Archive for the ‘ethics’ Category
On November 25, 2014, Pope Francis addressed the members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, exhorting them to greater concern for what he called man’s transcendent dignity. The next day one newspaper ran the somewhat misleading headline, “Pope Calls for End to Hunger.” Now clearly ending hunger is a good thing, and the Pope did mention it. But this was not his core message, which considered not so much man’s needs and dignity at a material level, but man’s transcendent dignity.
What, then, is man’s transcendent dignity? This is clearly too large and involved a topic to pursue in detail here. Rather it is more fitting to call attention to the fact that it is a question. Our first task, that is, is to come to a more clear and explicit understanding of this term, transcendent dignity, which we seem to collectively intuit has some valid meaning…
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In the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer there is a tendency to consider as connected the two phrases, Thy kingdom come and that which follows, Thy will be done. This is partly so because, like a couplet, these two phrases have identical meter and the last syllables rhyme, at least approximately.
However in consulting the commentaries of Church Fathers on the Lord’s Prayer, the view instead emerges that the phrase Thy kingdom come is more naturally linked with the preceding Hallowed be Thy name to form a unitary concept.
Consider when it is that we best and most naturally praise and thank God. Is it not in our moments of greatest joy and happiness? When some unexpected windfall occurs, do we not exclaim, or literally gush, “Thank you God!”, even, if in public, letting everyone around witness? Anyone seeing this understands exactly how we feel. There is nothing contrived or artificial. It is a natural expression of extreme, consummate happiness.
Therefore when we pray Hallowed be thy name we say in few words what might be expanded as follows: “Please let me experience true joy, happiness, and bliss, and with such fullness that it would cause me, being perfectly satisfied in the moment, to wish to hallow Thy name by giving sincere, spontaneous thanks and praise.”
Notice also how much more such spontaneous, heartfelt exclamation of thanks and praise glorifies God, that is, hallows God’s name, more than merely reciting a prayer with labored effort, even though that may be quite sincere. No, if we truly wish to most praise God’s name, then we must wish to have joy and happiness, for this makes our desire to hallow God’s name the greatest. Our happiness, which is itself evidence of God’s supreme love for us, and the thanks and praise this elicits, glorifies God.
This is an important insight. For how much better it is to pray for what we truly desire (i.e. happiness), and how much more strong such authentic prayer may be, rather than to merely make ourselves pray for what we believe we ought to pray for!
But then consider how the only way we can reach such states of happiness is when we surrender control, letting go of myriad forms of ego-drivenness, and let ourselves instead be guided by the Holy Spirit; and so inspired by grace, do God’s will, and by that to discover to our delight that what we have done brings some happy outcome. Previously we considered the suggestion that this surrender to the guidance of God is the main meaning of the kingdom (i.e., reign, kingship, rule, dominion) of God, a detail evident in other languages but somewhat obscured in English.
Therefore these two phrases, Hallowed be Thy name and Thy kingdom come are linked to form a unitary concept.  The desired end is stated first, and then the means: the end is to reach a condition of true happiness, and the means to discern and follow God’s guidance. We pray for these not in an abstract or remote sense, but for them to happen now, today, this hour or moment if possible. We pray to return to the condition which we may call, without trying too hard to define it precisely, the state of grace.
An ancient and rare manuscript tradition (see e.g., here) has a variant form of the Lord’s Prayer as given in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 11). In place of Thy kingdom come it reads, “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us.” This supports our view, shared by St. Gregory of Nyssa  among others, that to pray Thy kingdom come is in essence the same thing as to pray, Come Holy Spirit.
first draft: 15 September 2014 (please excuse typos)
- The words which follow, Thy will be done, would then be understood as linked with on earth as it is in heaven. We may address the significance of this another time.
- Graef, Hilda C. (editor, translator). Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954. (pp. 52–53, 56).
The other day a thought occurred to me which seems to clarify the meaning of Charity, as distinct from other related things like compassion and sympathy, generosity, kindness, etc. The definition: Charity is acting to love others for the sake of God.
At first glance this may strike you as prosaic – a mere formula, one in fact, found in traditional Christian teaching. Likely I had heard this formula someplace, yet it never quite stuck. This time, however, from my creative imagination, Muse, or call-it-what-you-will, there arose insight into the meaning, not merely the definition, of Charity.
To understand true Charity it helps to refer to Platonism.
