All the major religions of the present world are androcentric in nature and misogynistic in practice. The following are some typical injunctions in the Christian scriptures:
Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience as also saith the law. And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a shame for women to speak in the church. (I Corinthians 14: 34-35)
Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. (1 Timothy 2: 11-12)
These rulings are in spite of (or perhaps because of) women being more attentive to religious teachings, and participating more often in religious services than men (Pew Research Foundation, 2016). The two passages nevertheless serve a purpose – they provide clear evidence that the New Testament does not always represent the word of God.
The androcentricity of organized religion differs completely from prehistoric religious beliefs, wherein God was more likely female than male (Stone, 1978). Over recent centuries, however, female aspects of the godhead have become more and more recognized. This posting briefly considers some of the manifestations of the divine feminine, and mentions what might be involved in a feminist theology.
The Primordial Mother
In prehistoric families, the most amazing and incomprehensible event was the birth of a child. The role of the father was little understood, and mothers were revered as the primary source of this new life. A female force was therefore naturally thought to be behind the creation of the universe, and was worshipped as a mother goddess (Graves, 1948; Neumann, 1963; Stone, 1978). Between 30,000 and 10,000 years BCE, small votive offering to the mother goddess – “Venus figurines” – were created throughout Europe. The illustration below shows (from left to right) the ceramic Venus of Dolni Vestonice in the Czech Republic, the limestone Venus of Willendorf in Austria and the serpentine Venus of Savignano in Italy:
Barstow (1983) describes these figurines:
The goddess was faceless, as if to accentuate her universality, her ability to “stand for the power of the female. Lacking feet, she appeared to come straight up out of the earth, with which she was identified. Unclothed, her every body seem to have an efficacy. Often – but not always – she was big-breasted, and her hands were frequently placed under her breasts as if to display them. Many figurines show her entire body as ample, with huge breasts, belly and buttocks, as if the very plenitude of her body would ensure plentiful crops and hers. Sometimes she is pregnant, her enlarged belly emphasized by special markings.
In neolithic times, most societies began to worship multiple divinities, though female forces were among the most important – Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Astarte in Canaan, Persephone in Greece. and Isis in Egypt. These goddesses often displayed two aspects: one related to life and fertility and the other to death and war.
These goddesses were widely worshipped, with their followers often participating in extended rites called the “mysteries.” Apuleius’ Latin novel The Golden Ass (2nd Century CE) tells the story of Lucius who, while dabbling in the magic arts, inadvertently turned himself into an ass. At the end of the book, he attends one of the mysteries, and is changed back to human form through the power of Isis. The goddess announces herself:
I am here before you, Lucius, moved by your prayers—mother of the natural world, mistress of all the elements, firstborn offspring of the ages, highest of the deities, queen of the dead, first among the gods, the manifestation in a single body of all the gods and goddesses. I control by my will the luminous summits of the sky, the salubrious breezes of the sea, and the mournful silence of the underworld. I am the single divine being, worshipped the world over in different forms, with varying rites and under a multitude of names. Some call me Juno, others Bellona, some Hecate, and yet others Rhamnusia. But the people on both sides of Ethiopia who are lit by the first rays of the rising sun, and the Egyptians, pre-eminent for their ancient knowledge, worship me with the proper rituals and by my true name: Queen Isis. (Translation of Singer and Finkelpearl, 2021, pp 158-60)
The illustration below shows a pectoral ornament in the form of a winged Isis from the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. In her right hand, she holds an ankh, the symbol for “life”; in her left hand she holds what may be the hieroglyph for a sail, the symbol for the breath of life. On her head is a throne, indicating her majesty.
Judaism – Wisdom and Shekhinah
In the Hebrew scriptures Jahweh is most definitely male, and there is little mention of any female aspect to the deity. However, in Proverbs there are several passages spoken by the female figure of Wisdom (Hokhmah), one of which reads
I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men. (Proverbs, 8 22-31)
Christians have interpreted this passage as referring to Christ the Son, who they believe was with God the Father before the world began. Christ is described as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” in I Corinthians 1:24.
This female figure of Wisdom in Proverbs is closely associated with Sophia– the goddess of wisdom and the creator of the world in Gnostic scriptures (Perkins, 1985).
Wisdom also became related to the concept of the Shekhinah – God’s “presence” or “immanence” in the world. This concept was initially used to describe the holiness of the Ark of the Covenant, but expanded to include the idea of God’s dwelling with his people. Shekhinah is manifest when believers gather to study the Torah, celebrate the Sabbath, or pray together. The Mishnah (probably derived from Jewish oral tradition in the centuries BCE) states
If two sit together and there are words of Torah spoken between them, then the Shekhinah abides among them (Pirkei Avot, 3:2)
In the medieval period, the presence of God in the world was conceived as in terms of the ten Sephiroth of the Kabbalah. The tenth Sephirah is known either as Malkuth (“kingdom”) or Shekhinah (“presence”). In Kabbalistic writings the Shekhinah became the female aspect of the Godhead (Smith, 1985; Scholem, 1991; Devine, 2014; Laura, 2015).
In the Sefer ha-Zohar (13th Century CE), the Shekhinah is considered as the intermediary between God and his people:
Every message the King requires goes forth from this Lady’s house. Any message from below that is sent to the King arrives first at the house of His Lady, and from there proceeds to the King. The Lady is thus the universal go-between, from above to below and from below to above. (Zohar 2:51a quoted by Green, 2002).
Scholem (1965) describes the uneasy status of Shekhinah in Jewish religious thought:
This discovery of a feminine element in God, which the Kabbalists tried to justify by gnostic exegesis, is of course one of the most significant steps they took. Often regarded with the utmost misgiving by strictly Rabbinical, non-Kabbalistic Jews, often distorted into inoffensiveness by embarrassed Kabbalistic apologists, this mythical conception of the feminine principle of the Shekhinah as a providential guide of Creation achieved enormous popularity among the masses of the Jewish people, so showing that here the Kabbalists had uncovered one of the primordial religious impulses still latent in Judaism. (p. 105).
