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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 6: “The Flight From Laputa”)

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In the last post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we looked at some of the Christian sources of existentialism within the Western Tradition, from the contributions of Christian authors like Tertullian, to the works of Christian theologians like Augustine and Pascal.  There are a lot of other writers as well, particularly a number of poets and novelists that existed during, and shortly after, the Age of Enlightenment, which all had a substantial impact on existentialism.  In this chapter, Barrett mentions several of these writers, many putting out a number of literary works throughout the period of Romanticism and also the two most prolific Russian authors, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, who wrote their most influential works in the mid to late 19th century.

Barrett opens up this chapter with some brilliant commentary on Jonathan Swift’s most famous book, the English classic Gulliver’s Travels.  He brings our attention to a particular episode in that book, namely the unforgettable voyage to Laputa: a large island that hovers above the earth, floating and navigating in the sky through the use of an enormous magnet and earth’s own magnetic field.  Once Gulliver is shipwrecked and brought up to the island, he finds the people living there to be incredibly strange-looking and also behaving in some odd ways.  One particularly creepy detail is the fact that the people don’t ever focus on the eyes of the person they are speaking with; instead they have one eye turned upward toward the sky, as if in some kind of perpetual contemplation of the cosmos; and the other eye points inward as if in some kind of perpetual introverted state.  Their foods are cut into a variety of geometric shapes and their clothes are rather ill-fitting garments resulting from a tailoring process that relies exclusively on strict geometries, and they are decorated with shapes of the sun, moon, stars, and a plethora of musical instruments.

Swift’s intention here was to create an imaginary world that was a kind of manifestation of reason incarnate, where the inhabitants have completely structured their lives around reason and are lost in a perpetual state of mental abstraction and disconnectedness.  To further solidify the intended historically-relevant metaphor, we’re also told about the ordinary earth dwellers living below the Laputans, who also happen to be subject to the ruling of the Laputans living overhead.  And these ordinary earth-dwellers are described as being far happier than their Laputan rulers for a number of reasons.  The Laputans are unable to have a normal human conversation nor have the interpersonal emotional connection that may accompany such an interaction, because these absent-minded intellectuals have almost completely lost any sense of who’s around them at the moment, requiring constant reminders from servant-boys about when it is time to talk or to listen (as the case may be) lest they might slip away into some kind of philosophical speculation in mid-conversation.  So despite the Laputans standing on a pedestal of superiority, perhaps implied metaphorically by their floating on an island “above” everyone else (which may also be a metaphor for their lack of grounding in Being or in being fully human), they seem to be missing a core part of their humanity.

Clearly we are meant to be given a description of a world showing how reason is insufficient to fulfill many of our psychological needs as human beings; and its blatant lack of emotional expression, interpersonal relationships, and, for lack of a better word any “organic” form or structure at all, has been fueled by some kind of post-Enlightenment belief that reason can fix all of mankind’s problems.  We’re also meant to see how the resulting cultural sterilization brought on by reason (such as that within Laputa) has created an aversion to such a mode of living for many, such that some people begin to seek out passion any way that they can get it (for better or worse):

“The men and movements of which it does stand as a prediction will find themselves at times in the desperate quandary of the prime minister’s wife, ready to throw themselves into the arms of a drunken footman if that is the only way out of the sterile kingdom of reason.  In the search for the Dionysian, after all, one cannot always be expected to be bound by good taste.”

Here, I believe Barrett’s brief reference to the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy to be paramount to understanding the historical-cultural impetus underlying the clash between reason and emotion, and ultimately between rationalism and existentialism.  By creating an imbalance in this dichotomy, for example by not giving enough resources or importance in finding a means of “Dionysian expression” in a society, a kind of tension begins to build up until the proverbial “bubble” bursts and the Dionysian portion of our being is over-expressed leading to another imbalance albeit one going the other way.  As much as one would hope to be able to prevent this kind of explosive feedback, it may be the case that we’re not able to sense an imbalance of this sort until it’s become so drastic that a violent outburst (or an overcompensation of some kind) is the only way to tip the scales back to equilibrium.

Then again, perhaps the signs of an imbalance are always there and we just need to look a bit more closely at how our culture is expressing itself (and not just at a superficial level).  We ought to look closer at the artists, the writers, and the changes occurring to how our identities are shaped compared to those of the preceding generations.  As an example, one sign of this imbalance in the post-Enlightenment Western world, furthering existential development, was exemplified very powerfully by the artistic works of the romantics, which Barrett explores in this chapter.

1.  The Romantics

“However we choose to characterize Romanticism-as a protest of the individual against the universal laws of classicism, or as the protest of feeling against reason, or again as the protest on behalf of nature against the encroachments of an industrial society-what is clear is that it is, in every case, a drive toward that fullness and naturalness of Being that the modern world threatens to let sink into oblivion.”

This characterization of romanticism reminds me of an important theme that I mentioned in my last post, and one that I think is absolutely worth reiterating here; namely, what I call the desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  This fact is, as I see it anyway, the simplest way of describing and explaining the psychological motivations for the advent of existentialism.  Industrialization, mass production, capitalism, and the maximization of efficiency have led to a world that is entirely alien to the one we evolved within.  And again, it would be entirely surprising if we found ourselves living in the modern world without these existential problems.

The fruits of modernity as well as the plethora of super-normal stimuli that have precipitated from our technology have in some sense fooled our brains over the course of many generations such that our evolutionarily-endowed strategies for survival have inadvertently led us to the psychologically inhospitable world we now live in.  Our situation is analogous to a group of people having made incredible strides in a field like chemistry such that they are now able to refine, purify, and concentrate chemicals like never before; but eventually a product like heroin is created which ends up consuming the lives of the people living in that world, drastically diminishing their happiness, and yet the attraction to the drug has already taken hold of their way of life, inclining them to make ever more powerful versions of these drugs eventually leading to their own self-destruction.

Similarly, we’ve gained a lot of amenities and a vast power of manipulating our environment through the use of reason.  It has allowed us to discover more facts about the world than ever before, in turn enabling us to make technological gains at an exponential rate, perhaps leading to our getting lost in the novelty and the positive changes made to our standards of living.  But once this genie was let out of the bottle, a runaway situation occurred where the benefits we were paying attention to distracted us from the fact that it was also generating and exacerbating a psychological imbalance.

I believe our best chance of resolving this problem is going to rely on a combination of genetically engineering our species to feel better-adapted to our ever-changing culture and by restructuring the world in ways that better resonate with our evolutionary environmental niche, and yet still do so in ways that are technologically innovative so as to not take a huge step backward in the amenities that modernity has provided us.

In looking at some of the poets that had a distaste for much of modernization, Barrett mentions the poet William Blake:

“Blake is recognized easily enough as the poet against the industrial revolution…”The atoms of Democritus, And Newton’s particles of light, Are sands upon the Red sea shore, Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.”

This excerpt is from Blake’s Mock on, Mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau”, a poem written by Blake that appears to be more or less a defense of his religious views against those of science generally, rather than a protest against the industrial revolution specifically.  In this poem, he seems to suggest that any mockery of faith and religion such as that originating from Enlightenment thinkers like Voltaire and Rousseau is somewhat of an exercise of futility as the society is largely unwilling to accept their ideas anyway.  And the mechanistic ideas espoused by brilliant scientific thinkers such as Democritus and Newton are small and insignificant compared to the breadth and power of religion and the belief in God, let alone the belief in God as the Creator that subsumes any paltry discoveries that man might make.

Another way to interpret this poem is to say that Blake is simply emphasizing the importance of using imagination along with reason, and he may be pointing out that human beings seek mythological constructs and grand designs of their world alongside the numerous facts that are discoverable through science.  If creative imagination is integral to being human, and if this integral component inevitably results in religious myth-making, then we should be careful in how we assess the apparent collision between reason and religion.

It seems to me that it is the failure to accept various facts about the world that has many proponents of reason opposed to religion, including many existing during the Age of Enlightenment.  The conflict however has largely been a tug of war over what I believe is a false dichotomy: choosing either reason or religion as exclusive modes of living or being.  Just as the religious don’t entirely discount reason (because they have to use it in much of their day-to-day lives, many who do so willingly), similarly the champions of reason shouldn’t entirely discount all that is involved in or accomplished with religion.  I think that human beings need an outlet for their creative imagination and emotional expression and they can and ought to produce mythological constructs and other allegorical narratives in stories, poetry, novels, cinema, and music, in order to serve as outlets for this creativity.

I for one want people to be able to express themselves, even if this is done through creative myth-making such as that found within religion; but the difficulty arises when the myths are actually believed as true and then this can interfere with accepting actual facts about the world which can subsequently impair one’s moral decision making.  Unfortunately, the myths that have been produced for millennia have most often been treated as truths and facts within those cultures rather than simply intuitive stories trying to make an important point through allegory and metaphor.  Perhaps we can have the latter without requiring the former; finding a way to appeal to our intuitions, emotions, and imagination, yet without having to sacrifice a reliable epistemology in the process.  This may allow reason to more harmoniously coexist with the deeper roots of our humanity.

Early on, Barrett also mentions some specifics concerning why Blake was opposed to industrialization:

“Mills and furnaces are evil, to Blake, because they are the external manifestations of the abstract and mechanical mind which means the death of man.”

Similarly, I can see how he would have been opposed to other means of mass production such as the assembly line, the distribution of labor in general, and processes involved in mass chemical synthesis such as distillation; all of which that can be seen as externalizations of the hyper-use of reason, logic, and reductionism.  Even ignoring the textile industry’s role in producing a person’s clothing, an explicit artifact of this kind of externalization would be recognized whenever a person living in Blake’s own time pulled out their pocket watch; a purely mechanical device that also illustrates the degree of precision and efficiency in an industrialized world that rations every minute of a person’s life as it sees fit.  No longer are we informed of the progression of our day by noting the whereabouts of the sun in the sky, as our ancestors once did and just as the rest of nature is apt to do; instead our time has become far too precious in maintaining our busy schedules than to conform to a more natural account of our time and existence.  We’ve each become an “Alice” in a wonderland of abstraction with no time to simply breath; instead we’re inclined to follow the example of the March Hare, chasing him down the rabbit hole of modernity as he shouts “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”

I suppose we could say that we’ve been cut off from nature insofar as we’re no longer like other animals living in the present moment; instead, we seem to be forever living in the future, where even our own existence and identity have become an abstraction centered around the relatively meaningless goals that we’ve been indoctrinated to value.  Now this shouldn’t be taken to mean that our consideration of the future isn’t also an important part of our being human, for it is, and in fact a vision of the future of human possibilities is a central driving force within Romanticism as well even if it seems more heavily inclined toward a return to the past.  But in our modern world, we’re pressured into the idea of being defined by what society wants us to become, in large part based on expectations that are not conducive to a fulfilling life.  Some of these expectations have included directing our attention away from a more natural way of life and towards a life that glorifies artificial metrics of success that have no intrinsic value to us as human beings.

It is apparent and obvious that something has happened to modernity’s connection to nature; which is easily recognized by looking at all of our artificial environments, functions, and modern concerns.  And Barrett actually mentions the concept of Being as implied in the poet William Wordsworth’s works, as one relying on a deep connection to nature.  Wordsworth unsurprisingly criticizes the intellect as something that severs us from this connection in his poem “The Tables Turned” :

Our meddling intellect
Misshapes the beauteous forms of things:
We murder to dissect.

Rather than simply being in nature and receiving what she has to offer by effortlessly taking in one’s surroundings as a whole, humans (most especially modern humans) often distance themselves from their raw experiences by analyzing them and breaking them down into very abstract concepts.  And we learn many of the abstract concepts used in this kind of analysis not from our own experience per se but from books and other derivative sources of information, thus further distancing ourselves from the original felt experience.  So it should come as no surprise to hear that Wordsworth was partial to the idea that learning directly from nature is far more effective than traditional learning from books and so forth, even though (perhaps ironically) he still wanted people to read his writings and he continued to make use of books himself.  But I think the driving point here is that even though books are important for a lot of reasons and even though we shouldn’t dispense of them nor should we dispense with analyzing our experience from time to time, we ought to spend more time living in the moment and not parsing everything out into abstractions that take away from the holistic attributes of the experience.

Whereas Wordsworth was grieving over the disconnection from nature that he saw taking place with regards to many of his contemporaries, he didn’t feel this way about himself.  It is here that Barrett turns to some of the works of Coleridge, for he commented on the same predicament but he was also writing about his own feelings, where he found himself no longer finding any happiness in nature.  Coleridge was perhaps the first poet to explore some of these existential feelings from his own perspective; encountering the void itself and all the anxiety it brings along with it:

A grief without a pang, void, dark, and drear,
A stifled, drowsy, unimpassioned grief,
Which finds no natural outlet, no relief,
In word, or sigh, or tear–

This excerpt from Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode,” was a personal confession of his having lost his sense of feeling, even wishing for a violent storm to erupt at one point in this poem such that he could feel something.  He describes his experience in some vivid detail and points to the fact that the degeneration of his feelings has a correlation with a degradation of his own imagination.  And he alludes to there being an inherent separation between man’s feelings and the forms found in nature; where the feelings have to be created from within rather than given to us from our simply being in nature.

One interesting trait within Coleridge’s work, and which may help to explain some sentiments in the poem referenced above, is the fact that he makes use of imaginative flights where he leaves the present time and place and substitutes them for a setting that’s entirely manufactured from his own creativity.  And this quality of Coleridge contrasts a bit with the sentiments of Wordsworth, where the former often makes use of separating himself from the nature around him in its present state and the latter emphasizes the importance of taking in nature as it is in the here-and-now.  Both strategies maintain a connection to nature in one way or another but one uses imagination to augment it potentially into a surreal experience whereas the other is more of an experiential realist that simply “receives” nature directly.

Barrett compares Coleridge’s melancholy to that of Faust in Goethe’s poetic drama:

“Both are in or near the condition of breakdown, trapped in a paralysis of feeling in which everything has turned to dust and ashes, including the meddling intellect that has tyrannized over both.”

Even though Goethe set out to distance himself from Romanticism later in his life, Faust represents Goethe at his most romantic.  And it is in Faust-Goethe that we see a strong tie to humanity as a collective being with an essential yearning to both live and grow, even if this is only accomplished by an amalgamation of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy; a fusion of stability and chaos; a marriage between self-restraint and personal freedom.

Freedom is a concept that Barrett also touches on with respect to Goethe’s interest in alchemy, where he ties the concept to “the dark halo of magic around him,” which served as a kind of sign of man’s lust to transcend his own limitations.  And what better place to incorporate the problem of free will, than with the desire to harness magical power in order to manipulate anything at your command.  Most people haven’t pondered over the free will conundrum in any philosophical way, for example, by considering the logical contradiction between causation or randomness and a human freedom that is self-caused or causa sui.  But the fact of the matter is, the only way for people to have a libertarian form of free will would be by some kind of magic, where the logically impossible is made possible, and so it seems to be no coincidence that the figure of the magician is, as Barrett puts it: “…the primitive image of human freedom.”  He also reminds us of the fact that magic and alchemy are recurring elements throughout the history of Romanticism where they betray our personal aspirations of becoming something more than we are.

Tying all of this together, Barrett reveals a more profound quality or role of the poet:

“Poetry is no longer an art merely of making verses, but a magical means of arriving at some truer and more real sphere of Being.  Poetry becomes a substitute for a religion.”

And this may be true in the sense that poetry allows one to open the channel between reason and emotion, or between reality and imagination.  In any case, whether one is drawn toward a form of expression offered through poetry or religion, it is the search for a way of transcending humanity or at the very least in overcoming our estrangement to Being itself, that drives us into these modes of living.

2. The Russians: Dostoevski and Tolstoy (realist fiction)

One prominent theme within Russian literature is the contrasting of the intellectual class with the rest of humanity, and Barrett points out a relation between the two:

“Intellectuals as a class suffer to the degree that they are cut off from the rest of mankind.  But intellectuals are the embodiment of reason, and reason itself if cut off from the concrete life of ordinary mankind is bound to decay.”

This is an interesting conclusion that the intellectuals in Russia were in a unique position to see, for they had a physical and cultural separation from the primary beneficiaries of the Enlightenment: namely, the West.  Even though they could examine this period in history as intellectuals, they did so with the desire to establish or maintain their own identity, allowing them to see what was happening in their society from a different perspective than the intellectual classes in Europe and the U.S.  The fact that Russia had a more conservative culture than the West also inhibited the cultural diffusion that would have otherwise further fused Western culture with that of Russia.

There were historical contingencies as well that facilitated a burst of philosophical contemplation, some of which Barrett mentions as relating to a disruption in the stability of society:

“A society that is going through a process of dislocation and upheaval, or of revolution, is bound to cause suffering to individuals, but this suffering itself can bring one closer to one’s own existence.  Habit and routine are great veils over our existence.  As long as they are securely in place, we need not consider what life means; its meaning seems sufficiently incarnate in the triumph of the daily habit.  When the social fabric is rent, however, man is suddenly thrust outside, away from the habits and norms he once accepted automatically.  There, on the outside, his questioning begins.”

You may notice the mention of habit and routine here, a recurring theme from the last post (on chapter 5), which included Pascal’s mention of our escaping from a close consideration of the human condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.” 

In the case of Russia, the social fabric had been disrupted by the influx of ideas stemming from the Enlightenment, thus causing a more pressing need for many to question the old traditions and religious belief systems that had, up to this period in Russian history, withstood the tests of time.  And it was in the greatest intellectual writers of Russia, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, that we see a fresh perspective on the effects of the intellectual class on their society and in terms of an essential view of man.  Since Russia hadn’t developed any kind of philosophical tradition, the ideas that were pouring in from the West began to permeate the general populace, thus causing a less stable (more passionate, less objective) processing of these ideas.  And Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, two of the most prominent intellectuals within that populace, provided plenty of philosophical insight on their own, without the need for any philosophical professorship or the like.

Admittedly I haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tolstoy yet, but I have read all of Dostoyevsky’s major works; and one recurring theme in many of his novels is the exploration of the mind of a criminal.  He was inspired by his time in a Siberian prison camp where he spent a great deal of time with a number of criminals, gaining some insight in terms of their psychology and which led him to make some conclusions about human nature in general.  Barrett explains:

“What Dostoevski saw in the criminals he lived with is what he came finally to see at the center of man’s nature: contradiction, ambivalence, irrationality.  There was a childishness and innocence about these criminals, along with a brutality and cruelty, altogether unlike the murderous innocence of a child…In them Dostoevski was face to face with the demoniacal in human nature: perhaps man is not the rational but the demoniacal animal.”

I’m certainly sympathetic to this view, for humans not only have an intelligence that is often applied in a pre-meditated, Machiavellian fashion, but we also have our crimes of passion which seem to be derived from the irrational portion of our psyche combined with our instincts as a social animal trying to move upward within a dominance hierarchy.  We often use violence and cruelty as a means to move up the social ladder which can manifest itself in our day-to-day behavior or, if we’re privileged enough to avoid such behavior even most of the time, then a dose of poverty, a little bad luck, or simply a moment of desperation, will often bring this cruel monster hiding inside each of us out into full view.  In the end, we have to recognize what Hume said long ago: that reason is but a slave of the passions.

