Review: The Guide of the Perplexed

Review: The Guide of the Perplexed

The Guide of the PerplexedThe Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This treatise has as its principal object to clarify the meaning of certain terms in the Bible.

Moses Maimonides, born in 1135, was and remains the most famous Jewish theologian in history, and this is his most influential book. Well, this is a part of his most influential book; more specifically, this is about a quarter of the whole work, the other three quarters having been pruned away by the editors of this volume. This was ideal for me, dabbler that I am, especially considering that the abridgement, so far as I can tell, was made with taste and skill.

The first striking aspect of this book is its accessibility. Maimonides writes simply and directly; indeed, sometimes I found the tone a bit pedestrian. The sentence I quoted above, the first sentence of the book, is quite typical of Maimonides. The work is written in the form of a (very long) letter to a perplexed pupil, broken into bite-sized chapters for easy comprehension. The only technical terms are those derived from Aristotle—essence, form, matter, etc.—which posed no problem for me.

The second striking aspect of The Guide is how similar Maimonides’s intellectual approach is to that of Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, the aim of both thinkers was more or less the same: to provide a rational defense and systemization of their respective faiths. Both lean heavily on Aristotle for this task, adopting his doctrines, terms, arguments, and philosophical style.

Of course this isn’t a coincidence. The attempt to harmonize Greek thought, specifically Aristotle, with religious thinking originated, I believe, with Muslim philosophers, and later spread to Europe. Maimonides himself was born in Muslim Spain (Al-Andalus), wrote in Arabic, and was clearly well read in Islamic philosophy. Later on, the works of Aristotle, translated from Greek into Arabic, entered Europe through Toledo, where they were translated from Arabic into Latin so that people like Aquinas could read them. Aquinas also read Maimonides, by the way.

Thus the three Abrahamic religions were engaged in almost the same philosophical project during this time. But of course, being of different faiths, the thinkers reached different conclusions. For example, Maimonides’s conception of God is strikingly different from Aquinas’s. Instead of expounding on all the different perfections of God, as does Aquinas—his omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenevolence, necessary existence—Maimonides holds that God’s essence cannot be described in any satisfactory way. In fact, Maimonides’s conception of God strongly reminded me of, and was perhaps influenced by, the Neo-Platonist conception of The One, the mystical, mysterious, ineffable fountainhead of all existence. Like Plotinus says of The One, Maimonides asserts that we cannot even attribute existence to God, since he holds that existing things are always composite, while there is nothing composite about God.

But for me, Maimonides’s most interesting opinion was his explanation of rituals, worship, and animal sacrifices. As he points out, “what is the purpose of His worship, since God’s perfection is not increased even if everything He has created worships Him and apprehends Him to the utmost possible degree, nor is it at all diminished if there is nothing in existence beside Him?”

For Maimonides the purpose of religious practice is not to please God through worship, but to know Him by training the mind and purifying the soul. The reason that God commanded rituals and sacrifices was only because the original Chosen People were still accustomed to idolatry, and thus they would not have accepted the true religion if they were not allowed to practice their religious customs. The rituals were, therefore, a kind of transitional device, allowing the people to turn their thoughts from idols to the true God. I found this explanation remarkable, since it anticipates the modern, historical approach to religion, while remaining within the bounds of orthodoxy.

Maimonides insists that the exterior forms of a ceremony are totally irrelevant if the practitioner is not thinking of God. It is the mental state of the worshipper, not their ritual actions, that are essential. This doctrine also reminded me of Neo-Platonic mysticism, wherein the final goal is a direct knowledge of the The One through mental discipline. But Maimonides is not so straightforwardly mystical as Plotinus, as he places much more emphasis on rational argument and the holding of the correct metaphysical and theological opinions.

This book was obviously not intended for me, since I am a nonbeliever, and Maimonides considers nonbelievers beneath contempt and not even worth responding to. Thus this book was of purely historical interest for me. This is, of course, not a bad thing, and indeed as a historical document it is rewarding. But I cannot say I found it an exhilarating read, since I not only disagreed with Maimonides’s conclusions but with his methods and his premises. Nevertheless, I am very glad to have read the book, if only because I have been intending to ever since my trip to Córdoba, his birthplace, and stood next to his statue in the Jewish district of that old city. Just like walking through those crooked, cobblestone streets, reading this book is a voyage in time.

