atoms combine, separate, and recombine. Death is the end, so theres nothing to worry about.
On Wrights account, Epicureanism splits reality and human experience. It forces us to choose between a godless world and a worldless god. The supernatural, if it exists at all, occupies a realm apart from nature. Orthodox Christians often unwittingly accept this dualistic framework, clinging to the supernatural and to faith but skirting the risky task of understanding history and the natural world. Gotthold Lessing spoke of a great ugly ditch between the contingent truths of history and the necessary truths of reason. Secularists settled comfortably on the history side of the ditch, the orthodox on the other.
Wright has long described himself as an historian rather than as a theologian. He has been criticized for constructing a historical Jesus behind the Jesus of the Gospels, a fifth Gospel to measure the canonical four. In History and Eschatology, he dismisses the charge, claiming he only aims to understand the canonical sources more accurately and deeply. More broadly, Wrights goal is to formulate a non-Epicurean mode of historical study and historical writing. He rejects rationalism in favor of a critically realist epistemology in which love is the primary posture of knowing. Taking up his task of historian, hes open to the possibility that, by using the tools of historical investigation, we can study real-world events as signs of heavens presence and power.
An Epicurean framework inevitably distorts the ancient Jewish and biblical view that heaven and earth overlap. In the temple, heaven takes an earthly address. Sabbath is a temple of time, when we may taste the future day of Gods eternal rest. As images of God, human beings mediate between heaven and earth. God works through us to spread his order and wisdom in the world and to construct a cosmic temple where glory dwells.
Modern Christians have abandoned this worldview, and so have replaced the biblical hope for new creation with what Wright calls a Platonic hope for heaven. A similar error led Albert Schweitzer to conclude Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who expected the end of the world and died in despair when it didnt happen. (Wright cleverly suggests that Schweitzer picked up his obsession with the end not from patient study of ancient sources but from the collapse of Valhalla in Wagners Ring cycle.) Much modern scholarship explains the New Testament and early church as a massive adjustment to unrealized hope. The mythology here, Wright rightly argues, is entirely that of modern scholarship. No ancient Jews expected the end of the world in the sense Schweitzer suggested. Jesus hoped for and prophesied the end of a disjointed world order, not the end of the space-time universe. Schweitzers eschatological mistake has massive implications for natural theology. If Jesus expected the end of nature, he wont have much to say about nature.
What happens when Jesus is reintegrated into natural theology? Wright sketches a natural theology by expounding on seven universal human aspirations: justice, beauty, truth, power, freedom, spirituality, relationships. Each stands under a paradox. We know, for instance, that justice and beauty are necessary to a fully realized human life, but we also know justice is partial and beauty is broken. All seven signposts, Wright suggests, converge on Jesuss cross, the broken signpost to which all other broken signposts point.
Yet Christians confess a meta-paradox: This broken signpost is where God reveals himself, where heaven is present on earth. Here God suffers the ultimate injustice, his beauty effaced. Here the God who is love is crushed by brute force. Here Truth is drowned out by Pilates scoffing question and the shouts of the mob. Because Jesus rose from the dead, though, this broken signpost becomes the source of universal renewal: fresh springs of justice, new depths of beauty, a kind of powerless power, a freedom that isnt limited by chains or imprisonment, a social body of mutual edification. New creation emerges out of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, as the ordinary lives of ordinary followers of Jesus become a natural revelation of the presence and power of God.
The churchs confession is contestable and contested, and Wright wont permit a retreat into fideism. Once we refuse to foreclose the possibility of resurrection and new creation from the outset, we can treat Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, Pentecost, and the churchs history as historical phenomena, subject to historical investigation and confirmation. Jesus the rejected stone becomes the chief cornerstone of a renewed natural theology.
Wrights wide-ranging book is primarily about the two topics of his title, history and eschatology. On both, his central arguments are convincing. Natural theology should attend to history, and since Jesus is a historical figure, it needs to attend to him. Wright is also correct that New Testament eschatology is about the renovation, not the removal, of creation. Jesus, Wright knows, shakes natural theologians, and every other sort of theologian, out of our slumbers. Once we admit the Gospels into the historical record and really grasp Jesuss apocalyptic prophecies, well see more than weve dreamt of, a strange world where the sky cracks, veils tear, and gravestones roll away.
