Monday, June 18, 2012

Augustine and Passive Religion

I was sitting in class last winter and stumbled on this passage from Augustine's Confessions. It speaks to a certain attitude to religion that, while it's not mine, I find extremely compelling. Let me try to explain why.

I loved you late! O beauty so ancient and so new, I loved you late! for when you were within I was in the open, and there I sought you. ... You were with me, but I was not with you...
You called and cried, and broke my deafness: you were scintillating and resplendent, and put my blindness to flight. You were fragrant, and I breathed in and pant for you; I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you; you touched me, and I burn for your peace.
(Confessions, Book X, my translation.)

What strikes me most here is Augustine's passivity. Augustine does not strain to hear God's voice: it overwhelms him. He does not look for God's peace on his own: God inflames him first and makes him long for it. In short, Augustine had no influence in his own conversion: it was all the result of God's grace, not his own free choice.

(To give some context, in his work On Grace and Free Will Augustine contends that free will cannot redeem mankind. God's grace is not the result of any merit in mankind, and to deny that is to fall into the Pelagian Heresy.)

I reject Augustine's passivity as a general philosophy of religion, because it makes more sense to describe most religious experience as conscious striving. I don't know what it would be like to be continually compelled to be a religious person, and I also doubt that most religious people interpret their day-to-day experiences the same way that Augustine does. A person doesn't get up at six thirty every morning to pray because God fills him with ardor and forces him to. He does it because he grits his teeth and commits himself to it.

On the other hand, Augustine's passivity is an example of religion in its purest and most radical form. The most vivid religious experiences do feel utterly passive, because they're based on transcendent experiences that have nothing to do with us as individuals. Was Moses prepared to see the burning bush? Does Levin gain insight because he strives for it? When I see a starry night over a lake, I don't pretend to create the sense of awe that I feel. Creation is intrinsically wonderful, and there's nothing we can do to stop ourselves from being struck with awe when we encounter it.

So in their day-to-day lives, religious people make the choice to be religious. In that respect religion is like most other aspects of our lives; morality, for example, is also the result of conscious choice. But our purest experiences of the divine, as Augustine suggests, are passive.

(Another thing that strikes me about this passage is the eroticism of Augustine's experience of God. Augustine renounces women and physical pleasure, and takes God's love as his substitute. As a replacement, it gets framed in the same terms as his old love.)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Witch-Burning: A Question of Tolerance?

In this post, I don't mean "witch" to refer to a Wiccan, but to someone who actually puts curses on virgins, poisons wells, and so on. I mean no offense to neo-Pagans, precisely because they don't do any of these things.

I am a firm supporter of burning witches, and I refuse to tolerate them. Let me explain.

The Salem witch-trials seem to be obvious evidence of the religious intolerance of the Puritans. Their determination to hang witches marks them as narrow-minded and religiously tyrannical, and gives us cause to triumphantly dismantle the myth that our country is founded on religious freedom.

This intolerance wasn't restricted to small-town New England: a horrific and often-forgotten part of our history is the witch-hunt that swept Europe in the Early Modern period. Over two centuries, tens of thousands of innocent people were put to death for witchcraft. And in modern Africa, innumerable innocent men and women have been murdered, "exorcised", and thrown out of their homes for allegedly committing witchcraft. Clearly, narrow-mindedness has had deadly consequences.

But the solution to this is not to tolerate witchcraft, because the problem is not, in fact, a lack of tolerance. It's a problem of bad science. There's no such thing as witchcraft, after all, so anyone who's ever been put to death for witchcraft has been innocent. That's not to say, though, that if someone had actually committed the crime she was accused of, she wouldn't have deserved the punishment. That's why I can't say in good conscience that I tolerate witchcraft, because if I ever met a real witch, I would want her dead. But witches don't exist, so witch-trials shouldn't either.

The sign doesn't say, "witches deserve equal treatment."
Accordingly, much of the historical opposition to witch-trials has appropriately come in the form of denying the existence of witchcraft, not in opposing witch-burnings in principle. As Increase Mather put it, "It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned." Still, to Mather, those ten suspected witches deserved the fate that they escaped. Similarly, Abraham pleaded with God to save Sodom, not because he thought that the Sodomites deserved mercy, but because he thought that there actually were good people in the city. (For a similar reason, I oppose the death penalty only on the grounds that it's nearly impossible to prove guilt to what I think is the required standard. That doesn't mean a murderer doesn't deserve to die.)

The same goes for metaphorical witch-hunts. The problem with McCarthyism, for instance, is not that it was intolerant of Communists. Citizens who actively promoted the overthrow of the government, I think, actually did deserve to be socially ostracized, even if legal punishment was unconstitutional; and spies who turned secrets over to the Soviets deserved to be executed.
Rather, anti-Communist programs were unjust insofar as they ignored evidence and accused innocent people of crimes that they didn't commit. If McCarthy had used proper standards of evidence and been more than occasionally and accidentally right, he would have been justified.

When, then, is tolerance appropriate? We should tolerate people as long as we don't have a moral objection to their conduct. Sacrificial slaughter, even though it seems weird to outsiders, is something that we ought to get over, at least as long as we kill cows in slaughterhouses. Female genital mutilation, by contrast, should not be tolerated, because of its horrible effect on its victims' lives. So tolerance should only extend to differences that, crucially, do not carry moral weight. We should tolerate Wiccans but not witches.

