Sunday, January 28, 2024

The Argument from Desire: C. S. Lewis in "Freud's Last Session"


"I am not asking anyone to accept Christianity if his best reasoning tells him that the weight of the evidence is against it."  

That was C. S. Lewis's claim in Mere Christianity (123) that he had rational arguments for showing how the weight of the evidence supported Christianity.  In the Reason/Revelation debate, Lewis thought that Reason could prove, or at least render probable, the truth of Christian Revelation.  

If Lewis was right about this, that would deny my contention that while there is an evolved natural desire for religious transcendence, or for what Lewis calls "Joy," the existence of this desire provides no evidence for the real existence of the supernatural object--God--that would satisfy this desire.

That all of Lewis's rational arguments for Christianity fail has been well-argued by John Beversluis in C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion (2007), which is the only book-length critical study of Lewis's apologetic writings.  My thinking about Lewis has been influenced by Beversluis.

Most of Lewis's arguments for Christianity and against atheism show up in Mark St. Germain's "Freud's Last Session"--both the play and the movie.  Here and in subsequent posts, I will start with the texts of the play (first published in 2010) and the screenplay for the movie released a few weeks ago.  My references to the screenplay will be to the scene numbers.  As I have indicated, St. Germain draws most of his material from Armand Nicholi's book The Question of God (2002).

In a later post, I will consider William Nicholson's stage play and movie screenplay "Shadowlands," which tells the story of Lewis's marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham and her tragic death from cancer, after only a few years of marriage, which threw Lewis into a dark crisis of faith.  In the movie "Shadowlands," Anthony Hopkins played Lewis; in the movie "Freud's Last Session," Hopkins plays Freud in his debate with Lewis.  

These plays and movies are impressive examples of how popular culture in a modern liberal social order can probe into the deepest questions raised by the Reason/Revelation debate.  I do not know of any historical evidence that anything like this has been possible in any illiberal societies.  On the contrary, in the illiberal closed societies of the past, such a public debate about religious orthodoxy and atheism would have been considered dangerously subversive of the social order.  

Doesn't this refute those many critics of liberalism (like Patrick Deneen) who whine about the moral, intellectual, and spiritual degradation coming from liberal culture?  Doesn't this support those proponents of liberalism (like Deirdre McCloskey) who celebrate the human excellence that comes from the bourgeois virtues of a liberal culture?

I should note, however, that the movie "Freud's Last Session" has not been very popular.  When I saw it, there were no more than a dozen people in the theater.  The original stage play was more successful.  In 2012, when I saw the play twice at the Mercury Theater in Chicago, and I helped to lead a discussion of the play with the audience after they had just seen it, I saw large audiences that wanted to talk about the play.  


In both plays and both movies, Lewis's primary argument is that the desire for Joy points to God as the supernatural object that will satisfy that desire.

Lewis's argument elicits this conversation in St. Germain's play:

LEWIS.  None of us are born with desires unless satisfaction for them exists.

FREUD.  Not true.

LEWIS.  It is.

FREUD.  Example?

LEWIS.  A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim, water exists to do it.  So if I find within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most likely explanation is that I was made for another world.

FREUD.  You have just abandoned facts for fairy tales.  Our deepest cravings are never satisfied or even identified.  In German we call it 'Seinsucht,' a longing.  For years I have felt this.  A strong desire to walk in the woods with my father, as I did when I was young.  He would hold my hand, but I would always pull away and run from him as fast as I could, deep into the trees.

LEWIS.  What were you running to?

FREUD.  Perhaps I ran to be alone or to escape from my father.  I only know the desire was overwhelming.

LEWIS.  I call that desire "joy."

FREUD.  "Joy."

LEWIS.  I don't know a better word for it.  I felt it for the first time through a sort of "woods" as well.

FREUD.  Yes?

LEWIS.  I wasn't yet six.  My brother Warren brought a biscuit box into the nursery that he decorated with moss and twigs, tiny stones and flowers.  A toy forest.  I thought it was the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen.  I still do.  The moment I saw it, it created a yearning I never felt before.

FREUD.  To live in a tiny Eden with a tiny God.

LEWIS.  God never entered my mind.

FREUD.  And this "joy" you equate with an inherent desire for a Creator.

LEWIS.  Yes.

FREUD.  You were led to God by a biscuit tin.

A slightly altered version of this conversation appears in the movie (31-33).  What they say here is taken directly from Nicholi's book, and what Lewis says is taken directly from Lewis's writing--particularly Mere Christianity and Surprised by Joy.  

Keep in mind that the book Mere Christianity originated as a series of Lewis's radio broadcast talks on the BBC in 1942.  In the midst of the terrifying turmoil of World War Two in Great Britain, Lewis was speaking to a general audience of ordinary English people in a calmly conversational tone about "the case for Christianity."  Lewis was asked to give these talks by a BBC producer who thought the radio audience would want to hear them as they worried about whether religion could help them make sense of the war.  It is fitting, therefore, that the conversation between Freud and Lewis in "Freud's Last Session" is set on September 3, 1939, the day that Great Britain's war with Nazi Germany began.

A crucial passage in Mere Christianity is in his chapter on "Hope," which is about the hope for Heaven (118-21).  Lewis writes:

". . . when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize it.  Most people, if they had really learned to look into their hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world.  There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.  The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy.  I am not now speaking of what would be ordinarily called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers.  I am speaking of the best possible ones.  There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.  I think everyone knows what I mean.  The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.  Now there are two wrong ways of dealing with this fact, and one right one."

One wrong way is the "fool's way"--he "goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are after."  The other wrong way is the Disillusioned "Sensible Man" who decides that the whole thing is adolescent moonshine, and that grown-up people learn to settle for the modest pleasures of life rather than strive for an unattainable infinite happiness.

The right way is the Christian Way.  The Christian says:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists.  A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water.  Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.  If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.  If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud.  Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.  If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage.  I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same."

Those who scorn the Christian Way will ridicule the idea of Heaven by saying that they do not want "to spend eternity playing harps."  But, of course, this is a silly objection because it fails to see that the metaphorical imagery of Heaven will always be "a merely symbolical attempt to express the inexpressible."  And "musical instruments are mentioned because for many people (not all) music is the thing known in the present life which most strongly suggests ecstasy and infinity."

In Surprised by Joy--Lewis's spiritual autobiography, the story of his conversion to Christianity--he described his search for Joy--"an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other desire"--and said that "in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else" (6-8, 17-18, 73, 78, 169-70, 220-222).

Reading these passages from Lewis's writings makes the story of "Freud's Last Session" more comprehensible than it would otherwise be.  For example, many viewers of the movie will be confused by the prolonged depictions of Lewis's sexual affair with Janie Moore and the lesbian liaison of Freud's daughter Anna and her lover Dorothy Burlingham, to which Freud objects because of his perverse sexual attachment to his daughter.  

