Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Confucian Way (3): C. S. Lewis and the Tao

A Darwinian science of virtue explains moral order as a joint product of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual judgments. It is a mistake to try to reduce morality to one of these three without the others, because each is necessary but not sufficient. Human moral order requires certain natural propensities of the human species as shaped by the history of genetic evolution. But then these natural propensities must be developed through individual habituation and social customs as shaped by the history of cultural evolution. And, finally, we should see that mature adults can deliberately reflect on their individual habits and social customs and exercise their judgment about possibly reforming some of those habits and customs, but without expecting a radical reconstruction that would sweep away all that has gone before. If it is not to be an exercise in utopian fantasy, deliberate choice will always be constrained by human nature and human culture.

One instructive way to think about this tripartite scheme for explaining morality--nature, custom, and judgment--is to see how it runs through the moral reasoning of C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man, Darwin's The Descent of Man, and Confucius' Analects. Lewis shows how morality requires moral sentiments that combine emotion and reason as expressed in the universal moral standards of what Lewis calls the Tao, which arises from the complex interaction of human nature, human tradition, and human judgment. Lewis imagines that "a new Natural Philosophy" or "regenerate science" could explain this natural morality scientifically. Darwin's science of the moral sense as rooted in evolved human nature provides the natural science of morality that Lewis seeks. Lewis takes his idea of the Tao from Confucius's Analects. And, in fact, the Confucian tradition of morality illustrates the moral order of nature, custom, and judgment as understood by Lewis and Darwin.

Lewis begins The Abolition of Man as a response to an elementary textbook on English that expresses what Lewis regards as a common but mistaken view of moral language. The authors of the textbook take up the story of Coleridge at a waterfall. When one tourist says the waterfall is "sublime," and another says it is "pretty," Coleridge endorses the first and scorns the second. According to the authors, this illustrates a common confusion in the use of language. These people thought they were making remarks about the waterfall, but in fact they were only making remarks about their feelings. "This confusion is continually present in language as we use it. We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings."

Lewis infers that "the schoolboy who reads this passage . . . will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant" (15). Lewis objects to the implicit separation between the objective world of facts as knowable by reason and the subjective world of values as an expression of emotion. This is a false dichotomy because it ignores the possibility that emotions can be either reasonable or unreasonable, depending on whether the emotions are appropriate responses to reality.

"Until quite modern times," Lewis observes, "all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it--believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt" (25). Lewis believes that this conception was shared by all the great traditions of moral thought--"Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike"--and it is this that he identifies, following Confucius, as "the Tao."

At the root of the Tao--the universal standards of traditional morality--Lewis sees one fundamental thought:

"It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not. I myself do not enjoy the society of small children: because I speak from within the Tao I recognize this as a defect in myself--just as a man may have to recognize that he is tone deaf or colour blind. And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it). No emotion is, in itself, a judgment: in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical. But they can be reasonable or unreasonable as they conform to Reason or fail to conform. The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it" (29-30).

Lewis insists that the practical principles of the Tao must be accepted if we are to have any practical principles at all. These principles are both sentimental and rational. They are sentimental, because pure reason by itself cannot move us to action without emotional motivation (33-35, 53). They are rational, not in the sense of theoretical rationality, but in the sense of practical rationality, because they constitute the axioms of "Practical Reason"--the self-evident premises of practical judgment that are "so obviously reasonable that they neither demand nor admit proof" (52-53).

As an indication of their self-evident character, these principles of practical rationality provide the only source for all value judgments. This is not just one system of value, it is the only system of value. Any attempt to totally reject it and create some new system of value becomes self-contradictory, because any supposedly new values turn out to be fragments of the old values. "There never has been and never will be a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world. . . . The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in" (56-57).

Lewis sees the Tao as manifested in three levels of social order--human nature, human traditions, and human judgments. At the first level, the Tao is "Natural Law" (56, 95). "Nature" has many senses, and if we define it in opposition to "the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural" (81), then the Tao is not natural. But it is natural in the sense that it belongs to "the very nature of man," because it provides "a common human law of action" (31, 84). The Tao is "the Tao of Man," it is the "only known reality of conscience" that distinguishes human nature from the rest of nature (62, 90).

The nature of Lewis's natural law is not cosmic nature as a whole, but human nature in particular. Cosmic nature cannot provide values for human life, Lewis suggests, because "nature as a whole, I understand, is working steadily and irreversibly towards the final extinction of all life in every part of the universe" (50).

Although natural law is often assumed to come from a supernatural lawgiver, Lewis insists that understanding the Tao as natural law does not require any belief in the supernatural. He writes:

"Though I myself am a Theist, and indeed a Christian, I am not here attempting any indirect argument for Theism. I am simply arguing that if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reasoning as having absolute validity: that any attempt, having become sceptical about these, to reintroduce value lower down on some supposedly more 'realistic' basis, is doomed. Whether this position implies a supernatural origin for the Tao is a question I am not here concerned with" (61).

At the second level of social order, the Tao corresponds to human cultural traditions--"the human tradition of value," "traditional values," "traditional morality," or "traditional humanity" (54-55, 76, 78, 85). In the Appendix to his book, Lewis provides "Illustrations of the Tao" that consist of short quotations from some ancient texts of moral teaching from Egypt, Babylonia, Israel, Greece, Rome, India, China, Scandinavia, and Anglo-Saxon England, and a few texts from early modern England. Lewis's Appendix shows great cultural variability in the moral traditions of human history. But it also shows recurrent themes that reflect how universal human nature constrains these moral traditions--as manifested in Lewis's eight categories of classification: the law of general beneficence, the law of special beneficence, duties to parents, elders, and ancestors, duties to children and posterity, the law of justice, the law of good faith and veracity, the law of mercy, and the law of magnanimity.

At the third level of social order, the Tao allows for individual judgments of value, but only within the broad constraints of human nature and human tradition. Lewis admits that traditional moralities show many contradictions and some absurdities, which invite criticism and improvement. Although the Tao does not permit criticisms and changes coming from outside the Tao--because there are no standards of value outside it--the Tao does permit development from within. So, for example, we can recognize that the Christian version of the Golden Rule--"Do as you would be done by"--is a real improvement over the Confucian version--"Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you"--because we can see that the new positive statement of the rule is an extension of the old negative statement (57-58). Individuals have authority to modify the Tao only insofar as their modifications are within the "spirit of the Tao" (59).

Lewis rejects utopian schemes for radically altering the human condition through biological technology and sociological conditioning, because such utopianism tries to step outside the constraints of human nature and human tradition in a way that can only foster absolute tyranny. In the past, such utopian projects have been frustrated by human resistance. So, for example, proposals for abolishing the natural bonds between parents and children (as in Plato's Republic) have failed to overcome "the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children" (73). But Lewis worries that modern statism with the technology of modern science (such as eugenics) might actually succeed in creating "the world of post-humanity," which would really be the utter dehumanization of humanity, the "abolition of man" carried out by the tyrannical power of some men over others (73, 77, 86).

Although he does not explicitly mention Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, Lewis probably has in mind this modern vision of a dehumanized utopia shaped by eugenic engineering and propaganda under the rule of an omnicompetent state. Those like Leon Kass who worry about biotechnology leading to a "posthumanity" of dehumanized degradation have been influenced by Lewis's book as combined with Huxley's novel.

Lewis worries that modern science, with its reductionistic view of human beings and its devotion to the mastery of nature, supports the "abolition of man" that he fears, because while such a science has great power, it lacks the understanding of, or respect for, the traditional morality that alone can provide guidance for the proper use of such power.

And yet, Lewis foresees that "from Science herself the cure might come," if there could be "a new Natural Philosophy" that would not be reductionistic:

"When it explained it would not explain away. When it spoke of the parts it would remember the whole. While studying It, it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation. The analogy between the Tao of Man and the instincts of an animal species would mean for it new light cast on the unknown thing, Instinct, by the only known reality of conscience and not a reduction of conscience to the category of Instinct. Its followers would not be free with the words only and merely. In a word, it would conquer Nature without being at the same time conquered by her and buy knowledge at a lower cost than that of life" (89-90).

My argument is that a Darwinian account of morality as grounded in the evolved human nature of the moral sense provides the "new Natural Philosophy" sought by Lewis. (Early in his intellectual career, Leon Kass was trying to develop this new Darwinian natural philosophy, until he turned later in his life to his studies of the Hebrew Bible as a religious basis for morality.) Moreover, we can look to the Confucian tradition of morality as an illustration of how our evolved moral sense expresses itself in our natural propensities, our cultural traditions, and our individual judgments.

I will take up those points in subsequent posts.

For some previous posts on Lewis, go here, here, here, here, and here.