Hume’s point can be made clear in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment where the main protagonist, Raskolnikov, feeling alienated from the masses around him, uses reason during his bout of despair to arrive at a pre-Nietzschean theory with an imperative to rise above any ordinary moral code.  But after succumbing to this line of reasoning and putting it into practice, killing the pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, and her sister Lizaveta, he is overcome with guilt and suffers a mental and physical breakdown.  His passions clearly got the better of him and he is unable to reconcile his actions with his own conscience and thus unable to subdue the emotional roller-coaster that ensues.

Barrett describes the situation in terms of a failure of repression:

“Raskolnikov’s theory has not reckoned with his own self, and the guilt over his crime brings on a breakdown.  Precisely the feelings that had been repressed in this intellectual-the ordinary human horror at the taking of life-erupt and take their revenge.”

The problem as I see it is not Raskolnikov’s use of reason in his moral theorizing, but the fact that he didn’t incorporate his likely emotional reactions into the moral theory and plan of action that he devised for himself.  He took many of his emotions and feelings entirely for granted, which are the ultimate drives in directing one’s behavior, and which are therefore the primary underlying impetus in determining what we feel we ought to do.

All moral systems that can have any claim to being true and which are sufficiently motivating to follow will ultimately break down to hypothetical imperatives: if you want X above all else, then you ought to do Y above all else; and X is going to be a subjective criterion based on what maximizes personal satisfaction and fulfillment in one’s life.  Since human beings have certain psychological and sociological characteristics given the species that we are, there are a limited number of behaviors that are conducive to maximizing psychological health and well-being; and this means that we have to take these facts about ourselves into account in devising any moral theory that will actually work for us.  And given our differences as individuals, there are additional facts to take into account in making a moral theory that will work most effectively for any particular individual given their psychological idiosyncrasies, even if there are still some set of universal morals that apply to all psychologically healthy human beings.

Deciding to kill other people simply because one has discovered some good reasons for doing so is not likely, given our psychology, to work all that well; since it’s likely to have a negative effect on how we see ourselves as a person.  If all the reasons are taken into account, or at least a particular set of reasons that includes our emotional predispositions or our subjective experience generally, then reason can be used and ought to be used for constructing a viable moral theory.  But Raskolnikov didn’t do this, and so we can see the limits of reason here as well when the facts pertaining to our subjective experience are not given their due consideration.  If our most basic emotional tendencies are inhibited for too long or beyond a certain threshold, it’s only a matter of time before our psyche cracks under the pressure.

Barrett points out the negative role that reason plays in a number of Dostoyevsky’s literary themes:

“These destructive and even criminal possibilities of reason were the philosophic themes on which Dostoevski played his most persistent variations…In ‘The Possessed’ (Demons) a group of political intellectuals are shown as being possessed by devils, ready to scheme, lie, even kill for the abstract ideals of Progress, reason, socialism.”

Personally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame reason itself for any of the morally reprehensible behaviors that Dostoyevsky saw with the criminals around him, with his fictional characters, or even with human beings in general.  Instead, I think the lesson should be that reason can be used to fuel immorality, but only in cases where one isn’t considering all the facts (or at least isn’t considering enough of the facts) pertaining to one’s own psychology and that of the people around them, or isn’t thinking rationally about those facts.  On the other hand, with emotion or irrationality, there doesn’t even need to be a reason to act immorally and instead it may just precipitate in a kind of Dionysian, impulsive, and instinctive way.  What’s most important here, I think, is to acknowledge that reason can’t be used on its own, nor can emotion or subjectivity, when it comes to devising any effective (let alone sustainable) moral theory; both are integral and indispensable for informing us about what will maximize moral behavior and thus human happiness as well.

And if we deny ourselves the chaotic spontaneity or unpredictability that we often find adding a valuable kind of novelty in our lives, then we have another problem as well:

“In a rational utopia, he cries, man might die of boredom, or out of the violent need to escape this boredom start sticking pins in his neighbor-for no reason at all, just to assert his freedom…If science could comprehend all phenomena so that eventually in a thoroughly rational society human beings became as predictable as cogs in a machine, then man, driven by this need to know and assert his freedom, would rise up and smash the machine.”

This is reminiscent of the trip to Laputa in Gulliver’s Travels that we heard near the beginning of this chapter, where Barrett mentioned the inevitable search for the Dionysian in an attempt to avoid the sterile kingdom of reason.  Predictability and the concept of free will are also very salient here, for the intuition that leads us to believe we have a kind of libertarian free will, despite its logical impossibility, is in part an artifact of our inability to predict the future beyond a certain threshold.  More importantly, it’s the fact that we can’t predict our own behavior, or the causes of our own behavior (including those within our unconscious mind) with a high enough degree of accuracy, that causes us to feel that we are the sole authors of our actions rather than being intimately connected within a deterministic causal chain.

And even though our knowledge is limited in fundamental ways, for example by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (stemming from the quantum mechanical properties of our universe), we still have access to enough knowledge (in principle at least) whereby if we actually obtained it, our happiness and overall psychological health would suffer immensely.  Why might this be?  Well, if we consider the fact that our species evolved to thrive in a world where we didn’t have any pragmatic access to this kind of knowledge, then we might better appreciate the fact that our human psychology isn’t adapted to value such predictive power.  The irony here is that our brain operates on a fundamental principle of making more and more accurate predictions, where it wants to continuously decrease its own prediction error by updating its models of the world or behaving in ways that make those predictions come true; but it also wants to seek out new information about the world, and so in a way it’s also attracted to uncertainty, always looking to uncover more of the world’s mysteries in order to solve them.

Unfortunately, with the advent of science, formal logic, and the explicit processes of reason and the technological progress that’s we’ve gained from the use of such cognitive tools, we’re beginning to reach a level of knowledge that’s encroaching on our intuitive sense of our own freedom of the will.  This is something we should have been thinking very seriously about ever since we entered the information age.  We should have been thinking about how we ought to structure the direction of our technological progress, putting in some design constraints so as to preserve our psychological well-being given the kinds of knowledge that we’re destined to uncover and given what we don’t want to uncover.

There’s a tricky balance we have to respect and which is all too often taken for granted, where we want to continue making strides in fields like neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, such that we can inform our moral system of more and more relevant information about ourselves to further maximize our happiness; but we also want to make sure not to detract from this moral goal and so we need to continue learning what kinds of information we ought not have immediate access to.  As long as we begin to take this balancing act seriously, we can continue to make advancements in knowledge while not working against our primary objectives as human beings.

Aside from the problem of knowledge we face, we also must face the fact that as our lives are built around increasing levels of abstraction, we begin to resent it:

“What the reformers of the Enlightenment, dreaming of a perfect organization of society, had overlooked, Dostoevski saw all too plainly with the novelist’s eye: Namely, that as modern society becomes more organized and hence more bureaucratized it piles up at its joints petty figures like that of the Underground Man, who beneath their nondescript surface are monsters of frustration and resentment.”

As Nietzsche had explored in his On the Genealogy of Morality, resentment or ressentiment can serve as a creative force for change; a kind of catalyst to create a new system of morals (for better or worse), but it is often done to justify one’s own weaknesses and to divert attention away from one’s own responsibility for their lives by blaming a scapegoat instead.  So while resentment may lead to personal growth if the conditions are just right, it more often leads to a feeling of hostility towards those perceived as the cause of one’s frustrations.  If this resentment is bottled up and left to fester for too long, it may lead people to take out their anger on anyone and everyone around them; to lash out irrationally in a fit of violence.  And who could blame them for this, after perceiving that they’re inevitably trapped in a life with so many things that are out of their control?

Even in the face of resentment however, one can see the value of life when push comes to shove and one comes face to face with death itself.  The time that once seemed to flow on by, with each minute as meaningless as the one before or after it, now becomes as precious as ever as if each infinitesimal moment now stretches on through an eternity.  Dostoyevsky mentions the life changing power of such an experience in his novel The Idiot, where the character Prince Myshkin retells the story of an unidentified man (presumably representing Dostoyevsky himself):

“This man had once been led out with the others to the scaffold and a sentence of death was read over him….Twenty minutes later a reprieve was read to them, and they were condemned to another punishment instead.  Yet the interval between those two sentences, twenty minutes or at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the fullest conviction that he would die in a few minutes….The priest went to each in turn with a cross.  He had only five minutes more to live.  He told me that those five minutes seemed to him an infinite time, a vast wealth….But he said that nothing was so dreadful at that time as the continual thought, “What if I were not to die!  What if I could go back to life–what eternity!  And it would all be mine!  I would turn every minute into an age; I would lose nothing, I would count every minute as it passed, I would not waste one!”  He said that this idea turned to such a fury at last that he longed to be shot quickly.”

Of course, the main lesson to learn here is that in the face of one’s own death, life takes on an absolute value and as Barrett says “The meaning of death is precisely its revelation of this value.”  And there will certainly be more to say about this when we get to the chapter on Heidegger and explore his concept of Being-towards-death.

As we move from Dostoyevsky to Tolstoy, we find a fairly different view of man; and this difference is in some ways like that between night and day.  Whereas the former had a more morbid or pathological view of man, the latter is more akin to expressing the better angels of our human nature.  But both men brought to light the knowledge of the Dionysian aspects of our being.  It’s useful to look at a passage from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, where her husband, the very rational and intellectually-minded Alexey Karenin, slips into a fit of jealousy over his wife:

“He felt that he was standing face to face with something illogical and irrational, and did not know what was to be done.  Alexey Alexandrovitch was standing face to face with life, with the possibility of his wife’s loving someone other than himself, and this seemed to him very irrational and incomprehensible because it was life itself.  All his life Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived and worked in official spheres, having to do with the reflection of life.  And every time he had stumbled against life itself he had shrunk away from it.  Now he experienced a feeling akin to that of a man who, while calmly crossing a bridge over a precipice, should suddenly discover that the bridge is broken, and that there is a chasm below.  That chasm was life itself, the bridge that artificial life in which Alexey Alexandrovitch had lived.  For the first time the question presented itself to him of the possibility of his wife’s loving someone else, and he was horrified at it.”

And this was Tolstoy’s goal ultimately as a novelist: the standing face to face with life, with truth, and with the way the world and our existence within it really is.  The trouble arises if we fail to accept life and instead hide ourselves from it, and what Tolstoy saw was that our own powers of intellect can be the cause of this concealment; by giving us only a reflection of what life is, through abstractions, social conventions and the comforts brought to us through our daily use of routine.

And what kind of truth did the characters in Tolstoy’s novels end up finding?  Rather than some kind of intellectual truth consisting of propositions that could be spelled out here, it was an existential truth and so a truth that’s inherently difficult to put into words.  The truth was more or less a kind of openness to Being, where one finally faced the true possibilities that may unfold in their lives, even with that inevitable “possibility of the impossibility of existence” (as Heidegger put it): death itself.  And the natural unfolding of life as seen in Tolstoy’s novels, with a predominantly organic milieu, is meant to illustrate the necessary search for truth in one’s life and the truth about life itself.

To return to a previous theme mentioned earlier (in part 5, on Christian sources), Barrett says:

“The meaning of life, if there is one, says Tolstoy, must be found in these ordinary souls and not in the great intellects of the race.  Whatever ultimate meaning there is is vital and not rational.  The peasantry are wiser in their ignorance than the savants of St. Petersburg in their learning.”

And here again, I think this highlights the importance of subjectivity and our overall feeling of contentment; something that can’t be overcome or superseded by rationality nor by the rationalizations borne out of our intellect.  The meaning of life is ultimately derived from feeling and emotion, forces that lie in the deepest parts of our being.  And while the meaning of life may still be discovered by some of the great intellects in any period of history, Tolstoy’s point is still well taken; for the intellectual class has all too often overestimated the reach of the intellect and simultaneously undervalued or entirely devalued the fundamental role of “the vital”.  In the next post in this series, I’ll be starting a survey of part 3, “The Existentialists”, beginning with chapter 7, on Kierkegaard.

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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 5: “Christian Sources”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, we explored some of the Hebraistic and Hellenistic contributions to the formation and onset of existentialism within Western thought.  In this post, I’m going to look at chapter 5 of Barrett’s book, which takes a look at some of the more specifically Christian sources of existentialism in the Western tradition.

1. Faith and Reason

We should expect there to be some significant overlap between Christianity and Hebraism, since the former was a dissenting sect of the latter.  One concept worth looking at is the dichotomy of faith versus reason, where in Christianity the man of faith is far and above the man of reason.  Even though faith is heavily prized within Hebraism as well, there are still some differences between the two belief systems as they relate to faith, with these differences stemming from a number of historical contingencies:

“Ancient Biblical man knew the uncertanties and waverings of faith as a matter of personal experience, but he did not yet know the full conflict of faith with reason because reason itself did not come into historical existence until later, with the Greeks.  Christian faith is therefore more intense than that of the Old Testament, and at the same time paradoxical: it is not only faith beyond reason but, if need be, against reason.”

Once again we are brought back to Plato, and his concept of rational consciousness and the explicit use of reason; a concept that had never before been articulated or developed.  Christianity no longer had reason hiding under the surface or homogeneously mixed-in with the rest of our mental traits; rather, it was now an explicit and specific way of thinking and processing information that was well known and that couldn’t simply be ignored.  Not only did the Christian have to hold faith above this now-identified capacity of thinking logically, but they also had to explicitly reject reason if it contradicted any belief that was grounded on faith.

Barrett also mentions here the problem of trying to describe the concept of faith in a language of reason, and how the opposition between the two is particularly relevant today:

“Faith can no more be described to a thoroughly rational mind than the idea of colors can be conveyed to a blind man.  Fortunately, we are able to recognize it when we see it in others, as in St. Paul, a case where faith had taken over the whole personality.  Thus vital and indescribable, faith partakes of the mystery of life itself.  The opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational-and stated in these terms, the opposition is a crucial problem today.”

I disagree with Barrett to some degree here as I don’t think it’s possible to be able to recognize a quality in others (let alone a quality that others can recognize as well) that is entirely incommunicable.  On the contrary, if you and I can both recognize some quality, then we should be able to describe it even if only in some rudimentary way.  Now this doesn’t mean that I think a description in words can do justice to every conception imaginable, but rather that, as human beings there is an inherent ability to communicate fairly well that which is involved in common modes of living and in our shared experiences; even very complex concepts that have somewhat of a fuzzy boundary.

It may be that a thoroughly rational mind will not appreciate faith in any way, nor think it is of any use, nor have had any personal experience with it; but it doesn’t mean that they can’t understand the concept, or what a mode of living dominated by faith would look like.  I also don’t think it’s fair to say that the opposition between faith and reason is that between the vital and the rational, even though this may be a real view for some.  If by vital, Barrett is alluding to what is essential to our psyche, then I don’t think he can be talking about faith, at least not in the sense of faith as belief without good reason.  But I’m willing to concede his point if instead by vital he is simply referring to an attitude that is spirited, vibrant, energetic, and thus involving some lively form of emotional expression.

He delves a little deeper into the distinction between faith and reason when he says:

“From the point of view of reason, any faith, including the faith in reason itself, is paradoxical, since faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.”

It seems that Barrett is guilty of making a little bit of a false equivocation here between two uses of the word faith.  I’d actually go so far as to say that the two uses of the word faith are best described in the way that Barrett himself alluded to in the last chapter: faith as trust and faith as belief.  On the one hand, we have faith as belief where some belief or set of beliefs is maintained without good reason; and on the other hand, we have faith as trust where, in the case of reason, our trust in reason is grounded on the fact that its use leads to successful predictions about the causal structure of our experience.  So there isn’t really any paradox at all when it comes to “faith” in reason, because such a faith need not involve adopting some belief without good reason, but rather there is, at most, a trust in reason based on the demonstrable and replicable success it has provided us in the past.

Barrett is right however, when he says that faith and reason are fundamentally different functions of the human psyche.  But this doesn’t mean that they are isolated from one another: for example, if one believes that having faith in God will help them to secure some afterlife in heaven, and if one also desires an afterlife in heaven, then the use of reason can actually be employed to reinforce a faith in God (as it did for me, back when I was a Christian).  This doesn’t mean that faith in God is reasonable, but rather that when certain beliefs are isolated or compartmentalized in the right way (even in the case of imagining hypothetical scenarios), reason can be used to process a logical relation between them, even if those beliefs are themselves derived from illogical cognitive biases.  To see that this is true, one need only realize that an argument can be logically valid even if the premises are not logically sound.

To be as charitable as possible with the concept of faith (at least, one that is more broadly construed), I will make one more point that I think is relevant here: having faith as a form of positivity or optimism in one’s outlook on life, given the social and personal circumstances that one finds themselves in, is perfectly rational and reasonable.  It is well known that people tend to be happier and have more fulfilling lives if they steer clear of pessimism and simply try and stay as positive as possible.  One primary reason for this has to do with what I have previously called socio-psychological feedback loops (what I would also call an evidence-based form of Karma).  Thus, one can have an empirically demonstrable good reason to have an attitude that is reminiscent of faith, yet without having to sacrifice an epistemology that is reliable and which consistently tracks on to reality.

When it comes to the motivating factors that lead people to faith, existentialist thought can shed some light on what some of these factors may be.  If we consider Paul the Apostle, for example, which Barrett mentioned earlier, he also says:

“The central fact for his faith is that Jesus did actually rise from the dead, and so that death itself is conquered-which is what in the end man most ardently longs for.”

The finite nature of man, not only with regard to the intellect but also with respect to our lives in general, is something that existentialism both recognizes and sees as an integral starting point to philosophically build off of.  And I think it should come as no surprise that the fear of death in particular is likely to be a motivating factor for most if not all supernatural beliefs found within any number of religions, including the belief in possibly resurrecting one from the dead (as in the case of St. Paul’s belief in Jesus), the belief in spirits, souls, or other disembodied minds, or any belief in an afterlife (including reincarnation).

We can see that faith is, largely anyway, a means of reducing the cognitive dissonance that results from existential elements of our experience; it is a means of countering or rejecting a number of facts surrounding the contingencies and uncertainties of our existence.  From this fact, we can then see that by examining what faith is compensating for, one can begin to extract what the existentialists eventually elaborated on.  In other words, within existentialism, it is fully accepted that we can’t escape death (for example), and that we have to face death head-on (among other things) in order to live authentically; therefore having faith in overcoming death in any way is simply a denial of at least one burden willingly taken on by the existentialist.

Within early Christianity, we can also see some parallels between an existentialist like Kierkegaard and an early Christian author like Tertullian.  Barrett gives us an excerpt from Tertullian’s De Carne Christi:

“The Son of God was crucified; I am unashamed of it because men must needs be ashamed of it.  And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.  And He was buried and rose again; the fact is certain because it is impossible.”

This sounds a lot like Kierkegaard, despite the sixteen centuries of separation between these two figures, and despite the fact that Tertullian was writing when Christianity was first expanding and most aggressive and Kierkegaard writing more towards the end of Christianity when it had already drastically receded under the pressure of secularization and modernity.  In this quote of Tertullian’s, we can see a kind of submission to paradox, where it is because a particular proposition is irrational or unreasonable that it becomes an article of faith.  It’s not enough to say that faith is simply used to arrive at a belief that is unreasonable or irrational, but rather that its attribute of violating reason is actually taken as a reason to use it and to believe that the claims of faith are in fact true.  So rather than merely seeing this as an example of irrationality, this actually makes for a good example of the kind of anti-rational attitudes that contributed to the existentialist revolt against some dominant forms of positivism; a revolt that didn’t really begin to precipitate until Kierkegaard’s time.