What does all of this frisson of sexual feeling have to do with Lewis and Freud's debate over God?  The answer is that this is all about Lewis's argument from Joy, and for Lewis sex is often a poor substitute for Joy.  At the end of the screenplay for the movie, as Lewis is leaving Freud's house, he sees Anna and Dorothy meeting: "Anna turns and smiles at seeing her.  Lewis watches their joy in seeing each other, and the two embrace.  Lewis realizes their intimacy and looks disappointed, then back at the house, better understanding Freud's struggle" (131).

Similarly, understanding Lewis's account of music as stirring the joyful emotions of "ecstasy and infinity" explains the place of music in the play and the movie.  Freud repeatedly turns on his radio to hear news announcements and political statements about the threat of war, but as soon as the broadcast switches from news to music, Freud turns off the radio.  Lewis asks Freud why he never wants to hear music (122).  

FREUD.  I object to being manipulated.  To me, it's all church music.

LEWIS.  My objection to church music is that it trivializes emotions I already feel.  I think you're afraid to feel them at all.

For Freud to reject all music as "church music" suggests that music often elicits deep emotions of transcendence that he does not want to feel.

At the end of the movie, Anna and Dorothy sit together near Freud in his living room.  Earlier in the movie, we have learned that Freud had always forbidden Anna to bring Dorothy to his house.  But now Freud sits quietly at his radio listening to music.

"MUSIC swells -- Anna looks to her father, surprised to see him listening to music.  He turns, meets her eyes."

"Freud then stares at the radio, listening intently, trying to decipher what he should feel" (137).

The play ends here.  The movie adds two scenes with Lewis travelling by train back to Oxford.  In the first scene, Lewis falls asleep on the train, and he dreams that he is walking in a forest: "The forest is golden now, shimmering between reality and fantasy.  The brightness of a single beam of light stops him.  He shields his eyes, trying to see--His expression changes, astonishment, awe, at what he--."

Then, the screaming of the train's breaks jolts him awake.  As he reaches down for his bag, he feels the book in his pocket that Freud had given him.  He looks at the book and sees that it is his own book Pilgrim's Regress.  So while Freud earlier in the day had said he had not read this book, which includes a satirical character named Sigismund Enlightenment, Lewis now sees that Freud had indeed read the book.  Inside the book, Freud had written: "From error to error, one discovers the entire truth."  Lewis smiles as he reads this, and the train enters a tunnel.

This quotation is often attributed to Francis Bacon, although the correct quotation is "Truth emerges more readily from error than from confusion," which appears in Bacon's New Organon (II.20), Bacon's book on scientific method.  Apparently, it means that the scientific pursuit of truth requires formulating clear interpretations or hypotheses about nature that can be tested and usually falsified, so that from error, the truth might eventually emerge.  Lewis's Pilgrim's Regress is about Lewis's search for meaning and spiritual truth--through the story of the pilgrim John--in which he must meet many people with mistaken views of the world.  In writing this quotation as a response to Lewis's book, Freud suggests that Lewis really is pursuing the truth in the right way.

In all of this, we can see how "Freud's Last Session"--both the play and the movie--is slanted in favor of Lewis's side of the debate with Freud.  The title "Freud's Last Session" is ambiguous.  It could mean that Freud is psychoanalyzing Lewis to free him from his religious illusions.  But by the end of the story, we see that Freud is the patient, and Lewis is the doctor.  At one point in the movie, we see Freud laying on his own couch as he speaks with Lewis.

As I indicated in my previous post, "Freud's Last Session" does not present us with a fair debate because it shows us that Lewis is so superior to Freud--morally and intellectually--that this gives Lewis an unfair advantage over Freud in the debate.

Lewis did not seek out this kind of debate, in which he was sure to defeat a weaker opponent.  On the contrary, for twelve years, he was the President of the Oxford Socratic Club, which brought together the smartest Christians, atheists, and agnostics for debates about Christianity and atheism.  Participants included some of the best philosophers and scientists of the day--such as Elizabeth Anscombe, A. J. Ayer, J. L. Austin, Antony Flew, C. E. M. Joad, Gilbert Ryle, and C. H. Waddington.  Lewis was President of this club from its founding in 1942 until he left for Cambridge in 1954.  At its founding, he wrote a statement about how the club would be Socratic in the sense that Christians would agree to debate their opponents while accepting the principle of Socrates that "we must go wherever the wind of the argument carries us" (Plato, Republic 394d; Lewis, "The Founding of the Socratic Club," 131).

The Oxford Socratic Club met every Monday evening during term from 8:15 pm to 10:30 pm.  On one Monday, a Christian would deliver a paper on a certain topic, and then another person would deliver a paper criticizing the first paper.  On the following Monday, the first speaker would be a non-Christian, followed by a Christian.  The meetings were open to all Oxford students and faculty as well as the general public.  Usually, it was standing-room-only.  And the discussions would continue late into the night.  Lewis almost never missed a meeting.

This is the kind of open public debate over Reason and Revelation that began in England in the Metaphysical Society that met from 1869 to 1880, which was made possible by the liberal culture that had emerged in England at that time.

So if we were to rewrite "Freud's Last Session" to make it more like the debates in the Oxford Socratic Club, we would need to introduce a third debater who would be Lewis's intellectual equal and thus able to really challenge him.  As I suggested in my previous post, we should look for someone like David Hume or a Humean philosopher who could turn the debate into something like Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.

A Humean philosopher (like John Beversluis) could seriously challenge, perhaps even refute, Lewis's argument from desire by showing that Lewis's search for Joy does not necessarily point to the reality of God.  That will be the question for my next post.


Beversluis, John.  2007.  C. S. Lewis and the Search for Rational Religion.  Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Lewis, C. S. 1955.  Surprised by Joy.  New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Lewis, C. S. 1960.  Mere Christianity.  New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C. S.  1970.  "The Founding of the Oxford Socratic Club."  In God in the Dock, 130-34.  Edited by Walter Hooper.  Grand Rapids, MI: William Eerdmans Publishing.

Nicholi, Armand.  2002.  The Question of God: C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life.  New York: Free Press.

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Are Religious Believers Happier Than Unbelievers? Sigmund Freud Debates C. S. Lewis


                                                      The Trailer for "Freud's Last Session"

In 2012, I wrote some posts on C. S. Lewis as depicted in Mark St. Germain's play "Freud's Last Session" (2010)This play is based on Armand Nicholi's book The Question of God (2002), which presents the debate between Sigmund Freud and Lewis over "God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life."  This book was based on a course on the Freud-Lewis debate that Nicholi had taught for 35 years at Harvard University.  In 2004, PBS broadcast a four-hour series of programs based on Nicholi's book.  St. Germain's play is a fictional portrayal of a conversation between Freud and Lewis at Freud's home in London on September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war on Nazi Germany, and twenty days before Freud ended his life by suicide at age 83.

Now, a film version of this play has been released.  St. Germain has written the screenplay with the help of Matthew Brown, the Director of the movie.  In the movie, Anthony Hopkins plays Freud, and Matthew Goode plays Lewis.  (Some years ago, Hopkins played the role of Lewis, while Debra Winger played Joy Gresham, in "Shadowlands," a movie about the poignant story of Lewis's marriage to Gresham and his grief over her death from cancer after only a few years of a joyful marriage.)