In short: if we're falsely accusing people of immoral actions, the solution is not to tolerate the action but to stop believing the accusation.

Thanks to my brother Ben for giving me the inspiration for this post.

(By the way, a similar principle holds in Shylock's case. As I mentioned in my last post, if we want to take a stand against anti-Semitism in the Merchant of Venice, we should not say "Shylock's evil is an understandable response to oppression" but "almost no Jews are like Shylock.")

Friday, June 8, 2012

The Shylock Problem

(Even though I disagree with her conclusion, this article by Paula Marantz Cohen gave me the idea for this post.)

So spake the Fiend, and with necessitie, The Tyrants plea, excus'd his devilish deeds. (Paradise Lost, IV.393–4)

I'm going to talk this week about the humanized villain, which is a troubling trope if we take it seriously enough. Here are a couple examples (1):

1. As he prepares to rape the maiden Pamina, the demonic Monostatos of Mozart's Magic Flute makes this plea to the audience:

Ist mir denn kein Herz gegeben? bin ich nicht von Fleisch und Blut? 
Am I not endowed with a heart? am I not made of flesh and blood?

2. More famously, Shylock makes this defense at his trial in the Merchant of Venice:

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? (MV III.i)

There are two mistakes that we can make when we're faced with an appeal like this. I'll use the Merchant of Venice as a test case for both.

First, we can treat it as a merely rhetorical device. Even if villains are utterly inhuman, they still stand to benefit from coming off otherwise. Caliban, for instance, who's clearly a subhuman creature, attempts to justify himself at the beginning of the Tempest by proclaiming his human faculties.
This reading is a neat solution to the Shylock problem, but it has an obvious pitfall: in many cases (the Tempest aside) the villains actually do have human characteristics, and humanity is not just an artifice that they employ to vindicate themselves. Shylock is telling the truth: his humanity is real, and it is a real problem for us.
Luckily, this breed of misinterpretation isn't so common. I wonder why!

A more severe mistake, but more common in proportion, is to succumb to these characters' arguments: by this kind of reading, Shylock, by virtue of his humanity, should elicit at least a little sympathy and understanding. For an example, read this article by James O'Rourke, or—if you have an adamantine stomach—this essay by Kenneth Gross. Or just mention the word Shylock in mixed company and see what happens.
My eleventh-grade Shakespeare class seemed intent on getting one form of this interpretation across: Shylock is Shakespeare's vehicle for launching an attack against the Christian establishment that attempts to make him an "other" and deny his humanity. Even if it wasn't Shakespeare's intent, my teacher insinuated, this is still the most useful way of understanding the play.
This absolute position is only the strongest form of this reading; its more pervasive forms are weaker and more insidious. "Shylock, even though he's the villain, is a human being who deserves to be understood, if not justified." "The trial scene says more about the Christians than it does about Shylock." "Shylock tests the limits of Venetian society's tolerance (2)." Taking Shylock's humanity to be evidence of his justifiability is now so common that anyone who says anything to the contrary is not met with refutation but with a knowing smile.

Come on. We're dealing with a character who would willingly torture his enemy to death on comically legalistic grounds, who hates his own daughter, and who seemingly lives his life on the principle of avarice.  Of course, Shylock embodies an anti-Semitic stereotype that we despise, but that shouldn't force us to interpret the play in a way that perverts its moral structure. (I have a feeling that if Iago had been Jewish or African, critics would race to make excuses for him.) If we don't like Shakespeare's anti-Semitic stereotyping, we should take issue with the suggestion that Jews are like Shylock, not claim that it's okay to do what Shylock does. Shylock is an "other," but he's also a despicable character who understandably makes the play's heroes sick.

In short, we can't accept either that Shylock's humanity makes him less evil or that his evil makes him less human. Where does this leave us? We have a glimpse of what actually makes him such a disturbing character: he's both human and vicious. In the moral world of The Merchant of Venice and The Magic Flute, there's nothing about being human that prevents us from being perverse and wicked to the core.

And this doesn't just go for art; in fact, it's a lesson that applies all the more to our own lives. In the real world, there are no monsters, but that doesn't mean there's no evil.


(1). Both of the examples I've discussed are examples of vicious stereotyping—Shylock, for obvious reasons, and Monostatos, because he used to be played in blackface. 
In the case of the Merchant of Venice, I think that our response to this should not be to attempt understand the Merchant of Venice according to our modern worldview. That's a denial of art's capacity to communicate ideas across centuries relatively intact. Still less, though, should we indulge in the stereotype in a show of sophistication. Rather, we should either change the play and efface the elements that we find objectionable or—if we take the play more seriously—not show the Merchant of Venice at all.
In the case of the Magic Flute, our job is easier. The story of the opera is incidental enough to the music that there's not much damage done when we make the kind of modification that might be unwarranted with Shakespeare. A production of the Magic Flute that I saw in January made Monostatos into a green, lovable gremlin. Poof!

(2). This last argument has never made any sense to me. Why in the world would we expect any society to tolerate a potential murderer? I suppose that Timothy McVeigh tested the limits of our tolerance, too.