A Theory of Moral Objectivity (section 3f - Christianity)
By Robert M. Ellis, originally written as a Ph.D. thesis 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity' in 2001. This html version copyright 2008.
A hard-copy paperback book of this thesis is now available from lulu.com and also on Amazon, price UK£25 (or equivalent). This relatively high cost is necessary because it is A4 size and has 487 pages (296,000 words). This print version includes an index.
A downloadable pdf version of this thesis is available from the British Library at http://ethos.bl.uk (you will need to search the original title 'A Buddhist theory of moral objectivity', and register with the ethos site, but registration is open and the download pdf is free for researchers). Alternatively you can download a pdf for a small cost from lulu.com.
Join discussion or ask questions on any aspect of the thesis on the new phpbb discussion board
It will perhaps not be very controversial to claim that Christianity is eternalistic. The main features I have put forward as typically eternalist are quite obviously present. Although there are some non-dualist elements in the Judaeo-Christian tradition which, I shall argue, have helped to legitimate it, this non-dualism is heavily outweighed by the dualism in the Christian tradition as a whole. Perhaps a Christian may not even object here to the case I shall make for the failures of Christian ethics, but still argue that there is no non-dualist alternative which does not involve a lapse into nihilism: on this point I will refer her to the later part of the book from chapter 5 onwards.
Obviously I cannot hope here to do any justice to the vast and crowded history and theology of Christianity. I hope only to pick out a few important features which are relevant to my argument by a very selective treatment of Biblical and historical material. Nevertheless it is important to do this in order to avoid a wholly inappropriate and false dichotomy between philosophy and religion in considering Western thought, and to understand something of the processes which linked the relatively mild dualism of Greek and Hellenistic philosophy to the stronger dualism of the period of modern history which began with the Renaissance and Reformation.
The history of Christian eternalism cannot be understood without some reference to its roots in the Jewish tradition. It is in the Mosaic Covenant between Yahweh and the Israelite people, traditionally at
Prior to the Mosaic Covenant there were several collections of laws in
Thus the movement from the embodiment of divine law in human figures to its embodiment in written form can be seen, in its context, as motivated by a movement towards ethical objectivity. The subjectivity of the individual king is replaced by the objectivity of the unseen god, whose features and motives remain mysterious. The objectivity of Yahweh depends on his continuing non-identification with particular forms, hence the prohibition of images and their worship becomes important. His mystery is preserved by strict prohibitions against entering the place where he is believed to dwell, and the belief that to do so would cause death. Where the Lord himself is seen, it is in such transcendent terms that the sense of his being beyond all human categories is heightened rather than lessened, as in the remarkable theophany of Exodus 24:9-10:
Moses went up with Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of
The only acceptable intermediary for veneration of Yahweh is his word itself: hence the institution of the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets of the law and associated both with that law and with the presence of Yahweh himself. In contrast to human figures, the written word has the advantages of relative permanence and consistency, as well as a publicly verifiable existence (even if in practice only a very limited class of people had access to it). The Mosaic law marks the first discovery of the capacity for relative objectification through the use of the written word in the Western tradition: a capacity which has been subsequently much exploited by law, science, philosophy and literature alike. Although in the context of the Middle East in the 13th Century BCE this relative objectification probably marked genuine progress in psychological terms, perhaps based some degree of genuine apprehension of non-duality which we find awesomely reflected in accounts of Yahweh, this progress was not to be long sustained because of the attachment to the truth of the written word which accompanied it.
Attachment to the truth of the written word is naturally accompanied by representationalism: a philosophical approach which, as I have already argued, obscures the complexity and inherent lack of certainty involved in the relationship between representations and reality. When the Mosaic law was understood, not as a stage in the process of objectification, but as a representation of the moral absolute, the tradition of Jewish legalism begins. This tradition itself went through a period of evolution, evidenced by the fact that the Torah contains several layers of law accumulated through different periods when adaptation to changed circumstances was occurring, as well as by the influence of the prophets on interpretation of the law. Nevertheless, all these developments necessarily appealed to the existing Mosaic law as the ethical foundation, extending that absolute mode of justification to other laws collected in the Torah. A tradition was thus enshrined which took no account of the ambiguities in the written law (or attempted to deal with them through further legislation), took no account of individual motives, and gave rise to so much alienation that it was unable to motivate widespread ethical observance. Much evidence for the prevalence of these weaknesses arises from Jesus’ and Paul’s criticisms of the legalistic tradition as they appear in the New Testament, which I shall examine later.
In the Mosaic covenant we also have the roots of the eternalistic tradition of freewill in Christianity. For Yahweh does not simply impose his law: instead the Israelites agree to it by means of a covenant. The agreement involved was not of course one of equals, but the acceptance by a vassal of an overlord’s terms; for although the terms could conceivably have been rejected, this would only have inevitably led to more suffering for
[The covenant] laid conditions on election and injected into
On the one hand, Yahweh had chosen Israel regardless of any choice made by Israel, but on the other, Israel had to constantly strive to be worthy of that choice. The fact that this “free moral choice” on
A contrast can thus be drawn between the cosmic perspective, freshly dawned upon Moses and his contemporaries, and the human (collective or individual). This contrast is not one between a cosmic determinism and a human freewill, for only the cosmic perspective raises the possibility of freewill and hence of sin. Instead the contrast is one between an acknowledgement of human sinfulness in relation to a cosmic perspective and the absence of such awareness. The sudden awareness of this perspective is symbolically depicted in the story of Adam and Eve as awareness of nakedness after they had eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge: “Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked”.
That this awareness was extremely difficult for the Israelites to maintain is apparent from the numerous accounts of lapses from God’s law which litter the Old Testament, from the episode of the Golden Calf onwards. Whenever the awareness of a higher perspective returns (as in the Golden Calf episode, on the return of Moses) the effect is an extreme guilt which can only be expiated by an extreme, often violent, purification. This is strongly shown in the aftermath of Moses’ return to discover the idolatry of the Golden Calf.
Moses saw that the people were out of control and that Aaron had laid them open to the secret malice of their enemies. He took his place at the gate of the camp and said, ‘Who is on the Lord’s side? Come here to
Even when one makes allowances for a cultural context where human life is cheap, this kind of episode can only reveal the extreme alienation which was required to maintain this early eternalist legalism. In later times these would have been called the acts of fundamentalist fanatics. What they reveal is an obsessive preoccupation with a particular moral theorisation, which must have provided such a narrow focus of attention that it outweighed nearly all other habitual emotions such as respect for the lives of friends and family. This is not the result of a calm choice between different alternatives which are believed to be expressive of goodness in different measures, but rather the result of the belief in a stark dichotomy which provided only two choices: an absolute commitment to God or an absolute loss of all meaningfulness.
Jewish legalism thus comes attached to this dichotomy of absolute and relative which is the result of the dualism of its representationalist attitudes. This extreme dualism has cast a long shadow over the ensuing development of Christianity, and through that medium over Western civilisation in general. The genuine insights of Moses and his contemporaries have provided a motivation for Christians to defend the Torah and maintain it as part of their tradition, but in doing so they have had to accommodate the barbarities that accompany those insights, to the detriment of their faith as a whole.
Vast amounts have been written about Jesus: his historicity, his alleged divinity, his eschatological expectations, his miracles, and his alleged resurrection from death. I have no intention of engaging with any of the detail of this literature, but will confine myself here to a broad account of the ways in which he appears to continue and modify the traditions of Jewish legalism, judging from the synoptic gospels, which have been most influential in shaping the Christian tradition. Some justification needs to be given for the assertion that, on balance, Jesus was an eternalist, and that that eternalism does not appear to have been merely a construction of his followers and interpreters.
Jesus’ teaching constantly appeals to the transcendent, the values of God as opposed to attachment to worldly ends, and to motives as opposed to mere outward observances of law. This stress appears constantly in the Sermon on the Mount: “Be careful not to parade your religion before others”; “Your good deed must be secret”;”Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth…but store up treasure in heaven”. He also seems to have opposed legalism in being prepared to break the letter of the law and to condemn unreasonable adherence to it on the part of the Pharisees, as in the sabbath-breaking episode where he appeals to the utility rather than the revelatory justification of the law in his famous dictum “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath”.
However, the extent of Jesus’ willingness to undermine the law, or even to undermine legalism, is much disputed, and the gospel evidence seems to be open to a wide variety of interpretations. I shall give merely two contrasting examples here. On the one hand he offers some advice which appears to directly contradict the law:
At the sight of the crowd surrounding him Jesus gave word to cross to the other side of the lake….One of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, let me go and bury my father first.’ Jesus replied, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead.’
E.P. Sanders, a scholar who is otherwise inclined to give minimal emphasis to ways in which Jesus was in conflict with the law, concedes that this passage at least indicates that Jesus believed that his mission overrode even laws which were taken very seriously by many people (and the obligation to bury ones parents was taken very seriously in that context). On the other hand (perhaps when challenged) Jesus seems quite willing to affirm the value of the law:
Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to complete. Truly I tell you: so long as heaven and earth endure, not a letter, not a dot, will disappear from the law until all that must happen has happened.
But one can still read passages like this one, not as affirming the law itself and its ethical value so much as appealing to his eschatological expectations. He probably did not believe that heaven and earth would actually endure very much longer, so that his reassurance to legalists is not quite as categorical as it sounds. He may have effectively meant that there is really not much point in arguing over trifles like this just before the end of the world. As Sanders writes “Jesus himself looked to a new age, and therefore he viewed the institutions of this age as not final, and in that sense not adequate. He was not, however, a reformer. We find no criticism of the law which would allow us to speak of his opposing or rejecting it”.
What exactly this new age – the Kingdom of God – was believed to consist in has also been a matter of dispute between scholars. On the one hand, C.H. Dodd stresses the passages in the gospels which seem to speak of the Kingdom as already present, and suggests that Jesus believed that his own coming brought it about in the form of a radical change in hearts and minds. On the other, Albert Schweitzer stresses Jesus’ expectations of the Kingdom as a historical event which was imminent in the future, even finding evidence that he was disappointed by the non-arrival of the promised Kingdom during his lifetime. The evidence seems amenable to both these approaches, so the best guess is that Jesus probably believed both in his own radical importance and power, even his divinity, and that he also believed in the imminence of the Kingdom as a distinct historical event which would sweep away human sin and make the Jewish law irrelevant.
But it makes little difference which of these we believe to be primary. In both cases Jesus marks a new turn in the development of eternalism. In the place of an ethical foundationalism which places value in the revealed word of God expressed in law, we have a supreme value based on a faith either in the person of Jesus himself, whose teachings and example thus become the source of ethics, or in the future events which he predicted. In the former case the divinity of Jesus becomes crucial, and the focus of faith thus becomes a set of historical events which indicate that divinity: the virgin birth, the miracles, and the resurrection. Adherence to the theory that these historical events are true thus becomes so great that it rapidly becomes no longer a matter for judgement in relation to experience, but for dogmatic assertion. In the latter case, eschatological expectation likewise becomes a matter for dogmatic belief. I shall be returning shortly to the difficulties this has created for the Christian tradition.
For the Christian tradition, however, pragmatic arguments carry no weight. The case for the moral failure of the Christian tradition following Jesus, which I shall be making, may be dismissed so long as a direct appeal may be made to the moral qualities of the historical Jesus Yet the interpretation of Jesus himself even as a morally impressive figure is dubious if one reads the evidence of the gospels without prior Christian assumptions.
