“It’s not lymphoma, it’s leprosy!” Ack!!!! Yes, I admit I was watching re-runs of House the other night. It seems the other televisual options included a ruined baseball stadium filled with Godzilla eggs, a WWII movie about carnage on the German front, and a variety of news shows featuring politicians and pundits running around with their hair on fire, not to mention winter storm warnings and a meteor exploding over Russia. As Mel Brooks said, “High anxiety, you win!”
What is it that people find so attractive about the raised emotional pitch, especially in fiction? (As if we didn’t have enough of that in daily life.) I’m not going to say this is a recent phenomenon, or an American one. Check out Grimm’s Fairy Tales, or better yet, Greek and Roman mythology, not to mention the ancient Egyptian story about what happened to Osiris. (Look it up.) We humans enjoy being shocked and horrified. But why?
If Plato is right, it might simply be a common and understandable mistake. “Whenever anyone’s soul feels a keen pleasure or pain,” says Socrates in the Phaedo, “it cannot help supposing that whatever causes the most violent emotion is the plainest and truest reality, which it is not.” (83c) Really? If things that cause a profound emotional surge aren’t the most real, what is?
The Buddhist scholar and retreat master, Thich Nhat Hanh, suggests that we deal with our emotional storms the same way we face violent weather; go home, close the doors and windows, be still. Reality is to be found in the quiet of our hearts when we are calm, not in the tempest.
Elijah found that God was not in the heavy winds or in the earthquake or in the raging fire, but rather in a still, small voice. He had to be very quiet to hear it. And once he listened, he was refreshed and fortified. (I Kings, 19:11-13) He did not withdraw from the chaotic world permanently, but he did need to take a break.
We, too, need a break, but events and entertainment conspire to keep us riled up. Even when we go on vacation, there is so much to do and to experience that we return home exhausted as often as not. And when we “relax” with our portable electronic devices, well, de Tocqueville would not be surprised. We need a real break.
But we also need to do something different. We need to be still yet alert. And this is a work quite unlike what we are used to, as well as a relaxation that can’t be found on TV or the internet or in collision sports. There are no fireworks in this practice of being still. But there is a deeper reality, a plainer and truer reality than what we can encounter by any other means. Be still, yet alert, without trying to control the outcome. Then sometimes, High Anxiety, you lose.
In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, the great 18th C. Scottish skeptic David Hume considers four hypotheses about the first cause (or causes) of the universe: “that they are endowed with perfect goodness; that they have perfect malice; that they are opposite and have both goodness and malice; that they have neither goodness or malice” (Part XI).
The first hypothesis is clearly false, he argues, given how much suffering and evil there is in the universe. But the second is also false, since there is also goodness in the universe alongside of all the evil. The third hypothesis is Manichaeism, the thesis that there are good and evil gods locked in eternal struggle; this Hume rejects on the grounds of the uniformity and steadiness of the laws of nature, which sometimes make us happy and at other times make us suffer. This leaves the fourth hypothesis as, in Hume’s judgment, “by far the most probable:” the causes or causes of the universe is or are completely indifferent to our happiness. It is (or they are) neither benevolent nor malicious. On Hume’s view, the most that human reason can establish is that “the cause or causes of order in the universe probably bear some remote analogy to human intelligence” (Part XII, penultimate paragraph).
The presence of evil in the universe is a standing challenge to the belief in a God who is all-good and all-powerful, as Hume never tires in pointing out. But is the notion of a morally indifferent God really all that probable? Or does it, too, face some challenges? The cause of the universe cannot be morally indifferent in the way that the laws of physics are indifferent, since whatever caused the universe must be the author of the laws of physics. But why would a being cause the universe and its laws to exist? If this being acted freely, then it presumably acted for a reason. To act for a reason is to act for a goal that one judges to be good. A creator acting before there is a world and causing that world to be can only be acting for the sake of some good, and (before anything else is) that good can only be itself. If we conceive of the causing of the universe as a free act of an agent, then, we cannot conceive of it as being morally indifferent.
On the other hand, we might view the cause of the universe as operating by a kind of necessary emanation, not a free act of creation or initiation. The problem with this is that the universe does not seem necessary. It seems, rather, to be one of many possible universes. It seems shot through with contingency. It does not have to be the way it is. This suggests that the first cause of the universe made something like a free choice of this universe and its laws and not some other. We are back, then to the question of why it acted at all, and this leads away from the thesis that it is morally indifferent.
Hume is right to point out the difficulties in the notion of a perfect God who creates an imperfect universe, but his solution of a morally indifferent creator has its own problems.