Although I have not yet had a chance to see the new movie, I have read the screenplay.  I have been comparing the movie screenplay with St. Germain's stage play and with Nicholi's book.

One reason for my interest in this debate between Freud and Lewis is that it helps me to reexamine my claim that the natural desire for religious understanding is one of the twenty natural desires of our evolved human nature.  Is that true?  And if it is, does that natural desire for God give us any reason to believe that God really exists, as Lewis asserted?  Or is that natural longing for God only delusional wish-fulfillment, as Freud asserted?  Does an evolutionary science of religion support Lewis or Freud? 

Do the book, the play, and the movie come down on one side or the other of this debate?  In deciding this debate, are the biographies of the debaters more decisive than their arguments, because the biographies show which way of life is happier and more fulfilling?

Before considering the other questions, I will take up those last two question in this post.

In his book, as in his course at Harvard, Nicholi claimed that to properly assess the debate between Freud and Lewis, it was not enough to study their arguments as presented in their writings, because we needed to study their biographies.  "Their arguments can never prove or disprove the existence of God.  Their lives, however, offer sharp commentary on the truth, believability, and utility of their views" (5).  We can then "see if their biographies--how they actually lived their lives--strengthen or weaken their arguments and tell us more than their words convey" (9).

This combination of arguments and biographies in Nicholi's book is represented dramatically in St. Germain's stage play and screenplay as a philosophical dialogue--rather like a Platonic dialogue in which we can judge both the arguments and the characters of the interlocutors.

When Nicholi's book was first published in 2002, Ken Gewertz wrote an article on the book for The Harvard Gazette.  He observed: "As he does in his seminar, Nicholi avoids taking sides in the debate, but rather allows Freud and Lewis to speak for themselves.  He also examines their lives to detrmine the impact of their beliefs.  Ultimately, the book asks the question, which man was happier, more satisfied?  Is it better to be a believer or an unbeliever?"

When Gewertz directly posed this question to Nicoli, he maintained a "spinxlike reticence"--saying that he did not take sides in the debate.  "What I do is try to present an objective, dispassionate, critical assessment of both worldviews."

"Nicholi's book, however, tells another story," Gewertz insisted.  Because "in response to the question of happiness, the evidence is clear: Lewis wins, hands down."  

As I indicated in my previous posts on Nicholi's book, I think Gewertz was right:  even though Nicholi professed to be even-handed in his presentation of the debate between Freud and Lewis, Nicholi was clearly biased in favor of Lewis, because he showed us how Lewis's conversion to Christianity led him to a life that was happier and healthier than Freud's life, which confirmed that Lewis had the better argument because he had the better life.  Although it is not quite as clear as it is in the book, both the play and the movie tend to favor Lewis over Freud.

The problem with this, however, is that in selecting Freud as Lewis's opponent, Nicholi gave Lewis an unfair advantage.   Nicholi could have selected a far more formidable opponent--someone like David Hume, for example--who would have been intellectually and morally superior to Freud, and who would have shown that a skeptic or atheist can live a happy and fulfilled life.

It was too easy for Nicholi to show Freud's intellectual and moral failures and thus make Lewis look good by comparison.  For example, Freud explained religious belief as childish wish-fulfillment--as an expression of the child's helplessness and longing for a father-figure, so that God becomes an exalted father.  And since the child's attitude to the father shows ambivalence (both love and fear), God must be both feared and loved.

But then, as Nicholi says, Lewis "astutely notes" that Freud's argument about our ambivalence in our wishes about our father and our God can work both ways:  our wish that God not exist should be as strong as the wish for his existence (42-47).  Lewis reports that before his conversion at age 33, he was a staunch atheist who wished that God not exist, because this satisfied Lewis's wish that he be left alone, free from any "transcendental Interferer."  Freud's atheism could be explained the same way--as satisfying his wish that God not exist and as an expression of his ambivalent feelings about his father.  Indeed, Freud's life-long vehemence in attacking religious belief showed an obsessive wish to be free from God's authority.  Both the play and the film versions of "Freud's Last Session" depict Freud's angry struggle against God, which Freud himself described as a struggle against a "longing" for God that haunted his whole life.

Nicholi also noticed this in Freud's letters, which are full of phrases such as "if God so wills," "the good Lord," and "until after the Resurrection."  Of course, we could dismiss this as a casual use of figures of speech.  But then, Freud would say that even a slip of the tongue should be revealing (50-51).  This comes up in both the play and the movie.

One can see here and throughout Nicholi's book the signs of Nicholi's background as a physician and psychiatrist.  He was a clinical psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital.  His clinical work and research concentrated on studying the emotional development of children and young adults.  As part of that work, he studied the psychology of religious conversion among young people, including students at Harvard.  He first discovered Lewis when he was a medical intern, and he read Lewis's The Problem of Pain with the hope that this would help him deal with the suffering he was seeing in his patients.  That would explain his interest in teaching a course on Freud and Lewis for Harvard students.

In his book, Nicholi repeatedly cited the psychiatric and medical research--conducted by himself and others--on the psychological effects of religious conversion (46-47, 52-53, 80, 92-94, 114-15, 141-43, 155-59, 251-52).  He reported that this research denied Freud's claim that religious believers are delusional and emotionally ill and confirmed Lewis's claim that religious believers are generally happy and healthy human beings.

In 1974, Nicholi published an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry that reported his study of 17 Harvard undergraduates who had experienced a religious conversion.  He interviewed these students and also people who had known them before and after their conversion.  He found that conversion had enhanced rather than impaired their "functioning."  Each of them showed "a marked improvement in ego functioning, a radical change in life style with an abrupt halt in the use of drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes; improved impulse control, with adoption of a strict sexual code demanding chastity or marriage with fidelity; improved academic performance; enhanced self-image and greater access to inner feelings; an increased capacity for establishing close, satisfying relationships; improved communication with parents, though most parents at first expressed some degree of alarm over the student's rather sudden, intense religious interest; a positive change in affect, with lessening of 'existential despair'; and a decrease in preoccupation with the passage of time and apprehension over death" (80).

Nicholi found that Lewis showed the same beneficial consequences from his conversion:  "both Lewis and each of the students, after their conversion, found their new faith enhanced their functioning.  They reported positive changes in their relationships, their image of themselves, their temperament, and their productivity.  People who knew Lewis and those who knew the students before and after their transition confirmed these changes" (94).  This evidence denies Freud's claim that religious believers suffer from "obsessional neurosis" or "hallucinatory psychosis."  "If Freud analyzed Lewis," Nicholi argued, "the evidence suggests that he would not have dismissed him as dysfunctional. . . . Freud would have observed that the transition Lewis experienced matured him emotionally and did not impair, but enhanced, his functioning."

In contrast to Lewis, Nicholi observed, Freud was an arrogant and mean-spirited man who argued violently with most of his friends and professional colleagues.  He thought most human beings were despicable.  In one letter, he wrote: "I have found little that is 'good' about human beings on the whole.  In may experience, most of them are trash" (181).

Freud often fell into deep bouts of depression and despair.  He found little joy in life.  And he feared death.  To escape the pain of his cancer at the end of his life, he committed suicide.