Christianity – Mother Mary
Mary, mother of Jesus, is not considered extensively in the Christian scriptures. Outside of five main episodes – the angelic annunciation of the forthcoming virgin birth, the visitation with Elizabeth, the nativity of Christ, presentation of Jesus in the temple, and the crucifixion, she is scarcely mentioned. In one brief episode she visited her son while he was teaching and was ignored (Mark 6: 31-34). However, Christ did acknowledge her at the crucifixion, telling John, “Behold thy Mother!” (John 19: 26-27).
Mary was not mentioned in the first version of the Nicene Creed of 325 CE, but acknowledged as the virgin mother of Christ in the revised version of the creed in 381 CE:
Jesus Christ …. who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man
Since Christ was both God and Man, his mother was special – Theotokos, the bearer of God. This was first pronounced at the council of Ephesus in 431 CE. Mary the mother of God has been long venerated in the Eastern churches. The illustration below shows the mosaic (9th Century CE) in the cathedral (now mosque) of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople, and the icon of Mary and the Infant Jesus of Vladimir (1131 CE).
After the turn of the 1st Millennium CE, Mary began to be more and more honored in the Western Church. No one really understands this change in religious feeling. Most of the new Gothic Cathedrals in France were dedicated to Notre Dame (“our Lady”), and special Lady Chapels were built in English cathedrals. Believers thronged to images of Mary for consolation and for mercy. The following illustration shows two representations of the Madonna della Misericordia (“Lady of Mercy”), by Simone Martini (1310) and Piero della Francesca (1462).
Various traditions and beliefs have accumulated over the years so that now Marianism is an acknowledged subset of Christian beliefs, particularly in the Eastern and Roman Catholic Churches (Johnston, 1985; Leith, 2021; Matter, 1983; Rubin, 2009). In 1568 the Ave Maria was included in the Roman Catholic Breviary. The most famous setting of the prayer is by Gounod (1859) based on Bach’s Prelude No 1 (1722).
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Hail Mary, full of grace, Dominus tecum the Lord is with thee benedicta tu in mulieribus Blessed art thou amongst women, et benedictus fructus ventris tuis, Jesu and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater dei, Holy Mary, Mother of God, ora pro nobis peccatoribus pray for us sinners, nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. now and at the hour of our death.
Theologians have long argued that Mary must have been herself conceived without sin so that she might carry the incarnation of God within her womb. This doctrine of the “immaculate conception” was discussed for many years, but only finally accepted by the Vatican in 1854. Since Mary was without sin, there was no need for her to die. Theologians therefore proposed that before her death she was instead taken up directly into heaven – “the assumption of the Virgin.” This idea finally becoming Catholic doctrine in 1950. Protestants reject both these doctrines. When it comes to Mary, the Christian churches have been loathe to allow their members the beliefs they long for.
In contrast with the Western (or Abrahamic) religions, Hinduism is adorned with goddesses of many types and purposes (Kinsley, 1986; Pattanaik, 2000). Eroticism is an acknowledged part of divinity.
The supreme goddess Mahadevi is widely venerated. She changes form at will and goes by many names. She can exist alone as Shakti, the goddess of cosmic energy, or as Kali, the goddess of time and change. The illustration below shows a bronze statue of Bhudevi, the “Goddess of the Earth” (13th Century CE) from the Los Angeles Museum of Art
The female goddess often serves as the consort of a male divinity – Parvati with Shiva, and Lakshmi with Vishnu. Sometimes these pairs become unified into one deity – the androgynous Ardhanarishvara, whose right side is feminine and left side male. The illustration below shows a sandstone relief of Shiva and Parvati (11th Century CE) from the Dallas Museum of Art, and a bronze Ardhanarishvara (circa 1000 CE) from the Los Angeles Museum of Art.
Buddhism is often considered as a religion without the need for gods or goddesses. Since the universe has existed forever there is no need to postulate a divine force that once created it. However, the Buddha in his various manifestations and many of his enlightened followers (the Bodhisattvas, from bodhi, knowledge, and sattva, being) are revered as sincerely as any of the gods in more definitely theistic religions.
The Buddha and most of the Bodhisattvas are male. The hierarchy of priests and monks in Buddhism are male (Faure, 2008). However, over the centuries the feminine has made its appearance.
One of the most important of the Bodhisattvas was known as Avalokitasvara – “the lord (isvara) who gazes (lokita) down (ava) at the world.” This Bodhisattva of Compassion is described as the “Regarder of the Cries of the World” (Reeves, 2008) in Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra (the Sanskrit original deriving from the1st century CE, Chinese translations occurring in the third to sixth Centuries CE).
As the centuries passed and as Buddhism spread from its origin in India to Tibet, China and South East Asia, Avalokitasvara changed into female form (Yü, 2000). In Tibet, the Bodhisattva became Tara (Blofeld, 1979; Shaw, 2006). Tara herself is manifest in many different ways. Among them are white Tara, the goddess of Compassion, and green Tara, the goddess of Enlightenment. The illustration below shows an Indian stone sculpture of Avalokitasvara (9th Century CE) and a gilt copper-alloy casting of Tara (14th Century CE) from Tibet or Nepal and now in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Avalokitasvara is holding a lotus flower. Tara’s left hand shows the mudra (gesture) of teaching and her right hand the mudra of charity.
In China Avalokitasvara evolved into Guanshiyin (the Chinese translation of “the one who perceives the sounds of the world”) or Guanyin (pinyin; Kuan Yin in the Wade-Giles romanization). In Japan Guanyin became Kannon, re-assuming a male identity. The illustrations below shows a painted wooden carving of Guanyin (circa 1100 CE) in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas, and a colossal statue of Guanyin (2015) in the Tsz Shan Monastery in Hong Kong.