Although anti-rationalism is often associated with existentialism, I think one would be making an error if they equivocated the two or assumed that anti-rationalism was integral or necessary to existentialism; though it should be said that this is contingent on how exactly one is defining both anti-rationalism (and by extension rationalism) and existentialism.  The two terms have a variety of definitions (as does positivism, with Barrett giving us one particularly narrow definition back in chapter one).  If by rationalism, one is referring to the very narrow view that rationality is the only means of acquiring knowledge, or a view that the only thing that matters in human thought or in human life is rationality, or even a view that humans are fundamentally or primarily rational beings; then I think it is fair to say that this is largely incompatible with existentialism, since the latter is often defined as a philosophy positing that humans are not primarily rational, and that subjective meaning (rather than rationality) plays a much more primary role in our lives.

However, if rationality is simply taken as a view that reason and rational thought are integral components (even if not the only components) for discovering much of the knowledge that exists about ourselves and the universe at large, then it is by all means perfectly compatible with most existentialist schools of thought.  But in order to remain compatible, some priority needs to be given to subjective experience in terms of where meaning is derived from, how our individual identity is established, and how we are to direct our lives and inform our system of ethics.

The importance of subjective experience, which became a primary assumption motivating existentialist thought, was also appreciated by early Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine.  In fact, Barrett goes so far as to say that the interiorization of experience and the primary focus on the individual over the collective was unknown to the Greeks and didn’t come about until Christianity had begun to take hold in Western culture:

“Where Plato and Aristotle had asked the question, What is man?, St. Augustine (in the Confessions) asks, Who am I?-and this shift is decisive.  The first question presupposed a world of objects, a fixed natural and zoological order, in which man was included; and when man’s precise place in that order had been found, the specifically differentiating characteristic of reason was added.  Augustine’s question, on the other hand, stems from an altogether different, more obscure and vital center within the questioner himself: from an acutely personal sense of dereliction and loss, rather than from the detachment with which reason surveys the world of objects in order to locate its bearer, man, zoologically within it.”

So rather than looking at man as some kind of well-defined abstraction within a categorical hierarchy of animals and objects, and one bestowed with a unique faculty of rational consciousness, man is looked at from the inside, from the perspective of, and identified as, an embodied individual with an experience that is deeply rooted and inherently emotional.  And in Augustine’s question, we also see an implication that man can’t be defined in a way that the Greeks attempted to do because in asking the question, Who am I?, man became separated from the kind of zoological order that all other animals adhered to.  It is the unique sense of self and the (often foreboding) awareness of this self then, as opposed to the faculty of reason, that Augustine highlighted during his moment of reflection.

Though Augustine was cognizant of the importance of exploring the nature of our personal, human existence (albeit for him, with a focus on religious experience in particular), he also explored aspects of human existence on the cosmic scale.  But when he went down this cosmic road of inquiry, he left the nature of personal lived existence by the wayside and instead went down a Neo-Platonist path of theodicy.  Augustine was after all a formal theologian, and one who tried to come to grips with the problem of evil in the world.  But he employed Greek metaphysics for this task, and tried to use logic mixed with irrational faith-based claims about the benevolence of God, in order to show that God’s world wasn’t evil at all.  Augustine did this by eliminating evil from his conception of existence such that all evil was simply a lack of being and hence a form of non-being and therefore non-existent.  This was supposed to be our consolation: ignore any apparent evil in the world because we’re told that it doesn’t really exist; all in the name of trying to justify the cosmos as good and thus to maintain a view that God is good.

This is such a shame in the end, for in Augustine’s attempt at theodicy, he simply downplayed and ignored the abominable and precarious aspects of our existence, which are as real a part of our experience as anything could be.  Perhaps Augustine was motivated to use rationalism here in order to feel comfort and safety in a world where many feel alienated and alone.  But as Barrett says:

“…reason cannot give that security; if it could, faith would be neither necessary nor so difficult.  In the age-old struggle between the rational and the vital, the modern revolt against theodicy (or, equally, the modern recognition of its impossibility) is on the side of the vital…”

And so once again we see that a primary motivation for faith is because many cannot get the consolation they long for through the use of reason.  They can’t psychologically deal with the way the world really is and so they either use faith to believe the world is some other way or they try to use reason along with some number of faith-based premises, in evaluating our apparent place in the world.  St. Augustine actually thought that he could harmonize faith and reason (or what Barrett referred to as the vital and the rational) and this set the stage for the next thousand years of Christian thought.  Once faith claims became more explicit in the Church’s various articles of dogma, one was left to exercise rationality as they saw fit, as long as it was within the confines of that faith and dogma.  And this of course led to many medieval thinkers to mistake faith for reason (in many cases at least), reinforced by the fact that the use of reason was operating under faith-based premises.

The problematic relation between the vital and the rational didn’t disappear even after many a philosopher assumed the two forces were in complete harmony and agreement; instead the clash resurfaced in a debate between Voluntarism and Intellectualism, with our attention now turned toward St. Thomas Aquinas.  As an intellectualist, St. Thomas tried to argue that the intellect in man is prior to the will of man because the intellect determines the will, since we can only desire what we know.  Scotus on the other hand, a voluntarist, responded to this claim and said that the will determines what ideas the intellect turns toward, and thus the will ends up determining what the intellect comes to know.

As an aside, I think that Scotus was more likely correct here, because while the intellect may inform the will (and thus help to direct the will), there is something far more fundamental and unconscious at play that drives our engagement with the world as an organism evolved to survive.  For example, we have a curiosity for both novelty (seeking new information) and familiarity (a maximal understanding of incoming information) and basic biologically-driven desires for satisfaction and homeostasis.  These drives simply don’t depend on the intellect even though they can make use of it, and these drives will continue to operate even if the intellect does not.  I also disagree with St. Thomas’ claim that one can only desire that which they already know, for one can desire knowledge for it’s own sake without knowing exactly what knowledge is yet to come (again from an independent drive, which we could call the will), and one can also desire a change in the world from the way they currently know it to be to some other as yet unspecified way (e.g. to desire a world without a specific kind of suffering, even though one may not know exactly what that would be like, having never lived such a life before).

The crux of the debate between the primacy of the will versus the intellect can perhaps be re-framed accordingly:

“…not in terms of whether will is to be given primacy over the intellect, or the intellect over the will-these functions being after all but abstract fragments of the total man-but rather in terms of the primacy of the thinker over his thoughts, of the concrete and total man himself who is doing the thinking…the fact remains that Voluntarism has always been, in intention at least, an effort to go beyond the thought to the concrete existence of the thinker who is thinking that thought.”

Here again I see the concept of an embodied and evolved organism and a reflective self at play, where the contents of consciousness cannot be taken on their own, nor as primary, but rather they require a conscious agent to become manifest, let alone to have any causal power in the world.

2. Existence vs. Essence

There is a deeper root to the problem underlying the debate between St. Thomas and Scotus and it has to do with the relation between essence and existence; a relation that Sartre (among others) emphasized as critical to existentialism.  Whereas the essence of a thing is simply what the thing is (its essential properties for example), the existence of a thing simply refers to the brute fact that the thing is.  A very common theme found throughout Sartre’s writings is the basic contention that existence precedes essence (though, for him, this only applies to the case of man).  Barrett gives a very simplified explanation of such a thesis:

“In the case of man, its meaning is not difficult to grasp.  Man exists and makes himself to be what he is; his individual essence or nature comes to be out of his existence; and in this sense it is proper to say that existence precedes essence.  Man does not have a fixed essence that is handed to him ready-made; rather, he makes his own nature out of his freedom and the historical conditions in which he is placed.”

I think this concept also makes sense when we put it into the historical context going back to ancient Greece.  Whereas the Greeks tried to put humanity within a zoological order and categorize us by some essential qualities, the existentialists that later came on the scene rejected such an idea almost as a kind of categorical error.  It was simply not possible to classify human beings like you could inanimate objects or other animals that didn’t have the behavioral complexity and a will to define themselves as we do.

Barrett also explains that the essence versus existence relation breaks down into two different but related questions:

1) Does existence have primacy over essence, or the reverse?

2) In actual existing things is there a real distinction between the two?  Or are they merely different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing?

In an attempt at answering these questions, I think it’s reasonable to say that essence has more to do with potentiality (a logically possible set of abstractions or properties) and existence has more to do with actuality (a logically and physically possible past or present state of being).  I also think that existence is necessary in order for any essence to be real in any way, and not because an actual object needs to exist in order to instantiate a physical instance of some specific essence, but because any essence is merely an abstraction created by a conscious agent who inferred it in the first place.  Quite simply, there is no Platonic realm for the essence to “exist” within and so it needs an existing consciousness to produce it.  So I would say that existence has primacy over essence since an existent is needed for an essence to be conceived, let alone instantiated at all.

As for the second question, I think there is a real distinction between the two and that they are different points of view that the mind takes toward the same existing thing.  I don’t see this as an either/or dichotomy.  The mind can certainly acknowledge the existence of some object, animal, or person, without giving much thought to what its essence is (aside from its being distinct enough to consider it a thing), but it can never acknowledge the essence of an actual object, animal, or person without also acknowledging its existence.  There’s also something relevant to be said about how our minds differentiate between an actual perception and an imagined one, even between an actual life and an imagined one, or an actual person and an imagined one; something that we do all the time.

On the other side of this issue, within the debate between essentialism and existentialism, are the questions of whether or not there are any essential qualities of human beings that make them human, and if so, whether or not any of these essential qualities are fixed for human beings.  Most people are familiar with the idea of human nature, whereby there are some biologically-grounded innate predispositions that affect our behavior in some ways.  We are evolved animals after all, and the only way for evolution to work is to have genes providing different phenotypic effects on the body and behavior of a population of organisms.  Since about half of our own genes are used to code for our brain’s development, its basic structure, and functionality, it should seem obvious to anyone that we’re bound to have some set of innate behavioral tendencies as well as some biological limitations on the space of possibilities for our behavior.

Thus, any set of innate behavioral tendencies that are shared by healthy human beings would constitute our human nature.  And furthermore, this behavioral overlap would be a fixed attribute of human nature insofar as the genes coding for that innate behavioral overlap don’t evolve beyond a certain degree.  Human nature is simply an undeniable fact about us grounded in our biology.  If our biology changes enough, then we will eventually cease to be human, or if we still call ourselves “human” at that point in time then we will cease to have the same nature since we will no longer be the same species.  But as long as that biological evolution remains under a certain threshold, we will have some degree of fixity in our human nature.

But unlike most other organisms on earth, human beings have an incredibly complex brain as well as a number of culturally inherited cognitive programs that provide us with a seemingly infinite number of possible behaviors and subsequent life trajectories.  And I think this fact has fueled some of the disagreement between the existentialists and the essentialists.  The essentialists (or many of them at least) have maintained that we have a particular human nature, which I think is certainly true.  But, as per the existentialists, we must also acknowledge just how vast our space of possibilities really is and not let our human nature be the ultimate arbiter of how we define ourselves.  We have far more freedom to choose a particular life project and way of life than one would be led to believe given some preconceived notion of what is essentially human.

3. The Case of Pascal

Science brought about a dramatic change to Western society, effectively carrying us out of the Middle Ages within a century; but this change also created the very environment that made modern Existentialism possible.  Cosmology, for example, led 17th century mathematician and theologian, Blaise Pascal to say that “The silence of these infinite spaces (outer space) frightens me.”  In this statement he was expressing the general reaction of humanity to the world that science had discovered; a world that made man feel homeless and insignificant.

As a religious man, Pascal was also seeking to reconcile this world discovered by science with his own faith.  This was a difficult task, but he found some direction in looking at the wretchedness of the human condition:

“In Pascal’s universe one has to search much more desperately to find any signposts that would lead the mind in the direction of faith.  And where Pascal finds such a signpost, significantly enough, is in the radically miserable condition of man himself.  How is it that this creature who shows everywhere, in comparison with other animals and with nature itself, such evidence marks of grandeur and power is at the same time so feeble and miserable?  We can only conclude, Pascal says, that man is rather like a ruined or disinherited nobleman cast out from the kingdom which ought to have been his (his fundamental premise is the image of man as a disinherited being).”

Personally I see this as indicative of our being an evolved species, albeit one with an incredibly rich level of consciousness and intelligence.  In some sense our minds’ inherent capacities have a potential that is far and beyond what most humans ever come close to actualizing, and this may create a feeling of our having lost something that we deserve; some possible yet unrealized world that would make more sense for us to have given the level of power and potential we possess.  And perhaps this lends itself to a feeling of angst or a lack of fulfillment as well.

As Pascal himself said:

“The natural misfortune of our mortal and feeble condition is so wretched that when we consider it closely, nothing can console us.” 

Furthermore, Barrett reminds us of Pascal having mentioned the human tendency of escaping from this close consideration of our condition through the two “sovereign anodynes” of habit and diversion:

“Both habit and diversion, so long as they work, conceal from man “his nothingness, his forlornness, his inadequacy, his impotence and his emptiness.”  Religion is the only possible cure for this desperate malady that is nothing other than our ordinary mortal existence itself.”

Barrett describes our state of cultivating various habits and distractions as a kind of concealment of the ever-narrowing space of possibilities in our lives, as each day passes us by with some set of hopes and dreams forever lost in the past.  I think it would be fair to say however, that the psychological benefit we gain from at least many of our habits and distractions warrants our having them in the first place.  As an analogy, if one day I have been informed by my doctor that I’m going to die from a terminal illness in a few months (thus drastically narrowing the future space of possibilities in my life), is there really a problem with me trying to keep my mind off of such a morbid fate, such that I can make the most of the time that I have left?  I certainly wouldn’t advocate burying one’s head in the sand either, nor having irrational expectations, nor living in denial; and so I think the time will be used best if I don’t completely forget about my timeline coming to an end either, because then I can more adequately appreciate that remaining time.

Moreover, I don’t agree that religion is the only possible cure for dealing with our “ordinary mortal existence”.  I think that psychological and moral development are the ultimate answers here, where a critical look at oneself and an ongoing attempt to become a better version of oneself in order to maximize one’s life fulfillment is key.  The world can be any way that it is but that doesn’t change the fact that certain attitudes toward that world and certain behaviors can make our experience of the world, as it truly is, better or worse.  Falling back on religion to console us is, to use Pascal’s own words, nothing but another habit and form of distraction, and one where we sacrifice knowing and facing the truth of our condition for some kind of ignorant bliss that relies on false beliefs about the world.  And I don’t think we can live authentically if we don’t face the condition we’re in as a species, and more importantly as individuals; by trying to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible.

When it comes to the human mind and how we deal with or process information about our everyday lives or aspects of our overall condition, it can be a rather messy process with very complicated concepts, many of which that have fuzzy boundaries and so can’t be dealt with in the same way that we deal with analyses relying strictly on logic.  In some cases of analyzing our lives, we don’t know exactly what the premises could even be, let alone how to arrange them within a logical structure to arrive at some kind of certain conclusion.  And this differs a lot from other areas of inquiry like, say, mathematics.  As Pascal was delving deeper into the study of our human condition, he realized this difference and posited that there was an interesting distinction in terms of what the mind can comprehend in these different contexts: a mathematical mind and an intuitive mind.  Within a field of study such as mathematics, it is our mind’s ability to logically comprehend various distinct and well defined ideas that we make use of, whereas in other more concrete domains of our experience, we rely quite heavily on intuition.

Not only is logic not very useful in the more concrete and complex domains of our lives, but in many cases it may actually get in the way of seeing things clearly since our intuition, though less reliable than logic, is more up to the task of dealing with complexities that haven’t yet been parsed out into well-defined ideas and concepts.  Barrett describes this a little differently than I would when he says:

“What Pascal had really seen, then, in order to have arrived at this distinction was this: that man himself is a creature of contradictions and ambivalences such as pure logic can never grasp…By delimiting a sphere of intuition over against that of logic, Pascal had of course set limits to human reason. “

In the case of logic, one is certainly limited in its use when the concepts involved are probabilistic (rather than being well-defined or “black and white”) and there are significant limitations when our attitudes toward those concepts vary contextually.  We are after all very complex creatures with a number of competing goals and with a prioritization of those goals that varies over time.  And of course we have a number of value judgments and emotional dispositions that motivate our actions in often unpredictable ways.  So it seems perfectly reasonable to me that one should acknowledge the limits we have in our use of logic and reason.

Barrett makes another interesting claim about the limits of reason when he says:

“Three centuries before Heidegger showed, through a learned and laborious exegesis, that Kant’s doctrine of the limitations of human reason really rests on the finitude of our human existence, Pascal clearly saw that the feebleness of our reason is part and parcel of the feebleness of our human condition generally.  Above all, reason does not get at the heart of religious experience.”

And I think the last sentence is most important here, where we try and understand that the limitations of reason include the inability to examine all that matters and all that is meaningful within religious experience.  Even though I am a kind of champion for reason, in the sense that I find it to be in short supply when it matters most and in the sense that I often advertise the dire need for critical thinking skills and the need for more education to combat our cognitive biases, I for one have never made the assumption that reason could ever accomplish such an arduous task of dissecting religious experience in some reductionist way while retaining or accounting for everything of value within it.  I have however used reason to analyze various religious beliefs and claims about the world in order to discover their consequences on, or incompatibilities with, a number of other beliefs.

Theologians do something similar in their attempts to prove the existence of God, by beginning with some set of presuppositions (about God or the supernatural), and then applying reason to those faith-based premises to see what would result if they were in fact true.  And Pascal saw this mental exercise as futile and misguided as well because it misses the entire point of religion:

“In any case, God as the object of a rigorous demonstration, even supposing such a demonstration were forthcoming, would have nothing to do with the living needs of religion.”

I admire the fact that Pascal was honest here about what really matters most when it comes to religion and religious beliefs.  It doesn’t matter whether or not God exists, or whether any religious claim or other is actually true or false; rather, it is the living need of religion that he perceives that ultimately motivates one to adhere to it.  Thus, theology doesn’t really matter to him because those who want to be convinced by the arguments for God’s existence will be convinced simply because they desire the conclusion insofar as they believe it will give them consolation from the human condition they find themselves in.

To add something to the bleak picture of just how contingent our existence is, Barrett mentions a personal story that Pascal shared about his having had a brush with death:

“While he was driving by the Seine one day, his carriage  suddenly swerved, the door was flung open, and Pascal almost catapulted down the embankment to his death.  The arbitrariness and suddenness of this near accident became for him another lightning flash of revelation.  Thereafter he saw Nothingness as a possibility that lurked, so to speak, beneath our feet, a gulf and an abyss into which we might tumble at any moment.  No other writer has expressed more powerfully than Pascal the radical contingency that lies at the heart of human existence-a contingency that may at any moment hurl us all unsuspecting into non-being…The idea of Nothingness or Nothing had up to this time played no role at all in Western philosophy…Nothingness had suddenly and drastically revealed itself to him.”

And here it is: the concept of Nothingness which has truly grounded a bulk of the philosophical constructs found within existentialism.  To add further to this, Pascal also saw that one’s inevitable death wasn’t the whole picture of our contingency, but only a part of it; it was our having been born at a particular time, place, and within a certain culture that vastly reduces the number of possible life trajectories one can take, and thus vastly reduces our freedom in establishing our own identity.  Our life begins with contingency and ends with it also.

