Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

Psychology and the Beam in the Eye of Matthew 7:3

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Domenico Fetti - The Parable of the Mote and the Beam - 1619 detail

One of the more psychologically interesting and insufficiently studied passages found in the Gospels is:

 And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

~ Matthew 7:3–5 (KJV)

 The reference to the beam in ones eye is an extremely powerful image. It’s a figure of speech, of course, since a roof beam (Greek word δοκς or dokos1, also translated ‘plank’, ‘log’ or ‘timber’) obviously cannot fit in an eye. The power of the statement comes by comparing it to a mote, a small speck of dust, which may be in another’s eye and impairing the other’s vision.  Jesus is saying: “Why worry about some small way in which another person’s views are limited.  Worry about the huge ways in which your own views are distorted.”  That’s how I take it, at any rate, and it seems like a reasonable interpretation.

This is one of those extremely canny sayings of Jesus Christ recorded in the Gospels.  If someone were to ask me what reasons there are for believing that Christianity is a divinely inspired religion, I would include on the list these canny sayings of Jesus.  They are incisive, cutting through layers of artifice and illusion to get to the heart of the things that really concern us as human beings.  Nothing else in the literature of the West can compare to them — not in Plato or the Greek tragedians, not even in the Old Testament do we find such an abundance of these sayings.2  There is something extraordinary, otherworldly about them.  One may recall the words of the Pharisees’ officers, sent to arrest Jesus but returning bewildered and empty-handed:  “Never man spake like this man.” (John 7:46; KJV)

This remarkable level of insight and honesty is evident in the passage above.  It speaks with extraordinary directness to a very real aspect of our experience.  Examining the meaning of words, and relating them to certain principles of modern psychology, we can appreciate even better the importance and relevance of the beam in the eye.

Perceptual and Cognitive Schematizing

word_grid

This word-square and others like it, recently circulated around the internet.  The idea is that when you look at the square, one word, out of the dozens it contains, will leap out and present itself to awareness.  These squares have been presented in a casual way — as little more than a parlor game — to analyze ones personality or “what you want in life”.  However there are some serious psychological principles at work here.

If you experiment with one of these squares, you will find that your current state of mind affects what word leaps out at you.  If your mind is on work, or on a romantic relationship, or on philosophy, or on your faith — in each case a different word will appear.  This illustrates most strikingly the truth that ones intentions determine ones perceptions.  What your heart is set on at the moment, what you are most concerned about, what you desire — that will determine which word you see.

This principle of intention precedes perception is, of course, a general one in operation all the time.  It affects how you visually process information when walking outside, for example.  What strikes your attention — people, trees, buildings, whatever — will vary.  A boy with his mind on girls will walk on a city street and notice womens’ hemlines and the  contours of blouses.  An angry and combative man will walk down the same street and notice the physique and demeanor of other men, subconsciously sizing them up, as though to judge whether he could defeat them in a fight.  A guilty person may notice the expressions on other people’s faces, looking for signs of disapproval, or may notice policeman and guards.  There is nothing speculative about this. You can verify the phenomenon yourself any day by taking a walk.  What you see reflects the intentions you have at any time.

A corollary of this principle is that the stronger, more urgent, and more pronounced ones intentions are, the more that attention will selectively focus on certain kinds of objects.

It similarly follows that this principle must also affect our inward perceptions: those features of our interior mental life which we notice at any given time, and those we do not notice, depend on our intentions and desires.

Not only do intentions determine what ones sees, but what one doesn’t see.  If attention is on one thing, it cannot be on another.  And the more exaggerated ones intentions and desires are, the more one will filter out unrelated perceptions.  If one is driven by appetite, covetousness, fear, or anger, one may pass by dozens of smiling, friendly people without realizing it.  In a foul mood one does not see the flowers in bloom or notice the lovely countryside; these things might as well not exist.