The Jesuits first arrived in China in the 16th Century. Christian concepts soon became part of life and culture in Southern China. One particular effect was the syncretism (from Greek syn together and krassis mixture) of Guanyin and the Virgin Mary (Paul, 1983; Reis-Habito, 1993). The illustration below from Pham (2021) shows two ivory carvings in the Metropolitan Museum of Ar in New York: a European representation of Mary (13th Century) and a Chinese representation of Guanyin (16th Century).
The Eternal Feminine
With the Scientific Revolution and the Age of the Enlightenment, reason began to exert itself in the affairs of the soul. The existence of God was either denied, or considered only in the abstract. However, cold reason could not handle the emotions, which came to the fore in the Romantic Movement. Feminine forces were the means to handle feelings.
At the end of Goethe’s Faust Part II (1831), Faust, who had sold his soul to the devil in order to achieve knowledge and power, is saved from damnation by the intercession of female heavenly powers. Their final chorus in the play celebrates the power of the “Eternal Feminine.”
Alles Vergängliche All that has happened Ist nur ein Gleichnis; Is only a parable; Das Unzulängliche The insufficient Hier wird’s Ereignis; Is now fulfilled; Das Unbeschreibliche The indescribable Hier ist’s getan; Is now realized; Das Ewig-Weibliche The Eternal Feminine Zieht uns hinan. Leads us upward.
The chorus has been set to music by Schumann in his Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1853), Liszt in his Faust Symphony (1880) and by Mahler in his Symphony No 8 (1910). The following is the Mahler version:
From 1875 to the middle of the 20th Century the Theosophical Movement exerted an uneasy influence on our thinking. Under the initial direction of Helena Blavatsky (1831 -1891), the movement combined Western esotericism and spiritualism with Eastern religious thought, and added a dash of charlatanism. Theosophy did promote of peace in a world enamoured of war and it did increase Western understanding of Eastern spiritual ideas. However, it ultimately foundered on its own fakery. The illustration on the right shows a painting of The Mother of the World (1937) by the Theosophist painter and explorer Nicholas Roerich.
The Gaia Hypothesis
In the 1970s, studies of how the Earth’s atmosphere constantly maintained parameters of temperature and pH that were optimum for the continuation of life led to the Gaia hypothesis, named after the Greek Goddess of the Earth, the primordial mother of all life:
the total ensemble of living organisms which constitute the biosphere can act as a single entity to regulate chemical composition, surface pH and possibly also climate. The notion of the biosphere as an active adaptive control system able to maintain the Earth in homeostasis we are calling the ‘Gaia’ hypothesis (Lovelock and Margulis, 1974)
According to the Gaia hypothesis, human life is just a component of a larger self-regulating organism, the planetary biosphere. Some are skeptical of this hypothesis, claiming it describes the Earth’s process as determined by its future ends – teleological – rather than by its antecedent causes – mechanistic. However, just because science does not easily accommodate purpose does not mean that there is no underlying purpose to the universe.
The Gaia hypothesis has gained much recent support from the modern environmental movement. In some sense humanity has become a cancer on the life of the planet. Unchecked climate change threatens the homeostasis of the world and the life of everyone.
During the past few decades, feminist philosophers have challenged the androcentricity of the Christianity and Judaism (Anderson, 1998; Christ, 2003; Goldenberg, 1979; Johnson, 1984, 1992). These thinkers have pointed out the unfairness and inappropriateness of restricting the priesthood to men. And they have criticized mainstream theology for its focus on logic at the expense of intuition. One cannot prove the existence of God, but one can feel it.
Many people handle the unknowns of life by believing in the ethical instructions and the explanatory narratives that are available in religion. Science does not teach us what to do and does not always get us through the night. By providing a purpose to life and by promising ways to approach suffering and death, religion can help. Feminist religion – “theology” (Goldenberg, 1979) with its stress on grace and compassion promises to be far more effective than present mainstream theology.
Anderson, P. S. (1998). A feminist philosophy of religion: the rationality and myths of religious belief. Blackwell.
Apuleius (2nd Century CE, selected by Singer, P., translated by Finkelpearl, E. D., and illustrated by Kendel, A., & Kendel, V., 2021). The golden ass. Liveright (division of W. W. Norton).
Barstow, A. L. (1983). The prehistoric goddess. In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 7-15). Crossroad.
Blofeld, J. (1979). Kuan Yin and Tara: Embodiments of wisdom-compassion. Tibet Journal, 4(3), 28-36
Christ, C. P. (2003). She who changes: re-imagining the divine in the world. Palgrave-Macmillan.
Devine, L. (2014). How Shekhinah became the God(dess) of Jewish Feminism. Feminist Theology, 23(1) 71–91.
Faure, B. (2008). The power of denial: Buddhism, purity, and gender. Princeton University Press.
Graves, R. (1948, amended and enlarged, 1961). The White Goddess; a historical grammar of poetic myth. Faber and Faber.
Green, A. (2002). Shekhinah, the Virgin Mary, and the Song of Songs: Reflections on a Kabbalistic symbol in its historical context. AJS Review, 26(1), 1-52.
Goldenberg, N. R. (1979). Changing of the gods: feminism and the end of traditional religions. Beacon Press
Johnson, E. A. (1984). The incomprehensibility of God and the image of God male and female. Theological Studies, 45(3), 441–465.
Johnson, E. A. (1985). The Marian tradition and the reality of women. Horizons, 12(1), 116–135.
Johnson, E. A. (1992). She who is: the mystery of God in feminist theological discourse. Crossroad.
Kinsley, D. R. (1986). Hindu goddesses: visions of the divine feminine in the Hindu religious tradition. University of California Press. Available at Arkiv.org
Laura, J. (2015). Kabbalah: in its beginnings. Women in Judaism, 12(2), 1–16.
Leith, M. J. W. (2021). The Virgin Mary: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.