The obvious impression that Jesus made on others as a powerful and yet compassionate figure might at first sight suggest an integrated character based on a development of real objectivity. It is even possible that Jesus’ religious experiences included some genuine grasp of his ultimately non-dual nature. However, such experiences could only be understood and articulated in the deeply dualist monotheistic culture in which he grew up, founded on and shaped by the alienation implicit in Jewish legalism. Whilst he was able to grasp some of the limitations of legalism, this did not prevent him from becoming attached instead to some of the messianic and eschatological ideas which were then current, and to an exaggerated sense of his own importance. Throughout his ministry as recorded in the gospels Jesus speaks with resounding authority, but never once admits his ignorance or his limitations.
Nor is Jesus’ behaviour necessarily what one would expect from one with any insight into the limitations of the ego. He seems incapable of empathising with his parents when they discover him engaging in learned discussion in the temple, at the age of twelve, after three days of searching.. His need to perform miracles (regardless of whether they actually occurred or not) suggests a lack of confidence in his role and a need to impress, coupled with a lack of concern for the unrealistic expectations this would engender in people. Even if the miracles were also motivated by profound compassion, that compassion does not seem to be rooted in a broader understanding of the effects of his actions. The story of his journey to Jerusalem and subsequent behaviour before the chief priest and before Pontius Pilate suggest the embracing of a martyrdom which was foreseen and could have been avoided, perhaps coupled with a belief that God would save him at the last revealed in the cry of ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’. Given all these circumstances and his beliefs, Jesus can be seen not as an innocent victim so much as a manipulator of events, his martyrdom not so much altruistically motivated as part of a ultimately egoistic plan through which he would finally triumph as God saved him miraculously from death. At the very least then, the variety of possible readings of Jesus’s psychological states during the key events of the gospels makes him a dubious moral paradigm.
If one follows a non-traditional reading, the eternalist error in its most flagrant form can be seen as symbolised by Jesus’ own embrace of the cross, as well as by the subsequent Christian worship of this act as a symbol of love and altruism. For in sacrificing himself and facing the extreme pain of this form of death Jesus may have merely revealed an alienation both from his own most basic feelings and from any objective assessment of how he might help others to overcome moral weakness. This alienation resembles that of the murderous Levites in consisting in a narrowly focussed concentration on a fixed idea of supreme value, to the exclusion of any awareness of the real complexity of the conditions around. In setting such a standard of alienation he appears to have influenced millions of others into the belief that this constitutes the supreme goodness and is the only alternative to nihilism.
The next major character on the scene, with a massive influence on the subsequent development of Christianity, is Paul. It is Paul who negotiates the transition from Jewish legalism to the new faith-based eternalism of Christianity. But, as is often remarked, Paul did not entirely reject the Jewish law, but rather required it as his starting point, arguing that the institution of the law in the Old Testament itself required a later revelation of faith to enable it to be fulfilled. In his acerbic letter to the Galatians, for example, he argues, with constant use of proof texts from the Old Testament, that the law is impossible to keep in full, although it sets the standard of righteousness. The effect of the law is thus, one might say, to institutionalise sinfulness, and without the sense of complete guilt and human incapacity which this occasions, Paul realises, there will be no grounds for any appeal to faith. Paul thus needed to tread a delicate line between maintaining some appeal to the law as a starting point and the disavowal of its normative power over the lives of Christians.
Even if in practice Paul maintains some aspects or parts of the Jewish law, his ethical foundation is plainly not this law itself. As with Jesus, his degree of toleration of legalism is due to its place in the cultural background of his faith, not to that faith itself. The revelation he appeals to is not that of Moses, but one that he has experienced directly himself (though with appeal to Jesus as in some way its instigator) in the course of his
I must make it clear to you, my friends, that the gospel you heard me preach is not of human origin. I did not take it over from anyone; no one taught it me; I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
As should be implied by my previous arguments, any such appeal to personal revelation as an ethical foundation is in fact contradictory. The issue is not whether any such revelation actually occurred or not, but whether if an ethical absolute was experienced it could take any communicable or practicable form. For if it is indeed absolute, it must express an ineffable perspective far beyond the ego and be so universal as to be wordless. If, on the other hand, it is specific, it must lack universality. This simple logical dichotomy, which is false insofar as it excludes incrementality, can aptly be applied to Paul simply because Paul, together with all other dualists, relies on it. Without the dichotomy between perfect God and sinful human beings there would be no need for any appeal to faith to bridge it.
In fact the bridging of the gap is achieved conceptually by the use of Jesus’ self-sacrifice as magical symbol. Obsession with this symbol seems to have become (for Paul and many after him) the basis of a belief that the duality not only could be overcome, but actually was being overcome. This obsession is coupled with an alienation of will, including the belief that one’s own choices are actually those of another, less fallible, being.
I have been crucified with Christ: the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ now lives in me; and my present mortal life is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.
The wretched moral condition which this alienation gives rise to is extremely clear in a famous passage of Paul’s letter to the Romans:
I do not even acknowledge my own actions as mine, for what I do is not what I want to do, but what I detest. But if what I do is against my will, then clearly I agree with the law and hold it to be admirable. This means that it is no longer I who perform the action, but sin that dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me – my unspiritual self, I mean – for though the will to do good is there, the ability to effect it is not.
Paul’s account here makes it clear how dependent he is on the ego alone to provide the basis for ethics, and how his lack of acceptance of those desires not incorporated into the ego prevents him from practising ethics. On the one hand, this kind of account legitimates the state of sinfulness by spreading a fixedly pessimistic view of human nature, and thus makes a lack of moral effort justifiable. On the other, it undermines confidence and self-esteem as an essential preliminary to the desperate turn to the magical solution of faith: for none who positively believed they could do good would need it. To make the alienation complete, not only is the unhappy self forgotten but the state of faith must be seen in as attractive a way as possible.
In Christ Jesus the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death. What the law could not do, because human weakness robbed it of potency, God has done.
This absolute dependence on God (otherwise described as dependence on his grace) is often understood by Christians as the way of overcoming the limitations of the ego. Since Jewish legalism and the Greek and Hellenistic philosophies failed to enable a perfect practice of ethics, it is argued, Christianity came to offer something better which did not depend on mere human will but on God. One can indeed see in this a recognition of the interdependence and contingency of human beings, shown for example by Paul in “What do you possess that was not given you? And if you received it as a gift, why take the credit for yourself?”. This glimpse of a universal perspective, however, is seen in terms of what is wholly other, not in terms which include the self. There is no reason to believe a priori that glimpses of a universal perspective conceived as wholly other are superior to directly recognised egoism: both are equally limited as conceptions of experience, whether or not that experience is conventionally categorised as “religious”. Since no moral agent can act according to motives which are wholly other, the attempt to do so can only succeed to the extent that that agent has succeeded in the psychological integration of the other as it lies beyond the ego. The evidence above suggests that Paul, at least, had not succeeded in this to any appreciable degree.
It is in Paul, too, that Christianity begins to offer a doctrine of cosmic justice in a more developed form, articulated more fully under the influence of Hellenistic thought. Jesus’ eschatology of the
If at the last judgement the saved are to be distinguished from the damned according to their faith, one obvious difficulty that arises is that of how those who have not had the opportunity to acquire faith are to be treated. What about the many pagans who have not even heard the gospel? Paul solves this with characteristic decisiveness through an appeal to natural law, with an implicit freewill doctrine. Referring to the pagans who are wicked, he writes:
…All that can be known of God lies plain before their eyes; indeed God himself has disclosed it to them. Ever since the world began his invisible attributes, that is to say his everlasting power and deity, have been made visible to the eye of reason, in the things he has made. Their conduct, therefore, is indefensible….
It seems that living in an entirely pagan environment is not itself a sufficient condition for being morally pagan: a point which Paul reiterates positively later when he writes “When Gentiles who do not possess the law carry out its precepts by the light of nature, then, although they have no law, they are their own law.” There is a grave difficulty in reconciling this doctrine with cosmic justice. For if access to revelation is not actually advantageous, why bother with it? But on the other hand, if access to revelation is actually advantageous, the pagans appear to be labouring under an undeserved disadvantage which can be added to the general difficulty of the problem of evil. If the pagans had been denied freewill and moral responsibility prior to the advent of the revelation offered by the gospel Paul could possibly have offered a more consistent doctrine (although, of course, this would probably have created even more of a conceptual gulf between Christians and pagans), but he did not choose to go down this route. Instead Paul inaugurates the endless debate between natural and revelatory theology to be found subsequently in Christian thought.
The revelatory sources of authority in Christianity provide a prima facie reason for Christians to wish to under-emphasise the degree of influence of teachings from outside that revelation, but nevertheless it is widely acknowledged that Stoicism, together with Plato and Aristotle, had a significant influence over the development of early Christianity. Given that Stoicism was the most influential philosophy in ancient Rome at the time of the rise of Christianity, it would indeed be surprising if the increasing popularity of Christianity had not been based on a degree of commonality between them which allowed further syncretism. According to Staniforth
Many of the men who flocked to the Christian community during the second century had been educated in [pagan philosophical] doctrines in their youth; the majority in the principles of Stoicism, since that system more than any other attracted the naturally religious type of mind.
And according to Bultmann
Christian missionary preaching was not only the proclamation of Christ, but, when addressed to a Gentile audience, a preaching of monotheism as well. For this, not only arguments derived from the Old Testament, but the natural theology of Stoicism was pressed into service.
From this it can readily be seen that a strong continuity existed between Stoicism and Christianity. But in what did this continuity consist? I shall argue that two of the most strongly dualistic tendencies that I identified earlier in Stoicism are those which fit most easily into Christianity, whilst those aspects of Stoicism most strongly rejected by Christians are those which most closely approximate to non-dualism. All this can be put forward as evidence of the depth of dualism which Christianity brought into the ancient world, and of the ways in which Stoic slippage into dualism prepared the ground for the almost total dominance of eternalism in Europe during the medieval period.
The first tendency in Stoicism which is obviously crypto-Christian is the doctrine of the cosmic Logos with its accompanying natural theology and doctrine of providence. I have already argued that this doctrine in Stoicism depended on a dogmatic form of belief, and that its adoption in microcosm in the human being was detrimental to Stoic spiritual practice. The logos as the active and rational principle in the cosmos was identified by the author of John’s gospel both with the creative aspect of God and with Jesus:
In the beginning the logos already was. The logos was in God’s presence, and what God was, the logos was. He was with God at the beginning, and through him all things came to be….So the logos became flesh; he made his home amongst us, and we saw his glory…..
The Stoic doctrine of the immanent God, then, already familiar in the Hellenic world, merely had a transcendent and personal aspect added to it: the creative and rational force that is the Stoic Logos becomes itself an emanation of God the Father and also becomes identified with Jesus as the Logos “made flesh” for the purpose of redeeming the human race. As Bultmann presents it, the readiness of those previously influenced by Stoicism to embrace Christianity was due to a limitation in the Stoic understanding of the logos which the new Christian conception was able to remedy.
There is a curious inconsistency inherent in the Stoic view of life, arising from the double sense in which the word ‘Law’ is used. First, it means physical law or natural forces, and secondly, rational norm. If everything that happens is due to the operation of the universal Logos, what is the source of emotion (paqoV) which opposes the Logos? Must it not also have its seat in human nature? Yet the fact is that the Logos does not work in man with the inevitability of a natural force, predetermining human actions….Rather, the Logos confronts human subjectivity as a norm which makes a demand upon him, and the harmony between the human subject and the universal Logos can only be realised by an interior assent.