(Photo by Selbymay; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons.)

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Review: City of God

Review: City of God

City of GodCity of God by Augustine of Hippo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once on the beach at Utica, I saw with my own eyes—and there were others to bear me witness—a human molar tooth so big that it could have been cut up, I think, into a hundred pieces each as big as one of our modern teeth.

I’m trying to think of books that might be equal to this one in importance to Western history: Plato’s Republic? the works of Aristotle? Euclid’s Elements? Homer’s epics? There aren’t many. This book arguably set the tone for the entire Middle Ages that followed. It is a vast, sweeping, powerful, and cockamamie book; it is a true classic.

Augustine wrote The City of God over a period of 13 years. He began the work when he was 59, and finished it when he was 72. The work was occasioned by the capture of Rome in 410 by the ‘barbarian’ leader Alaric, king of the Visigoths. It was a brutal defeat for the Romans, with much destruction, rape, pillage, and death. More than that, it was a symbolic defeat, the first time Rome had been taken by a foreign enemy in hundreds of years. Unsurprisingly, the remaining pagans blamed the newly ascendant Christians for this calamity. If the old gods were worshiped, the critics argued, this never would have happened. Rome was never taken when Jupiter was praised and when Nike, goddess of victory, was gracing the Curia of the Roman Senate. (The statue of Nike, the Altar of Victory, had been removed from the Curia by Constantius II, briefly reinstalled by Julian the Apostate, and then removed again.) In short, the Roman Empire was collapsing and it was all the Christians’ fault.

These accusations were what prompted Augustine to begin this work; but as the book grew, so did Augustine’s ambitions. By the middle, the beginning has been forgotten; and by the end, the middle is a distant memory. Because Augustine frequently interrupts his main points to indulge in lengthy digressions, the reader is often mired in pages and pages of side-issues and curiosities. Yet there does remain one vital central idea. It is therefore quite tough to give a fair impression of this book’s contents. To paraphrase Bertrand Russell, if I focus only on Augustine’s main thesis, then it will make this chaotic jumble seem too unified and focused; yet if I lose myself in the details, then I’ll omit its most lasting contribution. I even have it easier than most readers, since I read an abridgment—meant to cut out much of the extraneous material. Even so, there is a new topic on almost every page. So I think I’ll follow Russell’s approach in his History of Western Philosophy and give you a taste of some digressions before tackling Augustine’s more major themes.

Early on in the book, Augustine considers whether virgins who were raped in the sack of Rome have lost their virginity. He argues that, as long as they did not consent and did not enjoy it, they are still virgins. Augustine even argues that being raped might have been a good thing for some of them, since it taught them not to be haughty about their virginity. (It’s frightening that, at the time, this opinion was considered quite progressive.) He considers whether the extremely long lifespans reported of some Biblical figures (such as Adam’s purportedly 900-year long life) should be interpreted literally, or whether, as some argued, 10 years back then was equivalent to 1 of our years, thus arriving at a more realistic figure for Adam’s age, 90. (Augustine thinks Adam did live 900 years.) In resolving this question, Augustine notes that there are several discrepancies in the ages reported of certain people in different versions of the Bible; specifically, the original Hebrew Bible said one thing, and the Septuagint said another. (For those who don’t know, the Septuagint was a Greek translation of the Bible, done by 70 Jewish scribes in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE at the behest of the Egyptian king, Ptolemy II. The legend says that all 70 scribes completed their translations separately, only comparing them at the end, and they turned out to be all miraculously identical.) Augustine concludes that, though the Septuagint was indeed divinely inspired, where it differed from the original Hebrew, the original should be trusted.