Pascal also acknowledged our existence as lying in the middle of the universe, in terms of being between that of the infinitesimal and microscopic and that of the seemingly infinite lying at the cosmological scale.  Within this middle position, he saw man as being “an All in relation to Nothingness, a Nothingness in relation to the All.”  I think it’s also worth pointing out that it is because of our evolutionary history and the “middle-position” we evolved within that causes the drastic misalignment between the world we were in some sense meant to understand, and the micro and cosmic scales we discovered in the last several hundred years.

Aside from any feelings of alienation and homelessness that these different scales have precipitated, we simply don’t have an intuition that evolved a need to understand existence at the infinitesimal quantum level nor at the cosmic relativistic level, which is why these discoveries in physics are difficult to understand even by experts in the field.  We should expect these discoveries to be vastly perplexing and counter-intuitive, for our consciousness evolved to deal with life at a very finite scale; yet another example of our finitude as human beings.

It was this very same fact, that we gained so much information about our world through these kinds of discoveries, including major advancements made in mathematics, that also promoted the assumption that human nature could be perfected through the universal application of reason.

I’ll finish the post on this chapter with one final quote from Barrett that I found insightful:

“Poets are witnesses to Being before the philosophers are able to bring it into thought.  And what these particular poets were struggling to reveal, in this case, were the very conditions of Being that are ours historically today.  They were sounding, in poetic terms, the premonitory chords of our own era.”

It is the voice of the poets that we first hear lamenting about the Enlightenment and what reason seems to have done, or at least what it had begun to do.  They were some of the most important contemporary precursors to the later existentialists and philosophers that would soon begin to process (in far more detail and with far more precision) the full effects of modernity on the human psyche.

Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 2, Chapter 4: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art, where Barrett illustrates how existentialist thought is best exemplified in modern art.  The feelings of alienation, discontent, and meaninglessness pervade a number of modern expressions, and so as is so often the case throughout history, we can use artistic expression as a window to peer inside our evolving psyche and witness the prevailing views of the world at any point in time.

In this post, I’m going to explore Part II, Chapter 4: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition.  This chapter has a lot of content and is quite dense, and so naturally this fact is reflected in the length of this post.

Part II: “The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition”

Ch. 4 – Hebraism and Hellenism

Barrett begins this chapter by pointing out two forces governing the historical trajectory of Western civilization and Western thought: Hebraism and Hellenism.  He mentions an excerpt of Matthew Arnold’s, in his book Culture and Anarchy; a book that was concerned with the contemporary situation occurring in nineteenth-century England, where Arnold writes:

“We may regard this energy driving at practice, this paramount sense of the obligation of duty, self-control, and work, this earnestness in going manfully with the best light we have, as one force.  And we may regard the intelligence driving at those ideas which are, after all, the basis of right practice, the ardent sense for all the new and changing combinations of them which man’s development brings with it, the indomitable impulse to know and adjust them perfectly, as another force.  And these two forces we may regard as in some sense rivals–rivals not by the necessity of their own nature, but as exhibited in man and his history–and rivals dividing the empire of the world between them.  And to give these forces names from the two races of men who have supplied the most splendid manifestations of them, we may call them respectively the forces of Hebraism and Hellenism…and it ought to be, though it never is, evenly and happily balanced between them.”

And while we may have felt a stronger attraction to one force over the other at different points in our history, both forces have played an important role in how we’ve structured our individual lives and society at large.  What distinguishes these two forces ultimately comes down to the difference between doing and knowing; between the Hebrew’s concern for practice and right conduct, and the Greek’s concern for knowledge and right thinking.  I can’t help but notice this Hebraistic influence in one of the earliest expressions of existentialist thought when Soren Kierkegaard (in one of his earlier journals) had said: “What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act”.  Here we see that some set of moral virtues are what form the fundamental substance and meaning of life within Hebraism (and by extension, Kierkegaard’s philosophy), in contrast with the Hellenistic subordination of the moral virtues to those of the intellectual variety.

I for one am tempted to mention Aristotle here, since he was a Greek philosopher, yet one who formulated and extolled moral virtues, forming the foundation for most if not all modern systems of virtue ethics; despite all of his work on science, logic and epistemology.  And sure enough, Arnold does mention Aristotle briefly, but he says that for Aristotle the moral virtues are “but the porch and access to the intellectual (virtues), and with these last is blessedness.”  So it’s still fair to say that the intellectual virtues were given priority over the moral virtues within Greek thought, even if moral virtues were an important element, serving as a moral means to a combined moral-intellectual end.  We’re still left then with a distinction of what is prioritized or what the ultimate teleology is for Hebraism and Hellenism: moral man versus intellectual man.

One perception of Arnold’s that colors his overall thesis is a form of uneasiness that he sees as lurking within the Hebrew conception of man; an uneasiness stemming from a conception of man that has been infused with the idea of sin, which is simply not found in Greek philosophy.  Furthermore, this idea of sin that pervades the Hebraistic view of man is not limited to one’s moral or immoral actions; rather it penetrates into the core being of man.  As Barrett puts it:

“But the sinfulness that man experiences in the Bible…cannot be confined to a supposed compartment of the individual’s being that has to do with his moral acts.  This sinfulness pervades the whole being of man: it is indeed man’s being, insofar as in his feebleness and finiteness as a creature he stands naked in the presence of God.”

So we have a predominantly moral conception of man within Hebraism, but one that is amalgamated with an essential finitude, an acknowledgement of imperfection, and the expectation of our being morally flawed human beings.  Now when we compare this to the philosophers of Ancient Greece, who had a more idealistic conception of man, where humans were believed to have the capacity to access and understand the universe in its entirety, then we can see the groundwork that was laid for somewhat rivalrous but nevertheless important motivations and contributions to the cultural evolution of Western civilization: science and philosophy from the Greeks, and a conception of “the Law” entrenched in religion and religious practice from the Hebrews.

1. The Hebraic Man of Faith

Barrett begins here by explaining how the Law, though important for its effects on having bound the Jewish community together for centuries despite their many tribulations as a people, the Law is not central to Hebraism but rather the basis of the Law is what lies at its center.  To see what this basis is, we are directed to reread the Book of Job in the Hebrew Bible:

“…reread it in a way that takes us beyond Arnold and into our own time, reread it with an historical sense of the primitive or primary mode of existence of the people who gave expression to this work.  For earlier man, the outcome of the Book of Job was not such a foregone conclusion as it is for us later readers, for whom centuries of familiarity and forgetfulness have dulled the violence of the confrontation between man and God that is central to the narrative.”

Rather than simply taking the commandments of one’s religion for granted and following them without pause, Job’s face-to-face confrontation with his Creator and his demand for justification was in some sense the first time the door had been opened to theological critique and reflection.  The Greeks did something similar where eventually they began to apply reason and rationality to examine religion, stepping outside the confines of simply blindly following religious traditions and rituals.  But unlike the Greek, the Hebrew does not proceed with this demand of justification through the use of reason but rather by a direct encounter of the person as a whole (Job, and his violence, passion, and all the rest) with an unknowable and awe-inspiring God.  Job doesn’t solve his problem with any rational resolution, but rather by changing his entire character.  His relation to God involves a mutual confrontation of two beings in their entirety; not just a rational facet of each being looking for a reasonable explanation from one another, but each complete being facing one another, prepared to defend their entire character and identity.

Barrett mentions the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber here to help clarify things a little, by noting that this relation between Job and God is a relation between an I and a Thou (or a You).  Since Barrett doesn’t explain Buber’s work in much detail, I’ll briefly digress here to explain a few key points.  For those unfamiliar with Buber’s work, the I-Thou relation is a mode of living that is contrasted with another mode centered on the connection between an I and an It.  Both modes of living, the I-Thou and the I-It, are, according to Buber, the two ways that human beings can address existence; the two modes of living required for a complete and fulfilled human being.  The I-It mode encompasses the world of experience and sensation; treating entities as discrete objects to know about or to serve some use.  The I-Thou mode on the other hand encompasses the world of relations itself, where the entities involved are not separated by some discrete boundary, and where a living relationship is acknowledged to exist between the two; this mode of existence requires one to be an active participant rather than merely an objective observer.

It is Buber’s contention that modern life has entirely ignored the I-Thou relation, which has led to a feeling of unfulfillment and alienation from the world around us.   The first mode of existence, that of the I-It, involves our acquiring data from the world, analyzing and categorizing it, and then theorizing about it; and this leads to a subject-object separation, or an objectification of what is being experienced.  According to Buber, modern society almost exclusively uses this mode to engage with the world.  In contrast, with the I-Thou relation the I encounters the object or entity such that both are transformed by the relation; and there is a type of holism at play here where the You or Thou is not simply encountered as a sum of its parts but in its entirety.  To put it another way, it’s as if the You encountered were the entire universe, or that somehow the universe existed through this You.

Since this concept is a little nebulous, I think the best way to summarize Buber’s main philosophical point here is to say that we human beings find meaning in our lives through our relationships, and so we need to find ways of engaging the world such as to maximize our relationships with it; and this is not limited to forming relationships with fellow human beings, but with other animals, inanimate objects, etc., even if these relationships differ from one another in any number of ways.

I actually find some relevance between Buber’s “I and Thou” conception and Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence: the idea that given an infinite amount of time and a finite number of ways that matter and energy can be arranged, anything that has ever happened or that ever will happen, will recur an infinite number of times.  In Nietzsche’s The Gay Science, he mentions how the concept of eternal recurrence was, to him, horrifying and paralyzing.  But, he also concluded that the desire for an eternal return or recurrence would show the ultimate affirmation of one’s life:

“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ … Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus?  Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.

The reason I find this relevant to Buber’s conception is two-fold: first of all, the fact that the universe is causally connected makes the universe inseparable to some degree, where each object or entity could be seen to, in some sense, represent the rest of the whole; and secondly, if one is to wish for the eternal recurrence, then they have an attitude toward the world that is non-resistant, and that can learn to accept the things that are out of one’s control.  The universe effectively takes on the character of fate itself, and offers an opportunity to a being such as ourselves, to have a kind of “faith in fate”; to have a relation of trust with the universe as it is, as it once was, and as it will be in the future.

Now the kind of faith I’m speaking of here isn’t a brand that contradicts reason or evidence, but rather is simply a form of optimism and acceptance that colors one’s expectations and overall experience.  And since we are a part of this universe too, our attitude towards it should in many ways reflect our overall relation to it; which brings us back to Buber, where any encounter I might have with the universe (or any “part” of it) is an encounter with a You, that is to say, it is an I-Thou relation.

This “faith in fate” concept I just alluded to is a good segue to return back to the relation between Job and his God within Hebraism, as it was a relation of never-ending faith.  But importantly, as Barrett points out, this faith of Job’s takes on many shapes including that of anger, dismay, revolt, and confusion.  For Job says, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him…but I will maintain my own ways before him.”  So Job’s faith is his maintaining a form of trust in his Creator, even though he says that he will also retain his own identity, his dispositions, and his entire being while doing so.  And this trust ultimately forms the relation between the two.  Barrett describes the kind of faith at play here as more fundamental and primary than that which many modern-day religious proponents would lay claim to.

“Faith is trust before it is belief-belief in the articles, creeds, and tenets of a Church with which later religious history obscures this primary meaning of the word.  As trust, in the sense of the opening up of one being toward another, faith does not involve any philosophical problem about its position relative to faith and reason.  That problem comes up only later when faith has become, so to speak, propositional, when it has expressed itself in statements, creeds, systems.  Faith as a concrete mode of being of the human person precedes faith as the intellectual assent to a proposition, just as truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition.”

Although I see faith as belief as fundamentally flawed and dangerous, I can certainly respect the idea of faith as trust, and consequently I can respect the idea of faith as a concrete mode of being; where this mode of being is effectively an attitude of openness taken towards another.  But, whereas I agree with Barrett’s claim that truth as a concrete mode of human being precedes the truth of any proposition, in the sense that a basis and desire for truth are needed prior to evaluating the truth value of any proposition, I don’t believe one can ever justifiably make the succession from faith as trust to faith as belief for the simple reason that if one has good reason to trust another, then they don’t need faith to mediate any beliefs stemming from that trust.  And of course, what matters most here is describing and evaluating what the “Hebrew man of faith” consists of, rather than criticizing the concept of faith itself.

Another interesting historical development stemming from Hebraism pertains to the concept of faith as it evolved within Protestantism.  As Barrett tells us:

“Protestantism later sought to revive this face-to-face confrontation of man with his God, but could produce only a pallid replica of the simplicity, vigor, and wholeness of this original Biblical faith…Protestant man would never have dared confront God and demand an accounting of His ways.  That era in history had long since passed by the time we come to the Reformation.”

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning here that Christianity actually developed as a syncretism between Hebraism and Hellenism; the two very cultures under analysis in this chapter.  By combining Jewish elements (e.g. monotheism, the substitutionary atonement of sins through blood-magic, apocalyptic-messianic resurrection, interpretation of Jewish scriptures, etc.) with Hellenistic religious elements (e.g. dying-and-rising savior gods, virgin birth of a deity, fictive kinship, etc.), the cultural diffusion that occurred resulted in a religion that was basically a cosmopolitan personal salvation cult.

But eventually Christianity became a state religion (after the age of Constantine), resulting in a theocracy that heavily enforced a particular conception of God onto the people.  Once this occurred, the religion was now fully contained within a culture that made it very difficult to question or confront anyone about these conceptions, in order to seek justification for them.  And it may be that the intimidation propagated by the prevailing religious authorities became conflated with an attribute of God; where a fear of questioning any conception of God became integrated in a theological belief about God.

Perhaps it was because the primary conceptions of God, once Christianity entered the Medieval Period, were more externally imposed on everybody rather than discovered in a more personal and introspective way (even if unavoidably initiated and reinforced by the external culture), thus externalizing the attributes of God such that they became more heavily influenced by the perceptibly unquestionable claims of those in power.  Either way, the historical contingencies surrounding the advent of Christianity involved sectarian battles with the winning sect using their dogmatic authority to suppress the views (and the Christian Gospels/scriptures) of the other sects.  And this may have inhibited people from ever questioning their God or demanding justification for what they interpreted to be God’s actions.

One final point in this section that I’d like to highlight is in regard to the concept of knowledge as it relates to Hebraism.  Barrett distinguishes this knowledge from that of the Greeks:

“We have to insist on a noetic content in Hebraism: Biblical man too had his knowledge, though it is not the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.  It is not the kind of knowledge that man can have through reason alone, or perhaps not through reason at all; he has it rather through body and blood, bones and bowels, through trust and anger and confusion and love and fear; through his passionate adhesion in faith to the Being whom he can never intellectually know.  This kind of knowledge a man has only through living, not reasoning, and perhaps in the end he cannot even say what it is he knows; yet it is knowledge all the same, and Hebraism at its source had this knowledge.”

I may not entirely agree with Barrett here, but any disagreement is only likely to be a quibble over semantics, relating to how he and I define noetic and how we each define knowledge.  The word noetic actually derives from the Greek adjective noētikos which means “intellectual”, and thus we are presumably considering the intellectual knowledge found in Hebraism.  Though this knowledge may not be derived from reason alone, I don’t think (as Barrett implies above) that it’s even possible to have any noetic content without at least some minimal use of reason.  It may be that the kind of intellectual content he’s alluding to is that which results from a kind of synthesis between reason and emotion or intuition, but it would seem that reason would still have to be involved, even if it isn’t as primary or dominant as in the intellectual knowledge of the Greek.

With regard to how Barrett and I are each defining knowledge, I must say that just as most other philosophers have done, including those going all the way back to Plato, one must distinguish between knowledge and all other beliefs because knowledge is merely a subset of all of one’s beliefs (otherwise one would be saying that any belief whatsoever is considered knowledge).  To distinguish knowledge as a subset of one’s beliefs, my definition of knowledge can be roughly defined as:

“Recognized patterns of causality that are stored into memory for later recall and use, that positively and consistently correlate with reality, and for which that correlation has been validated by having made successful predictions and/or successfully accomplishing goals through the use of said recalled patterns.”

My conception of knowledge also takes what one might call unconscious knowledge into account (which may operate more automatically and less explicitly than conscious knowledge); as long as it is acquired information that allows you to accomplish goals and make successful predictions about the causal structure of your experience (whether internal feelings or other mental states, or perceptions of the external world), it counts as knowledge nevertheless.  Now there may be different degrees of reliability and usefulness of different kinds of knowledge (such as intuitive knowledge versus rational or scientific knowledge), but those distinctions don’t need to be parsed out here.

What Barrett seems to be describing here as a Hebraistic form of knowledge is something that is deeply embodied in the human being; in the ways that one lives their life that don’t involve, or aren’t dominated by, reason or conscious abstractions.  Instead, there seems to be a more organic process involved of viewing the world and interacting with it in a manner relying more heavily on intuition and emotionally-driven forms of expression.  But, in order to give rise to beliefs that cohere with one another to some degree, to form some kind of overarching narrative, reason (I would argue) is still employed.  There’s still some logical structure to the web of beliefs found therein, even if reason and logic could be used more rigorously and explicitly to turn many of those beliefs on their head.

And when it comes to the Hebraistic conception of God, including the passionate adhesion in faith to a Being whom one can never intellectually know (as Barrett puts it), I think this can be better explained by the fact that we do have reason and rationality, unlike most other animals, as well as cognitive biases such as hyperactive agency detection.  It seems to me that the Hebraistic God concept is more or less derived from an agglomeration of the unknown sources of one’s emotional experiences (especially those involving an experience of the transcendent) and the unpredictable attributes of life itself, then ascribing agency to that ensemble of properties, and (to use Buber’s terms) establishing a relationship with that perceived agency; and in this case, the agent is simply referred to as God (Yahweh).

But in order to infer the existence of such an ensemble, it would seem to require a process of abstracting from particular emotional and unpredictable elements and instances of one’s experience to conclude some universal source for all of them.  Perhaps if this process is entirely unconscious we can say that reason wasn’t at all involved in it, but I suspect that the ascription of agency to something that is on par with the universe itself and its large conjunction of properties which vary over space and time, including its unknowable character, is more likely mediated by a combination of cognitive biases, intuition, emotion, and some degree of rational conscious inference.  But Barrett’s point still stands that the noetic content in Hebraism isn’t dominated by reason as in the case of the Greeks.

2. Greek Reason

Even though existential philosophy is largely a rebellion against the Platonic ideas that have permeated Western thought, Barrett reminds us that there is still some existential aspect to Plato’s works.  Perhaps this isn’t surprising once one realizes that he actually began his adult life aspiring to be a dramatic poet.  Eventually he abandoned this dream undergoing a sort of conversion and decided to dedicate the rest of his life toward a search for wisdom as per the inspiration of Socrates.  Even though he engaged in a life long war against the poets, he still maintained a piece of his poetic character in his writings, including up to the end when he wrote about the great creation myth, Timaeus.

By far, Plato’s biggest contribution to Western thought was his differentiating rational consciousness from the rest of our human psyche.  Prior to this move, rationality was in some sense subsumed under the same umbrella as emotion and intuition.  And this may be one of the biggest changes to how we think, and one that is so often taken for granted.  Barrett describes the position we’re in quite well:

“We are so used today to taking our rational consciousness for granted, in the ways of our daily life we are so immersed in its operations, this it is hard at first for us to imagine how momentous was this historical happening among the Greeks.  Steeped as our age is in the ideas of evolution, we have not yet become accustomed to the idea that consciousness itself is something that has evolved through long centuries and that even today, with us, is still evolving.  Only in this century, through modern psychology, have we learned how precarious a hold consciousness may exert upon life, and we are more acutely aware therefore what a precious deal of history, and of effort, was required for its elaboration, and what creative leaps were necessary at certain times to extend it beyond its habitual territory.”