Peter J. Leithart is President ofTheopolis Institute.
Posted: at 3:45 am
Welcome to Elements of Story, a biweekly column about narrative tropes, what they mean, and why they just wont go away.
For the inaugural installment of Elements of Story, and just in time for Valentines day, Im going to dissect an archetype that has been causing a stir and setting hearts aflutter for centuries: the Byronic hero.
Definitions of the Byronic hero vary by source, but the basic gist is that hes an arrogant yet emotionally sensitive rebel who rages against societal norms, is usually haunted by a dark and mysterious past, and has been a staple of romantic storylines for hundreds of years. You could literally write a book about the history of the Byronic Heroindeed, multiple people already haveso for the sake of concision and also my continued sanity, were going to investigate the Byronic hero through the specific example of one of his most recent appearances: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Ever since The Force Awakens first premiered, Darth Vaders grandson and #1 fan has been a point of contention within the Star Wars fandom, particularly with regards to his dynamic with protagonist Rey (Daisy Ridley). While things have calmed down somewhat following the underwhelming finale that was The Rise of Skywalker, if you want to start a fight online about a galaxy far, far away, mention Reylo and see what happens.
One of the most genuinely befuddling things about the discourse surrounding Reylo is the frequently held opinion that its allure is anyway inexplicable or unforeseeable. Similarly, the common, lazy narrative that its popularity can be explained away as Adam Drivers thirst-club projecting their desire onto the Star Wars universe reeks of ignorance. Whether borne of conscious intent or sheer coincidence, Kylo Ren is a villain who also fits a centuries-old romantic archetype like a glove in ways that are hinted towards in The Force Awakens and laid increasingly bare in each subsequent installment. That some viewers picked up on the Byronic subtext early while others did not simply speaks to the variance in media consumption habits and tastes between audience members. If youre familiar with an archetype, youre going to spot its likeness, and view said likeness through the lens of the implications baked in with that lineage. If youre not, you wont.
So, who is this Byronic Hero guy, anyway? Well, the tl;dr version is that hes basically Satan and his origins predate Lord Byron by at least a few hundred years.
In truth, the Byronic Hero is so old that tracing his origins gets quite speculative. Theres not a singular definitive answer so much as a collection of theories. To give a relatively cohesive explanation of who this guy is and how he got here without writing a novel, Im going to things down into two key questions:
To address the first question, lets start by talking about the Devil. Im not going to say that John Milton was the first storyteller to make Satan cool, but he sure did make such a characterization mainstream with Paradise Lost. The most beautiful of Gods angels, Lucifer chafes at Gods omnipotence, convinces a number of his brethren to join him in a rebellion that ultimately fails, is banished to Hell and eternally damned, but stubbornly stands by his choices because, better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven. Miltons Satan was, to use modern parlance, a beautiful trash firea handsome, passionate dreamer whose quick-tempered fervor proves self-destructive in spite of his considerable intellect. He is, in other words, smart enough to know that his hubris will be his downfall, but too in thrall to his passions for that knowledge to save himself from such a fate. He is a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle, an inherently sympathetic figure not as much in spite of his flaws as because of them.
Lets stop for a second so I can convince you Kylo Ren fits this pattern, in case you arent convinced already. With his journey from Ben too much Vader in him Solo to Kylo Ren, his rejection of his heritage and violent rebellion against Luke Skywalker, he follows the same basic trajectory of Miltons Lucifer. And as far as personality is concerned, Ben didnt gel well with the there is no passion Jedi code, and unlike Anakin Skywalker, it didnt even take the development of a particular relationship for things to reach a breaking point.
Now, as far as how Satan became a romantic figure, we need to make a stopover with the Romantics because the journey from Romantic to romantic is really just semantics. Romanticism was a prominent intellectual and artistic movement in Western culture that took place in the late 18th and 19th centuries and encompassed everything from literature and painting to architecture and music. It emphasized emotion, spontaneity, irrationality, and the individual with a particular focus on subjectivity, and is generally regarded as a reactionary movementa rebuttal against the rationalism that defined the Enlightenment.