Bultmann claims that in Stoicism this problem “is obscured by a rationalistic optimism” but presents the Christian alternative of reliance on faith in God as the solution, obscuring the fact that Christianity is subject to exactly the same difficulty. For if God includes and subsumes the Stoic concept of the Logos then it must also take on the same belief in providence and the accompanying problem of evil. If the “interior assent” is an assent to give oneself up to God, this can only resolve the problem if the whole of the psyche is in harmony with such an assent (leaving aside the problem of determining whether it has assented to the right thing). In the place of obscuration by a rationalistic optimism we have a very similar obscuration by a fideistic optimism.
The second crypto-Christian tendency in Stoicism is the moral discontinuity between the absolute and relative levels: between the truly good and the indifferent. Like Christianity, Stoicism confronts its followers with an impossible ideal as a moral foundation: in the Stoic case, that of the wise man with a complete understanding of the Logos, and in the Christian one, the expectations of God as reflected in the Torah. This impossible ideal is coupled with an absolute dichotomy between this absolute standard and any relative attempts at morality based merely on external goods, creating a difficulty in reconciling this ideal to the realities of everyday ethics. In the case of Stoicism, as I have already argued, the effect of this is the assimilation of Stoic ethics to conventional social ethics. In Christianity the result of this discontinuity from the beginning is a tension between different practical moral foundations as the basis of decision-making in the sphere of sinful human action.
The competing types of practical moral foundation can be offered as reason, propositional revelation and non-propositional revelation. Broadly speaking it can be said that the first is the legacy of Stoicism, the second of Jewish legalism, and the third from the tradition of the divinity of Jesus. E.L. Long calls these the deliberative mode, the prescriptive mode and the relational mode, in making such a division recognising explicitly the impossibility of basing Christian ethics wholly on one of these modes. At various points in Christian history one or the other of these types of moral foundation are stressed, but Long calls for a “comprehensive complementarity”.
Any single motif truncates Christian experience when it is taken as the sole way of approaching Christian ethics. Hence, deliberative ethics have the greatest difficulty maintaining a sense of religious meaning in actions which it judges entirely by canons of autonomous reason; prescriptive ethics are most subject to legalistic distortions when they seek to cover every contingent circumstance of life with an exact definition of the right; relational ethics are of the least guidance to men when they wear antinomianism on the cuff and are primarily, if not exclusively, concerned to reject the value of principles and codes in the making of ethical choices.
Long is honest enough to face the difficulty of plurality here and even to defend it. Unlike many other modern Christian writers on Christian ethics, he acknowledges that the different sorts of justification can be mutually contradictory. However, in retreating into pluralism he appears to lose the basic Christian justification for ethicality, whereby God’s will has been communicated to human beings by some means. If the different sources of knowledge contradict one another and have no revealed priority, then they no longer offer any ethical foundation.
The result of this is naturally confusion. Christians live in the certainties of faith and are offered ethical ideals, but no single agreed way consonant with that faith to translate those ideals into ethical behaviour. Those who place priority on the prescriptive value of scripture preserve a dogmatic legalism, yet the huge diversity of the Bible and its ambiguous nature, and the great intellectual difficulties involved in taking it all into account rather than using it selectively, create further divergences within this group. Occasionally scriptures are used to justify radical changes in behaviour from the prevailing norm, but more frequently merely to rationalise prevailing custom. Non-propositional revelation, such as the personal example of Jesus, is still less well-defined.
The bulk of the Christian tradition thus echoes Stoicism in following a vague naturalism which is used to justify social conventionality. However, just as Stoicism had its saints who developed their individual powers of autonomous reason and even followed spiritual practices, so does Christianity. Christianity differs only in the possibility of appeal to propositional or non-propositional revelation, and thus carries within it the seeds of radical movements which challenge the behaviour of the mainstream where conditions are favourable. This baseline conventionality, naturally accompanied by political conservatism, can be strongly related to the dualism expressed in the ethical discontinuity between perfection and sinfulness. The political implications of this will be examined in the next sub-section.
The roots of the continuity between Stoicism and Christianity, as well as the confusion in Christian ethics, can be seen at an early stage of the development of Christianity. For example, probably the first of the church fathers to systematically relate Christianity to Stoicism, St. Ambrose of Milan, takes pains to deny that there is any disjunction between the virtuous and the useful along the lines of that made by the Stoics, for “nothing can be virtuous but what is useful, and nothing can be useful but what is virtuous”. He also claims that ordinary duty follows from perfect duty, but gives no grounds for the implication. But the continuing disjunction between common good and Christian good is shown clearly in his treatment of a dilemma used by Cicero.
Some ask whether a wise man ought in the case of a shipwreck to take away a plank from an ignorant sailor? Although it seems better for the common good that a wise man rather than a fool should escape from a shipwreck, yet I do not think that a Christian, a just and wise man, ought to save his own life by the death of another.
Ambrose believes he is following a Christian rather than a Stoic pattern here because of the appeal to altruism rather than Stoic values of reason and autonomy, justified throughout by references to scripture. Yet the underlying dualism of values is the same. Why otherwise should Ambrose admit here that the common good may be in conflict with Christian good? He provides no explanation here for why the common good should be illusory, because he has none.
Apart from Ambrose’s misleading attempt to avoid the Stoic discontinuity, Christians have tried to differentiate themselves from Stoicism by depicting Stoic values of rational autonomy as a retreat to an illusory subjective security, whilst for Christians the value of any retreat into one’s own experience is merely to realise ones dependence on God. In part this is a genuine distinction (though it judges Stoicism solely according to the values of those few most committed to it), but mixed in with it one can find a misunderstanding of the non-dualistic elements in Stoicism which reveals the extent to which Christianity marked, not just a continuation of Stoic developments, but a further slide into dualism. Since Bultmann expresses this misunderstanding very well I will quote him at some length.
The Stoic believes that it is possible to escape from his involvement in time. By detaching himself from the world he detaches himself from time. The essential part of man is the Logos, and the Logos is timeless. So the Stoic concentrates exclusively upon his Logos-being, thus rising superior to all obligations and denying himself any future. But in thus repudiating the future, he deprives the present and the past of their temporal character as well. His present is unreal, for the essence of the present is that it is the moment of decision for the future. The only decision he has to make has been anticipated already. Of course, that decision must be maintained, which means that it must be constantly renewed. But it is never a concrete decision in the moment, made in responsibility for a definite act or disposition.. It is in a paradoxical way always the same decision, a decision that the moment is devoid of significance. It cannot be a concrete decision hic et nunc, for the man involved in it is not man in concreto (i.e. man qualified by his past for his present responsibility), but abstract Logos-man, whose past is not really his at all, since he is obliged to divest himself of all ties with the past, from its joys as well as its sorrows.
Bultmann here appears to be talking about the Stoic practice of prosoche and its awareness of the present, but he appears to interpret that practice as a necessarily alienated one involving a mere abstraction of awareness from objects of possible attachment in the past or future and hence an etiolation of significance. As I have previously remarked, it is impossible to tell whether the Stoics actually practised prosoche in an alienated way or not, but, as I shall explain more fully later, it is possible to do such a practice with a sense of concrete significance enhanced rather than denied, and with a sense of responsibility based on controlled deliberation rather than anxiety. It is thus a mistake to assume that prosoche was necessarily alienated. The crucial point being missed by Bultmann is that of the possibility of the integration of desires, and that this requires the limitation of egoistic identification with events in the past and future and hence a focus on the present. The opposed approach that Bultmann urges, of remaining bound to past and future but gaining freedom only in reliance upon God’s grace, is, however, almost inevitably alienated because of its lack of focus on present concrete reality and its concern with the ultimate abstraction of what is wholly other. On Bultmann’s account, it seems, the Christian wants to remain a prisoner of hope, fear, regret and nostalgia because the frustration this creates in opposition to the desire to act ethically will lead her towards faith. Faith then brings with it a conviction of the need to overcome these emotions and the inadequacy of one’s own powers to do so, alongside the emotions themselves. The key to unlock the prison from within has now been thrown out through the bars even before it has been tried in the lock.
The political philosophy of the early Christians is clearly articulated in Jesus’ command “Pay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God” as well as by Paul’s “Every person must submit to the authorities in power, for all authority comes from God, and the existing authorities are instituted by him”. Although they were deeply radical in desiring and expecting the Kingdom of God to replace the imperfections of existing human institutions, they did not expect this to occur by human agency but by divine. The current institution of the state was created by God and thus should not be challenged, unless it overstepped the line of demarcation between what is proper to Caesar and what is proper to God.
However, this line was broken and conflict ensued between Christianity and successive Roman emperors because of the Christian insistence on God having the foremost place and secular rulers being tributary to him: an insistence which conflicted with the Roman tradition of the divinisation of emperors. Christians thus refused to swear the customary oath of allegiance to the emperor as a god. One likely reason for the persecution of Christians is thus a purely political one, as this religious insistence was taken as a political threat. Another likely cause of persecution was the secrecy, exclusivity and fanaticism of the early Christians, all of which encouraged bad rumours to spread about their activities, such as the idea that they practised cannibalism, and made them generally unpopular in Roman society. It seems to have been the hostile response of the Roman Empire to Christianity rather than the original Christian policy which isolated the early Christians politically. As a persecuted group they were thrown increasingly into dependence on the beliefs that defined them as a group, and the boundaries between that group and the rest of society became harder the more they were rejected. The more rigid the boundaries the more careful the initiation and the more the initiate had to lose through apostasy. Successive Roman emperors discovered the power of resistance of those in this increasingly alienated state of dependence on highly-defined dogmatic beliefs (who were often well-prepared for martyrdom), and rather strengthened than weakened Christianity by persecuting it.
It would probably be wrong, though, to describe this isolation as radicalism. For although Christians were perceived as a threat to the political order, the nature of Christian beliefs did not in fact make them one. Their respect for authority was so great that, when confronted with a conflict of political and divine authorities, they generally preferred martyrdom to insurrection. It took the political genius of Constantine to realise how easily this group could be harnessed to the conservative cause and assist in the unity of the Roman Empire rather than posing a threat to it.
In his superbly-argued book Constantine versus Christ, Alistair Kee presents strong evidence for a realistic picture of Constantine as neither a saintly Christian nor merely a cynical political manipulator, but a man of distinct religious beliefs (which were monotheistic but not Christian) as well as great ambition and acute political instinct. Kee compares his religious beliefs with those of the Old Testament because of his belief that he had a personal covenant with God and his strong belief in cosmic justice on earth: those who served the God of the Christians would have worldly success. He thus had a strong religious as well as a political motivation in removing persecution, introducing tolerance, supporting the church financially and even intervening personally to maintain the unity of the church when this was threatened by heresy. He seems to have understood that not only could the church be reconciled to the state through kind treatment, but that it could become an instrument of rule. In this the pacifistic and expectant attitudes of early Christianity could play their part. All that was required was that Christians should transfer their habits of faith and obedience to the emperor as the mediator of God.
Constantine seems to have succeeded brilliantly in making this occur. The Christians were amazed at the sudden turnaround in their political fortunes: as Kee writes, “It must indeed have seemed to them a miracle wrought by the hand of God”. The tradition rapidly assumed the view that he was a Christian even when he was not. And Kee charts how his foremost Christian supporter Eusebius, bishop of Rome, delivered a public oration shortly before Constantine’s death which portrays him almost as the mediator of God on earth, supplanting Christ. According to Kee, what has occurred is a “Great Reversal” whereby instead of Constantine merely being the representative of God, God is understood in terms of Constantine. The religious legitimation for the emperor’s rule has become a sort of tautology by means of which that rule could not possibly be questioned, the absolute power of God being attributed to Constantine. What Constantine thus achieved was better than his own divinisation: for being practically mistaken for the one God is far better than being a god in one’s own right when one is merely one among many.