A hallmark of Platonism is that God is identified as the source and very essence of Goodness. Plato’s defined God, in fact, as the Form or pattern of Goodness of which all individual good things partake, just as all triangles partake of…
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There is an important issue with the English language version of the Lord’s Prayer. Specifically, the phrase Thy Kingdom come might be more accurately given as “Thy Reign come.” Alternatively, Rule, Kingship, Dominion, or Sovereignty are arguably better translations of the Greek word here, which is Basileia (Βασιλεία). There is a major difference between a Kingdom and Reign or Rule. The former is a thing, a place; the latter imply an action or process. What we are praying for, in particular, is that God will govern our will and soul; that we are morally purified, cleansed of egoism, so that God reigns. The word “Kingdom” has this psychological meaning only obliquely. Actually I think both meanings are implied by Basileia, but “Kingdom” loses the important psychological sense. A few minutes after writing the above, I found the following confirmation in note to St. Gregory of Nyssa’s sermons on the Lord’s Prayer: “Basileia, the word for kingdom is the same as that for kingship in Greek. The argumentation from “Thy Kingdom come” to the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit can therefore not be adequately reproduced in English, as it depends on the double sense of the one Greek term.” (Graef, 1954, n68, p. 187) St. Gregory of Nyssa’s association of the Kingdom with the Holy Spirit is based on a rare variant of Luke 11:2 he quotes which has “May Thy Holy Spirit come upon us and purify us,” in place of Thy Kingdom come. Reference Graef, Hilda C. (translator). St. Gregory of Nyssa: The Lord’s Prayer, The Beatitudes. (Ancient Christian Writers, No. 18). New York: Paulist Press, 1954.
Question: I have heard that Platonism ought to be approached as a ‘therapy of the soul’, or literally as psychotherapy? Can you explain this?
Answer: Yes. A central premise of Plato’s writings is that human beings customarily operate at a ‘fallen’ level of mental functioning. Platonism aims to correct this problem.
To avoid getting too mired in the modern medical model, we could alternatively think of this fallen state not as a disease, but as immaturity. Seen this way, Platonism’s purpose is to assist human beings in developing their full, natural capacity as intellectual, moral, and spiritual beings.
Q: What are the characteristics of this ‘fallen’ state of mental functioning?
Anxiety and worry, negative thinking, distraction, unhappiness, to name a few. The list is almost endless. A simpler way of looking at things is by analogy to attention deficit disorder (ADD): our habitual condition of mind is, relative to our ideal or intended state, what ADD is relative to our habitual state. That is, many of the same cognitive abilities that are impaired in ADD are also impaired in our ordinary fallen state — to a lesser, but still to a very serious degree.
Another analogy is to intoxication. If one can achieve the higher level of mental function Platonism aims for, one’s ordinary state of mind may seem as one of comparative drunkenness.
But rather than list the problems of our ordinary state, which are only too evident and familiar, it is better to examine the nature of the healed, ‘saved’, or ‘redeemed’ state.
Q: What are qualities of this healed or ‘saved’ mental condition?
In answering this question we are helped considerably by the writings of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. Maslow noted that many people have, either through meditation or other spiritual practices, or else sometimes spontaneously in connection with love, nature, or art, certain heightened experiences. Sometimes these are very brief and intense (peak experiences), and sometimes less intense but of longer duration (plateau experiences). For details, interested readers may consult Maslow’s works (especially Maslow, 1968; 1971). It suffices here to note that peak and plateau experiences are associated with increased sensory and mental clarity, aesthetic appreciation, bliss, insight, and absence of disturbing thoughts or emotions. Maslow summarized this condition by calling it one of Being, as contrasted with our usual condition of becoming. [Note: Few people realize that these terms are explicit references to Platonism, the source of the Being–becoming distinction.]
While peak and plateau experiences are of limited duration, Maslow also noted that over time a person may become more adept at bringing them about. As they become a more common feature in one’s life a general positive transformation of personality may occur.
Maslow, however, operating in the scientific-positivistic climate of the 1950’s and 1960’s, did not sufficiently emphasize the moral or spiritual aspects of the Being state.
Q: Can you elaborate on the moral aspects?
Yes, and this is very important. There is an unfortunate tendency today to confuse morality with moralism. The latter is a rigid frame of mind which seeks to conform all behavior to fixed rules, largely proscriptive (“thou shalt not…”). This legalistic approach does little to develop ones innate moral sense. Rather, it is often yet another manifestation of the fallen condition of the mind.
Morality is something different, something positive. It affirms that human beings are designed to be moral; and that moral actions and virtue come naturally and instinctively, and are essential to ones happiness, well-being, and integrity of personality.