This I believe is the meaning of the beam in the eye.  When ones intentions are disordered, ones perceptions are in chaos.  Instead of seeing the entire world as a harmonious whole, one perceives it fragmented and disjointed. One notices small pieces of the perceptual field which relate to sex or fear or anger or whatever — and  disregards the rest.

To the degree one is in such a disordered mental state, one is not really living in the world at all — not the world as it is.  Instead one is living in a kind of distorted caricature of the world.  It’s the world of the shadows on the wall of Plato’s cave;  not a vibrant world of life, spirit, meaning, happiness, and satisfaction.

What, then, is the alternative to the beam  in the eye?  Naturally we have intentions, and these change depending on time and situation.  But it stands to reason that, ideally, these intentions should be harmonious, one intention in balance with the others.  Moreover, as religious people — whether, Christians, Jews, Muslims, or Hindus — we believe in God’s superintending providence.  God guides all at once  — the world, events in our lives, our intentions, and our emotions — to  coincide and harmonize.  We do have free will, however, and must use this free will to moderate and purify our intentions, so as to keep them in balance.  We must keep our appetites within the bounds of what our nature requires at the present time.  This precludes letting any intention become unnaturally strong and dominant.2

This moderation of appetites and passions is not necessarily an easy thing to accomplish, but it is an attainable skill.  It comes from experience and practice, from self-insight, from the intellectual development supplied by philosophy, and by the moral growth produced by religion.

If we can learn this great virtue of moderation (which the Greeks called sophrosyne,  a virtue that doesn’t operate in isolation, but rather interacts in myriad ways with other virtues like courage, justice, wisdom, patience, piety, and humility) then we can remove the beam in the eye.

The resulting condition, I believe, corresponds to what the humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow (1970) called “B-cognition” or “Being cognition.”  One description of this state is one “in which the whole of the cosmos is perceived and everything in it is seen in relationship with everything else, including the perceiver” (Maslow, 1971, pp. 252–253).

I also believe that this is at least part of what Jesus means in the Gospels when he refers to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Upon saying this, I must be careful to point out that some ‘modern’ psychologists have said similar things but with a substantially different meaning.  That is, some have suggested that by the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus meant only a certain kind of happy human life; and from this they go on to claim that Jesus was not concerned with spiritual matters at all, and was saying nothing about an after-life; he was merely a social philosopher.  That is definitely not what I’m suggesting.  The Kingdom of Heaven in the sense I mean is not achieved by disconnecting our experience on earth from spiritual concerns, but precisely the opposite: by connecting it with spirituality.  A critical part of producing a state of harmonized intentions, by which we see the world fully and completely — in clear and rich detail, with full depth and meaning — is by ‘tuning in’ to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.

Notes

1. dokos can also mean an opinion, so there may be a play on words here. In Plato’s dialogues one of Socrates’ main missions is to alert us to how severely our souls are distorted by a habitual mistaking of false opinions for true knowledge.

2. Another such saying, one which seems thematically related to Matt. 7:3, is the light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light (Matt. 6:22).  Indeed all of Matthew 6:19–34 appears relevant to the present theme.

3. We should keep in mind the possibility that exaggerated appetites come not from the body itself, but from a tendency of the mind to falsely interpret appetitive impulses.

Bibliography

Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.

Pollock, Robert C.  ‘The Single Vision‘.  In: Harold C. Gardiner (editor), American Classics Reconsidered: A Christian Appraisal, New York: Scribner, 1958 (pp. 15–58).  Reprinted as  and in Arthur S. Lothstein, Michael Brodrick (eds.), New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century, SUNY Press, 2008 (pp. 9–48).  Originally published as ‘A Reappraisal of Emerson’ in Thought, 32(1), 1957, pp. 86–132.

White, Rhea A. ‘Maslow’s Two Forms of Cognition and Exceptional Human Experiences.’  1997. < http://www.ehe.org/display/ehe-page2f56.html?ID=23 >  Accessed 15 November 2013.

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