For Kee, this is a massive betrayal of true Christianity. He contrasts the virtues of Constantine with those of Christ and shows how they are diametrically opposed, with Christ rejecting all political power, wealth, or status, and suffering at the hands of the very worldly authorities that Constantine embodies. For him Constantine is thus not merely non-Christian but an anti-Christian who seduced Christianity to equally anti-Christian ends, leaving it ever since largely in the hands of the ruling classes. But Kee is caught up in a dichotomy which assumes that because Constantine brought about massive changes in Christianity which led to its rapidly becoming an ideological support for entirely conventional values, these values were not implicit in Christianity before that stage and were entirely due to Constantine. He seems to believe that all that is necessary to challenge worldly values is to deny them, in defiance of the evidence that this only exhibits a counter-dependency.
My previous account should show grounds for the view, rather, that the political philosophy of the early Christians was already quite in harmony with that of Constantine even during the persecutions. Whilst their faith put them in conflict with the authorities, they were forced into isolation, or even the antipathy evident in the book of Revelation, where Rome is depicted as the Beast. However, the habit of faith in an authority could be readily transferred from spiritual to worldly spheres simply through an association of the two. The only process which would have been likely to disturb this process of the transfer of faith would be a critical awareness of the limits of dogmatic faith, not the faith itself. In the absence of such a critical awareness, not even the importance of scripture in the Christian tradition could substantially prevent it, for ideological exploitation of the ambiguities of scripture was already becoming a refined art-form. This critical awareness does continue to appear in the Christian tradition from time to time in the shape of a renewed appeal to direct spiritual experience or to a different interpretation of scriptural revelation, but Constantine appears to have set the leading theme of the Christian tradition as an overwhelmingly conservative one.
Nor is it surprising that accompanying this establishment of Christianity was a shift from the strict, puritanical values of a radical group to lax and conventional ones. For the pre-Constantinian early Christians acceptance by the group was conditional on adherence to a code of ethics which strictly forbade, for example, fornication, abortion, military service, financial dishonesty, and any kind of involvement in the arts which might be considered idolatrous. However, after Constantine Christianity became acceptable for the rich and powerful, creating an impetus towards the compromising of those values with those already held by the ruling class. To Christians this must have come as a great relief, since holding fast to radical values in an unsympathetic environment causes great strain. Now that the environment had become more sympathetic they could relax. But as a result of these social and ideological changes, there was no more incentive to practice even the limited ethics the pre-Constantinian Christians had practised, except where these accorded with broader conventions.
The causes of the ethical failure of Christianity even in its own terms are thus not to be blamed wholly on Constantine, but are due to the eternalism found in the tradition from the beginning. The neglect of the broader political perspective created by the ethical discontinuity of Stoicism continues in Christianity in a division between personal and public ethics. This division is made for similar reasons in both cases, being due to the strength of reliance on providence and the type of naturalism which accompanies this reliance. This discontinuity and division is interestingly not found in Plato: instead we get the reverse emphasis on the possibility of political change in harmony with personal.
Plato was conservative because he believed that his conservatism could ultimately fulfil radical political ends as well as radical personal ones, but this is much less the case in Christianity, where the effect of the reliance on faith in God is generally (though not always) the belief that political change instituted by human beings is not a significant goal provided that the conditions for Christian belief and practice at a personal level are maintained. Where there are instances of radical political action apparently inspired by Christianity, it is often accompanied by hysterical Millenarian expectation and the belief that the action is one made by God in which the individual is only his instrument. It is only very much later, through the adoption of a symbiotic relationship with some other ideology such as Marxism (as in the cases of Christian Socialism or Liberation Theology) that Christians have seemed able to adopt a sustained political (rather than merely personal) radicalism rather than one which is merely a result of the abandonment of their interests by the ruling power, to be shortly itself abandoned when those interests are recognised.
The political tendency in Christianity should thus be assessed according to the relationship between the psychology which accompanies its acceptance and its ideological expression, rather than by its ideology alone. The ideology of radicalism, based on an appeal to a radical interpretation of scripture, which occurs occasionally in the Christian tradition, does not generally change the underlying pattern of relationship between faith and political power which has been entrenched since Constantine. This pattern is one in which dogmatic justifications of faith and of political power are mutually supportive, to the detriment of objectivity in both the personal and political spheres.
Before I move on from the foundational tendencies in Christianity to its later developments, however, one further aspect of early and medieval Christianity needs to be considered. Regardless of my arguments so far about the ethical, political and psychological dualism of Christianity, it may be suggested that I have unfairly focussed on its doctrinal expressions to the exclusion of the experience which justifies those expressions. It may be urged that direct spiritual experience has continued to play a part in the Christian tradition throughout its history and that this, rather than a faith in abstract propositions of belief, is what gives legitimacy to Christian ethics and prevents it from becoming merely dogmatic.
My argument in response to this will be that religious experience, like any other type of experience, should not be given an unbalanced epistemological role. The idea of religious experience as providing a justification for belief in God or for other typically eternalist positions has been highly influential in the Western tradition precisely because this is the dominant Christian understanding of religious experience, and apparently non-Christian analyses of religious experience have continued to use it, only to perpetuate the assumptions it enshrines and sometimes to project them onto other (particularly non-theistic) religions. The underlying error is the same as that of the positivists (descending from the phantasia kataleptike of the Stoics) with relation to empirical experience, that is to assume that any experience can provide complete justification for any proposition. Whilst religious experience is given a different epistemological status from empirical experience, the difference is taken to be one of privacy from publicity rather than one between cognitive and non-cognitive status. That religious experiences should be authoritative and produce knowledge, even a special private sort of knowledge, is no more credible than that empirical ones should, given the complexity and subjectivity of the relationship between representation and reality, yet this function has often been taken to be definitive of religious experiences. Thus William James in his classic investigation of religious experience writes “Mystical states, when well developed, usually are, and have the right to be, absolutely authoritative over the individuals to whom they come” and “faith state and mystic state are practically convertible terms”.
This understanding of religious experience as having a privileged epistemological status depends in turn upon a representationalism which has its roots, as I have mentioned, in ancient Judaism as well as in Greek philosophy. It is commonly assumed - even in the case of religious experiences which are not of an object distinct from the subject – that a religious experience is of the reality of an object which it describes, even when that object is as general as the underlying order of the universe or the immanent God. For example, for Keith Yandell it seems “plain and should be uncontroversial” that religious experiences “are cognitive in that, allegedly at least, the subject of the experience receives a reliable and accurate view of what, religiously considered, are the most important features of things”. On the other hand, the assertion that religious experiences are non-cognitive is often used as a basis for an unjustifiable dismissal of that area of experience as playing a causal role in the justification of belief. But it cannot be justifiably assumed that religious experience is either wholly authoritative and immune from the difficulties of interpretation, nor that it is completely uninformative or necessarily “subjective”, any more than is the case with empirical experience. As I shall elaborate more fully in chapter 5, experiences of the kind often described as “religious” or “spiritual” can have a causal role in creating improved psychological conditions for greater objectivity of belief, but in this case the model for the understanding of this causal role must be functional rather than representational.
But for the moment I shall confine myself to the discussion of Christian religious experience. I do not wish to deny the reality of any of these experiences, but rather to challenge their cognitive interpretation as epistemologically authoritative. In the Christian tradition religious experiences are entirely understood to emanate from God, and are therefore understood in terms of their cognitive content as visions of God or of other objects provided by God (in either case justifying faith). However, descriptions of religious experience in the Christian tradition, as in others, provide evidence both of this cognitive interpretation and of features which can not be readily reduced either to “cognitive” or “non-cognitive” categories. Take this example from St. Augustine:
And our conversation had brought us to the point that any pleasure whatsoever of the bodily senses, in any brightness whatsoever of corporeal light, seemed to us not worthy of comparison with the pleasure of that eternal light, not worthy even of mention. Rising as our love flamed upward towards that Self-same, we passed in review the various levels of bodily things, up to the heavens themselves, whence sun and moon and stars shine upon this earth. And higher still we soared, thinking in our minds and speaking and marvelling at Your Works. And so we came to our own souls, and went beyond them to come at last to the region of richness unending, where you feed Israel forever with the food of truth; and there life is that Wisdom by which all things are made, both the things that have been made and the things that are yet to be. But this Wisdom itself is not made: it is as it has ever been, and so it shall be forever: indeed ‘has ever been’ and ‘shall be forever’ have no place in it, but it simply is, for it is eternal; whereas ‘to have been’ and ‘to be going to be’ are not eternal. And while we were thus talking of His Wisdom and panting for it, with all the effort of our heart we did for one instant attain to touch it; then sighing, and leaving the first fruits of our spirit bound to it, we returned to the sound of our own tongue, in which a word has both beginning and ending.
What makes this a religious experience is the feelings and sensations that obviously accompany it: exaltation, delight, richness, and intense dwelling in the present. A temporary transcendence of the bounds of the ego is suggested by the feelings of eternality and of ineffability as words are transcended, followed by the return to the normal perceptions of time, space and language. Augustine’s experience can easily be fitted into the framework of description of states of meditative absorption or dhyŒnas provided in the Buddhist tradition, where he would be described as having attained the first dhyŒna. Scientifically it may be described as a deautomatisation of the nervous system in which slower frequencies are recorded on an electroencephalograph (EEG), muscles are relaxed, and a much more receptive mode of psychological operation replaces the usual mode of activity in which subject-object distinctions are highlighted. Neither of these modes of description are concerned with the content of the religious experience and thus neither of them are simply replacing one set of revelatory assumptions with another. As Deikman, investigating mystical states from a scientific viewpoint, writes:
The content of the mystic experience reflects not only its unusual mode of consciousness but also the particular stimuli being processed through that mode. The mystic experience can be beatific, satanic, revelatory or psychotic, depending on the stimuli predominant in each case. Such an explanation says nothing conclusive about the source of “transcendent” stimuli.
I would go a little further than Deikman here and argue that the “objects” encountered in theistic religious experience are probably entirely a matter of projection. It would after all be entirely contradictory for an experience which provides a taste of movement in the direction of non-duality (at least temporarily) through sensations of unity and ineffability to at the same time consist in an encounter with a God who was wholly other. Because of the strangeness of the phenomena and the lack of systematic understanding of them in the Christian tradition, it seems that an experience of non-duality has been consistently mistaken for an experience of other (to understand it as merely self, of course, would be just as mistaken). For even to categorise the experience in terms of self or other is to put it within a cognitive framework. Likewise, an experience which admits of varying degrees of intensity and incremental progression has been understood in the discontinuous terms implied by the presence or absence of God in the experience. Christian religious experience, because it takes place in a framework of eternalism, thus places an unacknowledged cognitive construction onto an experience which gains its very power through its recourse to the sphere of the psyche beyond the ego, where the contingency and provisionality of all beliefs becomes clear. This error, however, is not due to any intrinsic incapacity of religious experiences to provide supporting evidence for beliefs, but rather to the dogmatic nature of the interpretation of that evidence.
On the other hand the relatively non-dual nature of mystical experience has provided a thread of spiritual power and insight in the Christian tradition which reflects that non-dualism. This is the basis of the tradition of negative theology, in which knowledge of God’s positive features is denied. In its Christian context the tradition of negative, or apophatic, theology stems from the figure of Dionysius the Areopagite, who is identified with the Athenian philosopher converted by Paul but probably existed in the late 5th Century or early 6th century. In Dionysius and his successors we probably have the nearest thing to a non-dualist perspective to be found in the Christian tradition, but it is worth pointing out here ways in which even this tradition is vitiated by the broader Christian eternalism in which it is situated.