Platonism sees an integral connection between intellectual and moral life. Moral development comes from intellectual or illuminative insights into ones own nature. Platonism seeks to cultivate the life of ones higher mind, the source of these intellectual and moral insights. This has two components, the purgative and the illuminative. The purgative part of Platonism seeks to correct our habitual forms of negative thought and emotions, which impair our ability to consult our higher mind. The illuminative part is concerned with actually accessing the higher mind.
Q: And the spiritual aspect?
The spiritual aspect of Platonism is what some writers call the unitive life. It is, of course, something understood by experience, not description. However certain leading principles of this state can be noted.
In general, we could describe this state as a form of humility, in which the ego no longer seeks to be ruler of ones psyche, but rather is content in the role of helper to something greater than itself. Now as to what this other entity is, opinions vary. The traditional view, of course, is that it is God. Some, however, such as Jungian psychologists, understand this other as a higher self or Self. To some extent this distinction doesn’t matter — provided that the ego has sufficient respect for this ‘other’ that it relates to it as something holy and sacred. The proper relationship of the ego to this entity, whatever it is, is one of piety and trust.
In this way a person is no longer constrained by the limitations of egoistic over-control, and the various forms of mischief the ego can create. One is more creative and spontaneous, and, in a word, more happy. Various names given to this condition are self-actualization, self-realization, and individuation.
Another way of seeing things is that Platonism is a form of yoga. Etymologically, the word yoga is related to the word yoke. It refers to establishing an ongoing connection or yoke between the ego and this higher ‘thing’ which is God or a higher Self. Note that the word religion has the same meaning of re-connection, as the stem ligio means to connect or bind, and is related to the word ligament.
So we see that, despite certain differences, Platonism, yoga, and traditional religion all aim to restore a kind of natural state or harmony of soul in which the ego finds its proper role. All of these traditions express a kind of instinctive knowledge human beings have that their ordinary state, where the ego is out of control, is unnatural, but can be corrected.
Q: What then is the relationship between Platonism and religion?
Platonism overlaps with that part of traditional religion concerned with Wisdom. Wisdom is an important part of religion, but it is not the only part.
Nevertheless, Platonism complements and may enhance ones experience as a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. Many of the greatest Christian thinkers throughout the centuries were also Platonists — for example St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas in the West, and St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Maximus Confessor in the East. Traditionally, Greek philosophy has been called the handmaid of theology, and this is an apt description of Platonism.
Q: Is Platonism for everybody?
Each person is a unique individual, with their own preferred ‘yoga’. For some a yoga of the heart (e.g., charity and service) is best; for others a yoga of Wisdom such as Platonism is more suitable. In general Platonism will appeal most to people who already have a strong intellectual inclination. It is my observation that in modern times people are overall becoming more intellectual, so that Platonism may have broader appeal today than in earlier centuries.
Q: Very well. How does one go about learning Platonism?
First you should know that most of what is written about Platonism, especially in modern times, is of dubious value. Modern philosophers, generally speaking, no longer understand philosophy as a form of psychotherapy, but see it only as an arena for abstract speculation, controversy, and other forms of self-aggrandizement.
For this and other reasons, there is no substitute for reading Plato’s own works. This is made easier by the fact that Plato was great literary genius as well as a philosopher. Once you get accustomed to them, Plato’s dialogues are very easy and enjoyable to read.
I would recommend starting with one or two of Plato’s early dialogues, such as Charmides or Lysis. These make for pleasant reading and, while they are not his greatest works, help one get a ‘feel’ for Plato.
Eventually one will want to work up to his more significant works: Phaedrus, Symposium, Phaedo, and of course what is perhaps his greatest, The Republic.
After reading one or two of his dialogues, you might want to read some of the myths which Plato placed in several of his works. This may help give you an appreciation of Plato’s mystical and intuitive side, which complements the more analytical style found in his prose.
Not all translations of Plato’s works are of equal value. While some modern translations are excellent, others are not. I generally find older translations, especially those of Benjamin Jowett, and those the Loeb Classical Library, more than satisfactory. The Jowett translations, all in the public domain, can be readily be found online. Many of the Loeb editions are also in the public domain and can be found at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu.
I have also provided short explanations of certain key terms found in Plato’s works which may assist you.
Cushman, Robert Earl. Therapeia: Plato’s Conception of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Westport, CT, 1976.
Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being, 2nd edition. New York: Van Nostrand, 1968.
Maslow, Abraham H. The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: Viking, 1971.
Exodus 2:16–21 (KJV)
 Now the priest of Midian had seven daughters: and they came and drew water, and filled the troughs to water their father’s flock.