Friday, May 21, 2010

The Confucian Way (2): Filial Piety and the Practical Syllogism

If we consider the large number of people whose way of life in China has been shaped by it for 2,000 years, the Analects must be considered one of the two or three most influential books in all of human history. For that reason, any general view of human nature and human culture must give some account of the Confucian tradition as it arises in the Analects. Consequently, it's important for my defense of Darwinian natural right to show how it can make sense of that Confucian tradition as one expression of our evolved human nature.

Of course, for those of us who are Westerners with little knowledge of Chinese culture and language, reading the Analects is difficult. This book is a collection of short conversations that Confucius has with his students and other people. These conversations assume a knowledge of early Chinese history and of the individuals with whom Confucius speaks. They present Confucius as offering terse comments with almost no elaboration, which often leave the reader confused as to what exactly he's saying. Furthermore, the Chinese language--particularly, classical Chinese--suggests a complex multiplicity of meanings that cannot be fully conveyed in an English translation. The best that the English reader can do is to compare different English translations that have notes on Chinese history and the difficulties of translation. It also helps to learn something about the tradition of commentaries on the text, so that reading the book becomes a conversation with those commentators who have struggled over 2,000 years to think through the puzzles offered by the book.

I have found that Edward Slingerland's translation of the Analects, published by Hackett Publishing in 2003, satisfies most of these needs. Not only does he offer brief comments on the relevant history and on the ambiguity of the language, he also adds to each passage a brief survey of what some of the leading Chinese commentators have said about the passage. And yet I still find it necessary to compare Slingerland's translations with those of others--particularly, the classic translations by James Legge and Arthur Waley and the more recent translations by D.C. Lau and by Roger Ames and Henry Rosemont. In this post, I'll rely primarily on Slingerland's translations.

From the opening of the book, we are presented with Confucius as a teacher devoted to learning, whose learning is directed to the practical matters of social relationships and social behavior. The primary relationships are those within the family, and so the primary standards of behavior are filial piety and respect for elders. Master You (one of Confucius' students) says:

"A young person who is filial and respectful of his elders rarely becomes the kind of person who is inclined to defy his superiors, and there has never been a case of one who is disinclined to defy his superiors stirring up rebellion.

"The gentleman [junzi] applies himself to the roots. 'Once the roots are firmly established, the Way [dao] will grow.' Might we not say that filial piety and respect for elders constitute the root of Goodness (or authoritative conduct) [ren]" (1.2).

Thus, family life provides a model of social order based on hierarchy, with children being subordinate to their parents and younger family members being subordinate to the older ones.

A few passages later family life is situated within four great human relationships: husband-wife, parent-child, lord-minister, and friend to friend (1.7). The first three are relationships of superior to subordinate. But true friendships are relationships between equals (1.8), which resembles what Aristotle says about friendships of virtue as a relationship of mutual respect based on shared moral character.

Much of the teaching of Confucius concerns the importance of "ritual" (li) in organizing all human relationships and the need to restore the ancient rituals that once secured good social order. Much of that ritual is tied to filial piety and ancestor worship.

For example, Confucius laments that people of his time no longer observe the ancient mourning rituals, which required that sons mourned the death of his parents for three years, during which he ate only the simplest food, wore rough clothing, refrained from the pleasures of music and sex, and lived in a mourning hut. Confucius was criticized by those who thought this was impractical and who doubted that this was done even in ancient times. Zai Wo suggested that one year was long enough, after all this would imitate the one-year cycle of the seasons, and thus conform to the order of Heaven. Here's the response of Confucius:

"The Master asked, 'Would you feel comfortable then eating your sweet rice and wearing your brocade gowns?'

"'I would.'"

"The Master replied, 'Well, if you would feel comfortable doing so, then by all means you should do it. When the gentleman is in mourning, he gets no pleasure from eating sweet foods, finds no joy in listening to music, and feels no comfort in his place of dwelling. This is why he gives up these things. But if you feel comfortable do them, then by all means you should!"

"After Zai Wo left, the Master remarked, 'This shows how lacking in Goodness this Zai Wo is! A child is completely dependent upon the care of his parents for the first three years of his life--this is why the three-year mourning period is the common practice throughout the world. Did Zai Wo not receive three years of care from his parents?" (17.21)

Of course, a three-year mourning period really is not "the common practice throughout the world," unless one assumes, as Confucius does, that the Chinese world is the world. We can see that this is a cultural practice that varies across time and space. The mere fact that Confucius has to debate this shows that many Chinese have decided to change this practice even for themselves. So here's a case of cultural relativism.

But we can also see that some kind of ritual standard of mourning can be justified as rooted in the universal human nature of parental care. One of the most important features of human social life is that human beings are born as children dependent on parental care, and therefore the first and most primordial social relationship is parent to child. Filial piety secures this relationship, and we would expect the emotional tie of children to parents to be expressed as mourning when the parents die. Confucius points to this by suggesting that a three-year period of mourning shows a fitting recompense for the three years of infant dependence on parental care. So while the exact requirements for mourning parents are to a large degree culturally arbitrary and changeable, the practice of such mourning is not completely arbitrary if it reflects the natural emotions of a natural human relationship rooted in human biology.

Scholarly commentators have noted that Confucius never offers anything like a "theory of human nature" such as one might see in the writings of some of the later Confucians such as Mencius. But this overlooks the many ways in which Confucius implicitly appeals to human nature, even without any explicit theorizing. These comments by Confucius on mourning rituals illustrate this, because here he clearly assumes our natural experience of parental care as a natural biological desire.

In his Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Arguments in Ancient China (Open Court, 1989), A. C. Graham points to Confucius' discussion of ritual mourning with Zai Wo as illustrating the general pattern in Confucian moral philosophy: "The issue is a matter of taste, but tastes change with knowledge and experience. The proper duration of mourning is how long you want to mourn if you fully appreciate how much your parents have done for you; the Way is what you would want to do if you had the wisdom of the sage" (29). Graham sees here a "quasi-syllogistic formula" that runs through almost all of ancient Chinese thought:

"In awareness of everything relevant to the issue I find myself moved towards X; overlooking something relevant I find myself moved towards Y.

"In which direction shall I let myself be moved?.

"Be aware of everything relevant to the issue.

"Therefore let yourself be moved towards X."

Graham explains "everything relevant to the issue" as "every fact, sensation, emotion, which moves me spontaneously in one direction or another." Whether we are really "aware of everything relevant" can only be judged by experience in seeing whether we regret an action once we become aware of something relevant that we previously overlooked. To be aware of everything relevant means that we must imaginatively work through every viewpoint across space and time that might move us. This includes imaginatively putting ourselves in the viewpoints of others, which is conveyed by Confucius' concept of shu--"likening to oneself" or "sympathetic understanding" by which we put ourselves in the places of others--which supports Confucius' formulation of the Golden Rule (15.24).

Graham's quasi-syllogism looks like Aristotle's practical syllogism in explaining human action (as well as animal movement generally) as combining cognition and desire: if I have a desire, and if I am cognitively aware some action would satisfy that desire without frustrating some stronger desire, then I pursue that action. Thought by itself cannot move me without desire.

This Confucian understanding of morality as satisfying our desires in the light of our awareness of how best to make our way in the world would not satisfy many modern moral philosophers in the West. Many philosophers would say that morality must be rooted in some transcendent reality of cosmic order outside the human mind--cosmic God, cosmic nature, or cosmic reason. For example, the Kantian would say that the moral "ought" belongs to an autonomous realm of pure reason--a "noumenal" realm--that is beyond the "phenomenal" realm of nature and human inclinations. So for Confucius to say that the morality of filial duty expresses the natural emotions of parent-child bonding can't be right, because this belongs to the prudential realm of hypothetical imperatives rather than the moral realm of categorical imperatives.

But that only shows that Confucian morality offers an empiricist alternative to the transcendentalist view of morality that dominates much of the history of modern moral philosophy. Graham writes:

"No thinker in this tradition objectivises the spontaneous in man, as morally neutral inclination to be utilized or checked in the service of ends chosen independently, by deducing from rational principles or by an Existentialist leap in the dark. To do so would lead to a quite different problematic, that of post-Kantian philosophy in the West. Is it a limitation of Chinese thought that it overlooked the approach which seems natural to ourselves? It may be more profitable to ask the questions from the opposite direction. How did I as a Westerner get trapped into pretending that I can fully objectivise the spontaneous in myself, shrink myself to a point of rational Ego pursing ends independent of my spontaneous goals, observing unmoved even my own emotions? What have I gained from following a line of thought which first detached supposedly rational ends from the goals of inclination, then failed to discover any rational grounds for them? I may indeed choose duty against present inclination, but am I not even then choosing the course which I spontaneously prefer in the perhaps rare moments when I can bring myself to see clearly from other people's viewpoints?" (387).

One might object, however, that Confucius really is transcendentalist in his view of morality as the "Mandate of Heaven." Doesn't this show that the ultimate authority of morality--the "oughtness" of moral duty--comes from its conformity to the divine or cosmic moral law of "Heaven"?