Dionysius expresses himself theoretically, but in a way which probably reflects personal experience. He makes a distinction between apophatic, or negative, theology and cataphatic, or affirmative, theology: the former coming closer to the reality of God, which we cannot describe except in entirely negative terms, whilst the latter makes the conventional Christian statements about God’s nature and Christ’s incarnation. These affirmative statements are understood as largely for the purpose of praise and thus combine a positive emotional intention with a realisation of the ultimate unknowability of God.
On no account therefore is it true to say that we know God, not indeed in his nature (for that is unknowable, and is beyond any reason and understanding), but by the order of all things that He has established, and which bears certain images and likenesses of His divine paradigms, we ascend step by step, so far as we can follow the way, to the Transcendent, by negating and transcending everything and by seeking the cause of all. Therefore God is known in all, and apart from all.
It will scarcely need pointing out here, however, that the unknowability is still predicated of God, and is therefore far from completely free of conceptuality even in its purest imaginable form when the mystic enters the highest states of consciousness, for “God” is not here merely a symbol of unknowability itself so much as a cognitive feature which must be attached to the experience of integration in order to make that experience acceptable. Although the model is one of incremental progress in which attachment to conceptual formulations is gradually discarded, the whole structure is seen as one in which other power is encountered. The idea that God is known indirectly through his creation also presupposes a great deal about God’s nature beyond his mere otherness. It is hardly surprising that Dionysius, like other Christian mystics, is thus heavily influenced by the dualism of his environment and was unable to question its basic premises. This effectively prevented him from seeing any of the broader implications of a non-dualist approach and confined it very much to the sphere of private experience.
What I have identified as the central features of Christian eternalism can be seen as maintaining a steady and continuing influence throughout the medieval period. Whilst the mystical elements of Christianity were preserved, particularly through the influence of monastic institutions, the influence of political power-structures over the Christian church, which began with Constantine, continued and intensified. Although the Church itself (in Western Europe) eventually became a kind of international authority headed by the Pope in rivalry with secular kings, this authority itself was modelled on the state, being based on a centralised power structure and even developing its own legal system. So, even whilst power was often divided in the Middle Ages between Church and State, this power was always invested in political institutions. And with this politicisation went a profound ethical conventionalisation.
The influence of the barbarian invasions over the Constantinian system was certainly highly disruptive. The Germanic invaders tended not to place their faith in abstract commitments to ideologies so much as in direct loyalty to individual leaders. This was reflected in the Germanic system of comitatus recorded by Tacitus, whereby young men swore fealty to a particular leader and were in turn protected by him. The basis of political and moral authority for the Germans thus seemed to be primarily contractual. This influence can be seen in the subsequent development of the feudal system throughout Western Europe, based on a hierarchy of such contracts of vassalage extending from the king down through various levels of nobility to the serfs. Whilst in theory this system depends on contracts which were freely entered into, in practice of course alternatives to participation in the feudal system were rarely available.
This system readily lent itself to post-Constantinian Christian adaptation because the whole relationship of believers with God was already based on a similar sort of theoretical contract, like that of the Mosaic covenant which, as I have already mentioned, resembles a treaty of vassalage. The relationship of the believer to God, like that of vassal and feudal overlord, involved a purely theoretical freewill on the basis of which responsibility for transgression could be claimed. The Christian doctrine of freewill thus provided an ideological justification for the economic and political exploitation of serfs, according to which serfs were kept constantly indebted to the landlord for the right to till their land. The landlord could no more be held to account for the inequitable nature of the agreement than could God for the existence of evil. Higher up the chain of vassalage, however, for example in the relationship between feudal barons and kings, the nature of the agreement was more equitable and barons were thus often able to exert power over kings. Thus the system of vassalage was not intrinsically exploitative, but only so where the ideology of freewill was followed to the exclusion of any consideration of the material and psychological conditions of the parties to the agreement.
The Church’s involvement in the system of vassalage was also crucial, since it provided the grounds of the moral imperative to follow the treaty. In cases of conflict with secular rulers the Pope could interdict (withdraw the sacraments from) or excommunicate the offenders. In the case of interdiction it was believed that salvation could not be achieved and, in the absence of the sacraments, the person would be damned. In the case of excommunication the oaths of allegiance made to the excommunicated person became null and void, and vassals were justified in withdrawing their obedience from him. Perhaps nothing shows better than this the complete interpenetration of political power and eternalist belief in medieval society. Since it was believed that the basis of vassalage agreements was divine, it seems that all such agreements were thus ultimately under the control of the Church, which had the power to revoke them. The Pope thus did not need direct force to exert immense political power: only the belief that he held the keys to heaven and hell.
The feudal system and the absolute moral authority of the Church thus implicitly exhibited classic features of eternalism, most of which developed from the Constantinian establishment of the Church, but some of which involved the adaptation of Germanic models to fit a Christian system. This system offered a kind of broad stability, based on the isolationism of Latin Christendom and an intellectual stagnation, at the same time as institutionalising almost constant political instability through the conflicts between barons. The isolationism was based on a complete lack of comprehension of the beliefs or customs of outsiders, such as Jews, Muslims or non-Catholic Christians. An Armenian monk who turned up in Rome in the 10th Century, for example, had to be saved by the Pope from the violence of the Roman crowd purely because of his strange appearance and manners. The intellectual stagnation was associated both with this isolationism and with the strong dogmatic restrictions placed on all study, whereby all fields of study had to be theologically or biblically related. It was only with the rediscovery of Aristotelean texts, obtained through the Muslims, in the twelfth century, that the study of philosophy revived. But the most radical philosophical view put forward at that time was nothing more than the natural law teaching of Thomas Aquinas, which, although it gave a (limited) role to reason independent of revelation, gave no better a grounding for reason than the vague naturalism of the Stoics, and thus in practice supported the conventions advocated by the Church. In fact Thomism later became a useful weapon for the Catholic Church against Protestant appeals to scripture. To this day papal encyclicals make constant appeals to natural law as a thin covering for dogmatism.
The Middle Ages can thus be put forward as an example of what occurs when eternalism is completely dominant and absolutely unchallenged, with almost no hint of nihilism present to force compromise or balance in any sphere of activity. A relatively low level of actual objectivity is accompanied by a belief that the highest level of objectivity has been achieved. Superstitious beliefs dominate to the exclusion of observation, whilst tribalism is given the added force of bigotry. The petty desires of kings are elevated to the cause of God, giving a status of holiness to tribal conflicts. The notion of spiritual hierarchy, which might at some stage in its evolution have had some source in real objectivity and its incremental attainment, is perverted into political, social and economic hierarchy whereby the grossest exploitation is justified by appeal to the unchangeable structure of the universe.
The ultimate expression of the parochialism, bigotry and alienation of medieval Catholic Christianity – perhaps its climax – was the Crusades. Part of the motivation of Pope Urban II in launching the First Crusade was probably to reduce internecine strife between barons and extend his own power, but the outward justifications were given in terms of the wealth and power to be gained by those participating together with the heavenly rewards. The obvious pursuit of the former did not at all require a lack of sincere belief in the latter on the part of the Crusaders. Those who turned aside from the pursuit of Muslims to sack Christian Constantinople in 1204, raping nuns and destroying priceless manuscripts and works of art, apparently did not perceive any contradiction in doing so, for their actions were a natural outcome of their beliefs in a context which had been created by Christian dogmatism. There simply was no distinction in the minds of such people between worldly and heavenly ends, both of which were equally egoistic, nor was there any moral restraint, given the undermining of their self-esteem by a deep sense of sinfulness which put them under the power of those who told them of the rightness of the war they were fighting. Even those who perceived the Crusaders as corrupt and worldly did not doubt the absolute justification of their objectives, as was evident in the launching of the Children’s Crusade by some who believed that only innocents could save the Holy Land.
Of course it is intrinsic to the Christian case that historical examples like that of the Crusades do not in any way count against the truth of Christianity. On the Christian account of moral truth, which completely abstracts belief from context and practice, this is irrefutable. My point here is not one which can be understood in such decontextualised terms of belief, such as a remote counterfactual proposition like “If the Crusaders had not been Christians, they wouldn’t have committed so many atrocities”. In fact we could not imagine the whole context of the Crusades without Christianity, and Christianity itself, in turn, could not be imagined without the context of dualism out of which it emerged. To argue that the Crusades were a result, say, of ethnic conflict or of economic processes, rather than of religious ones, is to miss the point that the eternalist values represented by Christianity were also deeply imbued in ethnicity and economics at that time. The extent of my argument is to claim that Christianity, far from being a solution to the failure of ethics in practice, is so much a part of the problem that it has demonstrably exacerbated it. To identify the Crusades with Christian eternalism is thus not to make the mistake of identifying them solely with their religious justification, but to identify them with a whole philosophical and psychological tendency which they happen to symbolise very well at its most extreme.
The state of alienation which accompanied the Crusades is very evident not only in the contradictions of their religious justification, but in the chivalrous framework in which they, and other late medieval wars, were understood. As Huizinga writes:
This illusion of society based on chivalry curiously clashed with the reality of things. The chroniclers themselves, in describing the history of their time, tell us far more of covetousness, of cruelty, of cool calculation, of well-understood self-interest, and of diplomatic subtlety, than of chivalry. None the less, all, as a rule, profess to write in honour of chivalry.
The late Middle Ages is, as Huizinga also remarks, a melancholy era. It is as if Christian ideals have drifted so massively and obviously far from experience that nobody really wholeheartedly believes in them any more, but, through a failure of courage which is the legacy of centuries of oppressive dogmatism, this fact cannot be acknowledged. People are living a lie and thus their moral energy is sapped.
But the tension of this situation had to break, and it seems that the Crusades were the main thing which created the over-extension which produced the break. The Crusades ironically created much greater contact and stimulated trade both with the Byzantine East and the Arabs. Not only did this provide more opportunities for cross-cultural comparison, but it created a rich class of merchants in Italy for whom wealth was of greater value than piety. This seems to have been one of the underlying causes of the Fifteenth century Renaissance in Italy, beginning the process by which confidence seeped back across Western Europe through the revival of secular values. If dualism characterised the intellectual stasis of the Middle Ages, one would expect these first stirrings of the Renaissance to include at least the first stirrings of an unfreezing of dualism. That this occurred is obvious from the most cursory examination of the rise in the arts, science and scholarship which began at that time. This Renaissance was marked initially by an acknowledgement of the limitations of the medieval European world-view and a readiness to reach beyond it and absorb new influences from the Greek and Roman culture of the past, and even the Islamic culture of the present: in general a move from dogmatism towards an openness to experience.
The psychological shift towards observation found in the Renaissance is initially evidenced in its art: for example the studies of anatomy and perspective made by Leonardo da Vinci. Later, in the sixteenth century, this developed into science. Whilst the dominant ideological framework remained eternalist, a greater self-confidence in human beings of their own worth and potential was evidenced in a growing humanism. These movements did not arise out of a nihilist, but out of a profoundly eternalist context: for wealth and enjoyment, even a certain amount of superficial hedonism, can still be indulged (as they were throughout the Middle Ages) with a guilty conscience rather than a change in ideology. Renaissance humanism consisted not so much in a swing to the other extreme (which at that point was unimaginable) as in a tempering of eternalism. They can thus be seen not so much as movements towards nihilism as much as manifesting an increasing awareness of the Middle Way. This can particularly be seen in the sublime achievements of the greatest Renaissance artists, for whom an awakening had occurred, but as yet no ideology hardened to give doctrinal representation to that awakening and reduce its vivid openness to experience.