Romantics loved Miltons Satan. My favorite hero, Miltons Satan, Robert Burns gushed, lauding Satans intrepid, unyielding independence, desperate daring, and noble defiance of hardship. That Byron, one of his contemporaries, would channel his admiration for the same figure into a series of mercurial protagonists that would codify an archetype is hardly surprising. While crediting Byron with inventing the Byronic hero is a significant stretch considering the archetype is really just Satan rebranded, there is one key component of this character that Byron did add to the equation, and that is a particular kind of longing that a number of commentators have likened to homesickness. Love is homesickness, Sigmund Freud wrote in his seminal essay on the Uncanny. In terms of understanding the human mind, Freud is one small step above total quack, but as far as narrative theory is concerned he made some compelling arguments, this being one of them. As Deborah Lutz says in her essay Love as Homesickness: Longing for a Transcendental Home in Byron and the Dangerous Lover Narrative, the Byronic hero often is a criminal, an outlaw who is not only self-exiled, but actively, hatefully, works against society as a murderous pirate, yet also often feels, pains of remorse, not only for his crime but also for his self-inflicted homelessness. Kylo Ren, with his laments of Im being torn apart, and let the past die, kill it if you have to rhetoric interspersed with explosive bouts of self-loathing, could not be more emblematic of this facet of the Byronic hero if he tried.
All of this helps explain what makes this archetype emotionally engaging, but not how self-hating emotional clusterfuck became sexy. In order to get to the bottom of that, we actually need to go back quite a bit. In Western culture, sexuality, death, and evil have been birds of a feather since the nascence of Christianity, which took vague correlations between these concepts already present in several Greek mythological figures and ran with them. While the Devil is often depicted as a hideous beast, the concept that he might also take the form of a manspecifically, an attractive onedates back centuries (Lucifer was the prettiest, remember), and is apparent in a number of surviving records of witch trial confessions detailing demonic encounters. But taking on a handsome face is not the only attribute frequently bestowed upon Satan and his kin. As Toni Reed writes in her book Demon Lovers and their Victims in British Fiction, identifying Satan and other demons with sexuality, especially with huge phalluses, may well trace back to Greek mythology.
Thats right. Satan has serious BDE. Do with that information what you will.
Its worth noting that the Byronic hero is ultimately a beloved romantic fantasy not because it represents something many people want in real life, but precisely the opposite, much like how enjoying seeing the lions at the zoo doesnt mean you want one in your house. Hes a darkly tempting, narratively intriguing prospect that is enjoyable to experience vicariously through fiction, a Pandoras box that can be opened and then closed again without repercussion. Times and tastes change and the Byronic hero evolves to suit themdevil, tempestuous gentleman, wannabe Sithbut his defining characteristics and their guilty pleasure appeal are eternal.
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Posted: at 3:45 am
(Mosaica Press, 2019), by Shmuel PhillipsReviewed by: Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
In this outstanding book, Shmuel Phillips examines various facets of Torah and Judaism from the so-called rationalist viewpoint. He puts that approach to Judaism in perspective by offering an uncensored presentation of Maimonides views without cherry-picking passages to match a certain preconceived notion of what Jewish rationalism ought to be. In doing so, Phillips offers a fair and open-minded analysis of Maimonidean thought.
Many critics of mainstream contemporary Judaism have misappropriated rationalism to support their own whims. As Rabbi Micha Berger so eloquently put it, The mind is a wonderful organ for justifying decisions the heart already reached. In his work, Shmuel Phillips shows that rationalism does not necessarily entail rejecting traditional Judaism and actually dovetails nicely with it. He demonstrates how even Maimonidesthe hero of so-called Rational Judaismdid not endorse free-standing rationalism, but rather a rationalism grounded in certain immutable truths, which the mature scholar can only absorb through rigorous character development and the study of both the Written and Oral Torah.