In a lengthy section, Augustine attempts to correlate secular history with biblical history, doing his best to place the events of the Old Testament in the context of Greek and Roman history. He even speculates on the possibility that Plato might have read parts of the Old Testament, since parts of Plato’s Timeaus are so similar to the Book of Genesis. Augustine is against judicial torture, thinking it vile and illogical to torture witnesses and the accused. He anticipates Descartes’s cogito ergo sum: “In the face of these truths, the quibbles of the skeptics lose their force. If they say; ‘What if you are mistaken?’—well, if I am mistaken, I am. For, if one does not exist, he can be no means be mistaken. Therefore, I am, if I am mistaken.” (By the by, Augustine also anticipated Kant’s subjective theory of time, which Augustine put forth in the eleventh book of his Confessions.) Augustine attempts to prove that living, physical bodies can, indeed, be tortured endlessly in the fires of hell, since, as everyone knows, salamanders live in fire, and peacock meat never putrefies. So what’s so miraculous about human bodies endlessly burning in the flames?

I actually can’t resist including a bit more about the peacock meat. Apparently, having heard from someone else that peacock meat never spoils, Augustine set aside a piece of roasted peacock meat when he was served it at a friend’s house. He observed this piece of meat for a whole year, noting that even after all that time it never began to stink; it only got dry and shriveled. Now, presumably the piece of meat had been thoroughly cooked and salted, so make of that what you will. While I’m at it, I also want to include a story Augustine tells about a friend of his who had hemorrhoids and had to have surgery. As the man was fearful of going under the knife, Augustine and several other friends had a loud and fervent prayer session before the surgery. (If I had to get surgery back then, I’d be praying too.) And the surgery was a success!

Now for some more meaty issues. Augustine formulates here the idea of original sin, arguing that Adam’s fall changed the nature of humankind, filling us with sinful desires and causing death to enter the world. Augustine thinks, for example, that before the fall, Adam and Eve could choose to have sex without any feeling of sexual desire; all of the physiological prerequisites for intercourse (to use a polite expression) were under just as much control as our arms and legs. In short, Adam could just choose to have an erection without feeling horny. But now, in order to reproduce, we are at the mercy of our desires, which we cannot directly control and which threaten to overwhelm our rational minds. Thus is the sorry state of fallen man. As a consequence of this belief, Augustine also argues that unbaptized infants go to hell; not being cleansed of original sin, they simply must. By the way, there are several memorable passages in Augustine’s extraordinary autobiography, his Confessions, where he chastises his infant self for being so greedy of food and drink, and so selfish of love and attention.

Several other ideas are connected to Augustine’s conception of original sin. Since humankind is fallen, it is impossible for us without God’s aid to do good deeds and to achieve salvation; salvation is granted from God, it is a gift of divine grace, not something we earn. Augustine also believed in predestination. God, being omniscient, foreknew which people would end up saved, and which would end up damned. So in addition to anticipating Descartes and Kant, Augustine also anticipates Calvin. (From what I hear, a lot of the Protestant Reformation involved a return to Augustine’s teachings, but I’m not so knowledgeable about this.) I should point out that these ideas weren’t commonly accepted at the time. Just the reverse: many people argued vociferously against these doctrines. Notably, Pelagius, an ascetic from England, argued that humans were not born already damned (or, in other words, there was no ‘original sin’ in the Augustan sense); that humans had absolute free will, and thus were not predestined to be saved or damned; and that the grace of God was not necessary to do good works. Augustine combated Pelagius’s ideas with his typical intolerant zeal, considering them heresies, and succeeded, after a long fight, in making his own opinions orthodox for a long time to come.

As befitting a great Christian thinker, Augustine also tackles some of the perennial problems of Christian philosophy. One of these is free will. Now, without free will, the entire worldview of Christianity collapses, since then there is no fair basis of separating people into the saved and the damned. Yet God is omnipotent and omniscient; this means that when He created the world, He knew exactly what was going to happen. So how can we reconcile these attributes of God with free will? Augustine does so by noting that, although God knows what you will do and whether you will be saved, His knowing doesn’t cause you to make the choices you make.