But the forces of dualism were still strong and, once humanism developed philosophically as well as artistically, reaction was inevitable. Such reaction took broadly two sorts of forms. Firstly, there was the dogmatic insistence on the truth of existing Christian doctrine which attacked all explorations as manifesting nihilism. Thus we have the Pope’s treatment of Galileo, the Counter-Reformation and the Inquisition. The second and eventually more fruitful form was the adaptation of Christian doctrine to changed circumstances so that it could continue to exert a dualistic influence in those circumstances. Two of these adaptations were those of Luther (with the ensuing Reformation in general) and Descartes, both of which became highly influential and will be discussed in more detail below.
In many respects Luther’s initiative in challenging the dogmatic orthodoxy of the Roman Catholic church, and attempting to purify Christianity of what was believed to be corruption, was not a new one. Throughout the Middle Ages there had been a series of reform movements which usually led to the formation of new monastic orders. And before Luther, Savonarola and Jan Hus, attempting similar heresies, had less political support and thus were less successful. It stands in the tradition of the early Christian martyrs and revives that tradition, appealing as it does to the revelation of scripture over mere natural law, and salvation through faith alone. In the sixteenth century the established pattern of divinely-established political (including clerical) authority, natural law ethics, and private spiritual practice which ignored much of its context, resembled that of Stoicism in the late Roman Empire, with Luther’s challenge similar to that of Paul. Luther’s challenge to the corruption of the early sixteenth-century Church resembled that of the early Christians who opposed their puritanical ethic to the decadence of Rome. Like Paul, Luther did not seek to challenge political authority as long as it did not conflict with personal Christian practice, as is shown by his condemnation of the Peasant’s Revolt during his life. As with Paul, too, faith provided a way out from a feeling of deep sinfulness and inner torment occasioned by being set against a standard of perfection.
Like Paul’s, also, Luther’s is fundamentally an appeal to the individual who must be converted from their previously corrupt ways through a self-assessment in the light of scripture. He believed in the priesthood of all believers and that no intermediary should stand between the individual and scripture. Though he was influenced by the mystical tradition to some extent, Luther’s belief was most strongly based on propositional revelation from scripture, based on a naïve representationalism: “The meaning of the Word of God is perfectly plain throughout, and is agreed on by all whose minds are not corrupted by the Papacy’s heresy and ambition”, he claimed. Luther was aided by the historical circumstances of the existence of printing in his time, which was helping to spread literacy and individual initiative in the use of text. As in the first use of the Judaic law discussed above, the alienation created by this new emphasis on the written word unleashed unexpected fundamentalist violence.
It was this implicit individualism, aided by the scientific and technological advances which had already begun with the Renaissance, which began the process which was eventually to result in the revival of explicit nihilism in Western civilisation. Without the Reformation there could not have existed a tolerant enough climate for Hume, in the eighteenth century, to question some of the most basic assumptions of eternalism on the basis of the distinction of fact and value, nor for Nietzsche, in the nineteenth, to go still further in rejecting both eternalism and its scientistic alternative. But for Luther himself, this individualism went no further than that of the early Christians, asserting only the right to an individual judgement of the truth of God.
This illustrates one way in which the possibility of nihilism is part of the internal dynamic of eternalism: not only does nihilism provide the background threat which enables eternalist leaders to enforce orthodoxy through false dichotomisation, but the spread of different kinds of appeal to authority within eternalism (in this case, from Church tradition to scriptural revelation) cannot be maintained on a purely eternalist basis. One kind of authority cannot give way to another without detriment to the power of that authority, so that a consistent appeal to one kind of authority naturally excludes others, even if the other possible authorities coincide with the first in the content of their instructions. If one kind of eternalistic authority is lost, the individual who is habituated to such authority will naturally seek another one, but the transfer cannot be made without recourse to the individual alone as the authority to enable the transfer (this is one reason why eternalistic philosophies are inclined to have a doctrine of freewill). Eternalism seen as a whole thus consists only of a loose confederation of different kinds of ethical foundation which are in competition by their very nature, whilst that competition cannot be resolved without appeal to the value of individual judgement. Once that appeal to the decision of the individual has been made, there is always a danger that in suitably supportive historical circumstances a more developed nihilism will ensue.
Luther is thus not a departure from the patterns of Christian belief we have examined so far. The tensions which already existed between the naturalistic Stoic system, with its belief in providence and hence God’s support for political rulers, and the revelatory Judaeo-Christian system, with the implicit radical challenge to conventional beliefs, has merely manifested itself in another swing of the pendulum. That each side needs the other can be seen in the way the Catholic Church was forced to respond to the challenges produced by Protestantism, and the ways in which Protestant movements themselves have since become increasingly conventionalised. What it does show is the immense durability of Christianity (and of eternalism in general): when one old branch is dying another shoot will come up from the roots.
The more radical reformers who followed Luther – such as Calvin, Zwingli, and the Anabaptists – were also entirely in harmony with the forces already existing in Christianity. All developed the radical possibilities of dependence on faith in different directions, whether in political radicalism which attempted to challenge existing states, in antinomianism, or in explicit predestination. The Anabaptist movement provides perhaps the most striking example of Christian radicalism in history, setting up an alternative cultic state in Münster in 1534-5, which not only defied the political authorities but many social conventions.
Münster was now proclaimed as the promised site of the kingdom of God. However, the commune’s conversion to a theocracy was soon put to the test by a siege by imperial troops which led, not entirely without internal opposition, to a large number of excesses: to terror and despotism, horrifying executions and rigorous conformity, as well as the introduction of such new social institutions as community of consumer goods and polygamy.
This social experiment was short-lived, but reveals the power of the individualistic forces Luther had unleashed, as yet unable to express themselves outside an eternalist framework. The Anabaptists’ radicalism seems only to have been matched by their lack of skill in dealing with the political conditions of the time. What started off as an egalitarian movement rapidly became authoritarian in a way which illustrates the lack of clear boundaries between conservatism and radicalism, as well as the extremism unleashed by the Christian dichotomy between the kingdom of God and that of the world.
The individualist emphasis created by the reliance on scripture also eventually resulted in the democratisation of church government by Congregationalists and others: a development which mirrored a wider political democratisation. All also showed an increasing tendency to the kind of fundamentalist alienation which came to be known as Puritanism. Later Protestant movements, such as the Quakers and Shakers, also began to show reliance on direct non-propositional revelation in the mystical tradition: but this again only consisted in a remixing of ingredients that already existed in the Christian tradition as a whole.
Though it may seem odd to consider Descartes in the context of Christianity rather than as a philosopher in his own right, it is in this context that I wish particularly to examine him here. For although he did write on ethics, Descartes did not offer a vision of ethics or of the foundations of value which was particularly different from the established Christian one (however much his other work may have indirectly contributed to others doing so). Rather his contribution consisted in the attempt to reconcile science and Christianity through the laying of an epistemological foundationalism. He can thus be seen as manifesting a Christian response to the initial impact of science, relying on a naturalism which already had an important place in the Christian tradition, but one which is established through rationalist means. Descartes certainly seems to have seen himself in entirely orthodox terms, and was careful to try to avoid challenging theological orthodoxy and present his thought as complementary to the tradition of the Church. A recent study by Stephen Menn gives a detailed account of the ways in which Descartes was influenced by Augustine, thus planting him firmly in the Christian tradition. Since this account is illuminating I shall focus mainly on it as a way of approaching Descartes.
Menn begins with an account of the influence of Plotinus on Augustine, showing that his writings provided Augustine with a technique for cultivating wisdom which enabled him to overcome his difficulties in developing belief in Christian revelation. His method was as follows: “first the soul withdraws from the contemplation of bodies and enters into itself, so that it can perceive itself in the proper manner, from within, as a rational soul; then it ascends to contemplate God as the perfect standard of the truth of its thoughts, and the source of its intellectual light….”. Far from leaving Augustine with an entirely Neoplatonic understanding of God as wisdom, however, the vision Augustine gained using this method only led him to realise his sinful inadequacy, as he could not sustain this vision but “fell back with a sigh to these things here; and this weight was carnal habit”. Augustine then put his reliance on the authority of scripture and the belief that he should rely on God to save him rather than try to force his own salvation. For Menn, Descartes appears to be following a similar pattern of metaphysical argument for a position which not only justifies Christian faith but also creates an indubitable foundation for scientific knowledge. The similarity consists in the withdrawing of the mind from the senses in order to reach a frame of mind which removes the prejudices of everyday reality, in order to encounter the truth of God. For Descartes, as for Augustine, this not only provides certainty as to the existence of God and the soul, but reveals the limits of what we can achieve in reliance only on our own minds, and provides the pretext for faith in God’s guarantee being provided for the manifestation of truth (at least to the discerning mind) in our everyday sensual experience: for Augustine, this is in the scriptures, and for Descartes, in the natural world as investigated by science.
Menn makes what I believe to be a fundamental error in this comparison, although the nature of this error itself is interesting and instructive. At the centre of the comparison is the idea of withdrawing the mind from the senses.
Descartes, like Augustine, finds that we have been immersed since infancy in a sea of error; we have habitually judged, not according to the standard of Nous, but according to the prejudices of our senses, and so have conceived the natures of things only according to the measure that the senses can represent them. Descartes needs a way to “withdraw the mind from the senses”, and he finds a model in Augustine’s discipline of contemplation; the mind must first “remove its thought from its habit, withdrawing itself from the contrary crowds of phantasms” first turning inward to conceive its own spiritual nature without the aid of the senses, and then turning upward to contemplate God as the source and standard of truth to the mind, conceiving him without relation to bodies or to things perceived through the senses.
Menn here reads “withdrawing the mind from the senses” and “removing its thought from its habit” to be much more similar processes than they are. Descartes’ procedure requires him only to close his eyes and think in purely rational terms, without any spiritual concerns about the degree of attachment to conceived objects that his mind may still manifest. His state of mind involves nothing more than a commonplace state of concentration on an intellectual task, in which the mind continues to make constant dualistic distinctions between objects, because it is using language, but these distinctions are abstract rather than sensual ones. The fruit of this “contemplation” moreover, is not a vision of God involving direct encounter with him, but a set of arguments involving God as a conceptual object. Augustine’s procedure, however, involved not only withdrawal of immediate attention from the senses but an effort to free the mind from the attractions of those objects of sense. The resulting experience, as I have argued above, does not bear the cognitive construction which the Christian tradition has placed on it. Following the details of his own accounts of them, Augustine’s visions of God were thus experienced in an entirely different state of mind from those of Descartes meditations, and the resemblance between the kinds of justification each makes for their subsequent arguments on the basis of the “withdrawal from the senses” as an epistemological device thus appears to be a superficial one.
But at the same time as making this error in relation to the experiences of Augustine and Descartes, Menn remains faithful to the eternalistic tradition which both Augustine and Descartes represent and the assumptions which both would probably have shared. For Augustine, in common with the other Christian mystics, never ceased to understand his spiritual experiences only in terms of what he took to be their fundamental cognitive content, namely God. If the spiritual experience was an experience of God, and the feelings of temporary integration which accompanied it were taken to be ones of cognitive confirmation, then it was natural for that experience to then be appealed to as an epistemological foundation. Descartes, on the other hand, takes this cognitive content alone and argues that the epistemological foundation is, not spiritual experience, but thought. The process of abstraction that he goes through in relation to his experience does in fact resemble that of Augustine, even where the nature of the experience abstracted from differs profoundly, since at the point of the cogito he likewise draws a cognitive conclusion from an experience which itself does not give grounds for such a conclusion. He assumes that the experience of thinking and of being a subject of experience itself provides grounds for the metaphysical assertion of his own existence, an assumption which merely mirrors that of Augustine. For whilst Augustine assumes an other on the basis of an unusual experience, Descartes assumes a self from a familiar one. In neither case is the assumption based on much more than the degree of familiarity of the experience concerned, interpreted through the veil of dualism.