One problem, however, is that "Heaven" as a translation of tian conveys to Western minds the Biblical idea of a transcendent deity beyond or above the world that he has created, so that the Heavenly City must be separated from the Earthly City. But, even if tian had some transcendent meaning in pre-Confucian China, as providing the normative standard of the universe that human beings should imitate, Confucius himself refuses to talk about the possibility of a separate world of gods or spirits beyond the human world. In his "this-worldly" attitude, Confucius promotes a sense of the sacred as inherent in the ritualised social relationships of human life. It is said in the Analects that Confucius refuses to even discuss the possibility of spirits, divinity, or a life after death (6.22, 7.21, 8.7, 11.12). In trying to turn people to "the Way," Confucius seems to be pointing to what would be the best way for human beings to live their earthly lives if they were perfectly wise. "Human beings can broaden the Way--it is not the Way that broadens human beings" (15.29).

A Darwinian view of morality as grounded in human nature, without any necessary support from moral cosmology or divine law, can look to Confucian morality as an illustration of such a natural morality. Of course, there is much in Confucianism that is peculiar to the cultural traditions of ancient China; and there is much there that we might scrutinize as to whether it fully conforms to natural human desires. But we can still see the general patterns of human nature that constitute the universal character of morality.

As I have indicated in some earlier posts, scholars such as Remi Brague argue that the modern turn away from a cosmic or divine ground of morality leads to nihilism. But even Brague eventually concludes that an "autonomous ethics" of "common morality" without religion is indispensable. Religion can support morality, but it adds nothing to morality's content, and even without religion, morality can stand on its own natural ground. This "common morality" sounds a lot like Darwin's natural "moral sense," which does not require religion, although it can benefit from religious beliefs and practices. Confucianism is one major example of a moral tradition that can be understood in Darwinian terms.

Brague says that what he calls "common morality" contains "the elementary rules that permit the coexistence of individuals and the permanence of the species, what C. S. Lewis called 'the Tao.'" The reference is to Lewis's The Abolition of Man, where Lewis claims that in all human cultures through history, there is evidence for a shared morality that can be known without any particular religious beliefs. Lewis calls this universal morality "the Tao," and thus uses Confucius' term for the "Way" of human social life. Lewis concludes his book with "Illustrations of the Tao"--short quotations of moral standards from ancient texts from around the world that illustrate universal moral norms. The Analects is quoted repeatedly, including the passage I discussed above on filial piety and respect for elders as the root of goodness.

Like Confucius, Darwin saw that all of human social life is rooted in the parent-child relationship. "The feeling of pleasure from society is probably an extension of the parental or filial affections, since the social instinct seems to be developed by the young remaining for a long time with their parents, and this extension may be attributed in part to habit, but chiefly to natural selection."

Modern biological research has reinforced this conclusion by showing how the evolution of human childhood--the long period of childhood dependence on adult care--has been crucial to the evolution of human morality and culture generally. Research in genetics, neuroscience, and endocrinology show how the intellectual and emotional bonds between parents and children are biologically supported. That's why I have included "parental care" and "familial bonding" on my list of 20 natural desires.

Moreover, Darwinian science also supports the practical syllogism that Graham sees implicit in the teaching of Confucius. In the Darwinian account of morality, moral judgment requires a combination of reason and desire, awareness of the world and emotional motivation. In contrast to the extreme rationalism of much modern moral philosophy, Darwinian moral psychology stresses that reason alone does not move us, and that Hume was right about the primacy of moral emotions or desires in providing the natural inclinations that sustain our moral sense.

Darwinian science can help us to understand Confucianism as an empiricist view of morality that does not require transcendent grounds, because Confucian morality rests not on the eternal norms of a cosmic God, cosmic Nature, or cosmic Reason, but on the earthly norms of human nature, human culture, and human individuals.

Of the many posts on related themes, four can be found here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Confucian Way

In October, I will be travelling to China for a week-long conference on "Evolution and Ethics" at Peking University in Beijing. The conference is sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, and it's a continuation of the seminar at the University of Oxford that I helped to conduct in January.

As I indicated in my posts on the Oxford seminar, I see the debate over evolutionary ethics as showing the contrast between two opposing views of ethics--Platonic/Kantian transcendentalism and Aristotelian/Humean empiricism. The transcendentalists believe that moral order must conform to some cosmic order as dictated by God, by the nature of the universe, or by universal rational structures. Just as we discover mathematical principles as somehow woven into the constitution of the world, we should be able to discover moral principles as part of the "wisdom of the world" (in Remi Brague's phrase). On the other side, the empiricists look to the human sources of moral order: human nature, human culture, and human individuals. Human nature gives us the generic goods of life as rooted in the natural desires of the human species as shaped by evolutionary history, which would include the 20 natural desires that I have sketched. But within the constraints of human nature, human culture specifies the moral traditions of human morality as shaped by cultural history. Within the constraints of both human nature and human culture, human individuals make choices that reflect the uniqueness of their individual temperaments, abilities, and circumstances as shaped by their individual history.

A Darwinian moral psychology supports the empiricist view of morality, because it rejects the idea that morality must somehow conform to some eternal order of the cosmos--cosmic God, cosmic nature, or cosmic reason. Darwinian empiricism accepts the historical contingency of morality as shaped by the genetic history of human nature, the social history of human culture, and the personal history of human individuality.

I have argued in defense of this Darwinian empiricism. I have also argued that this Darwinian empiricism supports an Aristotelian liberalism that reconciles virtue and freedom. The moral and intellectual virtues can be rightly understood as those states of character that fulfill the natural desires of our evolved human nature, which constitute the universal goods of human life. But the ranking and specification of those natural generic goods must vary according to the variable circumstances of human individuals in particular cultural situations. Government can rightly secure the conditions for individuals to freely choose how best to develop the moral and intellectual virtues in voluntary association with other individuals in social life. But government cannot rightly impose some one substantive conception of the best life on society, because this would deny the self-directedness necessary for moral freedom. A liberal government secures individual freedom as the condition for individuals to pursue virtue in civil society.

In my paper for the China conference, I will show how my arguments for Darwinian empiricism and Aristotelian liberalism apply to the Confucian traditions of China and East Asia.

The debate between Platonic transcendentalism and Aristotelian empiricism runs through Western cultural history from Greek antiquity to the present. A similar debate runs through Asian cultural history. On the one hand, much of the philosophic and religious thought of the East suggests that moral and political order must conform to some transcendent cosmic order, and therefore the authority of government comes from its enforcement of that cosmic order on the human community. On the other hand, one can also see intimations in some Asian thought of an empiricist or naturalist view of moral and political order as rooted in natural human experience, which would be supported by Darwinian science.

To lay out this line of thinking, this will be the first in a series of posts on the evolution of Confucian moral and political thought and the implications of Darwinian biology for the Confucian tradition. My general point is to show that my conception of Darwinian natural right can be extended beyond Western culture to include Eastern traditions of thought.

The traditional dates for Confucius are 551-479 B.C. Kongzi ("Master Kong") is the Chinese name rendered into latinized English by Jesuit missionaries as "Confucius."

Confucius lived under the Zhou dynasty. By the time of Confucius' birth, the power of the Zhou kings had been in decline for centuries. Confucius looked back to the Golden Age of the Zhou Dynasty (1122-770 B.C.), when the power of the Dynasty was at its peak, as setting the highest moral and religious standards of virtue as exemplified in the life of the gentleman. Confucius devoted himself to restoring those ancient standards that had been lost in his day. Such moral and political reform would require a recovery of what Confucius called "the Way" (dao), the ancient "way" that all human beings must follow to achieve excellence.

The Zhou Dynasty began when King Wu militarily defeated King Zhow, an evil tyrant, who was the last king of the Shang Dynasty (1751-1122 B.C.), the earliest Chinese civilization for which we have archaeological and written records. The first written records are "oracle bones"--pieces of ox scapula or tortoise shells used in divination. Rulers would write questions or requests directed to the spirits of the Shang ancestors. When the oracle bones were heated, they would crack, and the patterns in the cracks would be read by the diviner as a message from the ancestral spirits. Rulers needed to maintain good relations with these spirits, especially the "Lord on High," the first human ancestor of the Shang. A ruler who had the approval of the ancestral spirits was endowed with "virtue" (de), a charismatic power that attracted supporters and allowed harmonious order in the state.

The Zhou developed a religious tradition that incorporated some of the elements of the Shang religion. The Zhou fused the Shang "Lord on High" with the Zhou tribal god tian, which can be translated as "Heaven," because tian was a supreme anthropomorphic deity associated with the sky. "Heaven" supervised and judged human affairs. Rulers who performed the ritual sacrifices to the ancestors correctly could be granted the "Mandate of Heaven," which conferred on the human ruler the Virtue to rule over the political order, just as "Heaven" ruled over the universe. But rulers who did not act correctly, and particularly those who did not perform their ritual duties correctly with sincere devotion, could lose the "Mandate of Heaven."