Augustine also addresses the so-called problem of evil. This is another classic paradox of Christianity, which results from trying to harmonize the undeniable existence of evil in the world with God’s omnipotence and His infinite goodness. If God was truly all-powerful and purely good, why is there evil in the world? Augustine makes several classic replies.

First, he notes that, by allowing some evil in parts of creation, the whole might be, by consequence, even better, as the resulting goodness outweighs the evil. In short, goodness is cheap unless it is tested with temptation; so the presence of some evil is necessary for the existence of good. Augustine also notes that God never causes evil directly, since it is only His creatures that choose evil. For Augustine, as for many others, evil doesn’t really exist; evil is a lack of existence, the same way darkness is a lack of light and cold a lack of heat. Thus, God never created anything evil; all existence, as existence, is good; His creatures, through their own perversity, have sometimes chosen evil. So even Satan himself, insofar as he exists, is good; though his nature has been corrupted by his wicked ways (this corruption presumably being some sort of deficiency in his existence). Augustine even plays with Aristotelian terminology, saying that evil never has an efficient cause (the direct, or proximate, cause of something), but only a deficient cause.

I know that my opinion is not worth nearly as much as Augustine’s in this matter, but I do want to include my thoughts. I don’t find Augustine’s answer to the problem of evil satisfactory. And this is because, even if God is not indeed the proximate cause of evil, He would still be the ultimate cause, since He created the universe with full knowledge that evil would result from His action. It’s like this: If I am a leader of a country, and choose to go to war with another country, I am not the direct cause of people dying—that was presumably the guns and other weapons. And arguably the soldiers on both sides do have some share in the responsibility, since each of them chose to participate, to fight, to kill, to risk their lives, and so on. Yet ultimately it was my decision to send all these people into battle, and I think I would share a large portion of the responsibility and (if the action were unjust) the guilt. If the war was indeed justified and necessary, and the result was good for the world, that would make the action excusable, but it would not negate all of the pain and suffering inflicted on the soldiers, nor would it make me any less responsible for their fate.

Besides, I find this whole business of balancing good and evil, as if weighing a scale, quite absurd. If an innocent person suffers, if a single child is abused or crippled by sickness, how can any amount of goodness elsewhere make that okay? Here’s an example. Imagine there are ten people on an island with very limited food. There is only enough food for each person to stay alive, but not enough to make them energetic and happy. So when all ten people are living there, eating the food available, the total satisfaction-level is around 40%. Now, if nine of them ganged up on the last one, and killed and ate him, it’s possible that, even though there would be a lot of pain inflicted on that one man, the joy experienced by the remaining nine of having real meat, and the extra resources freed up on the island by having one less person, might in the long run make the general satisfaction-level higher—perhaps 60%. Does that justify killing the man? I think not. My point is that the happiness of the many cannot be balanced against the misery of the few, like an accountant balancing an earnings report.

Now, I know this review is already extremely long, but I haven’t even gotten to Augustine’s main thesis—the City of God. Augustine divides up humankind into two metaphorical cities: the City of Man and the City of God. Members of the City of Man are swollen with pride; they think that they can achieve happiness in this life, through satisfying their bodily desires or by practicing human virtue; by creating peaceful cities and just laws; by trade, wealth, power, fame, and wisdom. Yet, noble as some of them may be, this goal is pure vanity. In this life, we are too beset with troubles and uncertainties to have real happiness. States try to create justice, but their laws are frail human creations, constantly failing to attain their goal of absolute justice—since so many sinners go unpunished and so many innocents are unduly condemned—with the result that the laws are always being changed, updated, reformed, and differ from country to country, from place to place, all without getting any closer to their goal. The Stoics attempt to achieve happiness through virtue alone, without any hope of heaven; and yet how often do painful disease, the loss of a loved one, the failure of a scheme, the unquenchable passions in our breast overwhelm our reason and cast us into abject misery? Members of the City of God are not exempt from any of these miseries. However, they know that they are mere pilgrims on this earth. They place their hopes, not in this life, but in the life to come. Thus they are not misled by the vanities of earthly happiness, but act in harmony with God’s will to achieve salvation.