Remarkably, in contrast to his reputation for teaching sexual freedom, Freud's sex life was very limited.  He did not marry until he was 30, and apparently he had no sexual experience before marriage.  With his wife Martha, he had six children in eight years.  But he had long periods during which, as he reported in a letter to a friend, "we are now living in abstinence."  At the age of 39, after the birth of his last child, Anna, Freud stopped all sexual relations with his wife permanently.  He also warned people about the dangers of masturbation because it caused mental illness.

Freud was very close to his daughter Anna, who followed the lead of her father in becoming a psychoanalyst.  When Freud's friend Ernest Jones suggested that he was interested in a personal relationship with Anna, Freud told him to stay away, and that Anna had agreed not to consider marriage without Freud's approval.  Anna never did marry.

Nicholi had visited Anna's clinic in London.  In talking with her secretary Gina Bon, he once asked her why Anna had never married.  She answered sternly, "Don't ever ask that question."

In St. Germain's play and movie, Lewis notices Freud's seemingly incestuous feeling for Anna.  And when Lewis asks Freud about this, Freud refuses to talk about it.  Lewis also notices Anna's apparently lesbian partnership with Dorothy Burlingham.

In the movie, Lewis saw this photograph of Freud and Anna in Freud's office, and he noticed that this could be easily mistaken for a young woman with her suitor.

In the play and the movie, after Lewis has questioned Freud about his relationship with Anna, Freud responds by questioning Lewis about why he has never married and about his relationship with the older woman living with him.  This comes up briefly in the play, and it becomes a big part of the movie.

When Lewis went to France as a young soldier in World War One, he became friends with Edward "Paddy" Moore; and the two of them made a promise to one another that if one of them was killed, the other would take care of his parent.  Paddy was killed.  And Lewis kept his promise: he moved in with Paddy's mother--Janie Moore--and her daughter Maureen.  Lewis was 20 years old, and Janie was 46.  Lewis's mother had died when he was 9, and he spoke of Mrs. Moore as his surrogate mother.  But Lewis and Mrs. Moore also became lovers.

Nicholi dismisses this story in one sentence: "Some biographers have speculated that Lewis and Mrs. Moore wee lovers, but the evidence weighs against it" (34).  But now the evidence strongly favors this story.  Walter Hooper worked briefly as a secretary for Lewis, and after Lewis's death in 1963, Hooper devoted his life to writing about Lewis and editing his papers and letters.  In an interview that was published after Hooper's death in 2020, he said that Owen Barfield, one of Lewis's closest friends, had reported that Lewis had told Barfield that he had in fact been Janie's lover, but that after Lewis's conversion, he had broken off their sexual affair.

Lewis then remained chaste until he became friends with Joy Davidman Gresham in 1952 and then married her in 1956.  She became ill with cancer shortly after their marriage.  She recovered for a few years, but then died in 1960.  Joy and Lewis enjoyed three years and four months of a deeply loving marriage.  In letters, Joy and Lewis spoke openly about their sexual happiness.  Lewis said that they "feasted on love; every mode of it," so that "no cranny of heart or body remained unsatisfied" (158).

Nicholi concludes that Lewis enjoyed a more active and satisfying sexual life than did Freud, because after Lewis's conversion, he lived by the Christian standard of sexual love expressed only in a faithful marriage, so that he and his wife could love one another as persons rather than sexual objects.

Of course, Lewis's marriage cannot come up in St. Germain's play and movie, where the story does not extend beyond 1939.

All of this does, I think, support Nicholi's conclusion that Lewis's life as a Christian was morally and intellectually superior to Freud's life as an atheist.  But, again, as I said at the beginning, this fails to consider the possibility that there are better examples than Freud of how atheists or skeptics might live good lives.  

I have written about David Hume as one famous example of a philosophical skeptic who seemed to live a happy and flourishing life.  When his friend Adam Smith described Hume as "both in his lifetime and since his death, as approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit," this got Smith into trouble with the many Christians who wanted to hear that Hume's fatal illness during the last year of his life had shaken him with the fear of death and perhaps forced him to plead with God for forgiveness as he faced the prospect of eternal damnation. 

Now, I understand that St. Germain could not have added Hume to his play to meet with Freud and Lewis, because the fictional meeting occurs on September 3, 1939, and Hume had died in 1776!  But he could have added a contemporary of Freud and Lewis--Edward Westermarck--the Finnish philosopher and sociologist who was a Humean skeptic and ethical subjectivist.  So, Westermarck could have defended the Humean position as an alternative to both Freud and Lewis.  

Coincidentally, Westermarck died in Finland on September 3, 1939!  But St. Germain could have imagined Westermarck being in London on that day just before his death.

Sunday, January 07, 2024

The Congress--But Not the Supreme Court--Should Debate Amnesty for Trump

I have argued that while Donald Trump is disqualified from public office by the first sentence of Section Three of the 14th Amendment, it might be politically prudent for the Congress to exercise its power under the second sentence in Section Three to grant him amnesty.

We need the Supreme Court to decide the constitutional question of the original meaning of the first sentence in Section Three as applied to Trump.  But we also need the Congress to decide the political question of applying the second sentence of Section Three to Trump's case, in deciding whether it would be politically prudent to grant him amnesty.

Last Wednesday, Trump's lawyers filed a Petition for Writ of Certiorari with the U.S. Supreme Court, asking that the Court consider overthrowing the decision of the Colorado Supreme Court ordering that Trump be excluded from the 2024 presidential primary ballot.  With amazing speed, the Court granted certiorari two days later on Friday.  The Court is scheduling oral arguments for February 8.  The Colorado Republican primary is scheduled for March 5 ("Super Tuesday").  The Colorado Supreme Court stayed its ruling until January 4, 2024, and announced that the stay would be extended automatically if Trump sought review by the U.S. Supreme Court before that date.

Here's the text of Section Three of the 14th Amendment:

"No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof.  But Congress may by vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability."

There have been four kinds of arguments (three constitutional arguments and one political argument) against declaring that Trump is disqualified from running for the office of the President under Section Three.  The first kind of constitutional argument is that Section Three does not apply to the President, because the presidency is not an "office . . . under the United States," and because the President takes a special oath that is not an oath "to support the Constitution."  This argument is not persuasive because the Constitution does refer to "the Office of the President," and because the presidential oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution" is surely an oath "to support the Constitution."

The second kind of constitutional argument is the claim that while Section Three is about the disqualification to "hold any office" under the United States, this does not disqualify a presidential candidate from running for the office.  This is not persuasive because the names of presidential candidates cannot properly be put on a primary ballot or an election ballot if they are disqualified from holding the office.  Just as someone who is not a natural-born citizen of the United States cannot run for the office of presidency, someone disqualified under Section Three cannot run for that office.

The third kind of constitutional argument is that in Section Three the disqualification comes only from those who have violated their oath to support the Constitution by having "engaged in insurrection or rebellion" against the United States, and Trump's influence over the violent assault on the Capitol on January 6th was not an engagement in insurrection.  That is not persuasive because the evidence that he did indeed engage in insurrection is powerful enough that the majority of both the House and Senate (in their vote on impeachment) agreed that he was an insurrectionist, and the evidence gathered by the Select Committee of the House to Investigate the January 6th Insurrection confirmed this conclusion.