This conception of a "Mandate of Heaven" suggests a transcendentalist view of moral and political order as grounded in conformity to the cosmic order of spirits and gods. Confucius seemed to continue that transcendentalist view in so far as he claimed that he himself was acting with a "Mandate from Heaven" to persuade people in his corrupt age to restore the "Way" of proper gentlemanly conduct and political rule.

And yet Confucius refused to speak about or inquire into the spiritual world. He was primarily concerned about good conduct in the earthly life of human beings as mortal creatures who die with no prospects for an afterlife. His silence about spiritual and divine matters suggested that his teaching was hardly religious at all. In a few places in the Confucian texts, Confucius interpreted the ritual traditions of virtue--particularly, filial piety--as grounded in the biological nature of human life, which manifested an empiricist view of morality as conforming to natural human experience with no need for cosmic support.

The teaching of Confucius is hard to determine, however, because he left no writings of his own. Like Socrates, his thinking was passed on only through his students who reported his conversations. The Confucian texts consist of collections of short conversational exchanges based on writings that were edited long after his death. These texts eventually became the basis for the Chinese civil service examination, so that for many centuries every Chinese person in the educated classes had to memorize the Confucian teachings. Similar examinations were administered in Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The most famous of those writings is the Analects, and one might argue that no other book has had more influence on more people over a longer period of time.

The Analects will be the subject of my next post.

Some of the posts on the Oxford seminar can be found here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

A Darwinian Left?--A Reply to Jiro Tanaka

Politics and Culture is an online journal that has just published a special issue on "Bioculture: Evolutionary Cultural Studies," edited by Joseph Carroll. One of the essays for this issue is Jiro Tanaka's "Notes Toward a Darwinian Left." Tanaka's article includes some strange comments on my argument for Darwinian natural right.

As the epigram for his essay, Tanaka quotes from Stephen Jay Gould: "Why should our nastiness be the baggage of an apish past and our kindness uniquely human? Why should we not seek continuity with other animals for our noble traits as well?" I would agree with this idea that even our noblest traits show some evolutionary continuity with other animals, and in fact this is a fundamental part of my argument for Darwinian natural right. But how exactly does this support a "Darwinian left"? Tanaka never gives a clear answer.

Tanaka indicates his agreement with Peter Singer's A Darwinian Left. But Tanaka never explains how he would respond to the many criticisms of Singer coming from me and from others.

As I have argued in Darwinian Conservatism, Darwin's biological science of human nature challenged the utopian vision of the left by denying human perfectibility and suggesting that social reform would always be constrained by the limitations of human nature. Unless they chose to totally reject Darwinian science, leftists were forced to look for some way of accommodating Darwinism while preserving their utopian vision. There were three strategies for doing this. One strategy was to embrace Francis Galton's eugenics, because this assumed that biological nature could be brought under human control and thus directed to utopian reform. But Galton's utopian eugenics was both scientifically false and morally repugnant.

Another strategy for the left was to follow Alfred Russel Wallace in asserting a dualism of nature and culture, so that human social life could be seen as a product of culture unconstrained by nature and thus subject to utopian improvement. Although Wallace formulated his own theory of evolution by natural selection at the same time that Darwin developed his, Wallace broke with Darwin in arguing that the moral and intellectual powers of human beings transcended natural selection. Natural selection shaped the "animal nature" of human beings but not their "spiritual nature," which must arise from "the unseen universe of Spirit." This led Wallace to attend seances where he could talk to dead people who lived as disembodied spirits in the spiritual afterlife. Although many leftists found it hard to accept Wallace's spiritualism, they did accept a dichotomy between animal nature and human culture, which implied that human culture belonged to some kind of transcendental or supernatural realm of experience, which denied Darwin's claim that human cultural history was part of the natural history of the human species. So it seemed that the leftist belief in human perfectibility must deny a Darwinian science of human nature that constrains the human freedom for utopian transformation.

Another strategy for a Darwinian left is to reject any radical dichotomy between animal nature and human history and to adopt a Darwinian view of human beings as embedded fully within the natural world. This is evident in the work of Peter Kropotkin, a socialist anarchist who saw human beings as shaped completely by Darwinian natural selection. In contrast to those Darwinians who stressed the competitive character of the struggle for existence, Kropotkin argued that Darwin himself saw that natural selection often favored the cooperation of animals within their species. Kropotkin emphasized the importance of sociality, mutual aid, and the moral sense in Darwin's account of human nature in The Descent of Man. For Kropotkin, this suggested that human beings could organize their societies as a socialist anarchy based on spontaneous cooperation without government.

But while a Darwinian view of human nature does show how social cooperation is rooted in biological nature, such cooperation is not totally selfless, because it depends on norms of kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity, so that individuals cooperate with those people whom they trust but not with those whom they distrust. This will not sustain pure anarchy without government. Moreover, by embracing Darwinian naturalism, Kropotkin rejects the leftist tradition of utopian reform unconstrained by human nature, and in doing so, he rejects the fundamental ground of leftist thought.

Kropotkin's strategy for a Darwinian left has been adopted by Peter Singer. But like Kropotkin, Singer in caught in a dilemma: his Darwinian view of human nature forces him to deny leftist utopianism, but in doing that, he denies the core of leftist thought. Singer concedes that a Darwinian left would have to realize that natural tendencies (such as social ranking, male dominance, sex roles, and attachment to one's kin) cannot be abolished. He is forced to conclude: "In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a cooly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is, I think, the best we can do today." In fact, much of his "deflated" leftism would be acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental standard for good social policy. For example, Singer agrees with Adam Smith about the benefits of a market economy in channeling the selfish motivations of human nature in ways that serve the common good. While Tanaka embraces Singer's Darwinian left, he never explains how he escapes Singer's dilemma.

As one might expect, Tanaka has to reject my arguments for Darwinian conservatism, but his reasoning is hard to understand. He writes: "Darwin himself was for the most part a progressive and liberal thinker, kind in his personal relations and hostile to all forms of social cruelty and exploitation. He hated slavery, which he had witnessed firsthand in Brazil." He doesn't indicate, however, that Darwin's liberalism was the classical liberalism of the Liberal Party of Great Britain. And he doesn't respond to my claim that the modern exponents of classical liberalism are people like Friedrich Hayek who belong to the modern tradition of libertarian conservatism.

Tanaka's analysis of my position is hard to follow. Here it is:

"It is not enough simply to invoke the naturalistic fallacy. The conservative scholar Larry Arnhart forces us to confront this inadequacy when he derives several 'oughts' from 'ises.' In direct opposition to the fact-value distinction, Arnhart argues for the ultimate compatibility of Darwinian evolution and Aristotelian natural right. The context of this endeavor is clear: Darwin has few advocates on the political right these days, due in large part to the coalition, forged in the Reagan era, between fiscal and social conservatives on the one hand, and Christian conservatives on the other. Arnhart therefore finds himself in a minority when he claims that 'conservatives need Charles Darwin.' To make this claim, he must argue that our evolved human nature is a source of moral--and specifically conservative--values.

"Like almost all modern evolutionists, Arnhart posits a panhuman, species-typical nature. On the basis of this human nature, he takes a moral stand on the issues of slavery and female circumcision. Both practices, he argues, violate the basic, evolved needs of human nature. Theoretically, this move puts us in the same place as Hauser puts us: it takes evolutionary biology as the source of factual knowledge, and then leaves us to decide about how to deploy that knowledge. But unlike most evolutionists, Arnhart goes on to invest 'human nature' with a kind of sacral authority that he feels is self-evidently wicked to contravene. But therein lies the false step: by choosing loaded examples, Arnhart makes the derivation seemingly self-evident. But one could also point to other historical examples in which what comes naturally is not self-evidently 'good.' Puritanism (and other belief systems that value chasteness) exhorts its followers to contravene our nature, and then identifies that contravention--that abstention or forbearance--as the Good.

"'Human nature' itself cannot stand in as a proxy for God. We're back to feeling, but not without having made some progress. Yes, it is possible for some to feel pleasure at the suffering of children, and for others to find our highest good in frustrating the natural impulses of human nature. Nonetheless, if we recognize the limits and potential in our common humanity, we shall at least know where we stand. We can put the norms implicit in the feelings of psychopaths and the ethos of Puritans--and the norms implicit in our judgment of them--into their appropriate biological context. It is probable that the brains of psychopaths exhibit irregularities in regions of the frontal lobe that mediate pro-social emotions like empathy and compassion. Belief systems that place a premium on chasteness, by contrast, may represent social constructs that tap into and amplify an evolved, but highly variable, instinct for 'purity.'"

Later, he observes: "Nothing prevents us from advancing a progressive version of Arnhart's argument, so long as we do not invest human nature with sacral authority!"

Unfortunately, Tanaka never explains specifically what he means by "a progressive version of Arnhart's argument."

