Last week I examined the theology of Marcion of Sinope, who believed – as did many other early Christians – that there existed two gods, one good and one evil. I argued that Marcion’s theology is an ingenious way for a Christian to make sense of the atrocities in the Hebrew Bible. But this week I want to argue that the appeal of such a theology goes well beyond the interpretation of scripture in the West. Rather, it is also a way to help us understand the world, if we are to take theism seriously. Continue reading
For Augustine, evil is nothing more than the absence of good, as we would say cold is no more than the absence of heat. Not every contemporary Christian follows this idea exactly, but the majority would surely agree that the goodness of God is supremely powerful, with evil (whether personified as Satan or not) significantly lesser.
It was not always this way. Many early Christian factions – most famously the Manicheans, but also the Marcionites and many Gnostics – believed that there were two warring gods, one good and one evil. Continue reading
Last time I discussed the relationship between the concepts of Ascent and of transcendence. I think there’s more to say about the latter. Last time I had noted two forms of transcendence: an Ascent beyond the physical world, and the “transcendence by descent” endorsed by Martha Nussbaum in which one transcends one’s own limits. But I think there’s also a third type found between them, one which I’ve spoken of before in other terms.
A key feature of any kind of transcendence, it seems to me, is dissatisfaction: something appears wrong with that which one is trying to transcend. In Nussbaum’s transcendence-by-descent, one is dissatisfied with one’s own weaknesses and flaws. In an Ascent, one is in some sense dissatisfied with the whole world. But what if one is dissatisfied with the whole world in a way that motivates one not to step outside the world, but to change it? Continue reading
Aaron Stalnaker, Augustine, autobiography, chastened intellectualism, conservatism, democracy, John Locke, Leo Strauss, Mencius, pedagogy, Republican Party, Stonehill College, Thomas Hobbes, Winston Churchill, Xunzi
For the sorts of reasons I discussed last week, I have been strongly leaning for the past couple years toward Xunzi‘s negative dark view of human nature – or so I have thought. I observe my own tendencies and see just how hard it is to be good even when I really want to. Augustine, whose similarities to Xunzi run deep (as Aaron Stalnaker has noted), points to the behaviour he observes in babies: creatures not only of desire and greed, but even of jealousy and anger. It’s as we grow up that we learn to be good. And then, of course, there’s the history of human violence and bloodshed. I often find myself a little bewildered by the 20th-century philosophies that say philosophy must be entirely different after the Holocaust; the Holocaust would not have surprised Augustine. He knew what evil lurks in our minds.
One of the more common objections to such a dark view of human nature is that it leads to tyranny: if people can’t be trusted, they need an iron ruler to rule them. Such a view is most famously associated with Thomas Hobbes, and it seems that Xunzi held something like it, but I’ve tended to find it a bit puzzling. If we can’t trust people to rule themselves, how on earth could we trust an arbitrary sovereign to rule them? A dim view of human nature seems perfectly compatible with Winston Churchill’s endorsement of democracy: that it’s the worst form of government except for all the others. We need a strong system of checks and balances to hold down the dark tendencies of our leaders.
And yet. With reflection I have realized that I cannot endorse a view like Xunzi’s and Augustine’s, even modified in the latter way. Continue reading
After Confucius’s death, the great debate in classical Confucian philosophy was over human nature: between Mencius, who, broadly speaking, thought humans were naturally good, and Xunzi, who thought we were naturally bad. In a liberal democracy suffused with the individualism of the sixties, I think most people lean much closer to Mencius’s view. But we miss something very important if we ignore Xunzi’s. Continue reading
Last week I spoke of a philosophical single-mindedness shared by modernists, evangelical Protestants, Salafi Muslims and St. Augustine, and this week I’d like to reflect on it further. What these various single-minded thinkers hold in common is opposed above all, I think, by literal conservatism. Conservatives in the literal sense seek to preserve much of the world as it is – “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” They are opposed to radical breaks and revolutions, whether those aim to take us forward (as the modernists) or backward (as the Salafis). I noted in my earlier post that Jane Jacobs’s urban criticism, a direct attack on modernist architecture and modernist urban planning, is a quintessential example of literal conservatism; Jacobs would react with the same hostility to the Salafi assault on Mecca. In that respect, for all its urbanity, Jacobs’s work is of a piece with the agrarian rural conservatism of Front Porch Republic and Wendell Berry.