The most popular argument against disqualifying Trump under Section Three is the political argument that this would violate the most fundamental principle of representative democracy that the people should be free to choose those who govern them.  That's the argument stated in the first paragraph of the Petition from Trump's lawyers, and that's the kind of objection that one hears most often.

But as I have indicated in previous posts, Section Three anticipates and responds to this argument by allowing the Congress to make a political judgment as to whether disqualifying someone under Section Three is politically prudent or not.  It does this in the second sentence: "But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability."

Indeed, after the Civil War, and after the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the Congress did grant amnesty to many former Confederates.  And in 1872, the Congress passed the Amnesty Act, which removed the Section Three office-holding disqualification from all but the most prominent Confederates (such as Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee).  Amazingly, even in the 1970s, the Congress granted symbolic amnesty to Davis and Lee!

So, why isn't Congress debating legislation for granting amnesty to Trump?  I have noticed only one commentator--Gerard Magliocca writing in the New York Times--has pointed to the oddity that those making the political argument against disqualifying Trump ignore the fact that Section Three allows Congress to make the political judgment as to whether it is prudent to disqualify Trump.  Disqualifying Trump under Section Three is not anti-democratic if the democratically elected representatives of the people in Congress have decided that they will not debate this question.

It is strange that most people, including the Congress, seem to be assuming that it's the role of the Supreme Court to decide this question.  Certainly, the Court has the authority to resolve the constitutional arguments about interpreting Section Three as applied to Trump.  But the political argument over the prudence of disqualifying Trump should be resolved by a political debate in Congress over whether it would be best for the country to give Trump amnesty.

That Section Three of the 14th Amendment allows for this shows how well-crafted that amendment is.

Thursday, January 04, 2024

The Evolutionary History of the Jews in the Levant Up to 1914

The current military conflict between Hamas and Israel should be understood in the context of the deep evolutionary history of the Jews in the Levant.  Knowing that evolutionary history will also help us understand Israel's Declaration of Independence as compared with the American Declaration of Independence.  

For me, the three books that are most helpful in sketching this history is Martin Gilbert's Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict (10th ed., 2012), the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, with editorial notes and commentary by John Walton and Craig Keener (2016), and John Walton's Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament (2018).

There are three interrelated themes in this history--Jewish theology, Jewish ethnicity, and Jewish militarism.  The survival and identity of the Jewish people as a people has depended on their defining themselves as the chosen people of the God Yahweh (as distinct from the other gods in the ancient Near East), who is the God of their ancestral ethnic group (the "God of the fathers," the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob"), and also the God of Battle who defeats the deities of the enemy, although Yahweh can also fight against Israel when they became unfaithful to Him.

Archaeological evidence of Paleolithic human and hominid species in the Levant suggest that the primary route for the migration of human ancestors out of Africa and into Eurasia over one million years ago went through the Levant.  The oldest Neolithic agricultural settlements are also found here, dating from around 20,000 to 9,000 BC.  So, it is probably here that human hunter-gatherers first shifted from foraging to farming.  Later, the first small towns and cities (such as Uruk) appeared from 5,000 to 3,000 BC.  We also see the rise of agrarian states and their evolution up to global empires (Liverani 2014).  I have written about this in previous posts.  The Jewish people emerged out of this genetic and cultural evolution of humanity in the Levant.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the Jews originated as the children of Abraham, who was born around 2166 BC in Ur in southern Mesopotamia (what is now southern Iraq).  Abraham had been born into a family that was polytheistic and did not worship Yahweh (Jos. 24:2,14).  When Yahweh appeared to Abraham, Yahweh did not demand worship or rituals.  Rather He made an offer to Abraham.  Yahweh told Abraham to migrate to the land of Canaan with the promise that there his people would someday become a great nation:

The LORD had said to Abram, "Go from your country, your people, and your father's household to the land I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.  I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you" (Gen. 12:1-3).

In effect, John Walton has observed, in one of his notes in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Bible, Yahweh was offering Abraham a grant of land that would secure the survival, flourishing, and identity of his family and extended ethnic group:

"God's covenant with Abram targets the most essential elements of identity in the value system of the ancient Near East.  Land was connected to one's survival, livelihood, and political identity (more so than self).  Inheritance fixed one's place in the family and ensured that the generations past would be remembered in the present and future.  When Abram gave up his place in his father's household, he forfeited his security.  He was putting his survival, his identity, his future and his security in the hands of the Lord."

Yahweh had said: "Go from your country, your people, and your father's household." Walton explains:

"One reason God may ask Abram to leave these behind is because it is in these three connections that one related to deity.  The gods one worshiped tended to be national or city gods ('country'), the clan god ('people'), or ancestral gods, i.e., ancestors who have taken a place in the divine world ('father's household').  As Yahweh severed the ties Abram would have had with other deities, he then filled the resulting void as the only God Abram would need" (NIV Cultural Backgrounds Bible, 33).

I have written previously about how Walton's account of the "cultural context" of the Hebrew Bible supports the position of theistic evolution as advocated by Deborah Haarsma, Francis Collins, and others.  These are believing Christians who argue that Christian theism and Darwinian evolution are compatible because God has acted through genetic and cultural evolution.  Walton's contribution is in showing how God revealed Himself in the Hebrew Bible by conveying His message through the language and ideas of ancient Near Eastern culture while gradually correcting the mistakes in that culture.  And, thus, Walton explains: "One of the main reasons God makes a covenant with Abram is in order to reveal what he is really like--to correct the false view of deity that people have developed.  But this is projected to take place in stages, not all at once" (34).  Of course, Jews will not agree with the Christian claim that the prophecies of a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible are fulfilled in the New Testament's revelation of Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God.

According to the Bible, Abraham lived in Canaan for a hundred years--from his arrival in 2091 BC to his death in 1991 BC.  But then, within a little over one hundred years after his death, his descendants migrated to Egypt, where they lived for over 500 years.

Having become enslaved in Egypt, the Israelites escaped from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and entered the Desert of Sinai around 1446 BC.  They camped for almost a year at the foot of Mt. Sinai, where Moses received Yahweh's law for His people.

Then, just before starting their 40-year march through the desert on their way to Canaan, Yahweh ordered Moses to take a census for the purpose of military conscription--counting every man 20 years old or more in each of the 12 tribes of Israel.  Yahweh then ordered the arrangement of the tribal camps and the marching orders of the tribes (Numbers 1-2, 10:11-33).  The people of Israel were then ready to move through the desert and into Canaan as a well-organized army.

Their divine wars of conquest were brutal: they were commanded "in the towns of those peoples whom Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes.  Completely destroy them" (Deu. 20:16-17).  So, for example, when the Israelites conquered the Midianites and killed all the men, Moses was angry that they had allowed the women and children to live; and he commanded: "Now kill all the boys.  And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man" (Numbers 31:17-18). 