Nor does he explain how he reaches the conclusion that I "invest human nature with sacral authority." Sacral authority? He even puts this phrase in italics, which suggests that I use this exact phrase in application to human nature. In fact, as far as I know, I have never used this phrase, and I have never identified human nature as having sacral authority. I am not even sure what this would mean. I do understand that some religious believers might believe that God as Creator has used the evolutionary process to create human beings in His image. But I have never said that a scientific understanding of evolved human nature requires believing that human nature is sacred or has sacred authority. Since Tanaka never provides any citation of my writings to support his claim that I invest human nature with sacral authority, I am left perplexed as to what he has in mind.

Maybe what he means by this is that I believe that human beings are naturally good, that every natural disposition is good. But it's hard for me to figure out how he pulls this out of my writing, especially since I stress human imperfection and the tragic situations that arise from conflicting natural desires. For example, I explain the tragic character of slavery as showing the conflict between the slavemaster's natural desire for exploitation and the slave's natural desire to be free from exploitation. I also explain female circumcision as showing the conflict between the natural desire of parents to make their daughters marriageable and the natural desire to avoid the pain and suffering from the customs of clitoridectomy and infibulation. As Tanaka indicates, the natural feelings of psychopaths deviate from the moral feelings typical for most human beings. But he doesn't indicate that I have a whole chapter on psychopaths as people with natural temperaments that render them "moral strangers" who cannot respond normally to moral persuasion.

How Tanaka infers from this that I regard human nature as having "sacral authority" is beyond my comprehension.

Some of my posts on why the "naturalistic fallacy" is not a fallacy can be found here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (6): The Modern Heaven & the Decline of Hell

In 1743, the Reverend Robert Blair published a poem The Grave that became so popular that it was published in many editions. In 1808, it was illustrated by William Blake.

One of Blake's illustrations was "The Meeting of a Family in Heaven." The children embrace one another. A son runs towards his father. The husband clasps his wife, with his right arm around her left shoulder, and his left hand planted firmly on her butt. This is not Dante's Heaven where pure contemplation of God is the highest human good. This is a Heaven that reproduces the joys of the world, including sexual desire and familial love. This is the Modern Heaven.

Jesus had said that "in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in Heaven" (Matthew 22:29-30). The traditional interpretation--the obvious interpretation--was that in Heaven there are no marital or family relationships. This was part of the traditional view that in Heaven, the ordinary activities of earthly life would be gone, because everyone in Heaven would be continuously engaged in the beatific vision of God.

But over the past few centuries, many people have found this unacceptable. If we are deprived of all the pleasures of earthly life, then how are we going to spend our time. Staring at God for all eternity? Boring!

Today, if people talk about Heaven at all, the prospect of being reunited with loved ones is one of the primary hopes. In the case of the Mormons, the whole life of Heaven is organized around families. Mormons who have a "celestial marriage" are assured that their marriage will be preserved for billions of years. Another important point for Mormons is to pray by name for all their dead ancestors so that they can be brought into Heaven, which is why genealogical records are so important for Mormons.

As John Casey indicates in his book, this Modern Heaven was first fully described by Emanuel Swedenborg in the 18th century. He described the pleasures of Heaven as including eating the best food, playing games, and beautiful wedding ceremonies. He elaborates the idea of the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation that the active life of ordinary people is superior to the contemplative life of a theoretical few, and therefore one should expect Heaven to manifest all the practical activities of daily life on earth elevated to heavenly perfection. So that grave monument I saw that looked forward to "golfing for eternity" was in this tradition of Swedenborg's Modern Heaven.

This Modern Heaven might seem vapid to some of us--particularly, those intellectual snobs among us who like to think that we would be happy to have the beatific vision in which we might see "ingathered, bound by love into one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe."

But there is a serious point here. We have no other way to judge our symbolic images of Heaven and Hell except to think about our natural experience of virtue and vice, excellence and degradation, the human good and the human bad. So, if the good is the desirable, and if we have a wide range of natural desires, then why not say that Heaven would allow us to pursue all those natural desires to perfection, and so it would be unreasonable to expect us to continuously engage in only one activity like contemplation?

As Aristotle suggested, it's unreasonable to think that the only truly happy life is a life of solitary, continuous contemplation. The truly happy life requires that we live as the social and political animals that we are--animals with natural desires for love, honor, and beauty as well as for intellectual and religious understanding. So why shouldn't we welcome the Modern Heaven as an image of the human good understood as the fullest satisfaction of all our natural desires over a complete life?

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (5): Dante

The evolution of Heaven and Hell illustrates that one dimension of evolution that is uniquely human--symbolic evolution.

As I have indicated in a previous post, I agree with Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb that the genetic system of inheritance is only one of four dimensions of evolutionary inheritance. All organisms have two systems of inheritance--the genetic system and the epigenetic system. Many animals have a third system--the behavioral system--by which learned traditions of behavior are passed from one generation to another. Human beings are unique in that they have not only these three forms of evolutionary inheritance, but also symbolic inheritance.

Symbolism is distinctively human because it shows the qualitative leap that defines our humanity as based on our capacity for symbolic thought and communication. Other animals can communicate through signs. But only human beings can communicate through symbols. The evolution of human language was crucial for the evolution of symbolism. Symbolic systems allow us to think about abstractions far beyond our concrete, immediate experiences. Symbolic systems allow human beings to construct a shared imagined reality. Art, religion, science, and philosophy are all manifestations of human symbolic evolution.

Dante's Divine Comedy is the supreme literary moment in the symbolic evolution of Heaven and Hell--and of Purgatory, by the way! He inherited 2,000 years of oral, visual, and written symbolism of the afterlife. He appropriated and transformed that inheritance by passing it through his individual experience and judgment and then passed it on to future generations. He thus introduced variations into the imagery of the afterlife that would compete in the evolutionary battle of symbols that constitute the spiritual history of humanity. His success depended upon his astute artistic judgment as to what kind of symbolism could survive and reproduce itself in the mental space of human intellectual and emotional responses, as constrained by the capacities and propensities of the human brain and nervous system as modulated by the behavioral and symbolic history of human culture over the past 50,000 years.

An evolutionary explanation of The Divine Comedy must move through at least three levels of evolutionary history--the natural history of the human species, the cultural history of Dante's world, and the individual history of Dante's life. His writing would be unintelligible and uninteresting if it were not responsive to our universal human nature--our natural desires and inclinations. And because of that appeal to human nature, a book like The Divine Comedy will resonate with human readers for as long as human beings have natural desires that are satisfied by the symbolism of an afterlife. But within the broad constraints of human nature, Dante's work was also constrained by the cultural history of Christendom and of Dante's Italy. And yet, natural history and cultural history constrained but did not determine exactly what would emerge from the individual history of Dante's unique mind.

From the beginning of Dante's Inferno, we see what he calls the principle of contrapasso--"counter-penalty" or "retaliation" (28.142). The punishment fits the crime as appropriate retribution. Dante learned this principle from Thomas Aquinas who defined contrapassum as "equal passion repaid for a previous action; and the expression applied most properly to injurious passions and actions, whereby a man harms the person of his neighbor; for instance, if a man strike, that he be struck back" (ST, II-II, q. 61, a. 4). He also learned this from Aristotle who identified antipeponthos--"reciprocity"--as a fundamental principle of justice (NE, 1132b21-23). He also learned this from the Bible's teaching "an eye for an eye" and "whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed" (Gen. 9:6

Of course, Dante didn't need to learn this principle from reading Aquinas or Aristotle or the Bible, because he could have learned it from his own natural experience. Indeed, all human beings--even those who have never read Dante, Aquinas, Aristotle, or the Bible--understand the principle of reciprocity, because there is a natural human desire to respond in kind--returning benefit for benefit and injury for injury. That's why I have identified the desire for justice as reciprocity as one of the twenty natural desires that belong to our evolved human nature.

The symbolic world of an afterlife might seem so far beyond our natural human experience that a skillful artist like Dante would have a completely free hand in designing that world in any way he pleases. That's not true, because the evolutionary success of an artist in constructing a symbolic world depends on his satisfying the natural desires of his human audience. We naturally want people to be rewarded appropriately for their virtues and punished appropriately for their vices. The ideas of Heaven and Hell have evolved in response to those natural human expectations, and so we will judge the plausibility of those ideas by how well they fit our expectations for fair reciprocity of rewards and punishments.

Much of the power of Dante's art in describing the afterlife comes from his skill in depicting appropriate punishments and rewards. For example, he presents the second circle of Hell as reserved for those being punished for the sin of lust. Although lust is one of the seven deadly sins, Dante ranks it as one of the least of the mortal sins. The more serious sins--violence, fraud, and treachery--are punished in the deeper circles of Hell.