In the Meditations Descartes moves from the cogito, affirming his own existence as a thinking thing, to the certainty of a priori reasoning, and from this, via two now widely discredited rational arguments for the existence of God, to the certain existence of God. This rational argument for God’s existence then enables him to argue for the basic reliability of the senses, through which the truth can be discerned, with the aid of a priori reasoning, because God is no deceiver. However much experience may subsequently appear to belie the existence of cosmic justice, then, the basis for its existence and compatibility with science is now embedded in the very grounds for the acceptability of science. We would not be able to draw secure scientific conclusions at all were it not for God’s benign rule. He thus uses a rationalism, rather than the appeal to empirical experience made by the Stoics or by Aquinas, to justify a naturalistic ethic. But Descartes’ argument is otherwise strongly in the tradition of Stoic-influenced Christian philosophy: the appeal to God’s guarantee through the use of the a priori merely providing a more sophisticated and more Christianised version of the phantasia kataleptike.
Whilst in one sense Descartes’ arguments had the same practical effect as those of Augustine, in strengthening the authority of Christianity, they also had the effect of founding a new absolutism which Descartes could not perhaps have envisaged: that of science as an independent moral authority. The authority of science could not spring fully-armed from her father’s forehead, but remained tributary to Christianity for a long period and has ever since retained that view of the universe as an ultimately comprehensible place which seems to have begun with the Stoics and which it shares with Christianity.
The conventional separation of philosophy from religion at roughly the point which Descartes represents has been achieved by making a distinction between naturalism, with its rational appeal to an ordered universe, and revelatory religion. But, as I have already argued, this distinction is only one between different types of ethical foundation, where the former usually takes a more conventional and conservative, the latter a more radical, form. Since the Catholic Church at the time of Descartes in practice appealed far more to those conventions approved by the Church and justified through natural law than it did to revelation (which was used selectively and secondarily), Descartes approach was less radical than is commonly acknowledged. It is only with Hume and the beginnings of the scientistic tradition that the naturalism Descartes appealed to begins to be understood not as an ethical naturalism, but as purely epistemological. I shall argue later that even this scientistic tradition in fact uses its supposedly purely factual or epistemological foundations as sources of value, so that even then philosophy has not shaken free of the spell of eternalistic naturalism. It is only by looking back at Descartes through the distorting lenses of scientism that he can be seen as in any way challenging the power of Christianity.
Descartes also did much to give a systematic expression to the other features of eternalism which have become typical of Christianity. His account of freewill seems to appeal in the first place, like the cogito itself, simply to the phenomenological experience of freedom, but is in harmony with his generally Platonic view of the soul and his view that the self is certain while the objects of the senses are not. But Descartes’ conclusions are not merely phenomenological, but metaphysical. All the same psychological and moral objections can be raised to this view of the soul and its solipsistic freewill as to Plato’s, in addition to the well known philosophical difficulties which are created by the dualism of soul and body, such as how a non-physical res cogitans can interact with a physical res extensa. This has become a focus of discussion of the problems of “dualism” in the philosophy of mind: a flashpoint at which the problems of the more fundamental subject-object dualism which is my theme become particularly apparent. Descartes’ position here has the virtue of clearly acknowledging the difficulties involved in the dualism that results whenever the false dichotomy of subject and object is imposed, as opposed to the supposedly “monist” positions which have succeeded him, which tend to impose the same false dichotomy but deny or ignore either the subjective or objective aspect of it. Neither subject nor object is denied by Descartes, but nevertheless the attempt to reach certainty about their relationship fails. For this reason neither Descartes’ arguments for the soul nor those of his materialist critics are conclusive.
Descartes also did much to reinforce representationalism through his assertion that clear and distinct ideas, purged of their sensual and imaginative content, could be true representations because they are innate. Imagination is said to require effort and to involve physical processes as well as those of the soul, whilst pure intellection does not. Of course modern physiology indicates that all forms of representation, whether purely conceptual or imaginative, involve brain activity. The relative amount of effort involved in the use of imagination and conception also seems to be very much a matter of temperament and practice. Descartes’ distinction thus seems to be groundless, but this has not prevented the growth of the widespread belief that Descartes expresses here, that abstract thought offers a privileged type of representation with a special correspondence to truth.
According to the view of objectivity I am developing here, this belief is mistaken because it ignores the egoistically-conditioned nature of abstract thought and hence its propensity to dogmatism. Whilst a priori truths may appear universal, they cannot be applied to experience without the application of dualistic divisions between objects, which presuppose a degree of subjectivity. For example, the a priori rule that the sum of the angles of a triangle is always 180º is not relevant to any experience unless it can be applied to a given particular triangle in relation to which I might make an error without knowing this truth. But in order to identify a particular triangle I must see it as distinct from its surroundings, as a triangle rather than, say, applications of ink in lines on a page, separate it from what is not part of the triangle, and ignore temporal change. To do this I must have some identification with the triangle and the usefulness of identifying it. Such an exercise may or may not be relatively objective according to my earlier criteria, and may or may not, according to contingent factors, enable me to avoid further false predictions about the nature of the relationship between the lines of ink I have identified. The same lines of ink could, for example, be cut up and reconfigured as a square, and my predictions about the sum of their angles will be false. The lines as a square are undoubtedly not the same as those of a triangle, but once the triangle has been admitted to the domain of real experience where there are processes going on beyond it and changes occur, there is no guarantee that it will stay a triangle or that the same a priori truths can be applied. My loyalty to the idea of that particular triangle continuing to have a sum of angles of 180º turns out to have been misplaced, because it was based on a conventional understanding of what the triangle consisted in.
Descartes’ God has similar characteristics to this triangle. His a priori existence, even if we take it to have been proven, is incapable of moral application because it lacks the robust type of contingent objectivity that would be required for any moral usefulness. His complete abstractness also means that he can be appealed to in support of almost any worldly purpose. Nevertheless this rationalistic approach has continued to exercise great influence, particularly as later developed by Kant. As I shall argue further when I discuss Kant, it can be distinguished from the rest of the eternalist tradition only in the sophistication of its philosophical development, not in its capacity to avoid the general limitations of eternalism.
The development of the capitalist system was obviously a major factor, probably the most important factor, in moulding the nature of modern Western thought. It is part of my thesis that the rise of the “spirit of capitalism”, namely the beliefs that made modern capitalism possible, can be strongly identified with dualism, and that the inception of capitalism (as opposed to its subsequent development) can be particularly related to the eternalist form of dualism as expressed by Christianity. In making this claim I shall be heavily reliant on the pioneering work of Max Weber, whose Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, although it makes more specific claims about the relationship between Christianity and capitalism than I need to defend here, also provides the basis of broader ones. Weber’s work particularly provides the grounds for asserting that, although most civilisations in world history have been dualist in their ideological basis, it is the particular intensity of Western dualism which has predominantly created the conditions for the rise of capitalism which has subsequently given the West economic and political dominance in the world.
For my approximate definition of capitalism I shall follow Weber: “We will define a capitalistic economic action as one which rests on the expectation of profit by the utilization of opportunities for exchange, that is on (formally) peaceful chances of profit”. The “spirit” or psychological tendency required to enter into such economic actions involves a capacity to give up one kind of desirable object in the present, in the expectation of gaining a more desirable object in the future. Immediate desires for the possession of the inferior object are alienated on the rational expectation of future gain. As Weber argues, the capacity for such basic capitalistic exchanges has existed in many cultures and times, but not to the same scale and intensity that has been achieved in modern Western culture. This purely quantitative distinction, however, co-exists with some qualitative features which for Weber particularly mark modern Western capitalism: the rational organisation of free labour, the development of book-keeping, and the separation of corporate from private property. Modern Western capitalism, following my psychological interpretation of Weber’s evidence, can thus firstly be distinguished generally from other forms by the degree of alienation that accompanies it: not just the mild suppression of immediate desires required for a single investment, but a continuous and open-ended system of investment whereby present desires are continually and perhaps indeterminately alienated into the future. Secondly, though, this routine degree of alienation has been accompanied by many other social changes which have supported it and in turn been supported by it, together with other legal, political and technological changes with which it is associated. The three particular qualitative features that Weber identifies are worth a little further investigation before I go on to link these developments as a whole with Christianity.
At the time of its establishment the rational organisation of (formally) free labour, which Weber takes as the most fundamental of the qualitative differences, means not just the use of labour according to traditional established patterns of employment, but its continual re-organisation in order to gain competitive advantage. This not only requires a strong and single-minded rational drive on the part of the employer of the kind which, whatever its ideological supports, requires the further ability to alienate oneself from the desire to avoid social disapproval, but also a suitable ideological and psychological climate amongst the work-force. In fact the movement of free labour depends on the same ultimate appeal to a belief in freewill as that of vassalage: in both cases the heavy constraints on the range of action imposed by the socio-economic system are ignored in the ideological justification for the treatment of labour as a free contractual one.
The development of book-keeping also involves a precise measurement and calculation of interests which assumes that such interests are exactly quantifiable. Once money and its accrual is understood as the simple medium of the fulfilment of desire, the psychological and empirical complexity of such fulfilments can safely be ignored through the narrow rational focus that such a quantitative measurement provides. Just as in science the apparent clarity and simplicity of quantification can sometimes provide a pretext for ignoring the status of the contextual judgements which might make such a quantification useless as a method of determining truth, so the development of book-keeping was capable of providing an appearance of certainty where none existed.
Finally, the separation of corporate from household property is another area requiring a continual alienation. For the status of corporate property here does not depend entirely on a common interest from which individual interests cannot be separated, but rather on the self-control of all involved in restraining their own appropriation of corporate property. Naturally this self-control is reinforced by law and social convention, but these are made necessary in order to avoid the whole set of new misdemeanours which are made possible by the separation, thus adding to the degree of rational control required.
A high degree of rationalisation, involving strengthening of the ego and alienation of other desires, was thus required for capitalism to develop in the West. Such a rationalisation is a basic psychological pattern of eternalism, which from earliest times has involved a moral investment (of the alienation of present desires for future rewards) of a similar nature to the financial investment required in capitalism. In both cases this requires the belief that causal patterns are predictable and thus that ones investment will gain a return: a belief in cosmic justice which is easily transferred into a belief in the infallible operation of economic laws. It also requires a belief that the process of investment is the foundation of moral value. Here again, the value of storing up treasure in heaven and that of storing it up on earth are not always as clearly distinguishable as Jesus’ saying on this would suggest: nor does one kind of “treasure” have a literal representational value whilst the other is metaphorical, since each could be seen in a metaphorical relationship to the other.
We have already seen examples of such alienated rationalisation at work throughout the history of Christianity, and I have argued that its arising, together with a conventionalisation of ethics, is a recurring feature of Christianity due to the discontinuity between standards of perfection and ordinary worldly standards found in it. Weber argues that this discontinuity, which he identifies in medieval Catholicism in the distinction between præcepta and consilia (practised respectively in worldly and monastic contexts), was discarded by Luther in his development of the idea of the “calling”.
…at least one thing was unquestionably new: the valuation of the fulfilment of duty in worldly affairs as the highest form which the moral activity of the individual could assume. This it was which inevitably gave everyday worldly activity a religious significance, and which first created the conception of a calling….