Barrett’s mention of evolution is important here, because I think we ought to distinguish between the two forms of evolution that have affected how we think and experience the world.  On the one hand, we have our biological evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone dramatic changes in terms of the level of consciousness we actually experience and the degree of causal complexity that the brain can model; and on the other hand, we have our cultural evolution to consider, where our brains have undergone a number of changes in terms of the kinds of “programs” we run on it, how those programs are run and prioritized, and how we process and store information in various forms of external hardware.

In regard to biological evolution, long before our ancestors evolved into humans, the brain had nothing more than a protoself representation of our body and self (to use the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s terminology); it had nothing more than an unconscious state that served as a sort of basic map in the brain tracking the overall state of the body as a single entity in order to accomplish homeostasis.  Then, beyond this protoself there evolved a more sophisticated level of core consciousness where the organism became conscious of the feelings and emotions associated with the body’s internal states, and also became conscious that her feelings and thoughts were her own, further enhancing the sense of self, although still limited to the here-and-now or the present moment.  Finally, beyond this layer of self there evolved an extended consciousness: a form of consciousness that required far more memory, but which brought the organism into an awareness of the past and future, forming an autobiographical self with a perceptual simulator (imagination) that transcended space and time in some sense.

Once humans developed language, then we began to undergo our second form of evolution, namely culture.  After cultural evolution took off, human civilization led to a plethora of new words, concepts, skills, interests, and ways of looking at and structuring the world.  And this evolutionary step was vastly accelerated by written language, the scientific method, and eventually the invention of computers.  But in the time leading up to the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, and finally the advent of computers and the information age, it was arguably Plato’s conceptualization of rational consciousness that paved the way forward to eventually reach those technological and epistemological feats.

It was Plato’s analysis of the human psyche and his effectively distilling the process of reason and rationality from the rest of our thought processes that allowed us to manipulate it, to enhance it, and to explore the true possibilities of this markedly human cognitive capacity.  Aristotle and many others since have merely built upon Plato’s monumental work, developing formal logic, computation, and other means of abstract analysis and information processing.  With the explicit use of reason, we’ve been able to overcome many of our cognitive biases (serving as a kind of “software patch” to our cognitive bugs) in order to discover many true facts about the world, allowing us to unlock a wealth of knowledge that had previously been inaccessible to us.  And it’s important to recognize that Plato’s impact on the history of philosophy has highlighted, more than anything else, our overall psychic evolution as a species.

Despite all the benefits that culture has brought us, there has been one inherent problem with the cultural evolution we’ve undergone: a large desynchronization between our cultural and biological evolution.  That is to say, our culture has evolved far, far faster than our biology ever could, and thus our biology hasn’t kept up with, or adapted us to, the cultural environment we’ve been creating.  And I believe this is a large source of our existential woes; for we have become a “fish out of water” (so to speak) where modern civilization and the way we’ve structured our day-to-day lives is incredibly artificial, filled with a plethora of supernormal stimuli and other factors that aren’t as compatible with our natural psychology.  It makes perfect sense then that many people living in the modern world have had feelings of alienation, loneliness, meaninglessness, anxiety, and disorientation.  And in my opinion, there’s no good or pragmatic way to fix this aside from engineering our genes such that our biology is able to catch up to our ever-changing cultural environment.

It’s also important to recognize that Plato’s idea of the universal, explicated in his theory of Forms, was one of the main impetuses for contemporary existential philosophy; not for its endorsement but rather because the idea that a universal such as “humanity” was somehow more real than any actual individual person fueled a revolt against such notions.  And it wasn’t until Kierkegaard and Nietzsche appeared on the scene in the nineteenth century where we saw an explicit attempt to reverse this Platonic idea; where the individual was finally given precedence and priority over the universal, and where a philosophy of existence was given priority over one of essence.  But one thing the existentialists maintained, as derived from Plato, was his conception that philosophizing was a personal means of salvation, transformation, and a concrete way of living (though this was, according to Plato, best exemplified by his teacher Socrates).

As for the modern existentialists, it was Kierkegaard who eventually brought the figure of Socrates back to life, long after Plato’s later portrayal of Socrates, which had effectively dehumanized him:

“The figure of Socrates as a living human presence dominates all the earlier dialogues because, for the young Plato, Socrates the man was the very incarnation of philosophy as a concrete way of life, a personal calling and search.  It is in this sense too that Kierkegaard, more than two thousand years later, was to revive the figure of Socrates-the thinker who lived his thought and was not merely a professor in an academy-as his precursor in existential thinking…In the earlier, so-called “Socratic”, dialogues the personality of Socrates is rendered in vivid and dramatic strokes; gradually, however, he becomes merely a name, a mouthpiece for Plato’s increasingly systematic views…”

By the time we get to Plato’s student, Aristotle, philosophy had become a purely theoretical undertaking, effectively replacing the subjective qualities of a self-examined life with a far less visceral objective analysis.  Indeed, by this point in time, as Barrett puts it: “…the ghost of the existential Socrates had at last been put to rest.”

As in all cases throughout history, we must take the good with the bad.  And we very likely wouldn’t have the sciences today had it not been for Plato detaching reason from the poetic, religious, and mythological elements of culture and thought, thus giving reason its own identity for the first time in history.  Whatever may have happened, we need to try and understand Greek rationalism as best we can such that we can understand the motivations of those that later objected to it, especially within modern existentialism.

When we look back to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, for example, we find a fairly balanced perspective of human nature and the many motivations that drive our behavior.  But, in evaluating all the possible goods that humans can aim for, in order to derive an answer to the ethical question of what one ought to do above all else, Aristotle claimed that the highest life one could attain was the life of pure reason, the life of the philosopher and the theoretical scientist.  Aristotle thought that reason was the highest part of our personality, where one’s capacity for reason was treated as the center of one’s real self and the core of their identity.  It is this stark description of rationalism that diffused through Western philosophy until bumping heads with modern existentialist thought.

Aristotle’s rationalism even permeated the Christianity of the Medieval period, where it maintained an albeit uneasy relationship between faith and reason as the center of the human personality.  And the quest for a complete view of the cosmos further propagated a valuing of reason as the highest human function.  The inherent problems with this view simply didn’t surface until some later thinkers began to see human existence and the potential of our reason as having a finite character with limitations.  Only then was the grandiose dream of having a complete knowledge of the universe and of our existence finally shattered.  Once this goal was seen as unattainable, we were left alone on an endless road of knowledge with no prospects for any kind of satisfying conclusion.

We can certainly appreciate the value of theoretical knowledge, and even develop a passion for discovering it, but we mustn’t lose sight of the embodied, subjective qualities of our human nature; nor can we successfully argue any longer that the latter can be dismissed due to a goal of reaching some absolute state of knowledge or being.  That goal is not within our reach, and so trying to make arguments that rely on its possibility is nothing more than an exercise of futility.

So now we must ask ourselves a very important question:

“If man can no longer hold before his mind’s eye the prospect of the Great Chain of Being, a cosmos rationally ordered and accessible from top to bottom to reason, what goal can philosophers set themselves that can measure up to the greatness of that old Greek ideal of the bios theoretikos, the theoretical life, which has fashioned the destiny of Western man for millennia?”

I would argue that the most important goal for philosophy has been and always will be the quest for discovering as many moral facts as possible, such that we can attain eudaimonia as Aristotle advocated for.  But rather than holding a life of reason as the greatest good to aim for, we should simply aim for maximal life fulfillment and overall satisfaction with one’s life, and not presuppose what will accomplish that.  We need to use science and subjective experience to inform us of what makes us happiest and the most fulfilled (taking advantage of the psychological sciences), rather than making assumptions about what does this best and simply arguing from the armchair.

And because our happiness and life fulfillment are necessarily evaluated through subjectivity, we mustn’t make the same mistakes of positivism and simply discard our subjective experience.  Rather we should approach morality with the recognition that we are each an embodied subject with emotions, intuitions, and feelings that motivate our desires and our behavior.  But we should also ensure that we employ reason and rationality in our moral analysis, so that our irrational predispositions don’t lead us farther away from any objective moral truths waiting to be discovered.  I’m sympathetic to a quote of Kierkegaard’s that I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“What I really need is to get clear about what I must do, not what I must know, except insofar as knowledge must precede every act.”

I agree with Kierkegaard here, in that moral imperatives are the most important topic in philosophy, and should be the most important driving force in one’s life, rather than simply a drive for knowledge for it’s own sake.  But of course, in order to get clear about what one must do, one first has to know a number of facts pertaining to how any moral imperatives are best accomplished, and what those moral imperatives ought to be (as well as which are most fundamental and basic).  I think the most basic axiomatic moral imperative within any moral system that is sufficiently motivating to follow is going to be that which maximizes one’s life fulfillment; that which maximizes one’s chance of achieving eudaimonia.  I can’t imagine any greater goal for humanity than that.

Here is the link for part 5 of this post series.

Some Thoughts on “Fear & Trembling”

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I’ve been meaning to write this post for quite some time, but haven’t had the opportunity until now, so here it goes.  I want to explore some of Kierkegaard’s philosophical claims or themes in his book Fear and Trembling.  Kierkegaard regarded himself as a Christian and so there are a lot of literary themes revolving around faith and the religious life, but he also centers a lot of his philosophy around the subjective individual, all of which I’d like to look at in more detail.

In Fear and Trembling, we hear about the story found in Genesis (Ch. 22) where Abraham attempts to sacrifice his own beloved son Isaac, after hearing God command him to do so.  For those unfamiliar with this biblical story, after they journey out to mount Moriah he binds Isaac to an alter, and as Abraham draws his knife to slit the throat of his beloved son, an angel appears just in time and tells him to stop “for now I know that you fear God”.  Then Abraham sees a goat nearby and sacrifices it instead of his son.  Kierkegaard uses this story in various ways, and considers four alternative versions of it (and their consequences), to explicate the concept of faith as admirable though fundamentally incomprehensible and unintelligible.

He begins his book by telling us about a man who has deeply admired this story of Abraham ever since he first heard it as a child, with this admiration for it growing stronger over time while understanding the story less and less.  The man considers four alternative versions of the story to try and better understand Abraham and how he did what he did, but never manages to obtain this understanding.

I’d like to point out here that an increased confusion would be expected if the man has undergone moral and intellectual growth during his journey from childhood to adulthood.  We tend to be more impulsive, irrational and passionate as children, with less regard for any ethical framework to live by.  And sure enough, Kierkegaard even mentions the importance of passion in making a leap of faith.  Nevertheless, as we continue to mature and accumulate life experience, we tend to develop some control over our passions and emotions, we build up our intellect and rationality, and also further develop an ethic with many ethical behaviors becoming habituated if cultivated over time.  If a person cultivates moral virtues like compassion, honesty, and reasonableness, then it would be expected that they’d find Abraham’s intended act of murder (let alone filicide) repugnant.  But, regardless of the reasons for the man’s lack of understanding, he admires the story more and more, likely because it reveres Abraham as the father of faith, and portrays faith itself as a most honorable virtue.

Kierkegaard’s main point in Fear and Trembling is that one has to suspend their relation to the ethical (contrary to Kant and Hegel), in order to make any leap of faith, and that there’s no rational decision making process involved.  And so it seems clear that Kierkegaard knows that what Abraham did in this story was entirely unethical (attempting to kill an innocent child) in at least one sense of the word ethical, but he believes nevertheless that this doesn’t matter.

To see where he’s coming from, we need to understand Kierkegaard’s idea that there are basically three ways or stages of living, namely the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.  The aesthetic life is that of sensuous or felt experience, infinite potentiality through imagination, hiddenness or privacy, and an overarching egotism focused on the individual.  The ethical life supersedes or transcends this aesthetic way of life by relating one to “the universal”, that is, to the common good of all people, to social contracts, and to the betterment of others over oneself.  The ethical life, according to Kierkegaard, also consists of public disclosure or transparency.  Finally, the religious life supersedes the ethical (and thus also supersedes the aesthetic) but shares some characteristics of both the aesthetic and the ethical.

The religious, like the aesthetic, operates on the level of the individual, but with the added component of the individual having a direct relation to God.  And just like the ethical, the religious appeals to a conception of good and evil behavior, but God is the arbiter in this way of life rather than human beings or their nature.  Thus the sphere of ethics that Abraham might normally commit himself to in other cases is thought to be superseded by the religious sphere, the sphere of faith.  Within this sphere of faith, Abraham assumes that anything that God commands is Abraham’s absolute duty to uphold, and he also has faith that this will lead to the best ends.  This of course, is known as a form of divine command theory, which is actually an ethical and meta-ethical theory.  Although Kierkegaard claims that the religious is somehow above the ethical, it is for the most part just another way of living that involves another ethical principle.  In this case, the ethical principle is for one to do whatever God commands them to (even if these commands are inconsistent or morally repugnant from a human perspective), and this should be done rather than abiding by our moral conscience or some other set of moral rules, social mores, or any standards based on human judgment, human nature, etc.

It appears that the primary distinction between the ethical and the religious is the leap of faith that is made in the latter stage of living which involves an act performed “in virtue of the absurd”.  For example, Abraham’s faith in God was really a faith that God wouldn’t actually make him kill his son Isaac.  Had Abraham been lacking in this particular faith, Kierkegaard seems to argue that Abraham’s conscience and moral perspective (which includes “the universal”) would never have allowed him to do what he did.  Thus, Abraham’s faith, according to Kierkegaard, allowed him to (at least temporarily) suspend the ethical in virtue of the absurd notion that somehow the ethical would be maintained in the end.  In other words, Abraham thought that he could obey God’s command, even if this command was prima facie immoral, because he had faith that God wouldn’t actually make Abraham perform an unethical act.

I find it interesting that this particular function or instantiation of faith, as outlined by Kierkegaard, makes for an unusual interpretation of divine command theory.  If divine command theory attempts to define good or moral behavior as that which God commands, and if a leap of faith (such as that which Abraham took) can involve a belief that the end result of an unconscionable commandment is actually its negation or retraction, then a leap of faith such as that taken by Abraham would serve to contradict divine command theory to at least some degree.  It would seem that Kierkegaard wants to believe in the basic premise of divine command theory and therefore have an absolute duty to obey whatever God commands, and yet he also wants to believe that if this command goes against a human moral system or the human conscience, it will not end up doing so when one goes to carry out what has actually been commanded of them.  This seems to me to be an unusual pair of beliefs for one to hold simultaneously, for divine command theory allows for Abraham to have actually carried out the murder of his son (with no angel stopping him at the last second), and this heinous act would have been considered a moral one under such an awful theory.  And yet, Abraham had faith that this divine command would somehow be nullified and therefore reconciled with his own conscience and relation to the universal.

Kierkegaard has something to say about beliefs, and how they differ from faith-driven dispositions, and it’s worth noting this since most of us use the term “belief” as including that which one has faith in.  For Kierkegaard, belief implies that one is assured of its truth in some way, whereas faith requires one to accept the possibility that what they have faith in could be proven wrong.  Thus, it wasn’t enough for Abraham to believe in an absolute duty to obey whatever God commanded of him, because that would have simply been a case of obedience, and not faith.  Instead, Abraham also had to have faith that God would let Abraham spare his son Isaac, while accepting the possibility that he may be proven wrong and end up having to kill his son after all.  As such, Kierkegaard wouldn’t accept the way the term “faith” is often used in modern religious parlance.  Religious practitioners often say that they have faith in something and yet “know it to be true”, “know it for certain”, “know it will happen”, etc.  But if Abraham truly believed (let alone knew for certain) that God wouldn’t make him kill Isaac, then God’s command wouldn’t have served as any true test of faith.  So while Abraham may have believed that he had to kill his son, he also had faith that his son wouldn’t die, hence making a leap of faith in virtue of the absurd.

This distinction between belief and faith also seems to highlight Kierkegaard’s belief in some kind of prophetic consequentialist ethical framework.  Whereas most Christians tend to side with a Kantian deontological ethical system, Kierkegaard points out that ethical systems have rules which are meant to promote the well-being of large groups of people.  And since humans lack the ability to see far into the future, it’s possible that some rules made under this kind of ignorance may actually lead to an end that harms twenty people and only helps one.  Kierkegaard believes that faith in God can answer this uncertainty and circumvent the need to predict the outcome of our moral rules by guaranteeing a better end given the vastly superior knowledge that God has access to.  And any ethical system that appeals to the ends as justifying the means is a form of consequentialism (utilitarianism is perhaps the most common type of ethical consequentialism).

Although I disagree with Kiergegaard on a lot of points, such as his endorsement of divine command theory, and his appeal to an epistemologically bankrupt behavior like taking a leap of faith, I actually agree with Kierkegaard on his teleological ethical reasoning.  He’s right in his appealing to the ends in order to justify the means, and he’s right to want maximal knowledge involved in determining how best to achieve those ends.  It seems clear to me that all moral systems ultimately break down to a form of consequentialism anyway (a set of hypothetical imperatives), and any disagreement between moral systems is really nothing more than a disagreement about what is factual or a disagreement about which consequences should be taken into account (e.g. happiness of the majority, happiness of the least well off, self-contentment for the individual, how we see ourselves as a person, etc.).

It also seems clear that if you are appealing to some set of consequences in determining what is and is not moral behavior, then having maximal knowledge is your best chance of achieving those ends.  But we can only determine the reliability of the knowledge by seeing how well it predicts the future (through inferred causal relations), and that means we can only establish the veracity of any claimed knowledge through empirical means.  Since nobody has yet been able to establish that a God (or gods) exists through any empirical means, it goes without saying that nobody has been able to establish the veracity of any God-knowledge.

Lacking the ability to test this, one would also need to have faith in God’s knowledge, which means they’ve merely replaced one form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual ends of human moral systems) with another form of uncertainty (the predicted versus actual knowledge of God).  Since the predicted versus actual ends of our moral systems can actually be tested, while the knowledge of God cannot, then we have a greater uncertainty in God’s knowledge than in the efficacy and accuracy of our own moral systems.  This is a problem for Kierkegaard, because his position seems to be that the leap of faith taken by Abraham was essentially grounded on the assumption that God had superior knowledge to achieve the best telos, and thus his position is entirely unsupportable.

Aside from the problems inherent in Kierkegaard’s beliefs about faith and God, I do like his intense focus on the priority of the individual.  As mentioned already, both the aesthetic and religious ways of life that have been described operate on this individual level.  However, one criticism I have to make about Kierkegaard’s life-stage trichotomy is that morality/ethics actually does operate on the individual level even if it also indirectly involves the community or society at large.  And although it is not egotistic like the aesthetic life is said to be, it is egoistic because rational self-interest is in fact at the heart of all moral systems that are consistent and sufficiently motivating to follow.