In the second circle, the punishment of the sin of lust conveys the passionate power that drives the lustful by having the lovers blown about incessantly by a hurricane:

"I reached a place where every light is muted,
which bellows like the sea beneath a tempest,
when it is battered by opposing winds.
"The hellish hurricane, which never rests,
drives on the spirits with its violence:
wheeling and pounding, it harasses them.
"When they come up against the ruined slope,
then there are cries and wailing and lament,
and there they curse the force of the divine.
"I learned that those who undergo this torment
are damned because they sinned within the flesh,
subjecting reason to the rule of lust.
"And as, in the cold season, starlings' wings
bear them along in broad and crowded ranks,
so does that blast bear on the guilty spirits:
now here, now there, now down, now up, it drives them.
"There is no hope that ever comforts them--
no hope for rest and none for lesser pain" (V.28-45).

Here the punishment fits the crime, because the lustful reenact the restless obsessiveness of their lust eternally. The natural punishment for a vice is to be driven forever by one's vicious activity.

Nevertheless, Dante feels compassion for these lovers, particularly, Francesca and Paolo. Francesca had been unhappily married to Giancotto, and she had fallen in love with his handsome brother, Paolo. When Giancotto discovered their adulterous love, he murdered both of them. Francesco tells Dante how she fell into sin. She and Paolo were reading a romantic story about how Lancelot fell into an illicit love for Guinevere. When they read how Lancelot and Guinevere kissed for the first time, Francesca relates, "this one, who never shall be parted from me, while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth," and "that day we read no more." As Francesca finishes telling her story, Paolo weeps, and then Dante faints with pity.

We the readers are made by Dante to feel the sweet power of romantic lust, and so we also feel Dante's pity for these lovers, which persuades us to agree with Dante's judgment that their sin is lighter than the sins punished deeper in Hell. But we also know that adultery is so disruptive to social life that it deserves some punishment.

Some scholars have argued that romantic love is not a universal natural desire but a cultural invention of the medieval courtly love tradition. If so, then those readers who have not been shaped by that cultural tradition might not share Dante's sympathy for these doomed lovers. But if romantic love is a natural desire of our evolved human nature--as I believe it is--then Dante's depiction of the temptations of this passion should evoke some agreement from most readers universally.

Even readers who don't believe in the reality of an afterlife with Heaven and Hell can be moved by, and learn from, Dante's Divine Comedy because its poetic symbolism illuminates natural human experience.

But within the limits set by our universal human nature, there is room for cultural variation. And so conceptions of the afterlife will express both the natural universality and the cultural variability of our experience. Although our 20 natural desires are universal, different cultural traditions will rank and organize those natural desires in different ways, and this will be manifested in views of the afterlife.

For example, the cultural history of medieval Christendom had shaped a view of the afterlife in which the supreme good of religious understanding was to be recognized by being placed at the peak of heavenly rewards. All other goods were to be ranked as inferior to this dominant good. The goods of the body were inferior to the goods of the mind. The goods of the political life were inferior to the goods of the contemplative life. And of the goods of the mind, philosophic or scientific understanding was inferior to the religious understanding that would come from the eternal contemplation of the Christian God.

Moreover, the traditional Christian doctrines of original sin and predestination dictated that all human beings were condemned to eternal punishment, and that those few who attained eternal salvation did so only by the unmerited grace of God through the atonement of Christ. Therefore, all those outside the tradition of Christian revelation were to be condemned forever.

Dante's Divine Comedy is constrained by this Christian cultural history, which provides him the symbolic material for his poetic art. But even so, if he is crafty enough, he can exercise his individual judgment in altering and even criticizing that cultural tradition. And, certainly, the individual readers of his poetry, including many who might be skeptical of Christian culture, can engage in a critical assessment of the Christian afterlife and Dante's representation of that afterlife, which contributes to the continuing symbolic evolution of Heaven and Hell.

For instance, one might question the assumption of eternal punishments in Hell. Why do they have to be eternal? Even if Francesca and Paolo deserve punishment for their adulterous lust, do they deserve it for eternity? Doesn't it seem unfair and unreasonable that God would never give them a chance to repent of their momentary yielding to the seductive sweetness of romantic love? If so, then why not agree with Origen that the punishment of Hell is to have a purging effect, so that eventually all those in Hell can feel the pangs of conscience and then ask for, and receive, forgiveness? After all, doesn't the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory concede Origen's arguments for sinners being able to undergo purgation and thus open themselves to the love and forgiveness of God?

Dante's answer seems to be drawn from Aristotle's account of how habituation shapes character. If we choose often to engage in vicious behavior, then eventually we become habituated to it, it becomes our enduring character, and then it's hard, maybe impossible, to turn away from our vicious path. In much of the Divine Comedy, Dante seems to endorse the traditional Christian view that sin is so obsessive that at death the sinful will is unchangeable.

But how is this consistent with the idea of depravity as original sin? If we are so depraved that we have no choice but to sin, how is it just to punish us eternally? Aristotle thinks we have some choice in the matter, and therefore we can be held responsible for our choices. But if we are responsible for our conduct, why can't we choose to change, to reform, to turn back?

Is the idea of total depravity even intelligible? If we were totally depraved, how would we be able to recognize depravity as depravity? If we were totally depraved, how could be make the judgments of better and worse ways of acting that are reflected in the gradations of vicious and virtuous conduct in the Divine Comedy?

Such questions illustrate the freedom we have to criticize the cultural history of the afterlife.

Within the limits set by his Christian culture, Dante had some freedom to exercise his individual judgment about how to depict the afterlife. He was able to use the Divine Comedy to criticize the Catholic Church in ways that prepared the way for the Protestant Reformation. He also implicitly endorsed a pre-Christian or pagan conception of politics and philosophy that some readers have seen as suggesting a secret teaching at odds with Christian culture (see Inferno, 9.61-63; Purgatorio, 8.19-21; Paradiso, 2.1-9, 13.121-23, 23.64-69).

Dante identifies himself with the "honorable men" and "great-hearted souls" in Limbo--pagan poets, politicians, scientists, and philosophers. At the center of the list of people in Limbo are Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato. He even includes three Muslims--Saladin, Avicenna, and Averroes. These people "did not sin," but since they "lived before Christianity" or "did not worship God in fitting ways," they cannot enter Heaven, but neither are they in the depths of Hell (Inferno, V).

As Dante finally ascends to the tenth heaven, the Empyrean, which is the highest realm of spiritual reality, the seat of imperial sovereignty is reserved for Henry VII, the Emperor, whom Dante had hoped would restore the Roman Empire. And it is prophesied that Henry's opponent--Pope Clement V--will be eternally condemned for simony (Paradiso, XXX).

As John Casey correctly notes, Dante depicts at the end of the Paradiso the supreme happiness of the eternal contemplation of God, which is the beatific vision. Dante sees the eternal light of God. "Within its depths, I saw ingathered, bound by love into one volume, the scattered leaves of all the universe" (XXXIII.85-87). Here then is the traditional idea of Christian culture that what human beings really want, what they most deeply desire, is to see God and thus to contemplate the whole order of things forever, which shows that a purely contemplative life is the only true good for human beings.

But what Casey does not notice is that even as Dante appears to endorse this, his placement of the Emperor Henry on a seat in the highest heaven suggests that political life is part of the supreme good, perhaps also suggesting that the contemplative life (whether religious or philosophic) cannot be separated from the political life, because human beings are political animals as well as rational animals.

Some posts on related themes can be found here, here, and here.

Monday, May 03, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (4): The Bible

A few years ago, I taught a series of three courses on Biblical politics, with separate courses on the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Koran.

My undergraduate students were often surprised by what they read. Many were religious believers in the Abrahamic tradition--Jews, Christians, or Muslims. But most of them had never read the Bible carefully. They were surprised to see that the Hebrew Bible says almost nothing about Heaven and Hell, and while the New Testament says more about this, what is said is vague and confusing. The Koran is more explicit and descriptive in its few accounts of Heaven and Hell, but it's still unclear.

Many of my students were perplexed by this. If the whole point of being a Biblical believer is to enter Heaven and escape Hell, why do the texts of the Bible and the Koran provide so little explanation of Heaven and Hell?

This question is most acute in the case of the Old Testament. Through most of the text, there is no clear reference to the afterlife except for a few references to Sheol or "the pit," a dark underworld where the dead go. Job foresees that when he dies, he will go "to the place of no return, to the land of darkness and shadow dark as death, where dimness and disorder hold sway, and light itself is like dead of night" (10:21-22). It's nothing to write home about.

When Moses gives God's Law to the Israelites, his argument for obeying it is that it provides the conditions for living on earth and securing a life for one's progeny (Deuteronomy 4:29-40, 32:22). What matters is protecting the nation of Israel in competition with their enemies. There's no interest in individual immortality in an afterlife. There are a few passages about resurrecting faithful Israelites, but only for the sake of establishing an earthly kingdom of the Jews ruled by David eternally (Ezekiel 37).