This heavy book (both in terms of its physical weight and the weighty nature of its discussions) calmly provides the reader with a rationalist view of the Torahs attitude to such sensitive topics as homosexuality, polygamy, rape, eshet yefat toar(comfort women in war zones), and gender roles.. He tackles raging controversial topics like slavery and genocide (i.e. wiping out Amalek) in the Torah, and the ubiquitous questions of objective morality and how to reconcile Torah and Science. Phillips also gives logical and rational justifications for such occurrences as halachic loopholes, ritual law, anti-Semitism, miracles, and prophecy.
Phillips takes on Biblical criticism by citing such scholars as Prof. Joshua Berman who explain away linguisticand even thematicsimilarities between the Bible and other ancient writings by invoking the notion that the Torah writes in the way that people spoke and could be most easily understood and internalized by its original audience. While following this approach, Phillips convincingly argues that this approach is entirely in line with Maimonidean thought. In doing so, Phillips tone remains authoritative and non-apologetic, and his arguments are conservative, yet cogent. Phillips invokes Rav Hirsch to quell the concerns of Bible Critics by characterizing the Written Torah as written in a sort of code that can only be deciphered through the Oral Torah. This, of course, accounts for all sorts of stylistic and thematic inconsistencies and redundancies.
Phillips also expounds on the Torahs Universalist message by following Rav Hirsch in characterizing the struggle between Noahs three sons as an allusion to the fight between unbridled violence (Ham), the culture of aesthetics (Japheth), and spiritual enlightenment through Godliness and morality (Shem). The ramifications of this three-way conflict continue to reverberate throughout the world as it stands as the basis for the contemporary clash of cultures.
This book also broaches the topic of how to view Aggadic Midrashim. More Kabbalistically-inclined authorities tend to take theseaggadotat face value and understand them as the intended meaning of the texts which they interpret. However, rationalists in the mold of Ibn Ezra, Maimonides, andto some extentRadak beg to differ. They maintain that the tradition ofaggadotought to be treated separately from the texts upon which they nominally expound, and said texts should only be understood in their simplest, literal sense. While some have understood that the rationalistsreject aggadot, Phillips demonstrates that they simply compartmentalizeaggadotand create a clear barrier between the Written Torah and the Oral Torah, without rejecting the latter. Moreover, Phillips demonstrates that even some of the Kabbalists, like Maharal and possibly Rashi, maintain that while all exegeses are connected to the Torahs text (which must contain the totality of all truths), they can sometimes be interpreted as referring to the spiritual dynamics which underpin the plain meaning.
Each chapter takes the reader on a masterfully-written journey through the rationalistic perspective on a different topic. Truth is, you can probably write an entire book for each chapter, but given the framework, this exceptional work does an excellent job at concisely treating each issue with much erudition.
Phillips has a knack for turning a phrase in a way that clarifies complex ideas in just a few words. His skilled use of subtle humor and witty alliteration make the subtitles in each chapter almost as fun as reading the content itself. He is clearly a talented writer who has the ability to write up complicated philosophical/theological arguments in an easy-to-read English, without sacrificing accuracy or complexity.
This reviewer respectfully disagrees with Rabbi Dr. Lord Jonathan Sacks approbation which characterizes Philips book as providing a remarkable new philosophical approach to Torah and Jewish faith In this reviewers opinion, Phillips has offered the reader nothing new other than an unbiased presentation of the theosophies of Rambam, R. Yehuda HaLevi, Rav Hirsch, and R. Meir Simcha of Dvinskessentially allowing the timeless words of these great luminaries to speak for themselves. Phillip does update the presentation of those philosophies in order to express them in more contemporary terms, but he is certainly not offering anything radically new. He essentially presents the ideas behind the rationalist stream of traditional Judaism in a sophisticated and contemporary way, and for this alone he deserves to be commended.
Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein is the author of the book God versus Gods: Judaism in the Age of Idolatry and of the book Lashon HaKodesh: History, Holiness, & Hebrew. He is a member of the RCA, and currently serves as an editor for the VeromemanuFoundations new edition of Machberes Menachem. He resides in Beitar Illit, Israel and can be reached via email at[emailprotected].