Remarkably, modern Jews and Christians (such as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have condemned the divinely sanctioned violence of the Hebrew Bible.  Is it possible that the Jews misinterpreted Yahweh's message?  Or was such violence justified in the circumstances the Jews faced?

After 40 years of wandering in the Sinai desert, the Israelites entered Moab (around 1406 BC) on the eastern banks of the Jordan river, where they could see Canaan.   Moses died, and the leadership of Israel passed to Joshua.  Yahweh told Joshua that he must cross the Jordan River and begin the conquest of Canaan, which would fulfill Yahweh's promise that all of this land would belong to Israel (Jos. 1:1-6).  The fall of Jericho became the first victory in Joshua's military campaign of conquest.

Around 1375 BC, Joshua died.  At his death, there were still large areas of Canaan that had not fallen to conquest by the Jews; and so, they were still at war with their enemies.  

Israel was governed by the elders of each tribe who exercised the senior leadership in making judicial and administrative decisions in the towns and tribes.  The assembly of elders represented the people in making major decisions.  These ruling councils of elders were common in the ancient Near East.  I have written about this previously as showing the early evolution of "council democracy" in Mesopotamia and among many tribal societies such as the Huron of Canada that John Locke had studied in his reading of Gabriel Sagard.

In time of war, the elders could ask someone they trusted to become a judge to lead them in war.  Unlike the English term "judge," judges in the Biblical book of Judges did not exercise judicial activity.  Rather, they were military chieftains.  Whenever the people of Israel fell away from Yahweh and worshipped other gods, Yahweh allowed the people to be defeated by raiders in war.  Then, the people would cry for help, and Yahweh would raise up a judge to lead them against their enemies (Judges 2:6-19).

For example, when the Israelites began to serve foreign gods and no longer served Yahweh, he allowed the Ammonites to attack them.  Then, the Israelites asked Yahweh to rescue them; and the elders of the people sought for someone who would become their leader in attacking the Ammonites.  The people and their elders made an agreement with Jephthah, who was a mighty warrior, to become their judge, their head and commander.  Jephthah then challenged the Ammonites:  "I have not wronged you, but you are doing me wrong by waging war against me.  Let the LORD, the Judge, decide the dispute this day between the Israelites and the Ammonites" (Judges 11:27).  And, indeed, Yahweh did allow Jephthah to defeat the Ammonites in battle.

Like many of the other gods in the ancient Near East, Yahweh was seen by the Israelites as a divine warrior who decided whether his people won or lost their battles with their enemies.  But the Bible also indicates that Yahweh was not so all-powerful that He could decide by Himself the outcome of any battle.  His followers won their wars only when they were well-trained, well-armed, and guided by military leaders who were shrewd in their tactics and strategy.

Consider, for example, the stories of Ehud and Deborah.  After being under the oppressive rule of Eglon king of Moab for eighteen years, the Israelites cried out to Yahweh for help.  He gave them Ehud as a deliverer (Judges 3:12-30).  The Israelites sent him with tribute to Eglon.  Ehud had been trained as an ambidextrous warrior, so that he could be equally effective in holding weapons with either his left or his right hand.  He made a double-edged sword, which would be good for stabbing straight into a man's body.  He strapped the sword to his right thigh so that it was hidden under his clothing.  Since most men are right-handed, and they wear their sword on their left side, Ehud's dagger hidden on his right side would probably not be noticed by Eglon's bodyguards.  After Ehud had presented his tribute to Eglon, he told Eglon: "I have a secret message for you."  The king told his attendants to leave the room.  

"Ehud then approached him while he was sitting alone in the upper room of his palace and said, 'I have a message from God for you.'  As the king rose from his seat, Ehud reached with his left hand, drew the sword from his right thigh and plunged it into the king's belly.  Even the handle sank in after the blade, and his bowels discharged.  Ehud did not pull the sword out, and the fat closed in over it.  Then Ehud went out to the porch; he shut the doors of the upper room behind him and locked them."

By the time the servants had unlocked the room and found the king dead, Ehud had escaped.  He then gathered the Israelites for a surprise attack on the Moabite soldiers, and they killed them all.  Moab was then subject to Israel, and there was peace for eighty years. 

Later, however, the Israelites fell under the oppressive rule of Jabin king of Canaan for twenty years.  Jabin's rule over them was enforced by his army, commanded by Sisera, which had "nine hundred chariots fitted with iron" (Judges 4:1-3).  Once again, the Israelites cried to Yahweh for help.  At the time, Israel was being led by Deborah, a prophet, who spoke for Yahweh.  She sent for Barak and told him to organize ten thousand men for an attack on the Canaanites.  

But she knew it would be difficult to fight against Sisera's "chariots fitted with iron."  Years before, Yahweh had led the men of Judah against the Canaanites: Yahweh "was with the men of Judah.  They took possession of the hill country, but they were unable to drive the people from the plains, because they had chariots fitted with iron" (Judges 1:19).  Although chariots are useless in the hill country of Judah, they are formidable weapons in the valleys and river plains.

Deborah devised a plan to blunt the effectiveness of the chariots.  She lured Sisera into moving his chariots and troops to the Kishon River where Barak's men were prepared for battle.  She anticipated that because of recent rains, the Kishon River plain would be flooded, and thus the overflowing river would create a muddy battlefield in which the chariots would be bogged down.  As a result, Sisera's army was utterly destroyed (Judges 4:4-17, 5:4-5, 20-21, 31).

And yet, after over 300 years of being ruled by judges acting as military leaders, the people of Israel and their elders decided that they wanted a king to rule over them, so that they could be like all the other nations with kings.  They asked the prophet Samuel to appoint a king.  Yahweh told Samuel to warn them about how oppressive kingly rule would be.  "But the people refused to listen to Samuel.  'No!' they said.  'We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.'  When Samuel heard all the people said, he repeated it before the LORD.  The LORD answered, 'Listen to them and give them a king'" (1 Samuel 8:19-21).  

Yahweh revealed to Samuel that Saul was to be anointed the king.  "Then Samuel took a flask of olive oil and poured it on Saul's head and kissed him, saying, 'Has not the LORD anointed you ruler over his inheritance" (1 Sam. 10:1).  Later, David became the second king when the people of Judah anointed David king over the tribe of Judah (2 Sam. 2:4).

So, what's the significance of the "anointing" of the ruler?  Walton observes: "Anointing is known from Hittite enthronement texts . . . . It is possible that anointing represents a contract between the ruler and the people, hence the anointing of David by the people in 2 Sa 2:4.  Texts from Nuzi show individuals anointing each other when entering a business agreement" (476).  Understanding anointing as a contract between ruler and ruled might explain the recent anointing of King Charles III.

The Israelites established an independent kingdom under the kingly rule of first Saul, then David, and then Solomon (1050-930 BC).  This Kingdom of Israel had the most extended territory that Israel would ever have.

