Archive for June, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

June 30, 2018

Philosophers Discuss Civility: the Cynics

 

Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings?

—–Diogenes of Sinope

 

 

There has been much thought and more said about the need for civility and the deplorable lack of it today. There has been much outrage over the lack of common decency between strangers and between rivals, so much outrage that it would seem mathematically inevitable that some small portion of it must actually be sincere. But there has been little discussion as to what it is, why we need it, whether we can manage without it or whether we should. Part of a philosopher’s job is to discuss things everyone else thinks they know (or says they know) but really don’t, to clarify concepts, to untangle knotted thoughts. This seems like a good time for some of that. This is the first in a series of essays looking at some thoughts from philosophers who had different views on manners and civility, to see if the wisdom of the past can help us clean up some of the present follies.

There are many stories about the Greek philosopher known today as Diogenes the Cynic. Sometimes he seems more like a shock comic than a teacher of wisdom, as if Mel Brooks’ blurring of the distinction with his character of the “stand-up philosopher” had come to life mixed with some Triumph the Insult Comic Dog. And this is fitting, since “Cynic” is from the Greek word for “dog.” So here’s an anecdote: One day Diogenes was invited to the house of a rich man. He wasn’t used to polite company, and his public behavior was notoriously boorish. His host therefore sternly instructed him not to spit on anything, as he often did: not the nice furnishings, expensive tapestries, or even the elegant floor. Diogenes instead spit in the man’s face, saying everything else looked so nice he didn’t know where else to spit.

Cynicism is not, as commonly supposed, just not giving a fu—- oops, almost got a little too much like my subject! In fact, it was and is a very serious and challenging philosophy of life. Diogenes said that dogs live more natural and better lives than people; people are phonies, liars, cheats, fools, flatterers, chasing after money and status, while dogs just do what comes naturally. Diogenes famously walked around Athens in broad daylight with a lit lantern. When asked why, he said he was looking for an honest man, and not having much luck. So now he’s not only an insult comic, he’s a prop comedian. As Mark Twain, put it, “The more I learn about people, the more I like my dog.”[1] Centuries earlier, Diogenes had taken that lesson and pushed it beyond all bounds. For him, the natural was the real and true, and dogs and other animals better role-models than any people. Dogs don’t care if you see them mating or licking their genitals, and Diogenes thought this shamelessness was a lesson for people too; nothing is wrong in public if it isn’t wrong in private. Dogs don’t love you more if you wear fancy clothes or if you’re famous; if you feed them and scratch their heads you’ve probably made a new friend for life.[2] This is actually a very hard way for a human to live, however. Cynicism teaches that first each person has to be honest with himself or herself. It has no tolerance for hypocrisy. It embraces poverty as a virtue and is utterly indifferent to social status, since materialism and social climbing drag one away from the pursuit of Truth. There are several versions of this story; here’s the one that seems right to me. The philosopher Aristippus had sucked up to powerful people and won himself a place in the court of the ruler. He saw Diogenes cooking a bowl of lentils for his dinner. He said, “You know, Diogenes, if you’d just be a little more polite and tell the dictator what he wants to hear, you wouldn’t have to live on lentils.” He replied, “And if you would live on lentils, you wouldn’t have to flatter the tyrant.” THAT’s cynicism in a nutshell! Live life honestly; don’t compromise just to get ahead or win a popularity contest. Phony etiquette and politeness just block honest conversation between real people.

The most famous American philosopher who comes closest to Greek cynicism is Henry David Thoreau. Although Thoreau is more commonly known as a Transendentalist, in his personal ethics he shows many of the traits of cynicism: belief that voluntary poverty is a virtue, social climbing a vice, honesty matters above all. The Greek cynics lived shocking lives by a human perspective, but did so in the name of a deeper devotion to God. Thoreau too lived his life in opposition to what he saw as false human values, even going so far as to break the law (he invented “civil disobedience”), largely because he put his moral principles and spiritual beliefs ahead of the expectations of society. He was not as deliberately offensive as Diogenes had been, but he did reject the common rules of etiquette that we use to avoid actual human contact. In his day as in ours, people would say “How are you doing?” and the expected response was a perfunctory “fine” or something like that. Thoreau was notorious for taking that sort of question seriously; if you asked him how things were going, you were likely to get a half-hour summation.[3] While Diogenes had a reputation as a misanthrope, Thoreau was more sociable; but he was similarly inclined to ignore the social rituals of civility and cut straight to an honest response in his devotion to his principles.

This is certainly one way of thinking about civility, and it reappears in persons and cultures as different as Diogenes in ancient Greece, Chuang Tzu in ancient China or Thoreau in 19th century America.  Honest dialogue between human beings is valuable, maybe the only thing that is; adherence to good manners over honesty is not respect, but simple fraud. If someone is being a jerk, a fool or a villain, you do that person a service if you point this out to him or her; if you smile and compliment out of politeness, you cheat the other of the chance to learn and improve himself or herself.

To be continued…

[1] What would Twain say about this current president* who famously hates dogs, the first inhabitant of the White House in generations to have no dog or any other pet?

[2] Trump’s first wife had a dog that hated him.

[3] I’ve tried answering the “How’re you doing?” question honestly, and it often unsettles people if they listen at all; some just respond to “Kinda sick, actually,” with a mindless “That’s nice,” which seems to prove the claim that this politeness blocks actual communication.