A fundamental puzzle in the philosophy of love concerns the question, how does love begin? Here’s what I mean. It seems that love demands two desires, the desire to put the beloved’s needs ahead of my own (self-sacrifice), as well as the desire that the beloved love me in return or at least acknowledge my love in the appropriate way (reciprocity). I submit that the two requirements of self-sacrifice and reciprocity are fundamental to all kinds of loving relationships, whether romantic relationships, friendships, or familial relationships. But is it possible to express both desires at the same time? If not, then it seems that we can never begin to love because we will be stuck in an impossible situation where we must desire that another love us in return, while at the same time denying that desire by sacrificing our own needs for the beloved’s, giving without expecting return. Philosophers and theologians have typically offered three different solutions to the puzzle, although I submit that none of them are satisfying.
One way to solve the problem of how love begins is simply to deny that love truly requires self-sacrifice. On this view love is a sophisticated form of self-love. This approach solves the puzzle by claiming that love does not require an absolute sacrifice of oneself and one’s projects for another. Love just doesn’t demand that I put another’s needs absolutely ahead of my own. The contemporary moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt defends this position in The Reasons of Love.
Another solution to the conundrum is to deny that reciprocity is a legitimate part of love. The Swedish-Lutheran bishop Anders Nygren argues for this position in Agape and Eros. According to Nygren, true love should only be identified with self-sacrificial agape and any love that looks for reciprocity is hopelessly confused and selfish. So, he solves the puzzle of love only by denying that love should involve the desire to be loved in return.
C.S. Lewis represents a third possible solution to the puzzle of love. In The Four Loves, Lewis recognizes both self-sacrificial love, what he calls gift-love, and love that desires reciprocity, which he terms need-love. However, as is indicated in the distinct terms that he gives to them, Lewis believes gift-love and need-love are two different kinds of love that spring from two fundamentally different impulses. Lewis recognizes that both loves are a good and necessary part of every relationship, but he insists that they are two different emotion-virtues. Thus, he solves the puzzle of how love begins by dividing love into self-sacrificial love and need-love that desires reciprocity. But might there be another alternative to these three positions, one that maintains the dual demand of self-sacrifice and the desire for reciprocity, yet one that maintains the unity of love?
I would like to suggest that a compelling alternative solution to the puzzle can be found in Jean-Luc Marion’s recent work The Erotic Phenomenon. (It can also be found in Augustine and in the Augustinian tradition generally, but that’s a topic for another day.) Marion’s solution to the puzzle rests on his distinction between expecting reciprocity and hoping for reciprocity. To expect to be loved in return means that I demand it. If I expect to be loved in return, then I can never begin to love because I have not met the requirement of self-sacrifice. I only decide to “love” when I have absolute certainty that my love will be reciprocated, so there is no risk. On the other hand, Marion argues that hope for reciprocity is something entirely different. When I hope for love I am not demanding it; I don’t have total assurance that my love will be returned. I take the risk to love, sacrificing myself for the sake of the beloved, while maintaining the hope that the beloved will return my love. I still desire reciprocity, but I do not demand it. Thus, the puzzle of love has been solved because the demands of self-sacrifice and reciprocity have both been met. I submit that Marion’s solution is a preferable alternative to the three solutions offered above because it acknowledges the necessary place of both reciprocity and self-sacrifice, as well us giving us a unified account of love.
Aristotle argues in Book X of his Nicomachean Ethics that happiness, the ultimate human good, is contemplation. In support of his position, he continues his reflection on what we mean by happiness, which he began in Book I. There he had suggested that, whatever we mean by happiness, it is something we want completely and forever. If we think about it, the idea of partial happiness or happiness cut off is not as good as full happiness continuing; and the idea of happiness continuing for a while and then being interrupted or ending is not as good as happiness continuing without interruption forever. This leads him to the idea of happiness as something we cannot lose and of the happy person as self-sufficient. Since the ethical life, exemplified most perfectly, perhaps, in friendship of virtue, requires other people, thus rendering one less self-sufficient and subject to loss, it is to this degree imperfect and as such cannot be what we mean by happiness of the ultimate human good.
Now clearly Aristotle thinks that friendship (that is, perfect friendship or friendship of virtue as he presents it in Book VIII) is loved for its own sake; so to that extent it is as choice-worthy as contemplation. And Aristotle does say that moral virtue is more permanent than knowledge of the truth. “For in none of man’s actions is there so much certainty as in his virtuous activities (which are more enduring than even scientific knowledge” (NE 1.11.1100b114-15). That being so, one can speak of the permanence of friendship as an indelible perfection of the soul. And if the soul is immortal, then so is the friendship.
But beyond this, I would like to argue that the goodness of actions such as friendship, which intrinsically involved in time, should not be judged by the degree to which they are not subject to time. Thus it would be odd to remove time from our judgment of the beauty of a piece of music. Although, the harmonies as they appear on paper and can be conceived are part of the aesthetic beauty of the piece, it is far more beautiful when actually played by excellent musicians: that is, music is meant to be heard (a temporal activity) to be fully appreciated. Likewise, friendship is most perfect, as Aristotle admits, when the friends are actually together. True enough, the commitments, loyalties, and memories of shared moments that an individual has apart from his or her friend, are real parts of the excellence of the friendship. But the full perfection—the happiness—of friendship only exists in the presence of the friend.