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Posted: February 2, 2020 at 6:45 pm
Were living in an age where public trust in the media is at an all-time low. Just 21% of Americans say they have a lot of trust in the information from national news organizations.
In my community, its probably much lower. Routinely, Orthodox and haredi Jews are forced to read news reports about us that have very little correlation to reality. A perfect example of this happened this past Tuesday, when Attorney General William P. Barr visited Borough Park for a meeting with Orthodox Jewish community leaders. It was a small meeting, just a minyan sitting around a table in a tiny room, discussing the issues. It was just Attorney General Barr, the Orthodox stakeholders, a handful of DOJ staff and several members of the media (the Forward was not among them).
I was there too. So I can tell you that the story I read about in the media was not the one that transpired in that room.
If you read most of the reporting about the event, you would think what took place was a politics-driven conversation dominated by New Yorks recent bail reform law and the Orthodox Jews and Trump Administration representatives devoted to crushing it. Part of this is about the fact that Barrs office has announced it will be bringing federal charges against Tiffany Harris, a woman who was arrested for targeting and slapping multiple Orthodox women, who was released without bail thanks to the new law. But mostly, its about the fact that when it comes to the Orthodox, we just cant get a fair hearing in the media.
Take The New York Times story, which was a perfect example of this misreporting: The Times framed the entire visit through the lens of bail reform, with a headline proclaiming Barr was inserting himself into the bail reform fray.
And yet, in their very own story which was entirely about bail reform even they had to concede that Mr. Barr did not specifically mention bail reform during the meeting.
That was certainly true. Not a single person in the room even brought up bail reform, and for good reason: The federal charges against Harris were not about that. They were, to quote Barr, about lowering the level of tolerance for violence against the Jewish community by using the federal government to plant its flag and show zero tolerance.
The Times, however, was not alone. Over at JTA, Ben Sales, who was in the room during the meeting, filed a brief with an opening paragraph representing Barr as blaming the rise of anti-Semitism on what he called mutant progressivism. Of course, Barr never said that. The actual words which Sales ended up correcting after being called out on Twitter were words anyone with any familiarity with the subject matter would have recognized, were militant progressivism.
Barrs point, which was well taken, was that militant progressivism embodies a drive to reorganize society based on rationalism and animated with a passion you usually expect among religious people, casting those who oppose them as not just wrong but evil. That, Barr said, is part of the cause of the hatreds and the antipathy toward traditional communities such as the Orthodox. It has seeped into our politics, and is a cause of toxic tribalism as well as the anti-Semitism some communities are now struggling with.
It was an intelligent reading of a situation we are struggling desperately to understand and contain. How ironic that it was mutated by the words of the liberal media.
But that was not the only misrepresentation in that exchange alone. If you read the news reports, Barr reportedly attempted to push back on the idea that President Donald Trump bore any of the blame for the national rise in anti-Semitism, a notion raised by one of the participants.
This, too, did not happen. What one participant, while bemoaning the extra difficulties he sees in our polarized moment when attempting to engage in inter-community relations, did say was that he sees so many people [who] are eager to blame, frankly, the president on the change of tone in the country but I think that those people have to look into themselves to see, what am I doing to tone down the conversation?
Hardly the same thing.
The distressing thing here is that I only know all of this because I was in the room when all of this occurred. If I had not been there, I would likely have also trusted the false narrative which was being concocted by the media.
Am I really to believe things are different when Im not in the room?
So why does this keep happening to my community? People tend to lean back on things they recognize, on things that are familiar to them, and reporters are no different. Especially when reporting about Hasidic Jews, reporters are prone to misrepresent, build connections where none exists, hear things which never happened, and make incorrect assumptions all because of what fits the frame for the story they recognize and are most comfortable telling.
Even if it isnt the story that happened.
But the job of the media is to tell the story that happened even if it isnt easy for them to tell it. And the reason so many people distrust them now is that theyve been failing miserably at doing this.
Eli Steinberg lives in New Jersey with his wife and five children. They are not responsible for his opinions, which he has been putting into words over the last decade, and which have been published across Jewish and general media. You can tweet the hottest of your takes at him @HaMeturgeman.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.
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