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Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (conclusion)

June 21, 2018

Moses had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Muhammad had military and political power. He led people, he led armies, he conquered foes, he founded a nation in the name of the God of Abraham. Of the three great Abrahamic religions, Christianity is unique in that its founding prophet, God’s Anointed One, was powerless as the world measures power. Throughout the centuries, this has created unique challenges for Christians. Some Christians have sought to reject all force and all politics, as Jesus himself did in life, leaving the world to run its own affairs. Others have sought to blend religious and political power, calling on the Church to bless everything the State did, including the slave trade and the Holocaust. Those who wanted a “strong man” to protect them, “a king like the other nations,” have often been too willing to overlook when that king failed to protect others with the same justice they sought for themselves. And when, just as Samuel warned, that strong leader went too far and the people cried out, there was no one to deliver them (1 Samuel 8:18). During the Protestant Reformation John Calvin saw what a strong king with unchecked power can do, as the French king massacred thousands of peaceful, loyal Protestants. For this reason he came to advocate for checks and balances in government.[1] Likewise, after our American Revolution, or as it was known in England, “The Presbyterian Revolt,” those heirs of Calvin did not seek to establish Biblical law. They agreed with Calvin that the Law of Moses was given directly only to Israel; instead, they sought to be guided by the law of love, and by the principles of justice as these were revealed in the Bible, but to express these through creating a political order with limited power, since no sinful human could be trusted with unchecked power over the rest.[2] Those Revolutionaries did not want a “strong” leader, but rather a strong nation with strong interacting and cross-checking political institutions, which could preserve peace, order and justice while also humbling the pride of arrogant politicians grasping for power.

If history has taught us anything, it is that when one person or one small group has unchecked power, all are in danger and the Church itself liable to be attacked. That is why our Presbyterian Church adopted the Declaration of Barmen as one of its fundamental statements of faith.[3] This document was written primarily by Karl Barth and adopted by the Barmen Synod in opposition to Hitler and the nationalist Christians who were taking over the State and Church. It reads in part:

 

“Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (I Peter 2:17.)

Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God’s commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the church’s vocation as well.

 

We reject the false doctrine, as though the church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.[4]

 

 

Our Reformed heritage is that no one person, and no one State can be allowed to become the sole goal and ordering principle of human life; that role belongs to God alone. When a “strong man” (or strong woman) demands unlimited fealty, that is a sin and a disaster in the making. And when a church claims the political mantle, that is simply the other side of the same bad penny, a human institution going beyond its God-given limits and mission. Those who claim they are exalting the Church by claiming Christian dominion over the State are instead demeaning it, turning it into an organ of the State rather than a holy priesthood set apart for service to God.

When we look around the world, we see forces of totalitarianism resurgent in countries that once seemed on the road to democracy, where Church and State blend to give their blessings to oligarchs. When we look at home, we see millions of Christians, including many in the highest ranks of government, who espouse Christian Dominionism, the belief that democracy should be replaced by government by and for Christian people only. The delegates to the Barmen Synod, with the Confessing Churches of Germany, can teach us much about the dangers of this heresy. Whether the Church seeks to become the State, or the State seeks to control the Church, it ends up the same way: political power gains control over religion, and the Church shrinks to being just another department in the government bureaucracy, another prop for humans seeking power over other humans. And ultimately, this idolatry of the State collapses into idolatry of an individual who claims, as that French king who massacred Protestants once said, “I am the State.”  “L’etat, c’est moi.”

The “strong man” sought by many Americans is just another idol. God does not want us to seek from political leaders what we should seek only from God. This is, no doubt, an unsettling, anxiety-filled world; but the cure for this anxiety is not devotion to a leader, it’s faith in God. May the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4:7).

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, “On Civil Government” sections VIII, XXX

[2] John T. McNeill, editor, Calvin: On God and Political Duty (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1956) pp. xviii-xix, 63-6

[3] The Theological Declaration of Barmen, (http://www.westpresa2.org/docs/adulted/Barmen.pdf) downloaded June 19, 2018

[4] Declaration of Barmen, section 5

Of Gospel and Heresies: American Idol (pt. 2)

June 7, 2018

In case we were thinking, “Well, that’s an interesting historical tale, but it doesn’t really relate to us,” God repeats the point. For example, Psalm 146:3-7 says this:

Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
 When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.

 

 Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
 who made heaven and earth,
the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.

 

 

Not only are God’s people told not to put their trust in mortal rulers; trusting princes and kings is presented as the opposite of trusting God, who gives justice to the poor and the oppressed. The implication of the historical story is restated as an ethical command. God’s people are not to put their trust in earthly rulers; God may use politicians to do God’s work, whether it is a king after his own heart, like David, or one who doesn’t even know his name, like Cyrus. The so-called “Religious Right” is fond of saying that Christians go astray by not paying enough attention to the Old Testament; perhaps on that point they’re right.

But I want to address Christians; and as Christians, when we look at what a ruler should be, we look first to Jesus. He is our teacher and our model, and his words and life were consistent. He taught, “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave” (Matthew 20:26-27; see also Matt 23:11, Mark 9:35). That is the sort of leader he was; one who took off his clothes and washed his disciples’ feet, a job normally left to slaves. He was not a leader who would demand bowing and scraping; he was the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (which actually is a pretty foolish shepherd by normal standards). As to the other sort of leader, the one who demands respect and service and perhaps gives little back; well, if Jesus had wanted to be that sort of leader, he could have accepted Satan’s offer when he was tempted in the wilderness: bow down and worship me, and I will give you the thrones of the world (Matt 4:8-10, Luke 4:6-7). Jesus had great power, even as the world measures power; he changed the world more than any king or emperor of his day. Over half the world’s population follows Christianity. The vast majority of Roman emperors died thinking they were great, but have been forgotten by most people. But the power of Jesus was not like the power of those we usually consider “strong men.” In his day, he seemed completely powerless, dying wretched and abandoned; but those who kept their faith in him were not left desolate, because he had the power of God and still does.

To be continued….