John Locke thought this Biblical history of Israel under the rule of their judges and first kings showed how political societies originally evolved in human history out of the state of nature by the consent of the people who needed a military leader.  The story of Jephtha illustrates this.  The people selected him as a judge because they needed his military leadership against the Ammonites: "And the People made him head and captain over them, Judg. 11. 11, which was as it seems, all one as to be Judge" (ST, 109).  Locke also sees in the dispute between Jephtha and the Ammonites the need for what Locke called "an appeal to Heaven."  When there is a dispute, and the question is, who shall be Judge?, then if there is no Judge on Earth, "the Appeal lies to God in Heaven," and God will judge by the clash of armies in a battle.  Jephtha appealed to Heaven by fighting the Ammonites and defeating them (ST, 20-21, 109).

For Locke, this becomes a general principle for settling political disputes about ultimate authority--such as when the people believe their ruler has exercised absolute, arbitrary power to which they have not consented.  To the question, Who shall be Judge?  The answer is, The People shall be Judge.  And the judgment of the people will be expressed by their violent resistance to unjust power.  So, the appeal to "God in Heaven" is actually an appeal to the People, who are willing to fight for their rights (ST, 232, 240-43).

have written about how this Lockean idea of the Appeal to Heaven entered the American Revolutionary War in the "Appeal to Heaven" flag.  As far as I can tell, Locke coined this term "Appeal to Heaven."  Although he derives the idea from the Biblical story of Jephtha, the phrase does not appear in the Biblical text.  (Amazingly, there are reports now that in recent years, American Christian Nationalists have adopted the "Appeal to Heaven" flag as their banner!)

Locke also sees that the establishment of a kingship in Israel was by consent of the people: "the Children of Israel desired a King, like all the nations to judge them, and to go out before them, and to fight their battels, 1 Sam. 8. 20.  God granting their Desire, says to Samuel, I will send thee a Man, and thou shalt anonit him to be Captain over my People Israel, that he may save my People out of the hands of the Philistines, c. 9. v. 16.  As if the only business of a King had been to lead out their Armies" (ST, 109).  The people of Israel wanted a king, for the limited purpose of leading them in war, and God granted their desire.

Vox populi, vox Dei?  In fact, in the early 18th century, some Whig pamphlets in England adopted this slogan as an implied Lockean teaching: an appeal to Heaven is actually an appeal to the People, because the voice of the People is the voice of God.

Around 930 BC, after the death of King Solomon, a tribal civil war split the kingdom into two independent kingdoms--the northern kingdom of Israel (or Samaria) and the southern kingdom of Judah--which covered most of the Southern Levant, except for the Philistine settlements in the southwest (from Jaffa to Gaza) and the Phoenician settlements in the northwest.


Around 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by the Assyrian Empire.  In 586 BC, the Southern Kingdom fell to the Babylonians, who conquered Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon's Temple, and sent many if not most of the Jews into exile in Babylon and elsewhere.

In 538 BC, Babylon fell to the Persian Empire.  The Persian King Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and build the Second Temple.  For that, Cyrus was said to be anointed by God to save the Jews (Isa. 41:1-7, 44:28-45:7).  But many of the Jews chose to remain in Babylon or scatter elsewhere.

It might seem strange that Cyrus is identified as Yahweh's "anointed" one, because the Hebrew word for "anointed" (mashiyach) is the word for "messiah."  As I noted in previous posts, the New Testament cites these Old Testament references to the "messiah" as prophecies of the coming of Jesus; but the context for these Old Testament references usually make clear that they refer to political leaders like Cyrus.  This is odd because Yahweh actually says to his anointed Cyrus: "you do not acknowledge me" (Isa. 45:4-5).  Cyrus did not worship Yahweh.  So, how can Cyrus be the Messiah?  (Surprisingly, some of Donald Trump's Christian supporters have identified him the new Cyrus--the political leader anointed by God to be the Messiah for America!)

Walton explains that while the Hebrew term "messiah" developed "an eschatological significance in Israel of a promised deliverer," it also had a more ordinary political significance as the anointing of a leader such as a priest or king.  So, even though Cyrus assumed the "anointed" role of the Davidic monarchy in restoring the people of Israel to their land and rebuilding the Temple, he was not the eschatological deliverer, although he was God's deliverer of the Jews from the Babylonian exile.

To explain why Cyrus chose to become Yahweh's messiah for Israel, Walton points to the text on the "Cyrus Cylinder" that is now held in the British Museum.  (Just a few months ago, I saw the Cyrus Cylinder at the Museum for the first time.)

                         The Cyrus Cylinder in Room 52 of the British Museum in London

The Cyrus Cylinder is a clay barrel with a text in Akkadian cuneiform attributed to Cyrus the Great.  It was found in 1876 at the ancient site of the Mesopotamian city of Babylon.  It dates to the 6th century BC.  A translation of the text can be found in James Pritchard's Ancient Near Eastern Texts (1969, 315-316).  The text is Cyrus's account of how he conquered Babylon, restored the Babylonian worship of Marduk, and freed the people in Babylonian exile to return to their native lands and renew their religious traditions.

Although the text makes no reference to Israel or to Israel's God, Walton thinks the text confirms what Isaiah says about Cyrus in releasing the Jews from exile.  Cyrus claims to worship Marduk, and he acknowledges that other peoples worship different gods who control their own people.  Cyrus is willing to seek the support of those other gods.  Walton explains this as a mutually beneficial arrangement:

"In a polytheistic system, adding deities is not a theological problem.  In fact, in claiming support from a new god, the theologically neutral becomes an economic and political advantage.  Cyrus thus had no problem in recognizing Yahweh, though he would not have personally worshiped him, since such recognition cost nothing but gained the support of Yahweh worshipers through their tribute and allegiance.  Polytheistic priests of the newly recognized god would also likely expect royal support for their religious endeavors, so they also benefited" (1190).

Some people today have seen the Cyrus Cylinder as an early document of "human rights" that upholds the natural right to religious liberty and toleration.  Even if that's an overstatement, there might be some truth to it. 

Some Biblical scholars have argued that from the evidence of the Hebrew Bible and recent archaeological studies of the Levant, we can infer that it was in response to the catastrophe of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of Solomon's Temple that the Jews were led to Biblical monotheism.  Originally, Yahweh was one of many gods in the Ancient Near East.  The people of Israel adopted Yahweh as their premier god or divine patron, but they also worshipped other gods (Deu. 29:24-28).  Then, after their exile from Jerusalem, they explained this as Yahweh's punishment for not obeying his laws.  And if Yahweh had the power to use Cyrus as the Messiah for the Jews, that proved that Yahweh was all-powerful (2 Chronicles 36:11-23; Ezra 1:1-11). In this way, the Jews moved from seeing Yahweh as one god to seeing Him as the only god: Yahweh became the exclusive and unitary, invisible, transcendent, and universal God.  Yahweh was the particular God of the People of Israel, but also the universal God over all humanity.  

Some Biblical scholars have called this the "the invention of God" (Romer 2015).  But the theistic believer (Jewish, Christian, or Muslim) can say that this shows how God revealed Himself by communicating to Israel through the cultural context of their time and gradually drew them out of their familiar polytheistic theology until they recognized Him as the only God.

For more than a thousand years, before the Arab conquest in 636 AD, the Jews were the main settled population of Palestine.  Although they were often conquered, they had long periods of political independence, such as the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom (165-63 BC).  In 70 AD, in response to a Jewish revolt against Roman rule, the Romans captured Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple and the city, and took many Jews as captives to Rome.