If you maximize your personal satisfaction and life fulfillment by committing what you believe to be a moral act over some alternative that you believe will make you less fulfilled and thus less overall satisfied (such as not obeying God), then you are acting for your own self-interest (by obeying God), even if you are not acting in an explicitly selfish way.  A person can certainly be wrong about what will actually make them most satisfied and fulfilled, but this doesn’t negate one’s intention to do so.  Acting for the betterment of others over oneself (i.e. living by or for “the universal”) involves behaviors that lead you to a more fulfilling life, in part based on how those actions affect your view of yourself and your character.  If one believes in gods or a God, then their perspective on their belief of how God sees them will also affect their view of themselves.  In short, a properly formulated ethics is centered around the individual even if it seems otherwise.

Given the fact that Kierkegaard seems to have believed that the ethical life revolved around the universal rather than the individual, perhaps it’s no wonder that he would choose to elevate some kind of individualistic stage of life, namely the religious life, over that of the ethical.  It would be interesting to see how his stages of life may have looked had he believed in a more individualistic theory of ethics.  I find that an egoistic ethical framework actually fits quite nicely with the rest of Kierkegaard’s overtly individualistic philosophy.

He ends this book by pointing out that passion is required in order to have faith, and passion isn’t something that somebody can teach us, unlike the epistemic fruits of rational reflection.  Instead, passion has to be experienced firsthand in order for us to understand it at all.  He contrasts this passion with the disinterested intellectualization involved in reflection, which was the means used in Hegel’s approach to try and understand faith.

Kierkegaard doesn’t think that Hegel’s method will suffice since it isn’t built upon a fundamentally subjective experiential foundation and instead tries to understand faith and systematize it through an objective analysis based on logic and rational reflection.  Although I see logic and rational reflection as most important for best achieving our overall happiness and life fulfillment, I can still appreciate the significant role of passion and felt experience within the human condition, our attraction to it, and it’s role in religious belief.  I can also appreciate how our overall satisfaction and life fulfillment are themselves instantiated and evaluated as a subjective felt experience, and one that is entirely individualistic.  And so I can’t help but agree with Kierkegaard, in recognizing that there is no substitute for a subjective experience, and no way to adequately account for the essence of those experiences through entirely non-subjective (objective) means.

The individual subject and their conscious experience is of primary importance (it’s the only thing we can be certain exists), and the human need to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world is perhaps the most important facet of that ongoing conscious experience.  Even though I disagree with a lot of what Kierkegaard believed, it wasn’t all bull$#!+.  I think he captured and expressed some very important points about the individual and some of the psychological forces that color the view of our personal identity and our own existence.

“The Brothers Karamazov”: A Moral & Philosophical Critique (Part IV)

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Throughout this post series on Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (click here for parts 1, 2, and 3), I’ve been writing about some of the themes and concepts that are of particular interest to me, for example, the concepts of moral objectivity, God, an afterlife, immortal souls, free will and determinism, moral desert, and others.  In this post, I wanted to tie these themes all together with the main theme present throughout this entire novel, namely the existentially relevant conflict between religious faith and doubt.

Dostoyevsky clearly has a bias toward a world view that is based on or embedded within religious faith, and this can be seen most explicitly by the distinctions he makes between the idealistic religious characters Alyosha and father Zosima, and that of the logical skepticism instantiated by the atheistic Ivan (and through his influence, Smerdyakov).  Alyosha and Zosima clearly display an active form of love, forgiveness, and a consistent effort to do good in the world presumably predicated on their belief in the existence of God (though a very particular formulation of God is necessary here, not simply any kind of God).  Ivan on the other hand, as a result of his attributes of rationality, logic, and the importance he places on empirical evidence and analysis, ends up rejecting any belief in God (or at least, rejecting any belief in a good or loving God due to the Problem of Evil), rejecting conventional notions of (or foundations for) morality, and subsequently maintains a cold and callous view of mankind while suffering from a debilitating form of inner despair.

From the contrast seen between these limited character types (and many more characters in the novel), we are to ascertain that a life embedded in religious faith is clearly one with more happiness, stability, and goodness, whereas a life presumably encumbered by religious doubt is a life filled with chaos, despair, and often evil or immoral behavior.  As I’ve alluded to in my previous posts in this series, I think this perspective is highly flawed for a number of reasons.  However, in defense of Dostoyevsky’s perspective, I will say that I think it is often the case that religious faith inspires people to be happier than they otherwise would be, that it often gives people another form of social or psychological stability in an otherwise chaotic world (that’s why humans invented religion in the first place), and that it can lead people to do many good things.  And likewise, I will even concede that religious doubt or atheistic worldviews can often be nihilistic, and if so, can lead to less happy lives, less social or psychological stability, and possibly leading to more immoral behavior (though some religious beliefs can promote immoral behavior as well).  I wouldn’t describe my own atheism this way by any means, but many atheists would likely fit the bill (so to speak).

The problem however with Dostoyevsky’s perspective is that it is misleading with respect to the implied inherent characteristics of these divergent world views (theism vs. atheism), the obvious social and institutional causal factors that reinforce those different types of behaviors (what religious and non-religious institutions exist at any point in time), and the fact that people that abandon or reject religious faith often haven’t critically examined or formulated the philosophical foundations for their belief systems.  People that are indoctrinated with various religious beliefs often use the religion itself (or various theological claims) and the cultural traditions that have followed from them, as the foundation for many of their beliefs including those pertaining to morality, a sense of purpose, and ultimate meaning in their lives — a mistaken foundation that unfortunately has become deeply ingrained in our society and for quite some time now.

This erroneous foundation has become deeply ingrained, most especially in societies that have been Christianized or that have been theocratic at one time or another.  As a result, even if secularization eventually occurs in those societies (with the separation of church and state often improving lives by increasing equality and human rights), many non-religious individuals within those societies simply don’t know how to ground many of their beliefs within some secular/atheistic philosophical framework.  The assumed religious foundation for many of those beliefs has simply been taken for granted, and if that foundation goes away with secularization, and people actually realize that the foundation they once had for those beliefs is no longer valid, many people don’t know how to avoid slipping into some form of nihilism.

Nietzsche spoke about this process in his Will to Power, that is, the process of inevitably slipping into nihilism once one realizes that the foundation for their beliefs is in fact a false one.  The problem is, as Nietzsche pointed out, that nihilism should be treated as merely a transitional stage since it is ultimately pathological, and like all pathologies, ultimately needs to be overcome.  People slipping into nihilism and then concluding that life is meaningless or that moral action is meaningless is really a result of a false generalization.  Rather than rejecting their old beliefs and striving to search for new beliefs or a new foundation for them, some people simply give up the search and then erroneously think that there can’t be any real meaning in their lives or in humanity.  Nietzsche saw this perceived futility as fallacious, and believed that it really should be seen as an opportunity for one to find their own form of meaning for their lives, without any need of anything superhuman or supernatural.  Once one realizes this error in their nihilism, they can shift from a passive form of nihilism to an active one, such that it truly becomes a transitional stage toward a non-nihilistic world view.

In The Brothers Karamazov, the atheistic character, Ivan, seems to have simply fallen into a more or less passive form of nihilism.  As such, Ivan seems to have made the same erroneous generalization that Nietzsche warned us of.  Having been so deeply entrenched in a Christianized society, his lack of belief in God has pulled his (presumably original) foundation for morality out from under him, leading him to think that without God, anything is permissible and therefore no action can be said to be truly good or bad.  Dostoyevsky seems to believe (or so implies with his characters) that this passive form of nihilism (or something analogous to it) is all that can result with individuals that lack religious faith.  And on the other end of the spectrum, his devout religious characters (Alyosha and father Zosima in particular) don’t suffer from this problem because their belief in God, some of their religious traditions, and their particular religious perspective, have bestowed upon them a perceived foundation for their values and purpose in life.  Though this foundation is one that is not based on reason and evidence and therefore can have no reasonable claim of being true or valid, religious people nevertheless believe that it is true and valid and so it inevitably motivates their behavior which can often be for good.

So I think it’s fair to say that I agree with Dostoyevsky at least insofar as religious doubt (when compared to religious faith) can lead people down a path of decreased happiness and with a general disregard for (at least certain) moral considerations.  However, this is generally only going to be the case when those with religious doubt slip into a passive form of nihilism (rather than an active form, that can lead to a re-grounding and/or reformulation of one’s values).  And Ivan, with his admiration for evidence-based logic, should have realized that this passive form of nihilism is irrational and illogical, a fact that becomes obvious once one critically considers what human morality really is and what it is not (i.e. it is not rationally nor pragmatically based on Divine Command Theory, or any form of religious faith or dogma — even if people mistakenly believe this to be the case).  And it is a fact that becomes obvious once one realizes how morality is actually grounded in the natural world, where it can be described and optimized using a number of objective facts pertaining to our psychology, our biology, and how we interact with one another as a social species.

The radical freedom that people find themselves possessing in this world creates an existential crisis as Dostoyevsky and many other philosophers (such as Kierkegaard, Sartre and others) have talked about at great length.  This crisis leads many people into adopting any manner of beliefs, including but not limited to religious beliefs, to help them cope with this burden of choice (among other things to cope with), and to help make sense of a highly chaotic world.  Others that reject the religious path for coping and that are also unable to do so within their atheistic framework, will likely be led to a worldview full of despair and (passive) nihilism.  But if people want to have the most fulfilling lives that they can, while also seeking the truth to make as responsible of decisions as they are able to (including moral decisions), then they must find a way to incorporate reason and evidence into their philosophical framework (which means eventually rejecting religious faith and dogma) while not losing sight of the non-nihilistic end goal that they ought to strive for.

We need to give our own meaning to our lives and only then will we will be able to maximize our personal satisfaction and life fulfillment.  The current challenge for our society is finding more ways of replacing religious institutions with secular versions that accomplish the social cohesive structure that many people long for, and to better prepare and empower our children and the young adults in our society with more rigorous philosophical training in ethics and epistemology.  Reading the works of wonderful authors such as Dostoyevsky should be a part of this philosophical training, so we can look at our lives from multiple perspectives with any number of often difficult to describe nuances and subtleties, to find the truths and flaws in those perspectives and build off of them to better understand ourselves and to get where we want to go as individuals and as a species.  I must say that I’ve rather enjoyed writing this post series, reading this wonderful novel, and I hope to do more post series like these in the future.

The Book of Acts as Historical Fiction

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Previously, I wrote a series of posts that mentioned several elements from Richard Carrier’s historical/literary analysis of the Gospels in the New Testament (showing that they are not historically reliable, but are rather allegorical fictions), as discussed in his book On the Historicity of Jesus.  I decided to write a complementary post which mentions various elements from Carrier’s analysis of the Acts of the Apostles, since it is believed to have been written by the same author as The Gospel According to Luke.  Let’s begin.

Although it is implied in the preface of the book of Acts that it is supposed to be some kind of historical account, this couldn’t be further from the truth.  In fact, Acts has been thoroughly discredited as nothing more than a work of apologetic historical fiction, and the scholarship of Richard Pervo conclusively demonstrates this to be the case.  Regarding any historical sources that Luke may have used for Acts, the only one that has been confirmed with any probability was that of Josephus (a person who never wrote about Jesus Christ nor Christianity, yet was likely used by Luke for background material), and although there may have been more historical sources than Josephus, we simply don’t have any evidence preserved from those other possible historians to make a case one way or the other.  All of the other sources that we can discern within Acts are literary sources, not historical ones.  Included in these literary sources is what may possibly have been a (now-lost) hagiographical fabrication, and basically a rewrite of the Elijah-Elisha narrative in some of the Old Testament (OT) texts of Kings, although placing Paul and Jesus in the main roles instead, which obviously would have been a literary source of historical fiction (not any kind of historical account).

The scholar Thomas Brodie has argued that this evident reworking of the Kings narrative starts in Luke’s Gospel and continues on until Acts chapter 15, thus indicating that Luke either integrated this literary creation into his story or he used an underlying source text, such as some previous Gospel that not only covered the acts of Jesus but also the acts of the apostles.  So it appears that Luke either used this source text or his own literary idea and then inserted more stories into it, effectively expanding the whole story into two books, while also utilizing some material from Mark and Matthew during the process (and potentially other now-lost Gospels) and some material from the epistles of Paul.  In any case, the unnamed source text mentioned thus far is a hypothetical one that can only be inferred to have existed from the evidence of what’s written in Acts.  Luckily, the remaining literary sources that scholars can discern Luke used are indeed sources we actually have and thus can directly compare to and analyze.

As an example, the scholar Dennis MacDonald has shown that Luke also reworked fictional tales written by Homer, replacing the characters and some of the outcomes as needed to suit his literary purposes.  MacDonald informs us in his The Shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul (New Testament Studies, 45, pp. 88-107) that:

The shipwrecks of Odysseus and Paul share nautical images and vocabulary, the appearance of a goddess or angel assuring safety, the riding of planks, the arrival of the hero on an island among hospitable strangers, the mistaking of the hero as a god, and the sending of him on his way [in a new ship].

Paul actually tells us himself that he was shipwrecked three times, and that at least one time he spent a day and night adrift (2 Cor. 11.25).  It’s possible that Luke was inspired by this detail given by Paul and used it to invent a story that expanded on it, while borrowing other ideas and details from famous shipwreck narratives including those found in Jonah, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid.  In fact, Acts rewrites Homer a number of other times.  Paul’s resurrection of the fallen Eutychus was based on the fallen Elpenor.  The visions of Cornelius and Peter were constructed from a similar narrative that was written about Agamemnon.  Paul’s farewell at Miletus was made from Hector’s farewell to Andromache.  The lottery of Matthias we hear about was built off of the lottery of Ajax.  Even Peter’s escape from prison was lifted from Priam’s escape from Achilles.  There are other literary sources besides Homer that the author of Acts used as well.  For example, the prison breaks in Acts share several themes with the famously miraculous prison breaks found in the Bacchae of Euripedes such as the miraculous unlocking of chains and being able to escape due to an earthquake (compare Acts 12.6-7 and 16.26 to Bacchae pp. 440-49, 585-94).

However, the source that Acts seems to employ more than any other is the Septuagint.  While MacDonald has shown that the overall structure of the Peter and Cornelius story is based on writings from Homer, the scholar Randel Helms has shown that other elements were in fact borrowed from the book of Ezekiel in the OT, thus merging both story models into a single one.  For example, both Peter and Ezekiel see the heavens open up (Acts 10.11; Ezek. 1.1), both of them are commanded to eat something in their vision (Acts 10.13; Ezek. 2.9), both respond to God twice by saying “By no means, Lord!” using the exact same Greek phrase (Acts 10.14, 11.8; Ezek. 4.14, 20.49), both are asked to eat unclean food, and finally both protest saying that they have never eaten anything unclean before (Acts 10.14; Ezek. 4.14).  Clearly, the author of Acts isn’t recording anything from historical memory, but rather is assembling a fictional story using literary structures and motifs that don’t have much if anything to do with what happened to Peter or Paul.  The author appears to be inventing this “history” in order to convince his readers of how the previously-required Torah-observance was abandoned in early Christianity, and to convince his readers that this abandonment of Torah-observance was even approved by Peter all along, and confirmed to be approved of through divine revelation.  Yet, we know this to be a lie because Paul even tells us himself (in Gal. 2) that he was for a long time the only advocate for a Torah-free version of Christianity, and it was merely tolerated by Torah observers like Peter (and often contentiously so).  Similarly, in Acts 15.7-11, we can see that it is basically just Paul’s speech from Gal. 2.14-21 put into Peter’s mouth, which is the exact opposite of what Paul told us actually happened.

In fact, all the other stories in Acts are just like this, where they are a fictional product created from prior literary sources that had no relevance to any actual Christian history, just so Luke could make a point that he thought was important.  There may have been some actual authentic sources behind some of the events we read about throughout Acts, but there is simply no evidence for them, nor any way to discern what those historical elements could even be since if any exist, they are embedded in what looks to be a literary invention as opposed to any kind of real history.  It seems that Luke was writing this to sell some particular idea of how the church began and later evolved in its early years.  Just as Luke had done in his Gospel, Acts tries to portray the Torah-observant and Gentile sects of Christianity as having been continuous and harmonized, it tries to stress the close relationship between Paul and the other apostles, and also the unity of the first believers.  In doing so, the author of Acts had to undermine the Epistles of Paul, most especially Galatians.

One example that shows us the historical revisionism seen throughout Acts is the fact that Paul tells us himself that he “was unknown by face to the churches of Judea ” until a number of years after his conversion (Gal. 1.22-23), he tells us that after his conversion he went away to Arabia before eventually returning to Damascus, and he tells us that he didn’t go to Jerusalem for at least three years (Gal. 1.15-18).  Yet, in Acts 7-9, the author tells us that Paul was known to and interacting with the Jerusalem church non-stop from the beginning (even before his conversion), and rather than going to Arabia immediately after his conversion, in Acts we are told that he went immediately to Damascus and then back to Jerusalem but a few weeks later, never ever spending so much as a minute in Arabia.  So Acts is filled with confirmed instances of historical revisionism, rather than any actual historical accounts.

Another more obvious example of Luke’s inventiveness in Acts is when he expands Jesus’ post-resurrection time on earth to an entire span of forty days, with Jesus hanging out (in secret) with his disciples and dozens upon dozens of other believers.  During this time, he has Jesus teaching them even more than he did while he was alive, before having Jesus fly up to outer space to reside with angels (Acts 1.3-12).  This is a clear-cut example of myth in the making.

The scholar Burton Mack has given other examples of how Luke’s version of the history of early Christianity in Acts is entirely unrealistic.  He tells us:

Luke says that the standard sermon was preached to the Jews on the day of the Pentecost and often thereafter, whereupon hundreds converted and the whole world became the church’s parish overnight…[but this is] a story that does not make sense as history by any standard.

Not only is this nonsensical in terms of the ridiculously hyperbolized growth rate, but also in the most general sense of how people would have really behaved.  As Mack says:

No Jew worth his salt would have converted when being told that he was guilty of killing the messiah.  No Greek would have been persuaded by the dismal logic of the argumentation of the sermons.  The scene would not have made sense as history to anyone during the first century with first-hand knowledge of Christians, Jews, and the date of the temple in Jerusalem.  So what do we have on our hands?  An imaginary reconstruction in the interest of aggrandizing an amalgam view of Christianity early in the second century.  Luke did this by painting over the messy history of conflictual movements throughout the first century and in his own time.  He cleverly depicted Peter and Paul as preachers of an identical gospel…That is mythmaking in the genre of epic.  There is not the slightest reason to take it seriously as history.

To summarize Mack’s conclusion, the narrative we see in Acts is so incredible and unrealistic, it couldn’t possibly have been based on historical events.  Rather, it is what Luke wanted to have happened and/or what he wants his readers to believe happened.  This sentiment applies throughout the entire book of Acts.  In terms of background information, this conclusion comes as no surprise since all other “Acts” literature written by Christians was entirely fabricated as well, for example the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Thomas, and all of these Christian fabrications look quite similar to the Acts that we find in the NT.  There simply isn’t any reason to trust the Acts found in the NT anymore than these other Christian fabrications, especially after having demonstrated that it is riddled with hyperbole and historical fiction.

Adding to this is the large number of literary coincidences (just as we saw in the earlier post-series concerning the four Gospels in the NT), which aren’t at all believable as history.  As the scholar Robert Price observed:

Peter and Paul are paralleled, each raising someone from the dead (Acts 9.36-40, 20.9-12), each healing a paralytic (3.1-8, 14.8-10), each healing by extraordinary, magical means (5.15, 19.11-12), each besting a sorcerer (8.18-23, 13.6-11), each miraculously escaping prison (12.6-10, 16.25-26).