 And the shepherds came and drove them away: but Moses stood up and helped them, and watered their flock.
 And when they came to Reuel their father, he said, How is it that ye are come so soon to day?
 And they said, An Egyptian delivered us out of the hand of the shepherds, and also drew water enough for us, and watered the flock.
 And he said unto his daughters, And where is he? why is it that ye have left the man? call him, that he may eat bread.
 And Moses was content to dwell with the man: and he gave Moses Zipporah his daughter.
Philo’s interpretation, below, is quite good and bears close reading. However, in addition to his explanation, perhaps something can be made of the fact that these events occur at a well, a symbol often associated with inspiration. Thus, the daughters of Jethro’s seven daughters may symbolize spiritual senses or the like, seeking to draw from the well of inspiration; but which are waylaid by robbers who seek to distract them with worldly thoughts, or to give false, self-interested meanings to the what the well of spiritual inspiration supplies. Moses, then, would be a disposition of the mind which seeks to push aside the robbers and enable the pure thoughts to enter awareness and take root.
Philo, On the Change of Names (De mutatione nominum) 19.110–20.120
19. (110) This now is one of the things which are shown by the name of Midian; another is that more excellent and judicial species which by the affinity of marriage is connected with the prophetic race. The scripture then says, “The priest of judgment and justice” (that is to say, of Midian) “has seven daughters;” [Ex 2:16]
(111) by which seven daughters are frequently intimated the powers of the irrational part of the soul, the power of generation and the voice, and the five outward senses, tending the flocks of their father; for by means of these seven powers it is that all the progresses and increases of their father, the mind, exist in the perceptions which are produced from him. These, then, coming each to its appropriate object, the power of sight to colours and shapes, the sense of hearing to sounds, the faculty of smelling to scents, taste to flavours, and all the other faculties to those objects which are adapted for their exercise do in a manner imbibe some of the external objects of the outward senses, until they have filled all the channels of the soul, and from these channels they give drink to the sheep of their father; I mean by these sheep that most pure flock of the reason which bears safety and ornament at the same time.
(112) But the companions of envy and jealousy, the leaders of the wicked herd coming up, drive them away from that use of their powers which is in accordance with nature, for some conduct these things which are without, inwards to the mind as to a judge and a king, in order that they may do well from having the most excellent of governors;
(113) but others take the opposite side, pursuing and proclaiming the exact contrary, while it is possible for the mind to be drawn towards them, and to give up the flock which was entrusted to it to Feed.
[The meaning here is obscure, perhaps due to a manuscript problem. Colson remarks: “the thought may be that while the mind holds its proper seat, it makes the right use of αισθητά, but if it is enticed out into the body-loving region, αίσθητά are used by it as slaves or prisoners.”]
Until the good disposition, devoted to virtue and inspired by God, which for awhile has appeared to be resting in inactivity, by name Moses, holds his shield over them and defends them from those who would attack them, nourishing the flock of his father on wholesome words,
(114) and they having escaped the attack of the enemies of intellect who admire only the external appendages, like people in tragedies, go no longer to Jother but to Raguel, for they have abandoned all connections with pride, and having connected themselves with lawful persuasion, choosing to become a portion of the sacred flock, of which the divine word is the leader, as his name shows, for it signifies the pastoral care of God.
20. (115) But while he is taking care of his own flock, all kinds of good things are given all at once to those of the sheep who are obedient, and who do not resist his will; and in the Psalms we find a song in these words, “The Lord is my shepherd, therefore shall I lack nothing;”[Psalm 23:1]
(116) therefore the mind which has had the royal shepherd, the divine word, for its instructor, will very naturally ask of his seven daughters, “Why is it that you have contended with such great haste to come hither this day?“[Ex 2:18] for formerly, when you met with the objects of the outward sense, remaining a long time outside, you were a long time in returning again by reason of the manner in which you were allured by them, but now I do not know what it is that has happened to you, but you are speedy in your return, contrary to your usual custom.
(117) Therefore they will say that there were not the same causes why they should run back with such exceeding speed, making the double course from the objects of the outward sense and to the objects of the outward sense, without stopping to take breath, and with excessive impetuosity; but that the cause was rather the man who delivered them from the shepherds of the wild flock. And they call Moses an Egyptian, a man who was not only a Hebrew, but even a Hebrew of the very purest race, of the only tribe which is consecrated, because they are unable to rise above their own nature;
(118) for the outward senses, being on the confines between the objects of the intellect and those of the outward senses, we must be content if they aim at both of them, and are not allured by the objects of the outward sense alone. And to think that they are inclined only to attend to the things which are purely objects of the intellect is great folly; on which account they give him both these names, since when they call him a man, they indicate the things which are within the province of reason alone to contemplate, and when they call him an Egyptian, they indicate the objects of the external senses.