Lovelock, J. E., & Margulis, L. (1974). Atmospheric homeostasis by and for the biosphere: the Gaia hypothesis. Tellus, 26, 2-10.
Matter, E. A. (1983). The Virgin Mary: a Goddess? In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 80-96). Crossroad.
Neumann, E. (1963, second edition 1972, translated by R. Manheim,). The great mother: an analysis of the archetype. Princeton University Press.
Pattanaik, D. (2000). The Goddess in India: the five faces of the eternal feminine. Inner Traditions International.
Paul, D. (1983) Kuan-Yin: Savior and savioress in Chinese Pure Land Buddhism. In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 161-175). Crossroad.
Perkins, P. (1985). Sophia and the Mother-Father: the Gnostic Goddess. In C. Olson (Ed). The Book of the goddess, past and present: an introduction to her religion. (pp 97-109). Crossroad.
Pew Research Center (2016). The gender gap in religion around the world. (March 22, 2016).
Reeves, G. (2008). The Lotus Sutra: a contemporary translation of a Buddhist classic. Wisdom Publications.
Reis-Habito, M. (1993). The Bodhisattva Guanyin and the Virgin Mary. Buddhist-Christian Studies, 13, 61-69
Rubin, M. (2009). Mother of God: a history of the Virgin Mary. Yale University Press.
Scholem, G. (1965, reprinted 1996). On the Kabbalah and its symbolism. Schocken Books.
Scholem, G. (1991). The feminine element in divinity. In G. Scholem. On the mystical shape of the Godhead: basic concepts in the Kabbalah. (pp 140-196). Schoken Books.
Shaw, M. E. (2006). Buddhist goddesses of India. Princeton University Press.
Smith, C. (1985). The symbol of the Shekhinah: the feminine side of God. European Judaism, 19(1), 43–46.
Stone, M. (1978). When God was a woman. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich.
Yü, C.-F. (2000). Kuan-yin the Chinese transformation of Avalokiteśvara. Columbia University Press.
Searching for the Dao
This post presents some ideas about the Dào (“Way”) as described in the Dàodéjīng (“Book of the Way and its Virtue”), that legend claims was composed by Lǎozī in the 5th Century BCE. The Dào cannot be explained in words. But that has never stopped anyone from writing about it.
An Incident at Hangu Pass
No one is sure of the season or even the year. It was probably at the end of the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BCE), and it would have been appropriate if it were autumn. An old man riding on a water buffalo, together with a young servant, requested passage to the west through the frontier gate at Hangu. They were leaving the violence and corruption of the Kingdom of the Eastern Zhou, which was slowly dissolving into anarchy, a time that was later historians called the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE).
Yĭnxĭ, the head guardsman, realized that the old man was of some importance. In answer to his questions, the old man confirmed that he had been the Royal Archivist at the court of Zhou. He had resigned his position, and was now on his way to the mountains to find peace. Yĭnxĭ requested that the old man not leave without providing him with a summary of his wisdom. The scholar obliged and wrote out a summary of all that he considered important. And then he departed, never to be heard of again.
The writings that he left with Yĭnxĭ became known as the Dàodéjīng – the “Book of the Way and its Virtue” (Tao Te Ching in the old Wade-Giles system of romanization), containing about 5000 characters in 81 brief chapters. The first section of the book (chapters 1-37) dealt with the Dào (“way”), and the second section with Dé (“virtue”). The author became known as Lǎozī – the “Old Master” (Lao Tzu in Wade-Giles). Sometimes the book itself is also referred to as Lǎozī.
I have told the story as best I can. There are several legends about what happened, and I am not sure which are true, or even whether Lǎozī was an actual person (Graham, 1998; Chan, 2000). The story does explain the nature of the book – an anthology of cryptic sayings and opinions on the nature of the universe and how people should behave.
The Eastern Zhou dynasty had its court in Chengzhou, now called Luoyáng. From there the king tried to maintain his rule over the surrounding feudal states. After many years of internecine warfare, the Qin state in the west ultimately prevailed over the others and founded the first Chinese Empire in 221 BCE.
The frontier gate in the Hangu Pass has been preserved as the centerpiece of an archeological site in Xin’an:
Lǎozī on his water buffalo was portrayed by Chao Buzhi in an ink painting (around 1100 CE) now in the Palace Museum in Taipei:
A carved jade circle from the early 19th Century represents the meeting between Lǎozī (right) and Yĭnxĭ (left) with the Hangu Gate at the top.
In 1938, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) felt definite empathy for Lǎozī. He was living in Denmark, an exile from his home in Germany, which was descending into the horrors of Nazism. He wrote a poem The Legend of How the Tao te Ching Came into Being on Lao Tse’s Journey into Exile, which was later published in Tales from the Calendar (1949, translated 1961). The custom’s officer asks the boy attending on Lǎozī what he has learned from the old man and receives the answer
… Daß das weiche Wasser in Bewegung Mit der Zeit den harten Stein besiegt. [That over time the gentlest water Defeats the hardest stone]
This paraphrases some lines from chapter 78 of the Dàodéjīng
Brecht ends his poem with
Aber rühmen wir nicht nur den Weisen Dessen Name auf dem Buche prangt! Denn man muß dem Weisen seine Weisheit erst entreißen. Darum sei der Zöllner auch bedankt: Er hat sie ihm abverlangt.
[But we should not just praise the Sage Whose name is displayed on the book. Since we must retrieve from the Wise their wisdom, The customs officer should also be thanked For demanding it of him.]
The Nature of the Dào
The main focus of Lǎozī ’s book is the Dào (pinyin, Tao in Wade-Gilles). The character is composed of the “walk/march” radical on the left (a leg taking a step forward) and the “head/chief” radical on the upper right (a head with hair or horns above a stylized face). The illustration below shows the Small Seal Script version (which would have been used at the beginning of the Qin dynasty) on the left, and the modern version on the right.