Likewise, just as Peter was sent by God to save Cornelius after he sends for Peter following a vision (Acts 10), Paul is also sent by God to save the Macedonians “when a certain Macedonian man ” sends for him in a vision (Acts 6.9-10).  Luke also made Paul’s story parallel that of Christ’s, where, as Price tells us “both undertake peripatetic preaching journeys, culminating in a last long journey to Jerusalem, where each is arrested in connection with a disturbance in the temple “, and then “each is acquitted by a Herodian monarch, as well as acquitted by Roman procurators “.  Furthermore, both are interrogated by “the chief prests and the whole Sanhedrin” (Acts 22.30; Luke 22.66; cross-referencing Mark 14.55, 15.1), and finally both know that their death is pre-ordained and they both make predictions about what will happen afterward, not long before they die (Luke 21.5-28; Acts 20.22-38; cross-referencing 21.4).

Notably however, Paul does almost everything at a larger scale than Jesus.  Paul’s journeys traverse a much larger region of the world, almost the entire northeastern Mediterranean in fact.  Paul also travels on and around a significantly larger sea than Jesus did (Mediterranean vs. Sea of Galilee).  Even during the one particular journey by sea where Paul faces death from a perilous storm, and is saved by faith, on Paul’s occasion his ship is actually destroyed thus dramatically exceeding the level of peril that Jesus had faced during the storm he encountered.  We also hear that Paul’s trial spanned several years rather than merely a single night as was the case for Jesus.  Unlike Jesus, we hear that there were actual armies plotting to assassinate Paul, and also unlike Jesus, we hear that Paul had actual armies come to rescue him (Acts 23.20-24).  Whereas Jesus was said to stir up violence against himself by his reading scripture in a synagogue (Luke 4.16-30), Paul actually stirs up violence against himself by his reading scripture in two synagogues (Acts 13.14-52, 17.1-5).  Though Paul and Jesus both die and are resurrected from the dead, Paul alone marches right back in the city unharmed and continues to preach the gospel in public throughout the region (as if entirely unimpeded), winning many more disciples for Jesus as a result (Acts 14.19-21), whereas Jesus didn’t win any new disciples after his resurrection and didn’t even attempt to do so.  Even at the end, unlike Jesus, Paul is eventually sent to meet none other than the emperor of Rome himself — another example of something that Jesus was never said to have accomplished.  So despite all the coincidental parallels between Paul and Jesus, by Luke’s account in Acts, Paul has been colored as someone who was not only far more famous and more successful than Jesus was, but also one who faced more dangers and at larger scales.

All of these parallels found between Peter and Paul, and between Paul and Jesus, are simply wholly improbable as history.  Another parallel (or set of parallels) worthy of mention concerns the account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9.1-20), which looks like nothing more than a rewrite of the Emmaus narrative found in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24.13-35), which is another demonstrably fictional story.  Both stories involve a journey on a road from Jerusalem to another city (Emmaus: Luke 24.13; Damascus: Acts 9.1-3).  Both stories feature a revelation of Jesus Christ; in Luke the revelation came as “they drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “they were going (poreuein) ” (Luke 24.28), whereas in Acts the revelation came as Paul “drew near (eggizein) ” the city where “he was going (poreuein) ” (Acts 9.3).  In both stories we read that Jesus appears and rebukes the unbeliever and then gives them instruction, and accordingly they become believers and then continue on their way to preach what they’ve now come to believe.  Both stories involve at least three men on the road together and yet only one of those men is actually named (Paul [as Saul] in Acts, and Cleopas in Luke 24.18).  In both stories “the chief priests” of Jerusalem are portrayed as the enemies of the church (Luke 24.20; Acts 9.1, 14).  In Luke’s Gospel we hear that God said Jesus had to suffer whereas in Acts we hear that God said that Paul had to suffer (Luke 24.26; Acts 9.16).  Both stories feature some form of blindness, where Paul is blinded by the divine light of his vision in (Acts 9.8), and Cleopas and his friend are unable to see that their fellow traveler is Jesus (Luke 24.16).  Both stories also end with this blindness reversed (Acts 9.17-18; Luke 24.31).  In Luke’s Emmaus narrative, the visitation occurs on the third day (Luke 24.21), and in Acts the visitation is followed by a blindness that lasts for three days (Acts 9.9).  Finally, in Luke, the blindness is cured after a meal begins (Luke 24.30-31), where in Acts, a meal begins after the blindness is lifted (Acts 9.18-19).

As we can see, in order for Acts to be any kind of history, one would have to assume that all of these parallels are merely historical coincidences which is orders of magnitude less probable than that they are simply inventions that were intentionally created to reflect one another.  It’s certainly possible for a couple of these coincidences to be historical, but it is nigh impossible for all of them to be historical.  Either way, there isn’t any way to weed out any of the possible historical details from within this plethora of fictional constructions.  Overall, Acts just shares far too many features with popular adventure novels that were written during the same period, in order to lend it any trust as history.  Here’s an overview of those features:

1) They all promote a particular god or religion.
2) They are all travel narratives.
3) They all involve miraculous or amazing events.
4) They all include encounters with fabulous or exotic people.
5) They often incorporate a theme of chaste couples that are separated and then reunited.
6) They all feature exciting narratives of captivities and escapes.
7) They often include themes of persecution.
8) They often include episodes involving excited crowds.
9) They often involve divine rescues from danger.
10) They often have divine revelations which are integral to the plot

Since Acts shares all of these features and thus looks exactly like an ancient novel of the period, there is simply no good reason to assume that all of the parallels it has with other literary sources are merely historical coincidences.  Rather, we should conclude that they are in fact what they have been shown to be: literary constructs and other elements of fiction.

Luke, Acts & The Historicity of Jesus

Clearly Luke constructed tales that were meant to affirm the historicity of Jesus, that Jesus was resurrected from the dead (resulting in a conspicuously empty tomb), that he was touched by his disciples, that he slept and dined with them during a forty-day “retreat” that was held in secret behind closed doors, and that he then flew off into outer space while they all watched (Luke 24 and Acts 1).  It goes without saying that all of this is ridiculous and obviously not historical.  There aren’t any witnesses to these events other than fanatical followers, and so not a single disinterested person ever verified any of it.  It isn’t until Acts 2 that we first hear about the public history of the Christian mission where Christians start publicly announcing their gospel.

However, something rather strange occurs at this point.  Throughout Acts‘ supposed history of the movement, from the time it goes public in the city of Jerusalem, at no point in the story (not in any of the 28 chapters) do we hear about either the Romans or the Jews ever showing any knowledge of there being a missing body.  Likewise, we never hear about them taking any action to investigate what could only be to them a crime of tomb robbery and desecration of the dead, which were both quite severe offenses punishable by death.  Matthew’s Gospel even claims that the Jewish authorities accused the Christians of such crimes before Pilate himself (Matt. 27.62-66; 28.4, 11-15), and although this too is certainly fiction, it does illustrate what could not have failed to happen, if a body actually went missing.

Due to the fact that Christians were trying to use the missing body as evidence for a risen Jesus, they certainly would have been the first suspects of such a tomb robbery, if it had indeed occurred.  At best, they would have been secondary suspects, if indeed Joseph of Arimathea was the last person known to have custody of the body (Mark 15.43-46; Matt. 27.57-60; Luke 23.51-56; John 19.38-42).  So he would have been the first person hauled in for questioning, and yet, conspicuously he is nowhere mentioned in this history of the church, as if nobody knew anything about him (or as if he didn’t exist).  If he hadn’t been hauled in for questioning (whether he existed or not), the Christians would have been next in line to be hauled in for questioning for such an offense.  Yet, we never hear a single event in Acts where Christians were accused by Romans or Jews of grave robbery, which implies that there wasn’t any missing body to investigate, and thus no empty tomb known to the Roman or Jewish authorities.  This means that Christians couldn’t have been pointing to an empty tomb as evidence, for they would have been questioned about it, and possibly convicted whether they were involved or not with the disappearance of the body.  Acts is conspicuously silent on this matter and suggests that there were never any disputes whatsoever regarding the body, there weren’t even any false accusations of theft mentioned, nor were there any questions about it at all.

More importantly, the Romans would have had a larger problem to deal with here other than simply grave robbery, for the Christians were said to have been preaching that Jesus had escaped his execution (whether described as a supernatural event or not), that he was seen congregating with his followers, and that he disappeared.  It is doubtful that Pilate or the Sanhedrin would have believed any claims that Jesus had risen from the dead (nor is there any evidence that they did believe this), but if the tomb was empty and Jesus’ followers had been reporting that he had continued to preach to them and thus was still a fugitive, Pilate would have been inclined if not obligated to haul in every Christian for questioning and undergo a massive manhunt for such a threatening escaped convict.  Furthermore, the Sanhedrin would have also been obligated to find and kill Jesus as per their initial plan.  However, we don’t hear any of this happening in Acts.  Nobody asked where Jesus was hiding at, nor who helped him to escape.  This is more than enough to prove that Acts‘ account of the events here is fiction, let alone completely unrealistic.  There was no missing body, no empty tomb, and thus no criminal that was on the run from the law, for if the Roman or Jewish authorities had heard any of this being publicly preached as claimed in Acts, we would no doubt have heard about the expected repercussions, including the likely persecution of Christians by the Roman and Jewish authorities that would have been interrogating them.

If we are to grant that the original Christians believed any of the events in Acts as historical, then the absence of all of these pertinent details and expected events (regarding the missing body), at best, supports the theory that the original Christians were actually preaching that Jesus rose in an entirely new body (a spiritual resurrection) as opposed to the old one that he discarded and left in the grave.  In line with this theory is what Paul wrote, that the body that dies “is not the body that is to come “, but instead this buried body is left to be destroyed, while an even better “replacement ” body is already stored up in heaven waiting for each of us (1 Cor. 15.35-50; 2 Cor. 5.1-4).  At worst, and more likely than any other theory that has been proposed, is that Acts is entirely a fabrication, and there was in fact no historical Jesus, and the earliest Christians instead believed in a celestial Jesus (where he was effectively an archangel) whom communicated to them exclusively through revelation and through hidden messages in scripture, which is a theory that is supported by the material found in Paul’s epistles (the earliest and most reliable Christian sources we have in the NT).

In closing, we can see that Acts, just like the Gospels in the NT, is not at all reliable in terms of having any historical merit.  There are numerous parallels found throughout suggesting that there were many literary sources used for its contents, and Luke was inventing the material contained within, while adding some historical peripheral details (demonstrably obtained from Josephus) to add local color to the stories he was writing as most authors of fiction are known to do.  Other than those less relevant peripheral details, the actual events described within it are entirely unrealistic, not corroborated by any independent evidence, and are exactly what we’d expect to find in an ancient novel of the period in question.  Again, for those interested in this topic, I highly recommend reading Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, as I have only mentioned a fraction of that which is contained in his overall analysis, and it is very important that one reads all of the background knowledge and evidence to fully understand just how weak the case for historicity really is.  You will not be disappointed.

The Gospels as Allegorical Myth, Part 4 of 4: John

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The final post in this series will mention a few elements from Richard Carrier’s analysis of the Gospels as found in his book On the Historicity of Jesus, specifically pertaining to The Gospel according to John.  As with the previous three Gospels, John also appears to have written a religious novel filled with allegorical myth and fiction, and doesn’t appear to be interested in reporting any factual historical accounts.  Likewise, just as was the case with Luke and Matthew, John quite evidently had knowledge of the previous Gospels and used them as sources.  Though some scholars have maintained that John was writing independent of the other Gospels, there is simply no evidence to support that independence.  Rather, there is abundant evidence that John did in fact know about those Gospels and used them as (at least some of the) sources for his own, with the main difference being that John simply redacted them much more freely than Luke or Matthew did with their sources.

One example of John’s apparent knowledge of Mark’s Gospel, for instance, is the fact that John copies Mark’s pairing of the “Feeding of the Five Thousand” miracle with the miracle of Jesus walking on the water, in exactly the same sequence (So John 6 was likely derived from Mark 6.31-52).  However, as we saw in the analysis regarding Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s specific choice of pairing and sequencing of various miracles were intentionally placed as they were for the purpose of producing a particular literary structure.  Additionally, the paired events themselves are obviously ridiculous and historically implausible, so the most likely reason John shared the pairing that Mark employed is that he in fact borrowed it all from Mark.  Adding to this likelihood is the sheer number of details that they both have in common, including the details that “five thousand” people were fed, exactly “twelve baskets” of crumbs remained, that Jesus performed this miracle starting with exactly “five loaves and two fishes”, and that the amount of food needed to feed the crowd would have cost “two hundred denarii”.

In John’s Gospel, we also find the same literary structure for the narrative regarding Peter’s denial of Christ that Mark originally wrote in his Gospel (compare John 18.15-27 with Mark 14.53-72).  John also mentions the story of Jesus curing a blind man with spit that we first heard about in Mark, although in John, we can see that he freely changed some of the details.  Whereas in Mark, Jesus only uses spit for the magic spell, in John, Jesus uses spit mixed with dirt to make mud which he applies to the blind man’s face.  John also changes the additional magic that Jesus had to use in order to get the spell to work.  In John, after Jesus applied spit, he told the blind man to go “wash in the Pool of Siloam” to get the spell to work, whereas in Mark, the blind man was “half cured” from the spit (as we infer when he tells Jesus that although he could see now, the people he saw looked “like trees walking around”), then Jesus simply touched his face once more and then the spell worked successfully (compare John 9.6-7 with Mark 8.23-25).

John also has numerous similarities with material in Luke and Matthew as well (especially Luke).  Only in John and Luke’s Gospels do we hear about the new character, Martha, the sister of Mary (Luke 10.38-42; John 11.1-12.2).  Only in them do we hear about the miraculous scene where Jesus produces an extremely large catch of fish (Luke 5.1-11; John 21.1-4).  Only in them do we hear the claim that there was in fact a second Judas among the twelve disciples (Luke 6.16; John 14.22).  We also only hear in these two Gospels that Judas Iscariot was possessed by Satan (Luke 22.3; John 13.16-27).  In them alone, we hear specifically that the disciples chopped off the right ear of the high priest’s slave (Luke 22.50; John 18.10).  Both alone mention that Pilate declared Jesus innocent thrice (Luke 23.4, 16, 23; John 18.38, 19.4, 6).  Both alone claim that Jesus had been buried “where no man had yet been laid” (Luke 23.53; John 19.41).  Only in these two Gospels do we hear that there were two angels seen outside of Jesus’ empty tomb (Luke 24.4; John 20.12).  Both alone say that the resurrected Jesus visited the disciples in Jerusalem (not Galilee as in Matthew and Mark) and inside a room (rather than outdoors as in the other Gospels) as well as having Jesus show his wounds and even share a meal with them (Luke 24.33-43; John 20.18-29, 21.12-13).  To be sure, John modifies and adds to many of the contents he’s borrowing from Luke, but either way, the number of similarities and coincidences between the two is far too great to conclude that John isn’t using Luke as a source (even if he is doing so rather creatively).

After we concede to the fact that John is using the other Gospels as sources, we can take notice of the fact that John intended on rebutting a particular theme that those previous Gospels all had in common, that “no sign shall be given” that Jesus is the Messiah (e.g. Mark 8.11-12), which was in line with what Paul said when he mentioned that no signs were given to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ (1 Cor. 1.22-24).  So in Mark for example, even though he invents miracles to put in his stories as allegories, he is careful to make sure that only the disciples (no independent witnesses) are the ones that ever notice, mention, or understand those miracles.  The only thing remotely close to an exception to this in Mark is at the end of his Gospel, when the three women saw that the tomb was empty and heard from a man sitting inside that Jesus had risen (which wasn’t really a miracle that they witnessed, but they were surprised nevertheless), and yet even with this ending we are told that the women simply ran away in fear and never told anyone what they had seen (Mark 16.8).

Matthew had already added to this material in Mark, “correcting” it by instead having Jesus say that “an evil and adulterous generation seeks a sign” and therefore “there shall no sign be given except the sign of Jonah“, meaning the resurrection of Jesus on the third day (Matt. 12.39, 16.4).  Thus we can see that Matthew took what Mark wrote and went one step further, by allowing that one sign, and narrating the story so that the Jews “know” about it (hence his reason for writing Matt. 28.11-15).  So Matthew invented new evidence that we never saw in Mark.  Luke merely reinforced what Matthew had written (Luke 11.29), yet added to it with his invention of the parable of Lazarus (Luke 16.19-31) as well as the public announcement that was made to the Jews (Acts 2), thus illustrating the previous Gospels’ “no sign shall be given” theme.

John rebuts this entire theme by packing his Gospel full of “signs” and by taking Luke’s parable of Lazarus and turning it into an actual tale of Lazarus (John 11-12).  We even read in John 2.11 that “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him“, thus implying that it was because of these signs that his disciples believed in him (something we don’t hear about in any other Gospel).  We read just a few verses later in John 2.17-18 that when Jesus was asked for a sign, he simply says that his resurrection will be a sign.  Notably however, John doesn’t say here that this will be the only sign.  Quite the contrary, for in John 2.23 we hear that “When he was in Jerusalem during the Passover festival, many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing“, and later we read that “a great multitude followed him because they beheld the signs he did ” (John 6.2), followed by John telling us that when people “see the sign he did“, they declared that Jesus was a true prophet (John 6.14).  In John 3.2, we read that a Pharisee named Nicodemus said to Jesus “no one can do these signs that you do, unless God be with him“, and even in John 4.48-54 we read that Jesus said “You will in no way believe unless you see signs and wonders” and then he provides them with a miracle to see.  We are even explicitly told that these signs were indeed the evidence that showed that Jesus is the Christ (John 7.31, 9.16, 10.41-42), and there are several other references to the signs that Jesus gave, including John telling us that there were even more than those mentioned in his Gospel (John 20.30).  So John clearly attempted to rebut this theme present in the other Gospels, and made it blatantly obvious that he was doing so.

Adding to this rebuttal seen throughout John’s Gospel is his resurrection narrative that was the most ridiculous of all — the “Doubting Thomas” narrative (John 20.24-29), where the resurrected Jesus asks Thomas to stick his finger and hands in his open wounds so that he would believe.  So we have multiple examples of the author of John (or authors, as scholars actually believe there were multiple authors that contributed to the extant manuscripts of the Gospel we now have) creating proof, and insisting that all this new evidence justifies belief that Jesus is the Christ.  This is also why John alone invented an eyewitness “source” for his Gospel (never heard of before in the others), whom he referred to as the “Beloved Disciple” (although it is implied that this unnamed person was Lazarus), and said that he got all of his information from him.  In any case, the incredibly propagandistic style and contents in his Gospel make it thoroughly untrustworthy (more than any of the other Gospels in fact) in terms of historical accuracy.