This doctrine, though simple enough, proved to be immensely influential. Augustine not only separates church and state, but subordinates the state to the church. Temporal authority is just the product of consensus, while the authority of the church comes from God. The resultant history of the Middle Ages, with the rising political power of the Catholic Church, owes much to Augustine for its intellectual justification and formulation. Again, the importance and influence of this book could hardly be overestimated.

After spending so much energy reading, summarizing, and responding to this book, I am almost at a loss for how to make a final evaluation. Augustine is obviously a genius of the highest order, and even now it is difficult for me to avoid be sucked into the endless labyrinths of his mind. This is especially impressive to me when I consider that I am not a Catholic, not even a Christian, and disagree with almost everything he says. More than that, although I have immense admiration for his originality and his brilliance, I often find his perspective unhealthy, intolerant, dogmatic, and generally unappealing. Perhaps what I like least about Augustine is his incredible, I would even say his morbid, sense of sin.

In his Confessions, there is a famous section where he berates his child-self for stealing a peach from a peach tree. From his rhetoric, you would think that he committed a genocide; even after all these years, he seems wracked with guilt and filled with shame. To me, as I suspect to many others nowadays, this is absurd, even a bit childish. I admit a part of me wants to admire him for feeling so bad for his misdeeds; but when I really think it over, I do not even find this admirable. The sense of sin is, in my opinion, an unrealistic and unhealthy way of thinking. I think the whole idea of sin is wrong-headed. Sins are not mere bad deeds or mistakes, but, in Augustine’s view, the byproduct of our ‘fallen’ and ‘sinful’ nature, with the power to actively corrupt and taint our immortal souls. In other words, sin is a reflection of our ‘true self’, or at least a part of it, and acting out these evil impulses makes us unworthy human beings, fit for eternal torture.

This makes no sense to me. Sometimes people commit bad actions; but, to me, it is more sensible to focus on why the action was bad, rather than how the person is evil for committing this action. For example, if I get angry and say something hurtful to my friend, I can respond to it by isolating what I said, figuring out why I said it, determining why my friend thought it was hurtful—which requires empathy—and then apologizing to my friend and trying to learn from this experience. Or I might, as Augustine would, start thinking about how I have done an evil thing, pray incessantly, beg God for forgiveness, and for years afterward torment myself with the thought of this wrong action. The first is adult and responsible, the second is self-obsessed and self-absorbed. To me, this endless chastisement for bad actions is immature on many levels.

First, the sin is attributed to your ‘sinful nature’, rather than to a habit of yours or to a mistaken assumption, which I think is plain hogwash, and which also doesn’t help you focus on what really caused the problem; nobody is inherently evil or good: we have bad or good habits, and can change them if we want. Second, since the sense of sin makes people obsess about whether they will be damned or saved, it makes people think about their actions through an intensely selfish lens—their own fate—rather than promoting good behavior through empathizing with those around you. So in summary I find the idea of sin to be counterproductive to living a happy and ethical life.

This is what I find most intensely unattractive about Augustine’s personality. Yet, if I am to practice what I preach, I must not condemn Augustine the man for this behavior, but only a bad habit of thinking he developed. And if I am to weigh everything lovable and unlovable in the scales of my affection, I must admit that I find Augustine to be one of the most compelling personalities and extraordinary thinkers in all of history. This is not a book for just Catholics, or even just for Christians. This is a book for everyone, for all of time. So to repeat the words that lead to Augustine’s conversion to the faith, Pick up and read, pick up and read, pick up and read.

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Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Review: Institutes of the Christian Religion

The Institutes of Christian ReligionThe Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many wicked lies get mixed up with the tiny particles of truth in the writings of these philosophers.

I am here writing a review of John Calvin’s most famous book, but I can’t say I’ve actually read it. I have read an abridged version, one that preserves about 15% of the original. This is still a fair amount, considering that the unabridged version runs to well over 1,000 pages; but there is so much I missed that I feel a bit self-conscious writing a review.