As a noun, Dào is most often translated as “way” or “path.” When it is used as a verb it generally means “say” or “explain.” This confluence of “way” and “word” also occurs in the Christian gospel of John (1:1, and 14:6), where the source of everything is called the word (logos) and salvation is obtained through the way (odos) (Ching, 1993, p. 88).
In Lǎozī ’s book, the Dào represents the underlying and enduring principle of the universe, something completely beyond human comprehension (Schwartz, 2000):
The Dào that can be explained is not the eternal Dào; The Name that can be told is not the eternal Name.
The nameless is the source of heaven and earth, The mother of everything which can be named.
Free from desire, you can realize its mystery; Caught in desire, you see only its manifestations.
That these two aspects are both same and different Is the paradox:
Mystery of mystery, Gateway to wonder.
[Chapter 1, my translation. I am indebted to Mitchell (1988) for the opposition of “mystery” and “manifestations.” And to Pepper and Wang (2021) for their word-by-word analysis.]
Livia Kohn (2020, p 16) proposed:
One way to think of Dào is as two concentric circles, a smaller one in the center and a larger on the periphery. The dense, smaller circle in the center is Dào at the root of creative change— tight, concentrated, intense, and ultimately unknowable, ineffable, and beyond conscious or sensory human attainment… The larger circle at the periphery is Dào as it appears in the world, the patterned cycle of life and visible nature. Here we can see Dào as it comes and goes, rises and sets, rains and shines, lightens and darkens— the everchanging yet everlasting, cyclical alteration of natural patterns, life and death… This is Dào as natural transformations: the metamorphoses of insects, ways of bodily dissolution, and the inevitable entropy of life. This natural, tangible Dào is what people can study and learn to create harmony in the world; the cosmic, ineffable Dào, on the other hand, they need to open to by resting in clarity and stillness to find true authenticity in living.
Her description fits with that in Chapter 11 of the Dàodéjīng:
Thirty spokes converge on the wheel’s hub, The emptiness of which allows the cart to be used.
And perhaps point to Eliot’s image in Burnt Norton (1941)
At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is, But neither arrest nor movement.
As pointed out by Kenner (1959, pp 297-8))
This is the philosophers’ paradox of the Wheel, the exact center of which is precisely motionless, whatever the velocity of the rim.
Yīn and Yáng
The Dào is the source of all the different things in the word. The multiplicity of the world is described in Chapter 2 of the Dàodéjīng (translation by Ursula Le Guin, 1997):
For being and nonbeing arise together; hard and easy compete with each other; long and short shape each other; high and low depend on each other; note and voice make music together; before and after follow each other.
The source of this multiplicity is proclaimed in Chapter 42 (my translation)
The Dào gives birth to one One gives birth to two Two give birth to three Three gives birth to the myriad things of the world.
These carry Yīn on their back and Yáng in their arms And together they achieve harmony
Yīn is water, earth, night, female; Yáng is fire, sky, day, male. Through much of the Dàodéjīng, Lǎozī is more partial to Yīn, the eternal female. Yīn and Yáng mix to form a third type of being and from this intermingling comes everything – Wànwù (ten thousand things). This process is depicted in the Tàijítú symbol: the outer circle represents the whole while the light and dark areas represent its opposing manifestations. The Tàijítú in turn becomes the center of the Bāguà (“eight symbols”) map, representing all the different elements of the world.
The Rule of Dé
The character for Dé (pinyin, Te in Wade-Giles) contains on the left the radical for “step/road.” The upper right of the character represents “truth” – something placed on a pedestal to be examined. The lower right is the radical for “heart.” The character thus embodies the idea of following the path of the true heart. Dé is translated as “virtue” or “morality.” The illustration below shows the Small Seal Script version on the left and the modern version on the right.
According to Lǎozī, virtue is attained by behaving in harmony with the Dào. Exactly how one does this is not completely clear. When he wrote his book, Lǎozī had decided that he needed to retire from the world, and much of his thought espouses the concept of wéiwúwéi – “acting without acting.” He urged leaders not to interfere with the lives of their people and not to overburden them with taxes. He urged generals to exercise restraint and patience.
Acting in harmony with the Dào meansdoing things for the good of all rather than the benefit of one. Occasionally Lǎozī does recommend particular virtues. The following is from Chapter 67 of the Dàodéjīng:
I have three treasures that I hold and protect: first is compassion, second is austerity third is reluctance to excel.
Because I am kind I can be valiant, Because I am frugal I can be generous Because I am humble I can be a leader.
[My translation owes much to Red Pine (2004), from whom I took the names of the treasures. Other expressions derive from Pepper and Wang (2021).]
The Religion of Dàoism
In the 2nd Century CE, Zhāng Dàolíng was visited by the spirit of Lǎozī, and proclaimed himself the first “Celestial Master” of the Dào. (Ching, 1993; Hendrichke, 2000, Kohn 2020; Robinet, 1992; Wong, 1997). Dàoism became an organized religion. Lǎozī was deified. Various other sages and believers were raised to the rank of “Immortals.” The descendants of Zhang Dàoling have continued to lead the religion to the present day. Dàoism as a religion provided its adherents with rituals, prayers, scriptures, talismans, and divination. Some of the “austerity’ of Lǎozī was perhaps lost in the proliferating ceremonies.
Dàoism was immensely popular. Temples sprang up everywhere. Dàoism was particularly attracted to the mountains, perhaps because this is where Lǎozī attained his immortality after leaving through Hangu Pass. Statues of Lǎozī and the immortals abound. The following is a large statue of Lǎozī created during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). It is located in the Qingyuan Mountain Park near Quanzhou city in Southern China.
The Art of Dàoism
Much of the art associated with Dàoism concerns the activities of the Immortals (Little, 2000; Little & Eichman, 2000). However, during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) when the Mongols controlled China and ruled an Empire that spread as far west as Europe, several artists evolved a style of landscape painting that attempted to portray the simple power of nature (Barnhart, 1983; Cahill, 1976; Scott, 2006).