The idea that friendship is less perfect than contemplation because it renders one less self-sufficient might suggest that we should distance ourselves from friendship. But to do this is to choose to reject something self-evidently good, to turn away from something we know to be intrinsically choice-worthy. Such a choice would be self-defeating since selves are only distinguished in the context of other selves.
Not only can friendship be said to be as good as contemplation; there is a way in which it could be said to be better. As persons are more perfect than principles, and persons are only fully known as individuals, one might argue that friendship permits the highest kind of knowledge to be contemplated. And for the Christian tradition, the contemplation of God is an act of friendship, a participation in the friendship of the Holy Trinity. To contemplate an impersonal principle, a first abstract truth, would be to fail to contemplate the highest being.
Of course, Christian contemplation of God is not the worship of an abstract principle, nor indeed do I think this is Aristotle’s idea of contemplation. Although he does not have a doctrine of creation, Aristotle’s God is understood by him to be more perfect than we. Thus, contemplation must not be destructive of human personhood: otherwise, we are not perfected, and our philosophical quest for happiness is in vain.
Our society is increasingly sensitive to the ways in which hateful speech can lead to violent actions or discrimination against people based on skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national background. This is a good thing: we all have a moral obligation to be courteous and respectful in the way we talk to and about each other. In speech as in all other actions, we should treat others as we wish to be treated. Moreover, hateful stereotypes can indeed foment discrimination or even violence (witness the Matthew Shepard tragedy).
However, the category of impermissible speech seems to be widening all the time, and this can pose some problems for freedom of speech and inquiry. Consider some examples. The mother of Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student who took his own life after being secretly filmed in an intimate act with a man, has recently left her evangelical Christian church because that church teaches that homosexual acts are morally wrong. She now believes that such teaching helps to create the homophobia that drove her son to suicide. In Canada, where hate speech is illegal, some Christian pastors have been prosecuted merely for condemning homosexual activity from the pulpit. Some Christian theologians, seeking to overcome centuries of Christian anti-Semitism, have called for Christian churches to stop teaching that Jews ought to convert to Christianity or that Christianity has replaced or superseded Judaism as a religion. Many people today who criticize Islam are attacked as Islamophobes, since a negative opinion of Islam could lead to discrimination against Muslims. Pro-life activists are sometimes blamed for attacks on abortion clinics or providers, merely because they condemn abortion.
Such thinking seems to take mere moral or religious disagreements and elevate them to the level of impermissible speech. The reasoning seems to be that certain moral or religious judgments have been associated with hateful, violent, or discriminatory actions in the past, so such judgments must now be abandoned to avoid such abuses. I see four problems with this reasoning.
First, moral and religious disagreement is an irreducible aspect of the human condition. Such disagreements are not going to end anytime soon.
Second, the problem is not the mere fact of disagreement but the way the conflicting positions are expressed. One can express a principled opposition to homosexual activity, for example, using language that is restrained, respectful, and non-abusive, or one can express it in abusive or hateful ways. The latter is wrong; the former is not. We should focus on educating people to express their differing moral and religious beliefs in language that is as fair and as respectful and as courteous as possible. But surely it is utopian to tell them to stop disagreeing at all.
Third, the range of beliefs that have been associated with violent, abusive, or intolerant behavior is huge. Atheism was part of the official ideology of Communist countries that brutally persecuted religious believers for decades. Should we tell atheists to abandon atheism because of the crimes of some other atheists? Adolf Hitler and the Nazis incorporated Darwinian evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetic theory into their racist ideology. Should we tell biologists to stop teaching these theories because they have been associated with a violent and repressive political movement? The language of universal human rights was an integral part of the French Revolution, which led to the Reign of Terror and the imperialism and tyranny of Napoleon. Should we abandon any talk of universal human rights for this reason?
Fourthly and finally, there is a self-referential logical problem with telling people to abandon moral or religious positions that have been associated with violence or intolerance or discrimination. Not long ago a gay-rights-activist shot a security guard at the office of an anti-gay-marriage organization in a Washington DC suburb of Virginia. If moral opposition to gay marriage or gay sex is wrong because it has been associated with violence against gays in some times and places, must we now say that a pro-gay-rights position is wrong for the same reason? Is everyone thus morally obliged simply to stop talking about gay marriage, the moral status of gay sex, or the dangers of homophobia? This is a reductio ad absurdum of the failure to distinguish between mere moral or religious disagreement, on the one hand, and truly hateful speech, on the other.