John Calvin is arguably the most important Protestant theologian in history. Karl Barth once called Hegel the ‘Protestant Aquinas’, but the title seems more apt for Calvin, whose Institutes put into systematic form the new theology and dogma of the budding faith. Calvin begins with knowledge of God, then moves on to knowledge of Christ, the Christian life, justification by faith, prayer, election and predestination, the church and the sacraments, and much more along the way.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, and it shows in his style. Unlike Aquinas, who made careful arguments and addressed objections using logic, Calvin’s primary mode of argument is to quote and interpret scripture, in much the same way as a lawyer might argue from legal precedent. You can also see his legal background in Calvin’s combative tone; he attacks and defends with all the cunning of a professional debater, and will use any rhetorical device available to win his case.

The two biggest theological influence on Calvin, it seems, were St. Paul and St. Augustine, both of whom were rather preoccupied with evil and sin. The gentleness of the Gospels seems totally absent from Calvin’s worldview. Perhaps this is due as much to his personality; he struck me as rather saturnine and bitter, a man disappointed with the world. His mode of argument and cutting tone—treating all his interpretations of the Bible as self-evident and obvious, and his enemies as wicked deceivers—also made him, for me, a rather authoritarian guide through theology. And his zeal was manifested in deed as well as word. It was Calvin, after all, who oversaw the auto-da-fé of Michael Servetus, a Unitarian who believed in adult baptism.

Besides being a powerful thinker, Calvin was a powerful stylist. This book, in the French translation, remains one of the most influential works of French prose. He can swell into ecstasies as he describes the goodness of God, the mercy of Christ, and the bliss that awaits the elect in the next life. At other times, he can rain down fire and brimstone on sinners and reprobates, accusing humanity of universal sin and condemning human nature itself. One of his most characteristic moods is a powerful disgust with sin, which he sees as an inescapable part of earthly life, a pervasive filth that clings to everything. This quote gives a taste of his style:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; they suffer for their own imperfection and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

The most controversial part of this book is the section on predestination. Before even the creation of the world, God knew who would be saved and who would be damned. Our salvation is not ultimately due to any choices we make; we are entirely helpless, completely dependent on God’s grace. By ourselves, we earn and deserve nothing. Human nature can take no credit for goodness. The reason why some are saved and others damned is entirely mysterious. You can never know for sure if you are among God’s elect, but there are certain signs that give hope.

One thing I do admire about Calvin’s argument for predestination is that he achieves a brutal kind of consistency. God is all-powerful, and thus responsible for everything that happens; he is all-knowing, and so was aware of what would happen when he created the world; and he is infinitely good, so all goodness resides in him and not in us.

The only problem with this doctrine is that, when combined with the doctrine of heaven and hell, it makes God seem monstrously unjust. A God who creates a world in which the majority of its inhabitants will be inescapably condemned to everlasting torment is even worse than a man who breeds puppies just to throw them in the fire. Calvin makes much of the “inscrutability of God’s judgment”; but this is as much to say that you should believe him even though what he’s saying doesn’t make sense.

Calvin perhaps can’t be faulted too much for reaching this bleak conclusion. Theologians have been trying for a long time to square the attributes of God—omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenificence—with the qualities we observe in the world and the doctrine of heaven and hell. Everlasting punishment can only appear fair if the sinner brought it upon himself with his own free action (and even then, it seems like a stretch to call everlasting torment “justice”).

But how can free will exist in a universe created by an all-powerful and all-knowing God? For if God knew exactly what was going to happen when the universe was created, and is ultimately responsible for everything that happens (since he created the universe with full knowledge of the consequences), then that would make God responsible for the existence of sinners, and thus we get this same absurdity of people being punished for things they were destined to do.

For my part, I find this question of predestination and punishment extremely interesting, since I think we will have to face similar paradoxes as we learn to explain human behavior. As our belief in free will is eroded through increasing knowledge of psychology and sociology, how will it affect our justice system?

In any case, I’m glad I read the abridged version, since I can’t imagine pushing myself through more than 1,000 pages of this book.
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