Probably the most famous of these painters was Ní Zàn (1301-1374), an aristocrat who gave up his worldly goods and retired from public life to live as an ascetic. One of his last paintings, now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, is entitled Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu (1372).
The poem appended to the top of the painting identifies where it was created and concludes:
We watch the clouds and apply our paint; We drink wine and write poems. The joyous feelings of this day Will linger long after we have parted.
The painting portrays the stillness of the water in the lake and the power of the mountains on the further shore. These seem to embody the eternal forces of Yīn and Yáng. In the foreground are a few of the ten thousand things that make up our particular world. The most powerful part of the painting is that which is not painted – the water representing the force of Yīn.
The spirit at the center of all is called the dark female, Gateway of the foundations of heaven and earth, Which lasts unbroken and forever: use it. [Dàodéjīng, Chapter 6, my translation]
Most people believe that the universe is governed by rules. Many believe that such rules are purposeful and that the universe is evolving toward some goal. We are a hopeful species and we like to think of this process as benevolent rather than blind. Many of our religions urge us to fit our individual intentions to this more general goal. Of all this we are unsure. But there is something behind it all:
Something there is, whose veiled creation was Before the earth or sky began to be; So silent, so aloof and so alone, It changes not, nor fails, but touches all: Conceive it as the mother of the world. I do not know its name; A name for it is “Way.” [Dàodéjīng, Chapter 25, Blakney (1955) translation]
Some Translations of the Dàodéjīng (in order of publication)
Brecht, B. (1949/1961). Tales from the calendar; the prose translated by Yvonne Kapp; the verse translated by Michael Hamburger. Methuen.
Cahill, J. (1976). Hills beyond a river: Chinese painting of the Yüan Dynasty, 1279-1368. Weatherhill.
Chan, A. K. L. (2000). The Daodejing and its tradition. In L. Kohn (Ed.) Daoism handbook. (pp.1-29). Brill
Ching, J. (1993). Chinese religions. Macmillan.
Eliot, T. S. (1941). Burnt Norton. Faber and Faber.
Graham, A.C. (1998). The origins of the legend of Lao Tan. In Kohn, L., & LaFargue, M. (eds). Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. (pp 23-40). State University of New York Press.
Hendrichke, B. (2000). Early Daoist movements. In Kohn, L. (2000). Daoism handbook. (pp. 134-164). Brill.
Kenner, H. (1959). The invisible poet: T.S. Eliot. McDowell, Obolensky.
Kohn, L., & LaFargue, M. (1998). Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. State University of New York Press.
Kohn, L. (2000). Daoism handbook. Brill.
Kohn, L. (2020). Daoism: a contemporary philosophical investigation. Routledge.
Little, S. (2000). Daoist Art. In L. Kohn (Ed.) Daoism handbook. (pp.709-746). Brill.
Little, S., & Eichman, S. (2000). Taoism and the arts of China. The Art Institute of Chicago
Robinet, I., (1992, translated by Brooks, P. (1997). Taoism: growth of a religion. Stanford University Press.
Schwartz, B. (1998). The Thought of the Tao te ching. In Kohn, L., & LaFargue, M. (eds.). Lao-tzu and the Tao-te-ching. (pp. 189-210). State University of New York Press.
Scott, S. C. (2006). Sacred Earth: Daoism as a preserver of environment in Chinese landscape painting from the Song through the Qing Dynasties. East-West Connections: Review of Asian Studies, 6(1), 72-98.
Wong, E. (1997). Taoism: an essential guide. Shambhala.
Thoughts on the Kaballah
The Kabbalah is a body of Jewish thought based on mystical insight into the nature of God and an imaginative interpretation of the Torah. The word itself means “received.” According to legend this special knowledge was imparted by God either to Adam in Eden or to Moses on Sinai, and handed down thereafter from generation to generation to an enlightened few, who preserved the received wisdom and taught it to their students. This post presents some thoughts about the Kabbalah from someone who, though neither Jewish nor fluent in Hebrew, is fascinated by the intricacy of its ideas.
Early Origins of the Kabbalah
Since at the beginning the Kabbalah was largely unwritten, we have no clear ideas about its origins. However, in the centuries following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, various books on the Kabbalah were written down using the Aramaic language in the region of Syria-Palestine (Dan & Kiener, 1986; Dan, 2007; Hoffman, 2010; Matt, 1996a, Ogden, 2016).
One of these foundational texts of the Kabbalah is the Sefir Yetzirah – the “Book of the Creation,” or “Book of Formation.” The universe was created by God engraving in light upon the darkness the 32 letters and numbers of the Hebrew language (Sefir Yetzirah I:1, Kaplan translation, 1990):
With 32 mystical paths of Wisdom engraved Yah the Lord of Hosts the God of Israel the living God King of the universe El Shaddai Merciful and Gracious High and Exalted Dwelling in eternity Whose name is Holy — He is lofty and holy — And He created His universe with three books (Sepharim), with text (Sepher) with number (Sephar) and with communication (Sippur).
Text and number define the nature of the universe. Its qualities are described by language, and the quantities of its components are described by number. Communication allows the universe to exist – as divine speech. Note that the Hebrew root S-F-R using the letters samech (s), pay (p/f) and resh (r) is the basis of many words denoting writing and books, counting and numbers.
Another text probably written in that period, the Sefer HaBahir – the “Book of Illumination” –associated the ten numbers with ten different ways that God was manifest in the universe that He created: the Sefirot (Verses 124-193, Kaplan translation, 1979). These divine emanations became a way to understand all things.