The only place in the Hebrew Bible indicating a general resurrection and a final judgment with eternal rewards and punishments is two verses in the book of Daniel, which was probably written late in the history of ancient Israel (perhaps 167-164 B.C.): "Of those who are sleeping in the Land of Dust, many will awaken, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting disgrace. Those who are wise will shine as brightly as the expanse of the heavens, and those who have instructed many in uprightness, as bright as stars for all eternity" (12:2-3).

This idea of resurrection and final judgment could have come to the Jews from contact with the Persian religion founded by Zarathustra (or Zoroaster), who had taught that there would be a general resurrection at the end of time with a final judgment of the good and the evil. As a result of military defeat, many Jews had been deported to Babylon, beginning in 597 B.C. In 539 B.C., the Persian king Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, and later allowed the Jews in Babylon to return to Jerusalem. For this reason, Isaiah identified Cyrus as the Messiah or the "anointed one" of God (Isaiah 44-45). This possible contact of the Jews with the Persian religion of Zarathustra is part of the reason why Nietzsche thought Zarathustra was the original source for the otherworldliness of Biblical religion, and why he adopted Zarathustra as the name for his prophet in Thus Spake Zarathustra

Certainly, by the time of Jesus, belief in the resurrection of the dead was debated among the Jews--the Pharisees affirming it, and the Sadducees denying it. Saint Paul was a Pharisee (Acts 23:6-10).

Sometimes Jesus clearly teaches that in the afterlife, the saved will enjoy eternal bliss in Heaven, while the damned will suffer eternal punishment in Hell, as if Heaven and Hell were literally located somewhere in another world beyond the world we know now (Matthew 25:31-46; Mark 9:43-48).

But in other cases, Jesus speaks as if Heaven and Hell could be states of mind in our present life. "The kingdom of God is within you" (Luke 17:21). Many of his parables suggest that the kingdom of Heaven corresponds to some inward state of character that is fruitful and receptive (Matthew 13:1-52).

Jesus implies that the saved will have the same rewards and the damned the same punishments, so there's nothing like Dante's Divine Comedy, where there are different kinds of punishments and rewards appropriate to each category of the damned and the saved.

By comparison with Jesus, Paul's references to the afterlife are even more vague. He offers no clear conception of hell, and he doesn't teach eternal damnation. He does provide an influential statement on the resurrection of the body as a transformation of a "psychic body" (soma psychikon) into a "spiritual body" (soma pneumatikon (First Corinthians 15).

The Bible concludes with the prophecies of John's Revelation, depicting the final apocalyptic battle against the forces of Satan, the reign of Christ on earth for a thousand years, and then the Last Judgment, where the dead are judged by the record of their deeds, and those whose names are written in the book of life enter "a new heaven and a new earth." The "new Jerusalem" comes down from Heaven. This new holy city is described in exquisite detail as built of gold, pearls, and precious stones (Revelation 19-22).

The Bible left the early Christians with unresolved issues about the character of Heaven and Hell that provoked debates that continue to the present.

Some Christians interpreted Paul as teaching a doctrine of original sin--that as a result of Adam's sin, all human beings are born so totally depraved that there's nothing they can do to save themselves, and that salvation comes unearned only by the grace of God through the atonement of Christ's crucifixion. This leads to the doctrine of predestination--that from the beginning, God has freely chosen who is to be saved and who is to be damned.

The doctrine of original sin was rejected by Pelagius, a British monk who taught at Rome in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. He argued that since Jesus asked for repentance, he surely thought that human beings had the freedom to choose between salvation and damnation. To teach that human beings are born so totally depraved that they cannot avoid sinning seemed to Pelagius to deny that human beings can be held responsible for their lives, and thus God would be unjust in condemning them. If God is just in his rewards and punishments, then surely human beings must have the freedom to choose salvation.

The Pelagians were condemned by the early church authorities as heretics. But today most Christians are Pelagians, because they assume that God rewards people for their good deeds and their repentance of sin. When evangelical Christians insist that God will certainly save all those who sincerely repent of their sins and ask for forgiveness, they show their adherence to the Pelagian heresy.

Should God's punishment of the damned be eternal? Jesus suggests that. But Paul suggests that Christ's atonement might save everyone. "For as in Adam all die, even in Christ shall all be made alive" (First Corinthians 15:22). Origin, a Coptic Christian born late in the first century, became a theologian who taught that the fires of hell should be interpreted as symbolic of a burning conscience, so that those in Hell would eventually be purged of their sins, and all would be saved. That God would condemn sinners to an eternal Hell with no chance to repent seemed unjust to Origen. But Origen's teaching was declared a heresy by the early Church. When Darwin condemned the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell as a "damnable doctrine," he was in the tradition of Origen's heresy.

Originally, the idea of an afterlife with a final judgment, as developed by the ancient Egyptians and Plato, seemed to be a way to enforce good conduct in life by providing eternal rewards for the good and eternal punishments for the bad. But the Christian doctrines of original sin and predestination would seem to deny this by denying that one's choices in life have any influence over one's eternal destiny.

For some related posts on Darwinian readings of the Bible, go here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (3): Aristotle and the Contemplative Life

For Augustine and other early Christian philosophers, Plato's teaching about the immortality of the soul and the supreme happiness of the contemplative life was fulfilled in the Christian understanding of the beatific vision in Heaven as the eternal happiness that all human beings long for (City of God, VIII, 4; XXII, 25-29). Nietzsche pointed to this when he said that Christianity was Platonism for the common people.

But for Plato, immortality was attained only by disembodied spirits, which seemed to deny the orthodox Christian teaching that at the Last Judgment all human bodies would be resurrected to eternal salvation or eternal damnation. In the gap between death and the Last Judgment, human souls would exist in some disembodied existence, as Plato believed, but eventually those souls would be reunited with their resurrected bodies, which Plato seemed to deny.

By contrast to Plato, Aristotle defended a biological understanding of the soul as the vital activity of the body, so that mind and body were bound together in an organic unity. So Christian theologians like Thomas Aquinas looked to Aristotle as the philosopher who could provide the philosophical psychology to justify the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of bodies to eternal life.

In his commentary on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Aquinas explains: "Some philosophers [Plato] held that the intellect is something imperishable and separate; and in their system the intellect would be a divine thing, for we call those beings divine that are imperishable and separate. Others, like Aristotle, considered the intellect a part of the soul; and in this view the intellect is not something divine by itself but the most divine of all the things in us. This is so because of its greater agreement with the separate substances, inasmuch as its activity exists without a bodily organ" (sec. 2084).

This comment leads into Aquinas's reading of Book 10 (chapters 7-8) where Aristotle argues for the superiority of the contemplative life as the best and happiest life. Aquinas can then interpret this as Aristotle's opening to the Christian doctrine of heavenly beatitude as the fulfillment of all human desires.

Straussians interpret this part of the Nicomachean Ethics as showing Aristotle's agreement with Plato on the philosophic life as the best life for human beings, in contrast to the merely moral life of the multitude of human beings. So while most of the Ethics presents the moral virtues and practical reasoning as necessary for human happiness and excellence, the Straussians suggest, Aristotle shows in Book 10 that the only truly happy life is not a moral life but a purely theoretical life of philosophic contemplation. Although most of the Straussians are atheists, they agree with Aquinas's Christian interpretation of Aristotle's Ethics as pointing to contemplation as the highest human good.

But the difficulties with this interpretation become clear as soon as one looks carefully at Aristotle's arguments in X.7-8 of the Ethics. He presents six arguments for why a life of theoretical contemplation is superior to a life of moral or political activity. Each of those arguments is remarkably weak, particularly when considered in the context of the whole of the Ethics. One must wonder, then, whether Aristotle is being ironical in stating arguments that assume an implausible Platonism.

The best survey of these six arguments in X.7-8 that shows how dubious they really are is Germaine Paulo Walsh's book chapter "The Problematic Relation between Practical and Theoretical Virtue in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics," in A Moral Enterprise: Politics, Reason, and the Human Good, edited by Kenneth Grasso and Robert Hunt (ISI Books, 2002), pp. 59-81, 354-60.

Consider, for example, the second and third arguments for why theoretical contemplation provides the only true happiness for human beings. Aristotle says that contemplation is the "most continuous" activity of a human being, and that this activity brings pleasures "which are wonderful in purity as well as in permanence" (1177a21-28). This resembles the Platonic Idea of the Good that Aristotle criticizes in Book 1 of the Ethics, and there he criticizes the Platonic identification of goodness with permanence. "If indeed a white thing that exists for a long time is not necessarily whiter than a white thing that exists for a day, neither will the Idea of the Good by being eternal be more good than a particular good" (1096b4-5). And even if "we are able to contemplate continuously more easily than to perform any kind of action" (1177a21-23), it is still true that human beings cannot engage in any activity continuously because of their compound nature. As Aristotle says elsewhere in the Ethics, "the same thing is not continuously pleasurable to us because our nature is not simple" (1154b21-23). A life of continuous pleasure without pain is not possible for human beings.