(119) When they had heard this, he will again inquire, “Where is the man?” In what part of you is the reasonable species dwelling? Why have you left it so easily, and have not rather after having once met with it, preserved that which was the most beautiful of possessions, and the most advantageous for yourselves?
(120) But even if you have not done so before, at least call it to you now, that it may eat of and be supported by your improvement and your close connection with him; for perhaps he will even dwell with you, and will bring with him the winged, and divinely inspired, and prophetical race by name Zipporah.
Source: Yonge, Charles Duke. The Works of Philo. Complete and Unabridged, New Updated Edition. David M. Scholer, editor. Hendrickson Publishers, 1993. ISBN 0943575931.
Many people who call themselves agnostics are arguably dogmatists. Why do I say this? Because today atheistic-materialism is a received opinion, a dogma. And the dominant cultural assumption, as expressed in higher education and mass media, is that Christianity is obsolete, disproven, and all but finished as a paradigm. Someone like the comedian, Bill Maher, can get on television and make snide jokes about Christians, and imply by innuendo that all Christians are basically stupid bigots, and everyone accepts these statements as completely ordinary, or even ‘cool’. Nobody expects him to defend his accusations with intelligent arguments.
The problem is that this so-called conclusion is very far from the truth. Christianity has not been refuted or debunked. Rather, the logical fallacy of ‘demolishing a straw man’ has been committed on a massive scale. The poorest examples of Christianity (e.g., fundamentalists) are held up as the examples, and these are ridiculed.
The problem is that Christianity is not defined by it’s poorer examples. In the same way, if we wanted to ridicule democracy as a principle, we could easily find examples where democracy is abused, ridicule those, and thereby conclude that all democracy is bad. The same principle applies to any ideology or institution. The simple truth, evident at least since the time of Socrates, is that *most people* are deeply confused. Christianity is no exception to this rule. In fact, one could argue that confused people *should* join a religion — since the express purpose of religion is to un-confuse people. But no religion claims to do that without a long process. Hence, it is perfectly consistent with the principles of Christianity that, at any given point in time, most Christians are poor Christians!
A true agnosticism would embrace the principle of intellectual humility. An intellectually humble person doesn’t follow the scenario outlined above. Intellectually humble skeptics or agnostics would recognize their ignorance as a liability, and therefore make a determined effort to investigate all plausible possibilities that might lead them to a definitive, or at least probable, opinion.
The first prerequisite of such an orientation, therefore, would be to struggle heroically to divest oneself of prejudice — for all people, being inclined to self-interest, habitually distort and select evidence in self-serving ways. Next, a virtuous skeptic, in the Socratic tradition, would seek out not the worst examples of an opposing viewpoint, but the best.
Here then is my challenge to skeptics or agnostics who want to exert themselves manfully (or womanfully). I propose that the work of the Roman philosopher, Cicero, titled On Moral Duties (De officiis) expresses, even though it is not an explicitly Christian work, essentially the same religious world view on morality as Christianity does. What I’m suggesting is that the work is something extraordinary, sublime, beyond the merely rational, or, if you will, inspired. Cicero’s eclectic synthesis of Platonic, Stoic, and Aristotelian ethics was integrated into Christianity via the later writers such as Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine, and many others. The spirit of Christian morality is in it. That is, Cicero’s philosophical writings contain much of what is best in the Christian moral tradition. Yes, Christianity assimilated it from a non-Christian writer, but this was done, for the most part, in conscious recognition and admiration of Cicero.
Cicero’s work is also extremely interesting and entertaining to read. It is a literary masterpiece, and ought to be read by everyone. Nor can I imagine anyone reading without their feeling edified.
That is the proposal I would make to the sincere skeptic or agnostic. Read this work, and having your mind placed on a higher plane, as reading the work should do, then in that light you will have a more solid and unprejudiced basis for evaluating the plausibility of the Christian tradition. If the moral principles advocated by Cicero in the work, for example, are laudable and socially constructive, that would be something to factor into an evaluation of the merits and truth of Christianity, which has preserved this moral tradition, and taught it to countless millions of people.
This page has links to several translations of On Moral Duties that can be read online or downloaded. The Peabody translation is excellent.