From 637 to 1099 AD, the Jews in Palestine were ruled by Arab Muslims, who tolerated the Jews and their religious practices, although the Jews were sometimes badly treated.  From 1099 to 1291, the Jews were persecuted and killed by Christian Crusaders.  The Jews fought on the side of the Arabs against the Crusaders.  The Muslim Mameluks expelled the Crusaders in 1291, and ruled until 1516.  During this time, many European Jews moved to Palestine to escape persecution in Europe.

After 1517, under the Ottoman Turks, Palestine continued to be a place of refuge for persecuted Jews.  Sometimes they were badly treated by the Ottoman rulers, but at least the Jews were better off in Palestine than in Europe.  Jerusalem became a center of Jewish learning.  And by 1880, the majority of the population of Jerusalem was Jewish.  In four Holy Cities in Palestine--Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed--there was continuous Jewish settlement from Biblical times.

From 1880 to 1914, as the Zionist movement gained influence, there was increasing Jewish migration into Palestine.  Jews developed land that they had purchased from European, Turkish, and Arab landlords.  Tel Aviv became the first town founded entirely by Jews.  By 1914, the population of Palestine was about 500,000 Arabs and 90,000 Jews.  During this period, there was growing violent conflict between Arabs and Jews, with some Arab leaders demanding that Constantinople prohibit Jewish migration and settlement.


Gilbert, Martin. 2012.  The Routledge Atlas of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. 10th edition. New York: Routledge.

Liverani, Mario. 2014. The Ancient Near East: History, Society, Economy.  New York: Routledge.

NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible.  2016.  Edited with Notes and Commentaries by John Walton and Craig Keener.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Pritchard, James B., ed.  1969.  Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.  3rd edition.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Romer, Thomas.  2015.  The Invention of God.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Walton, John. 2018. Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible.  2nd edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Roger D. Masters, 1933-2023: Natural Right and Biology

Roger D. Masters died in Hanover, New Hampshire, on June 22, 2023.  He was a longtime Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.  He was the man who first stimulated my thinking about how evolutionary biology might be applied to political philosophy--and particularly, how it might solve what Leo Strauss called "the problem of natural right."

He was born in Boston in 1933.  He graduated from Harvard University in 1955.  He completed two years of military service.  Then he earned his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1961, studying under Leo Strauss, who supervised his dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  After teaching for five years in the Political Science Department at Yale University, he began his position at Dartmouth in 1967.  He served as Chair of the Executive Committee of the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research.  He was one of the founders of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences.

With the publication of his book The Political Philosophy of Rousseau (Princeton University Press, 1968), he became one of the preeminent interpreters of Rousseau.  He published translations of Rousseau.  With Christopher Kelly, he edited The Collected Writings of Rousseau.  He also wrote many articles and books on other political philosophers, including Aristotle and Niccolo Machiavelli.

He is best known for arguing that modern evolutionary biology of human nature can illuminate some of the fundamental debates in political philosophy.  One can see that in his books The Nature of Politics (1989), and Beyond Relativism: Science and Human Values (1993).

Towards the end of this life, he studied the possible effects of toxic lead on the development of the brain in ways that might promote a tendency to violence.

Roger's profound influence on me began in 1978 when I heard him present a paper on "Classical Political Philosophy and Contemporary Biology" at the meetings of the Conference for the Study of Political Thought in Chicago.  He argued that modern evolutionary biology could support Aristotle's conception of natural right.  I was fascinated.  In 1998, my book Darwinian Natural Right was in a way an elaboration of his idea.

Roger invited me to meetings of the Gruter Institute.  We were together at many gatherings of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences.  And in 1996, I participated in a NEH/NSF Summer Institute at Dartmouth College that he directed on "Biology and Human Nature."

I have written about Roger on this blog.  My fullest account of Roger's thinking was my book chapter--"Roger Masters: Natural Right and Biology"--for Leo Strauss, the Straussians, and the American Regime (1999),  edited by Kenneth Deutsch and John Murley.

Here are four paragraphs from the beginning and ending of that piece.

As compared with other students of Leo Strauss who became prominent political scientists, the intellectual career of Roger Masters seems strange.  As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, Masters wrote his dissertation on Jean-Jacques Rousseau under Strauss's supervision.  He then established his scholar reputation in the 1960s through his writings on Rousseau's political philosophy.  At that point, it appeared that Masters would follow the same path taken by many of Strauss's students who have devoted their lives to writing meticulous commentaries on the classic texts of political philosophy.  

But after publishing his book on Rousseau in 1968, Masters began to write about evolutionary biology.  For example, he suggested that Rousseau's account of man in the original state of nature should be compared with recent studies of orangutans as evolutionary ancestors of human beings; and he argued that Aristotle's claim that human beings are by nature political animals was confirmed by recent sociobiological theories of human evolution and animal sociality.  Most recently, he has explained Machiavelli's concept of political leadership as rooted in a natural tendency to dominance hierarchies that human beings share with other primates.  The history of political philosophy is largely a debate about human nature.  And Masters believes that debate can be clarified, if not even resolved, by appealing to Darwinian theories of human nature.  To many of Strauss's students, such ideas seem ridiculously perverse.  Yet a few Straussians have been persuaded by Masters that this turn to Darwinian biology is essential for solving what Strauss called "the problem of natural right."

In his effort to root the idea of natural right in modern natural science, and thus solve what Strauss believed was the fundamental problem of natural right--that science seems to have refuted the teleological conception of nature--Masters challenges the dichotomies that have traditionally separated the humanistic study of ethics from the scientific study of nature.  There is no absolute gap between mechanism and teleology if a full explanation of living beings requires accounting for formal and final causes as well as material and efficient causes.  There is no absolute gap between is and ought if human morality is founded on a natural moral sense.  There is no absolute gap between nature and freedom if human freedom expresses a natural human capacity for deliberate choice.  and there is no absolute gap between nature and nurture if habituation and learning fulfill the natural propensities of human beings.  If Masters is right in these claims, then the science of the human good is part of the science of human nature.

Although I find the arguments of Masters largely persuasive, I suspect that many readers will disagree.  As Strauss indicated, most contemporary scholars have responded to the apparent refutation of ancient naturalism by modern natural science in one of two ways--reductionism or dualism.  The reductionists will agree with Masters that moral feelings are governed by the emotional control centers of the brain, but they will conclude from this that belief in the objectivity of morality is only a useful illusion.  The dualists, including many of the students of Strauss, will insist that human biology is irrelevant to human ethics and politics, because human beings as rational beings differ in kind and not just in degree from all other animals, and for that reason Darwin's evolutionary account of human morality and intellect is wrong.  Yet for those of us who regard both of these opposing positions as inadequate, the alternative o0ffered by Masters in his attempt to solve the problem of natural right is one of the most exciting intellectual projects of our time.

I regret that I had little contact with Roger in the last years of his life.  I wish that I had told him how much I had benefited from our philosophic friendship.

I will remember him.