Although scholars have argued as to whether it is Luther who is responsible for it, Weber at least makes a good case that this “worldly asceticism” became influential in Christianity at some point during the Reformation. Such an understanding of worldly activity as completely in obedience to God’s commands is clearly dependent on the emphasis on salvation by faith which arose in Protestantism: whatever action one is performing, regardless of its context, can thus be in honour of God. This tendency is made even stronger, according to Weber’s analysis, by the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, due to which Calvinists became subject to constant anxiety about whether or not they were saved: serene confidence in ones salvation was gained by complete involvement in worldly activity for the glory of God. All of these tendencies created a sympathetic environment for the development of capitalism. The particular role of Protestantism here should not be taken to mean that Catholics were not also implicated in the development of capitalism (as Weber has sometimes been taken to mean): rather the degree of alienation in Christianity in general was particularly emphasised by Protestantism through worldly asceticism, which thus enabled Protestantism to provide particularly favourable circumstances for capitalism to develop.
But worldly asceticism did not remove the ethical discontinuity in Christianity: rather the gap between the standards of perfection represented by God and the sinful nature of human beings became still larger. The standards of perfection were completely subsumed into faith, whilst no universal ethical values were available by which to practically assess actions on earth. In fact the Puritanism which Calvin and his contemporaries pioneered tended to promote very strict personal standards of morality, but these were motivated by the need not to be distracted by emotion from rationally-defined worldly asceticism. Only rather loose, if any, ethical criteria needed to be applied to worldly activities for the sake of personal gain, since to engage in such activities was itself a fulfilment of God’s will. Although the enjoyment of wealth in a state of idleness was considered immoral, the creation of wealth was thus strongly encouraged, without any close examination of the conditions by which that wealth was created.
Weber emphasises that although Protestantism had an important causal role in initiating modern capitalism by freeing business from traditional work patterns, once this mode of working became established it did not require continued religious support to maintain its momentum. Once higher standards of flexibility and efficiency had been set through the rational organisation of labour, others were forced to adopt the same methods through competition. Since Weber’s time this spirit of rationalistic organisation has been gradually globalised to an extent that perhaps even he could not have imagined. An initial eternalistic alienation has been generally replaced by a more or less nihilistic one, in which competitive capitalistic activity is engaged in, not for the glory of God, but for the fulfilment of individual desires. In order to compete, these desires must be continually alienated: not only invested money but time spent training and working requires the continual deferment of gratification. This alienation of desires itself creates a new alienated value of a shadowy and rarely-fulfilled future promise, and those who compete best do not pause for too much enjoyment but rather dedicate themselves to this promise in the same fashion as the Puritans dedicated their efforts to the glory of God.
It is at this point that the historical development of a dualism closely connected with Christianity reaches its climax. My claim, of course, is not that Christianity and capitalism are identical, but that they are part of the same process of psycho-philosophical development to such an extent that to address the weaknesses of capitalism we must also address those of Christianity. I shall conclude this section by briefly mentioning what some of these weaknesses are, in order to point out the ways in which they are also attributable to Christian thinking.
Perhaps the most glaring weakness that has become obvious in recent decades has been the ecological arrogance of capitalism. It operates through the continual consumption of non-renewable resources and produces by-products which have unpredictable effects on the environment. The assumption of the early Puritan capitalists that it was not only desirable to use the resources God had provided, but a sin not to do so, can be seen continuing to operate here. The belief in providence, traceable back to the Stoics, also discourages any consideration of problems which exist on a global scale because they are believed to be the preserve of God.
The intense rationalism and alienation of the Puritan ethos has also contributed to widespread lack of acceptance of the emotions. Again my account should enable this to be traced back as far as the rationalism of the Stoics. Despite the reactions against this which have also occurred, the pressure of capitalist competition continually reinforces the pressure for a narrow rationalistic focus in many areas of life. One outcome of this is the bureaucratic assumption that rational recognition alone determines behaviour, with an accompanying over-regulation of corporate bodies of all kinds. The over-dependence on the written word as a rational enshrinement of value here echoes that of the Israelites at Mount Sinai.
A third tendency of capitalism is the encouragement of belief in a false freedom. This is dependent on the belief in freewill, traceable through Christian history and manifested in the “negative freedom” which forms a basis of value in the phenomena of consumer choice and the freedom of labour. By providing us with relatively trivial choices capitalism obscures the enormous amount of constraint under which it places us and prevents recognition of the determining factors in our lives.
 De Vaux (1973) p.145
 ibid. p.147; also Bright (1960) p. 134-5
 De Vaux (1973) p.149
 Exodus 20:3-5: “You must have no other god besides me. You must not make a carved image….You must not bow down to them in worship; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.”
 E.g. Exodus 19:12-13
 E.g. Exodus 19:21
 This and all subsequent Biblical quotations are taken from the Revised English Bible (1992: Oxford University Press)
 De Vaux (1973) p. 297-302
 ibid. p.143-4
 Bright (1960) p.136
 Genesis 3:7
 Exodus 32
 Exodus 32:25-28
 Matthew 6:1
 Matthew 6:4
 Matthew 6:19-20
 Matthew 12:1-14, Mark -3:5, Luke 6:1-11
 Mark . This statement is not made in Matthew or Luke, where one could interpret his sabbath-breaking as being purely justified by an appeal to the authority of his self-appointed divine status, since all three versions include “The Son of Man is master of the sabbath”.
 Matthew & 21-22
 Sanders (1985) p.252-5
 Matthew 5:17-18
 Sanders (1985) p.269
 Dodd (1936)
 Schweitzer (1911)
 Luke 2:41-50
 Matthew 27:46
 For a more detailed account of why the assumption that self-sacrifice is an indicator of moral objectivity or altruism is generally erroneous, see 5.b.iii.
 Galatians 3: 10-12
 Galatians 3:21; Romans 7:14-16
 Galatians 1:11-12
 Galatians 2:20
 Romans 7:15-18
 Romans 8:2-3
 This is a rough paraphrase of Bultmann (1956) p.183
 1 Corinthians 4:7
 1 Corinthians 15:50-52
 See 3.b.ii
 Romans 1:19-20
 Romans 2:14
 From the introduction to Marcus Aurelius (1964) p.24
 Bultmann (1956) p.177
 John 1:1-3 & 14
 Bultmann (1956) p.143
 Long (1967)
 ibid. p.310
 St. Ambrose (1896) 3.II.9
 ibid. 3.II.10
 ibid. 3.IV.27
 Bultmann (1956) p.143-4
 ibid. p.144
 See 5.e.i
 Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17; Luke 20:25
 Romans 13:1
 Kee (1982) p.10
 Hall (1991) p.10-13
 Hall (1991) p.14-24 gives an account of the elaborate preparations of new converts for baptism.
 Kee (1982)
 ibid. p.117-122
 ibid. p.88
 ibid. p.21-48
 ibid. p.128-140
 ibid. p.123-7
 ibid. p.166-175
 Revelation 13:1-10
 Hall (1991) p.16-17
 See my discussion of the Anabaptist commune at Münster in 3.f.viii below
 James (1952) p.414
 ibid. p.415
 Yandell (1993) p.18
 The underlying assumptions in this view are well expressed in Wittgenstein’s “private language argument”: I offer a critique of this in 4.e.iii.
 See 5.f.i
 See Kamalashila (1992) p.63-79; or for a primary text, Buddhaghosa (1991) p.136-166
 See Deikman (1980)
 ibid. p.259
 The Buddhist tradition has a number of formulae which illustrate different stages in the incremental progression towards non-duality either of temporary mental states (the eight dhyŒnas) or through the permanent transformation of mental processes which culminates in enlightenment (the twelve positive nidŒnas and the six or ten stages of the bodhisattva path: see Sangharakshita 1987 p.135-142 & 484-493).
 See Acts
 Louth (1981) p.182-3
 ibid. p.166
 Dionysius the Areopagite Divine Names VII.3.869C: translated by Louth and included in op. cit. p.167-8
 Geanakoplos (1979) p.46
 ibid. p.96-106
 ibid. p.312-4
 Southern (1953) p.38
 ibid. p.163
 Geanakoplos (1979) p. 325-333
 For example the two modern encyclicals dealing with sexual and reproductive ethics, Humanae Vitae (1968) and Veritatis Splendor (1993)
 Geanakoplos (1979) p.280
 ibid. p.294
 ibid. p.197
 Huizinga (1924) p.56
 ibid. p.22
 Geanakoplos (1979) p.454
 ibid. p.476
 ibid. p.314-320
 Green (1964) p.20 on Hus; Strayer (1955) p.222 on Savonarola
 Green (1964) p. 109-114
 Green (1964) p,124-6; Bainton (1950) p.207-220
 Bainton (1950) p.281-284
 Quoted by Green (1964) p. 125
 One example of the interdependent relationship of eternalist and nihilist premises is to be found in the “leap” work of Kierkegaard: see 4.h.i.
 Jürgen-Goertz (1996) p.30
 See almost any Quaker literature on the ‘inward light’, e.g. Grubb (1929) p.28-44
 In his Passions of the Soul. See discussion in Cottingham (1986) p.152-6
 Cottingham (1986) p. 95-100
 Menn (1998)
 ibid. p.141
 Menn (1998) p. 210. I have omitted the internal references which are to Descartes (1974-83) VII,12 & VII,131 and
 See 3.f.vi
 Descartes (1912)
 For discussion of this residual belief in cosmic justice in a scientistic context, see 4.a.ii.
 See 4.a.i
 Meditation IV: “I am conscious of will so ample and extended as to be superior to all limits” (Descartes 1912 p.106)
 See (inter alia) Cottingham (1986) p.119-122
 Among many discussions of the mind-body problem see for example Campbell (1984), who focuses specifically on the interaction problem
 For discussion of a non-dualist solution to the mind-body problem see 6.b.ii & iii
 See the beginnings of Meditations 3, 5 & 6: Descartes (1912) p. 88-92, 111-2 & 117-8
 Cottingham p.122-7
 See 3.g
 Weber (1930) – originally published in German in 1904
 Many of the criticisms of Weber are criticisms of such specific points. These include criticisms of the degree of weight he gives to the specific roles of Protestantism as opposed to Catholicism and to Calvinism specifically in the development of capitalism, criticisms as to the degree of change which occurred in economic attitudes with the progress of the reformation as opposed to at other times, and criticisms of the degree of causal weight Weber gives to beliefs as opposed to material processes. All of these criticisms seem concerned with precise ascriptions of the degree and timing and mechanism of Christian influence over the development of capitalism rather than with the central fact established by Weber, that the rise of capitalism occurred largely because of Christian ideological influences rather than in spite of them. See Giddens’ introduction to Weber (1930) p.xxi-xxvi, and Green (1973) passim.
 It will be obvious that at no point here am I attempting Weber’s strategy of comparison with other cultures in order to provide further understanding of the Western one, despite the ultimately non-Western origins of the ideas that I am using as the basis of my analysis. To attempt this would make my already broad book impossibly so. It should merely be noted that in identifying the dominant psycho-philosophical pattern of Western culture with a particular intensity of dualism I do not mean to naively imply a contrast with simple non-dualism in any other culture, including traditionally Buddhist cultures.
 Weber (1930) p.17
 ibid. p.19-20
 ibid. p.21-2
 ibid. p.65-9
 Matthew 6:19-21 is referred to. As previously noted, eternalism does not in any case always place the future reward in heaven but often on earth.
 Weber (1930) p.80
 ibid. p98-128
 ibid. p.155-162
 ibid. p.70-3
 ibid. p.162-3
Return to thesis contents page
Return to moralobjectivity.net home page
A Theory of Moral Objectivity: quick links to other sections