The fourth argument for the supreme happiness of contemplation is that it is the most self-sufficient of the activities available to human beings (1177a28-34). "A wise person is able to theorize even if he is alone, and the wiser he is, the more he can do so by himself." And although it might be better for him to have "co-workers," the wise person is never said here to have friends. But this conception of self-sufficiency as solitariness contradicts what Aristotle says elsewhere about true self-sufficiency as encompassing all those social relationships--children, parents, friends, and fellow-citizens--necessary for human beings as social and political animals (1097b8-12, 1134a26-27). Moreover, the longest section of the Ethics is the two books devoted to all the various kinds of friendship.

After laying out his six arguments, Aristotle suggests that they are not sufficient. "We should examine the statements which we have already made by referring them to the deeds and the lives of men, and we should accept them as true if they harmonize with the deeds or facts [ta erga] but should regard them merely as arguments if they clash with those facts" (1179a20-22).

So what are the relevant "facts"? Aristotle explains:

"Now he who proceeds in his activities according to his intellect and cultivates his intellect seems to be best disposed and most dear to the gods; for if the gods had any care for human matters, as they are thought to have, it would be also reasonable that they should take joy in what is best and most akin to themselves (this would be man's intellect) and should reward those who love and honor this most, as if they cared for their friends and were acting rightly and nobly. Clearly, all these attributes belong to the wise man most of all; so it is he who would be most dear to the gods, and it is also reasonable that he would be the most happy of men. Thus if we view the matter in this manner, it is again the wise man who would be the most happy of men" (1179a23-34)."

But notice how conditional or hypothetical this argument is, as indicated by the repetition of "if." In Aquinas's commentary on this passage, he removes the conditional mode of expression: "For, supposing--as is really true--that God exercises solicitude and providence over human affairs, it is reasonable for him to delight in that which is best in men and most akin or similar to himself" (sec. 2133).

Of course, Aquinas is confident of God's providential care of and love for human beings. But Aristotle is not. Shortly before this passage suggesting that the gods love philosophers, Aristotle ridicules the idea that the gods have any moral concerns at all (1178b8-18). The purest divine activity is completely self-contained because it is "thought thinking itself" (nous noesis) (Metaphysics, 1074b15-1075a11). If the happiness of the gods comes from purely self-contained contemplative activity, then why would they care for human beings or love philosophers?

The weakness and strangeness of Aristotle's arguments for the supremacy of the philosophic life at the end of the Ethics suggest that Aristotle's true teaching is that conveyed in the rest of the Ethics--that the human good is attained not just in one dominant good--philosophy--but in the whole range of moral and intellectual goods. Moreover, the intellectual life of the philosopher cannot be a continuous, self-contained activity, because the philosopher, like all human beings, needs the right material, bodily, and social conditions for a good human life. Human self-sufficiency must include living with family, friends, and fellow-citizens. And even when human beings are fortunate enough to secure all of these conditions for a good life, their life must come to an end, because (as Aristotle says explicitly) immortality is impossible for human beings, and death is the end of life (1111b19-23, 1115a25-29).

To the careful reader of the Ethics, Aristotle indicates by his presentation of theoretical contemplation in X.7-8 the appeal of Platonic philosophy as catering to the desires for a self-contained, continuous, and invulnerable human pleasure that is free from the contingency and mortality of ordinary human life. But even as he does this, Aristotle reminds us of the fragility and impermanence of all human happiness--the real but fleeting happiness that we can know as embodied animal minds that must decay and die.

We learn from Aristotle to enjoy the life we have, without the fear of Hell or the hope for Heaven.

A couple of related posts can be found here and here.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

The Evolution of Heaven and Hell (2): Ancient Origins

The intellectual history of thinking about Heaven and Hell is set forth very well in John Casey's recent book--After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell, & Purgatory (Oxford, 2009). One major limitation of Casey's book, however, is that he concentrates on Western culture and ignores the Eastern traditions of rebirth and reincarnation. One good book on the traditions of karmic rebirth is Gananath Obeyesekere's Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist, and Greek Rebirth (University of California Press, 2002). In this series of posts, I will be looking mostly at Western thought and drawing ideas from Casey's book.

Although the belief that the dead live on as spirits or ghosts might have been common in earliest human history, the ancient Egyptians seem to have been the first people with any clear conception of another life after death in which the dead were rewarded or punished for their conduct in this life. Those who had lived in accord with ma'at--the cosmic order of the universe--were rewarded with eternal happiness. In the earliest periods of Egyptian history, the ascent to heavenly bliss was restricted to the pharoahs and their families, while ordinary people passed to the underworld. Later, the heavenly route was opened to all. Osiris, the god who had been raised from the dead, became the god who offered the hope of resurrection to all those human beings who were not guilty of wicked behavior.

In contrast to this Egyptian belief in an immortal afterlife, the ancient Mesopotamian poem The Epic of Gilgamesh teaches that the search for immortality is hopeless and foolish. Gilgamesh wanders the world in his quest for the secret source of immortal life. But he finally learns that the search for eternal life is vain and childish, and that it distracts us from finding joy in the earthly life that is available to us as mortal animals.

At least until the middle of the fifth century B.C., the ancient Greeks seemed to have been closer to the Mesopotamian view of life and death than the Egyptian view. Ancient Greek mortuary inscriptions say nothing about an afterlife, but instead they speak about the dead person's life, his family, his city, and his achievements--rather like what I see today in the graveyards I visit. Homer's poetry depicts the underworld as a shadowy realm in which the dead take no pleasure in their vague half-existence.

But then the Orphic religion introduced into the ancient Greek and Roman worlds the Egyptian conception of a future life after death where people would be rewarded or punished for their good or bad deeds during their earthly lives. Plato became the philosopher of Orphism in adapting its beliefs to his transcendentalist philosophizing, which distinguished the intelligible world of true Being from the visible world of mere Becoming. The human soul as pure thought was immortal, because it participated in the eternal world of Being. But the soul's attainment of its true destiny could come only after death. In its earthly life, the soul was held captive within the mortal human body. After death, the soul left the body and then would be judged, so that the souls of the good would be rewarded, and the souls of the bad would be punished.

In Plato's Phaedo (69a-70b), Socrates affirms his belief in the Orphic mystic rites by which human beings are purified and initiated into a state of thoughtfulness by which the immortal soul is separated from the mortal body, so that the soul can attain its divine rewards after death. This pure state of the soul is achieved through the purely contemplative life of the philosopher. It's noteworthy that Socrates' interlocutor--Cebes--interrupts him to express the skepticism about any life after death that was apparently common among the ancient Greeks. So it's clear that Plato's Socrates is introducing a new Orphic religion of otherworldly beliefs to overturn the worldly realism of Greek experience.

Plato presents this religious belief in the otherworldly destiny of the human soul through mythic stories. Although they differ in their details, these myths--particularly, in the Laws (885c-907b), the Timaeus, and the Republic (614a-621d)--converge on a common theme: the cosmos is an intelligent order that has been divinely designed to distinguish between good and bad, noble and base, and in the next life, the good will be rewarded and the bad punished. A philosophic life of pure contemplation wins the greatest rewards, because the purely theoretical activity of the human mind participates most fully in the eternally intelligible order of the divine Mind.

But the fact that Plato and Plato's Socrates present this vision through myths rather than demonstrations has led many readers to question whether they really believe what they are saying, or whether they are presenting this only as noble lies.

Augustine suggested that Plato's philosophic theology was probably dissimulation: although Plato did not really believe what he said in his mythic depictions of the afterlife and the divine order, he thought it would be good for common people to believe such things. And yet Augustine (like many of the early Christian theologians) embraced Plato's theology of the afterlife as the closest approximation among the pagan philosophers to the truth of Christian theology. While Plato presented the life of philosophic contemplation as the most divine life, Augustine and other Christians could see this teaching as fulfilled in the Christian doctrine that human nature will be fulfilled in Heaven through the eternal contemplation of God as the ground of Being.

Straussian scholars have stressed the esotericism of Plato's theological cosmology in arguing that Plato knew this cosmology to be ridiculously implausible, but that he presented it only as a noble lie for providing cosmic support for a morality necessary for common people but not for philosophers. According to the Straussians, the true Platonic teaching is that the best life for human beings is a purely contemplative life that is attainable only by a philosophic few, and this purely theoretical life transcends the moral or political life of the many.

The problem with this Straussian reading of Plato, however, is that it ignores the fact that the supposed supremacy of the philosophic life depends upon Plato's transcendentalist cosmology, with its claim that the pure mind of the philosopher transcends the body and participates in the divine realm of the purely intelligible order of the cosmos. If Plato didn't really believe his noetic cosmology, it's hard to see how he could really believe in the superiority of the philosophic life as the only true human good for those few capable of living it.

A few of my previous posts on Platonic cosmology can be found here, here, here, and here.