The following illustration shows the 10 Sefirot (singular Sefirah) together with 22 linkages, each denoted by one of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. As well as the 10 Sefirot, the idea of Da’at or “knowledge” is represented in the upper half of the diagram. Originally this was not directly connected to any of the Sefirot. Rather it appeared to be entangled in the network: knowledge develops through the study of the Sefirot and their interactions. Kaplan (1990, p 25) suggests that it is “the point of confluence between Wisdom and Understanding.” Other interpretations consider Da’at to be one of the 10 Sefirot, and consider Keter as the Divine Will that infuses the whole underlying structure of the universe.
The Sefirot are arranged in three linked columns. The middle column represents the main flow of energy from the Creator to the Creation. The left column tends toward the female aspect of the Divine, and the right column toward its male aspect (Kaplan, 1990, p 34). However, in some formulations, Malkhut is also considered as the female aspect (Shekhinah) of Keter. We shall return to this idea when we examine the Zohar.
The numbers and letters in this representation of creation could be used in various ways – to explain the nature of things, to predict the future, to ward off disease and to exert magical control. The practice of Gematria (a Hebrew word likely deriving from the Greek grammateia, knowledge of writing) represents words by the sum of their letters according to the alphanumeric cipher given in the preceding figure. Thus, the word for father av can be considered as 3 – the sum of alef (1) and bet (2): Similarly, mother em can be considered as 41 – the sum of alef (1) and mem (40). Adding father and mother together leads to the word for child yeled which has a value of 44 – the sum of yod (10), lamed (30) and dalet (4). (I am indebted to Tokarczuk, 2022, p 579 for this example).
The use of Creation’s numbers and letters in magic was the basis of Kaballah Ma’asit (practical), as compared to KaballahIyunit (contemplative). Amulets containing magical words were used to treat or prevent disease. The legendary Prague Golem (illustrated on the right by Philippe Semeria) was formed out of clay and brought to life by writing the Hebrew letters alef, met and tav upon his forehead – these make the word emet, “life.” Once the Golem became dangerous, he was returned to clay by erasing the first of these letters so that the word became met, “death” (Scholem, 1965/1996, pp 158-204)
Many are the ways in which the world and its history can be mapped onto the Sephirot. One analysis relates these different emanations to the sayings of God as reported in the first chapter of Genesis (Kaplan, 1990, pp 6-7). God spoke and the universe came into being. The following are the words introduced by “And God said…” as they flow from Keter into the other nine emanations
3 Let there be light (Chochmah, Wisdom) 6 Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters (Binah, Understanding) 9 Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear (Chesed, Love) 11 Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the fruit tree yielding fruit after his kind (Gevurah, Power) 14 Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven to divide the day from the night (Tif’eret, Beauty) 20 Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature that hath life, and fowl that may fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven. (Netzach, Endurance) 24 Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind (Hod, Splendor) 26 Let us make man in our image, after our likeness (Yesod, Foundation) 28 Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth (Malkhut, Kingdom)
Likewise, each of the ten commandments as given in Exodus 20 may relate to a particular Sefirah (Bar-Asher, 2022). However, exactly which commandment goes with which Sefirah varies from one commentary to the next. Most accept that the first commandment (“I am the Lord thy God …. Thou shalt have no other gods before me”) relates to Keter.
The ten Sefirot can be mapped to the primordial human body in many ways. The following illustration shows an amalgam of several (Kaplan, 1990, p. 151; Berenson-Perkins, 2000; Atzmon, 2003). These relations are in keeping with the idea that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27).
Little definite is known about the history of Kabbalah scholarship between these early origins in Palestine and the 13th Century in Provence, France, where Rabbi Isaac the Blind (about 1160-1235 CE) wrote a commentary on the Sefer Yetzirah (Scholem, 1987, Dan & Kiener, 1986; Dan, 2007). He and his colleagues were the first to organize the 10 Sefirot in the way (see preceding figure) in which they are now most commonly considered (Dan & Kiener, 1986, pp 32, 73-86). He described the Sefirot as the emanations of a boundless God – Ein Sof, words meaning “no limit” and denoting that which is both infinite in space and eternal in time (Valabregue-Parry, 2012). Ein Sof is everything but is also nothing because it is not anything in particular. The concept of Ein Sof is therefore related to the idea of Ayin or “nothingness” (Matt, 1990). The words Ein and Ayin use the same Hebrew letters. Ayin and Ein Sof work through he first Sephirah – Keter – to create the other Sefirot.
The study of the Kaballah then spread from Southern France to the Jewish communities in Spain. In Gerona, Rabbi Azriel (about 1160-1238 CE), who had studied with Rabbi Isaac the Blind, wrote
Anything visible, and anything that can be grasped by thought, is bounded. Anything bounded is finite. Anything finite is not undifferentiated. Conversely, the boundless is called Ein Sof, Infinite. It is absolute undifferentiation in perfect, changeless oneness. Since it is boundless, there is nothing outside of it. Since it transcends and conceals itself, it is the essence of everything hidden and revealed. Since it is concealed, it is the root of faith and the root of rebellion. As it is written, “One who is righteous lives by his faith.” The philosophers acknowledge that we comprehend it only by way of no. Emanating from Ein Sof are the ten sefirot. They constitute the process by which all things come into being and pass away. They energize every existent thing that can be quantified. Since all things come into being by means of the sefirot, they differ from one another; yet they all derive from one root. Everything is from Ein Sof; there is nothing outside of it. (quotation from Matt, 1996a, p. 29)
The Spanish Rabbi Josef Gikatilla (about 1248-1305), whose name comes from the Spanish Chiquitilla (little one) wrote in his Sha’are Orah (“The Gates of Light,” translated by Weinstein, 1994):
The depth of primordial being is called Boundless (Ein Sof). Because of its concealment from all creatures above and below, it is also called Nothingness (Ayin). If one asks, “What is it?” the answer is, “Nothing,” meaning: No one can understand anything about it. It is negated of every conception. No one can know anything about it—except the belief that it exists. Its existence cannot be grasped by anyone other than it. Therefore its name is “I am becoming.”