The appeal of such literal conservatism is certainly not limited to aesthetics, but one may perhaps see it most clearly in the aesthetic realm. (Some modernists, like the Marxist geographer David Harvey, see an aesthetic conservatism as opposed to a more ethical modernism.) For it’s hard to imagine elevating a single most important principle, as modernists typically do, as the principle behind beauty: could one ever say “Everything constructed according to principle X will be beautiful,” without making principle X entirely vacuous and devoid of content? Aesthetics seem to require a focus on the details and not merely the big picture.
Now of the various single-minded thinkers I’ve mentioned so far – modernists, evangelicals, Salafis and Augustine – one might note that they all have their historical roots in Western traditions. Continue reading
One of the most common slams made against modernist (Yavanayāna) Buddhism is that it is “Protestant.” I’ve previously written about how there’s more to Buddhist modernism than this, and about the curious quasi-theological assumption that having Protestant influence is seen as a bad thing. At the same time, I’ve been realizing that there are close links between Protestantism and modernism. Not too surprising, perhaps, since the two emerge out of the same historical context, the Europe of the past 500 years – but I think their similarities may go deeper than that. Continue reading
I’ve been thinking a lot about the seventh chapter in a splendid book called The Ancients and the Moderns, by a fascinating Boston University professor named Stanley Rosen. I read the book over two years ago, but the ideas of this chapter have since continued to percolate in my brain.
Rosen argues that we need to see a much closer association between two fields of study often thought separate: logic and psychology. At first glance, the two might seem to have little in particular to do with one another. Logic concerns itself with the proper formal relationships between statements in arguments; psychology, with the empirical investigation of mind and behaviour.
But more basically, what are logic and psychology? Both, really, are the study of thought. Continue reading
The translation of a small passage can turn out to tell us a great deal. Consider section 4B12 of the Mencius. Mencius says in this section that the great man is one who retains, or does not lose, chizi zhi xin 赤子之心. This Chinese phrase translates literally as something like “heart/mind of baby.” Most translators have followed the interpretation of the great Neo-Confucian synthesizer Zhu Xi, which dovetails smoothly with the optimistic view of human nature generally attributed to Mencius: in D.C. Lau’s translation, “A great man is one who retains the heart of a new-born babe.” We are born naturally good as babies, and become bad only if something intervenes to impede our natural development. (Contrast Augustine in the first chapter of the Confessions, who observes babies as creatures of desire and envy.)
Bryan Van Norden’s recent translation of Mencius challenges this interpretation. He translates 4B12 as “Great people do not lose the hearts of their ‘children.'” And he notes that in this he is following the early commentator Zhao Qi – for whom “children” refers to the subjects of a ruler, whose hearts must be won over. Nothing here about babies or children being naturally good.
Van Norden could be right about Mencius to this point; I’m far from a Mencius scholar and wouldn’t be able to tell. What struck me as far more surprising, though, is what Van Norden says next. Continue reading
Judging by the comments, many readers found my diagnosis-prognosis post to be dark and pessimistic. Going back to the post, it’s not hard to see why. I endorse there the dark view of our existing human problems shared by Augustine, Marx and the Pali suttas; and yet I don’t think any of their solutions work. The essay effectively ends with a rejection of hope. The logical conclusion to draw from the essay might seem to be “life sucks.”
The understandable reactions to the essay’s pessimism nevertheless surprised me. For as I wrote it, I felt light, happy, life-affirming. Why? Continue reading