Beyond this obvious propaganda, John is also filled with several long, implausible speeches (that we’ve never heard of before his Gospel) of Jesus, and yet conspicuously absent from these speeches are the Sermon on the Mount, as well as any appreciable amount of moral instruction.  We also see many new characters (such as Lazarus and Nicodemus) and new events that the other Gospel writers seemed entirely unaware of.  John also scrambles the order of many events, for example, moving the episode of Jesus clearing the temple from the end of his ministry to the beginning of it.  John also expands Jesus’ ministry from one to three years, having Jesus go on multiple trips to Judea and Jerusalem rather than only once.  John even moved the date (and thus also the year) of Jesus’ execution in order to make Jesus’ death correlate with the exact day that the Passover lambs were slaughtered, likely in order to make a different theological point with regard to viewing Jesus as the Passover lamb.  Thus John appears to be the worst of all the Gospels in terms of him most freely redacting what the previous Gospel authors wrote, adding and inventing whatever he wanted.  Thus, if John is trying to convince his readers that what he wrote is factual history, then by modern standards, John is clearly lying (just as Luke was).

One of the biggest problems that scholars have faced when trying to analyze John’s Gospel is the fact that we don’t have what John originally wrote.  Scholars are aware that somebody later on rearranged the Gospel, adding and removing content and ultimately scrambling the order of many scenes.  One can see quite clearly that his Gospel has been altered just by noting that it finishes with two different endings, where each ending was written completely unaware of the other (John 20.30-31 and 21.24-25), with each serving as conclusions to two different resurrection appearance narratives (with John 21.1 added as a hasty attempt to stitch the two together).  This “multiple ending” problem had actually happened in Mark’s Gospel as well, where there are at least five different known endings.  Even the famous story of the adulteress (John 7.53-8.11) with the famous line “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” wasn’t present in the original text as scholars know that this was added by a later editor.  There is plenty of evidence in fact that suggests that there are corruptions throughout the entire text.

We can see in John 5, for example, that Jesus goes to Judea (specifically Jerusalem; 5.1), and yet in John 6 Jesus is not in Judea but rather “went off to the other side of the sea of Galilee”.  This is a problem because the sea of Galilee is nowhere near Jerusalem, let alone in Judea.  Evidently, in the original text, preceding John 6.1, Jesus was in Galilee at some location on the opposite end of the sea of Galilee (and not in Jerusalem), so the order of events became jumbled due to various alterations over time.  We’re also told in John 2 (13, 23) that Jesus was in Jerusalem and then we’re told that he entered Judea (3.22), but obviously if he was in Jerusalem (a city in Judea) then he was already in Judea, so it seems that some part of the text was deleted here that would have mentioned Jesus returning to Galilee prior to him re-entering Judea a second time.  There are other examples like this which I’m not going to mention here because there are more interesting materials in John that I’d like to get to now.

As with the other Gospels, John also has several literary structures of his own.  One of the most brilliantly crafted is the sequence where Jesus is traveling from Cana to Cana (something we’ve not yet heard of until John).  This role of Cana is a literary construct that John likely invented to illustrate different degrees of faith and how to obtain those levels of faith.  The story takes place over several days and the literary sequence starts with a miracle at Cana “on the third day” (turning water into wine) and ends with another miracle at Cana on another “third day” (“resurrecting” a father’s son), which is also combined with other notable references as an obvious metaphor and allusion to Jesus’ future resurrection.  Here is what this quite elegant literary structure looks like:

Traditional Context (features a woman as a mother)

–   John 2.1-12: A wedding completed at Cana.

–        – Featuring a mother and her son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a traditional Jewish context.

–        – Story ends at Capernaum (2.12).

I.  Traditional Context (ends with a man)

–                    A. John 2.13-22: Clearing of the Temple.

–                          – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (2.18).

–                          – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (2.19 = 2.20).

–                          – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (2.20).

–                          – A metaphor (of resurrection) is misunderstood (2.19-22).

–                          – The temple Jews have no faith.

–                     B. John 3.1-21: Nicodemus the Pharisee.

–                           – Jesus is believed because of his miracles (3.1-2).

–                           – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (3.3 = 3.4).

–                           – A question is thus voiced as doubt (3.4).

–                           – A metaphor (of rebirth) is misunderstood (3.3-4).

–                           – A “teacher of the Jews” (3.10) has partial faith.

–                      C. John 3.22-36: John the Baptist.

–                            – Jesus is believed because of his word (3.27-34).

–                            – Jesus’ words are explained; Jesus is the savior (3.35-36).

–                            – John has complete faith.

II. Marginal Context (begins with a woman)

–                       A. John 4.1-15: The Samaritan woman at Jacob’s Well

–                             – A miracle is requested and not fulfilled (4.15).

–                             – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.10, 13-14 = 4.11-12, 15).

–                             – A question is thus voiced as disbelief (4.11-12; 4.15 is sarcasm).

–                             – A metaphor (of living water) is misunderstood.

–                             – The woman has no faith.

–                        B. John 4.16-38: The Samaritan woman reconsiders.

–                              – Jesus is believed because of his miracle (4.16-19).

–                              – Jesus’ words are thrown back at him (4.16 = 4.17).

–                              – A question is then voiced as doubt (4.29).

–                              – A metaphor (of spiritual messiah) is misunderstood (4.21-25).

–                              – The Samaritan woman has partial faith.

–                         C. John 4.39-42: The Samaritans of Sychar.

–                               – Jesus is believed because of his word (e.g. 4.41).

–                               – Jesus’ words are understood; Jesus is the savior (4.42).

–                               – The Samaritans have complete faith.

Marginal Context (features a man as a father)

–   John 4.43-53: A funeral averted at Cana.

–        – Featuring a father and his son.

–        – A miracle is requested and fulfilled.

–        – Complete faith in a marginal Jewish context.

–        – Story began at Capernaum (4.46).

John clearly invented this material to make a point, and it looks like he designed it all to fit into a particular pattern of metaphors and parables: two miracles that parallel and invert one another occurring at Cana, and nestled in between two sequences of three conversational narratives, with the first of those triads paralleling the second in terms of the developing faith in each example (no faith, partial faith, and finally complete faith).  We can also see that the first triad is in a traditional Jewish context, and then the second one repeats the same themes in a relatively marginal context, with John alternating the roles of men and women (something we also saw Mark do in his Gospel).  Note also how the two events that ensconce this overall structure both involve an announced problem of some kind (running out of wine in the first event, and an official son’s illness in the last event).  Both involve a request to fix the problem, both involve a rebuke where Jesus says something ornery to the person making the request.  Both also involve a reaction where the requester then puts complete faith in Jesus, followed by a successful solution to the problem (where what they believed Jesus could do, he successfully accomplishes).  John also repeats the same literary components in traditionally Jewish and in marginally Jewish contexts (so we have two sets of each); first a traditional Jewish context (a Jewish wedding) followed by another traditional context (temple Jews and John the Baptist), followed by a marginally Jewish context (Samaria) finally followed by another marginal context (helping a Herodian official).

So we can see that John, just like the other Gospel writers, has created literary structures (a triadic ring structure in the case above) filled with metaphor and allegorical messages (in this example regarding different levels of faith and their respective effects, as well as allusions to the crucifixion and resurrection which I’ll mention more in a moment), as opposed to John reporting any kind of historical events as he claims in his preface.  Once again, it is simply very implausible for historical events to occur in such an order and with such coincidental patterns, and this is compounded by the number of historical implausibilities that are all entirely expected elements to find within fiction.  These implausibly coincidental sequences as well as the types of events and behaviors are not something we ever expect to occur in real life.  John is in fact writing a religious novel here, and is inventing material and arranging it in very specific ways to serve his own literary and theological purposes.

Like the other Gospel writers, John also borrows texts from the Old Testament (OT) and rewrites them or adapts certain ideas in his narratives.  For example, the first miracle at Cana, which is John’s only “new” miracle not present in the other Gospels, illustrates this fact.  This story exemplifies the Word of God in the book of Exodus, where we hear that Aaron “did the signs in the sight of the people, and the people believed” (Exodus 4.30-31), which is the basic model that John employs for his entire Gospel.  In the story found in Exodus, we read that God told Moses that he would give him three signs to perform such that if they didn’t believe after the first two signs he gave, they would definitely believe after the last one was given, with the latter point seen in the following verse:

“If they will not believe even after these two signs, nor listen to you, then you shall take some water that you took from the river, and pour it on the dry ground, and the water that you took out of the river shall become blood upon the ground.” (Exodus 4.9)

As we can see, the last miracle Moses was going to perform was turning water into blood, which closely parallels John’s first miracle of having Jesus turn water into wine, thus John appears to be starting where Moses left off and transforming “the last” into “the first”.  One may recall that toward the end of John’s Gospel, at the crucifixion, we read that Jesus spews both water and blood from his body (John 19.34), and so Jesus’ ministry appears to have ended with a reminder of the miracle that it began with.  This is something that Jesus even alludes to in John 2.4 where two references to John’s crucifixion scene are mentioned (Jesus references the hour of his death, and references the fact that he would no longer be his mother’s son).  This demonstrates that John rewrote the crucifixion scene (including the spewing of water and blood from Jesus, which is unique to John’s Gospel alone) as he had these parallels in mind when he matched it with his scene at Cana.  In accord with this intentional matching is the fact that the crucifixion is an anti-type of the scene at Cana: at Cana his mother gives a command to Jesus, and at the crucifixion Jesus gives a command to his mother; at Cana we hear his mother saying to do whatever Jesus says, and at the crucifixion Jesus tells Mary what to do; whereas at Cana Jesus’ mother asks him to make wine from water, at the crucifixion Jesus gives them blood with water; at Cana we hear Jesus asking what he has to do with her, and at the crucifixion he says that he has nothing to do with her (due to a transformation of kinship); at Cana Jesus says that his hour has not yet come, and at the crucifixion his hour had indeed come.  John even repeats the same Exodus theme where he says that the miracle of the water and blood coming from Jesus happened “so that you may believe” (John 19.35), just as God had told Moses what would happen after performing his turning water into blood.  So there is strong evidence here that John is simply replicating the last miracle that Moses performed.  There is also evidence that John borrowed and adapted some of his details from a similar miraculous tale told of Elijah in 1 Kings 17.8-24.  In that story, we read another tale involving a woman and her son, although in that particular story they expected to die soon because they were starving to death (1 Kings 17.12).  The woman’s son is approaching death from illness and Elijah is called upon to heal him (1 Kings 17.24), similar to what we hear happen in John when Jesus later saves a man’s son from deadly illness (his second miracle at Cana).

Related to this is the odd fact that Jesus seems quite rude to his mother when he says “Woman, what have I to do with you?“, which upon further analysis doesn’t appear to be any kind of historical report, but is rather an anti-type of Elijah, when in the tale with Elijah, the woman in need of food says to him “What have I to do with you?” (and the exact Greek is used in both the story with Jesus and that of Elijah in the Septuagint translation of 1 Kings).  In both stories the prophet involved tells those needing food to take empty pitchers and remove from them the required provision, which then miraculously appears before them.  Thus, rather than John being concerned with any kind of factual history, this is just another example of a literary construct John invented, and that he carefully integrated into his revised account of the crucifixion and the entire Cana-to-Cana structure.  John is simply lying and passing it off as history, as the evidence illustrates more and more upon closer analysis.

One good demonstration of John’s overall inventiveness is when he creates an eyewitness, the “Beloved Disciple” (John 21.24, 19.35, 19.25-27, 20.2-8), who is inserted into the same story told by the previous Gospels, and yet this person is conspicuously absent from those previous Gospels.  Unlike in John, there aren’t any male disciples at the cross in any of the other Gospels, nor is anyone resting on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper.  John clearly inserted this character into the stories that he borrowed and redacted from the other Gospels, and then dishonestly claimed that this person was his “source” for the contents in his Gospel.  This is further confirmed by the fact that John makes considerable effort to imply that the “Beloved Disciple” was in fact Lazarus, a character that was not among the list of twelve disciples mentioned in the previous three Gospels. In fact, Lazarus wasn’t ever mentioned in any of the other Gospels except in Luke’s Gospel when he was only mentioned as a deceased character in Jesus’ fictional parable of “Lazarus and the Rich Man”.  How do we know that John made considerable effort to imply that this never-before-heard-of witness was Lazarus?   There are many reasons, for example, the fact that only one character in his Gospel is described several times as “the one whom Jesus loved”, and that was indeed Lazarus (John 11.3, 5, 36).  Also, right after Lazarus was introduced and described as Jesus’ beloved, we hear that he is reclining with Jesus at supper the very next day (12.1-2, 9-11).  So when we later hear that “the one whom Jesus loved” is also reclining with Jesus at the Last Supper, it is quite obvious that this is supposed to be Lazarus once again.  This should also be the case for every other instance when we hear a reference to “the one whom Jesus loved“, such as at the crucifixion, at the empty tomb, and finally at the resurrection (John 19.26-27, 35, 20.2-8, 21.7, 20).

The final giveaway that the Beloved Disciple is Lazarus is the fact that we hear in John 21.21-24 that a rumor had spread around the community that the Beloved Disciple would not die, and there simply isn’t any reason for this speculative rumor to have arisen other than the fact that in John’s Gospel, Lazarus had been resurrected from the dead by Jesus. So clearly people were wondering if Lazarus would ever die a second time, hence the rumor that began to circulate.  We also hear that the Beloved Disciple was the first person to see the burial cloths that Jesus had cast off and left in his then empty tomb, and earlier in John we were told that Lazarus had been wrapped in burial cloths which he also cast off at his resurrection.  Accordingly, Lazarus is the first person to believe that Jesus had risen since he had experienced a similar resurrection himself and could relate to it firsthand (John 20.8).  However, there are even more similarities worth noting.  In both Jesus’ and Lazarus’ resurrection accounts, we hear the peculiar detail of the soudarion (a small cloth covering the face of the deceased), and in both stories this cloth is clearly distinguished from the burial wrappings.  In both, we hear references to being bound or unbound by these wrappings, as some metaphor for becoming unbound or liberated from death.  Additionally, in both accounts we are also given a colorful and detailed description of these burial wrappings, their placement, etc.  So the many parallels make it quite obvious that the “Beloved Disciple” is in fact Lazarus.

All the details that John gives us about the Beloved Disciple being Lazarus merely exposes that John is lying throughout his Gospel, because there is no corroboratory evidence that Lazarus ever existed, not even from the demonstrably untrustworthy Gospels that John himself used as sources.  Nobody else knows anything about this Lazarus character (let alone his most extravagant resurrection story, in fact the most incredible resurrection story told in any of the Gospels) and we simply don’t hear anything about him except in John’s Gospel.  Thus, a non-existent Lazarus couldn’t have witnessed anything, despite John telling us that he did.  This absence from the other Gospels implies that this is a definite fabrication.  Adding to the exposure of this lie, is the fact that John assigns a high level of importance to the whole Lazarus resurrection event.  The event is so integral to the plot that John tells us that it was because of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and thus gaining so many newly convinced followers, that the Jewish elite then plotted to kill Jesus (John 11.53).  Yet, we don’t hear anything about this integral reason for the plot against Jesus in any of the other Gospels.  So the fact that John made this “Lazarus resurrection” story integral to his Gospel, just further illustrates that his Gospel is a fabrication, where he is just rewriting “history” (or more accurately he is rewriting the pseudo-historical accounts given in the other Gospels) as he pleases, likely to suit his own purpose of re-emphasizing the many “signs” that were said to be proof that Jesus was the messiah.

Lastly, John appears to have invented this Lazarus tale in order to reverse and thus to rebut or refute the Parable of Lazarus as found in Luke.  The bottom line here is that whenever we find instances of imaginary people in earlier stories being turned into real people in later stories (i.e. Luke’s Lazarus versus John’s Lazarus), what we are seeing is in fact a major marker for myth-making, and one that was quite common in antiquity.  Furthermore, the fact that John turns Luke’s imaginary Lazarus into a real person isn’t the only indication that he is trying to refute Luke.  There are several other indicators of this in fact.  In Luke’s parable, we hear about a rich man that ends up burning in hell and he sees up in heaven a dead beggar named Lazarus that he once knew, and he sees this Lazarus resting on the “bosom of Abraham”, so he begs Abraham to resurrect Lazarus from the dead so that he may warn his still-living brothers in order to avoid the same torturous fate.  The parable ends with Abraham refusing to resurrect Lazarus because “if they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16.31), thus further repeating the point mentioned in the synoptic Gospels that Jesus would not be performing signs since they won’t persuade anyone.  One coincidence worth noting here is the mention of Luke’s Lazarus resting on the bosom of Abraham (Luke 16.22-23), thus ever more confirming that John’s “Beloved Disciple” who we hear was reclining “on Jesus’ bosom” (John 13.23) was in fact Lazarus.  More importantly, we can see that in Luke’s parable, Lazarus does not rise from the dead, whereas John completely reverses this as well in his Gospel, and not only does Lazarus rise from the dead, but his resurrection actually convinces many people to turn their favor toward Jesus and be saved, which goes completely against what Jesus said in Luke’s Gospel (as well as what the other Gospels were saying).

Not only is John’s Lazarus sited as convincing others through his being resurrected, but John also sites Lazarus as a witness to the crucifixion, the empty tomb, and to Jesus’ resurrection (and as the source for John’s entire Gospel), thus illustrating that the overall purpose of John inventing Lazarus was to convince people (despite this going against what Jesus had said wouldn’t work in Luke).  So it is clear that John’s invention of Lazarus was to be a refutation for Luke, and this only further reduces any chances that John is ever accurately reporting history in his Gospel, for he’s freely redacting the Gospels he used as sources, and not at all interested in preserving what they had to say (if he assumed they were accurate histories, which even if he thought so, we can see that they are not), nor is he receiving this from any kind of witness.  As it has been made quite clear by now, what we are seeing in John’s Gospel is allegorical myth and fiction, with these stories created to serve specific literary aims even beyond the creation of literary structures that we saw an example of early on in this post.  As such, just as with the other Gospels, John’s Gospel can’t be trusted as any kind of reliable historical sources.  Rather we are seeing numerous examples in the Gospels of employing well-known ancient literary methods of writing fiction and allegory (most especially students of literary Greek, which the Gospels were written in).

It should also be noted as I near the conclusion of this post, that the common historical methodological criteria that scholars have tried to use to sift out possible historical details of Jesus that are buried in a sea of myth have been proven to be either fallacious and/or unreliable, and this has been demonstrated by the fact that when scholars apply these same criteria to the exact same evidence under consideration, they get different results (which proves the methods are unreliable).  Since fiction often contains peripheral details that are historical and since fiction is written in all manner of genres, due to the principle of contamination we are unable to establish if there are any details in any of the Gospels that can support the historicity of Jesus.  The best method proposed thus far, and one that has been proven reliable mathematically and proven to be logically sound is the application of Baye’s Theorem.  So for those that wish to refute Carrier’s arguments or his conclusions, one must do so by refuting the prior and consequent probabilities that Carrier defends, and one must support their own proposed probabilities with evidence and logically sound argumentation.

This concludes this particular series of posts.  As mentioned in the previous post, regarding The Gospel According to Luke, I may eventually make a fifth post to complement that one, and discuss Luke’s book of Acts to illustrate how it too is quite obviously fiction, and looks very much like a typical ancient novel with all the goodies one would expect to find therein.  For those interested in the most recent scholarship regarding the historicity of Jesus Christ, I highly recommend reading Richard Carrier’s book, as it is the most comprehensive analysis regarding the historicity of Jesus I’ve ever read or heard of, and is very well documented and well researched (featuring a nice 40-page bibliography with everything well referenced regarding extensive work from numerous top scholars in the field).  I only provided readers of this post-series with a small fraction of what Carrier researched and wrote in his book, but I hope that for those interested, it was informative and fascinating!