The final comment refers to the name “I am that I am” – Eheyeh asher eheyeh – of God in the burning bush in Exodus 3:14. Since Hebrew does not clearly indicate the tense of the verb, this can also be translated as “I am who I shall be” or “I shall be who I am.”
In the Sha’are Orah, Gikatilla related the ten Sefirot to the various names of God in the Torah (this table derives from the Wikipedia article on Gikatilla):
The illustration below shows the frontispiece of a Latin translation of the Sha’are Orah (Portae Lucis) by Paulus Ricius, published in Augsburg in 1516, from the collection of the British Museum. The engraving shows a Kabbalist meditating on the Sefirot.
Mystic meditation on the ten Sefirot allows one to gain access to the nothingness of Ein Sof. Matt (1996a, p 119) quotes an anonymous Kabbalist from 13th Century Gerona:
When the soul comes into the One, entering into pure loss of self, it finds God as in nothingness. It seemed to a man that he had a dream, a waking dream, that he became pregnant with nothingness as a woman with child. In this nothingness God was born. He was the fruit of nothingness; God was born in nothingness. (quoted in McGinn, 1981).
Toward the end of the 13th Century, Moses de León (1240-1305), a Kabbalah scholar in Guadalajara, began to publish a set of Aramaic writings that he claimed had been written by the great Hebrew sage Shimon bar Yochai (also known as Rashbi) in the 2nd Century C.E. Rabbi Shimon is buried in Meron, Galilee, the sight of an annual ecstatic gathering of his adherents. The collection of these texts came to be known as the Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of Radiance), or more simply the Zohar. The legend has that Rashbi withdrew to a cave for 13 years and there, under the inspiration of the prophet Elijah, wrote the Zohar. Various lines of evidence suggest, however, that these texts were actually written by Moses de León, and that the Zohar is an example of religious pseudoepigrapha, works falsely attributed to a past author:
The quest for truth knows of adventures that are all its own, and in a vast number of cases has arrayed itself in pseudoepigraphic garb. the further a man progresses along his own road in this quest for truth, the more he might become convinced that his own road must have been trodden by others, ages before him. to the streak of adventurousness which was in moses de leon, no less than to his genius, we owe one of the most remarkable works of jewish literature. (Scholem, 1945/1995, p 204)
We have no contemporary portrait of Moses de León. The following illustration shows two modern representations: on the left a print by Arnold Belkin and on the right a bust by Luis Sanguino:
The following is the Zohar’s commentary on the first verse of Genesis. I have used Matt’s 2004 translation but I have in some places used the explanatory annotations in Matt (2002, 2004) instead of the literal translation:
On the authority of the King (i.e., Ein Sof), He engraved engravings in luster on high. A spark of impenetrable darkness flashed within the concealed of the concealed (i.e., the first and most hidden Sefirah, Keter) from the head of Ein Sof — a cluster of vapor forming in formlessness, thrust in a ring, not white, not black, not red, not green, no color at all. As a measuring line, yielding radiant colors. Deep within the spark gushed a flow, splaying colors below, concealed within the concealed of the mystery of Ein Sof. It split and did not split its aura, was not known at all, until under the impact of splitting, a single, concealed, supernal point shone. Beyond that point, nothing is known, so it is called Reshit (Beginning), first command of all.
The enlightened will shine like the Zohar (radiance, brilliance, splendor) of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever (Daniel 12: 3)
Zohar! Concealed of concealed struck its aura, which touched and did not touch this point. Then this beginning expanded, building itself a palace worthy of glorious praise. There it sowed seed to give birth, availing worlds. The secret is: Her stock is seed of holiness (Hokhmah) (Isaiah 6:13). Zohar! Sowing seed for its glory, like the seed of fine purple silk wrapping itself within, weaving itself a palace, constituting its praise, availing all.
With this beginning, the unknown concealed one created the palace. this palace is called elohim, god. the secret is: Be-reshit bara Elohim, With beginning, ___ created God.
The final lines in this section propose a complete re-interpretation of Creation. Rather than the usual translation (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”), the new interpretation proposes that God is created (together with the heaven and the earth) by the unknowable and unnameable force of Ein Sof. The Zohar proposes that since Elohim follows the verb bara, it is the object rather than the subject of the act of creation. This would fit with modern colloquial Hebrew, although there are many examples in the Hebrew of the Torah where the subject follows the verb, e.g. Genesis 1:4, Wayyar Elohim et-ha’owr, God saw the light.
Some scholars have remarked about how the expansion of the universe from a “single concealed supernal point” at the beginning of Creation might represent the Big Bang (Friedman, 1995; Matt, 1996b). we should be very cautious in relating science to scripture. Early Kabbalah ideas related the ten sefirot to the now obsolete idea that the earth is the centre of a universe surrounded by the sky and eight crystalline spheres carrying the moon, sun, the five known planets, the fixed stars, and the empyrean heaven (Chajes, 2020).
The Zohar (Matt, 2004, sections i: 53ab) makes some intriguing comments on the sin of Adam and the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. The tenth Sefirah is called Malkhut (kingdom) and represents the actual world which contains both good and evil. However, the Sefirah also represents Shekhinah. This word means “dwelling,” or “presence,” and as such it has come to mean the presence of God within the real world. At another level of interpretation, Shekhinah is the female counterpart of Keter or the bride of Tif’eret. Adam’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil brought evil and death into the world and distanced Shekhinah from the other Sefirot. It was not that God drove Adam out of Eden, but that Adam drove Shekhinah out of God. The goal of Judaism is then to repair this cleavage between the Creator and his Creation, to join male and female back together. These concepts were to be expanded in the teachings of Isaac Luria, which will be considered later.
In the 15th and early 16th centuries, Renaissance scholars began once again to study scientific, philosophical and religious works written by the Ancients but long unread by teachers only concerned with Christian Scripture. Early Kabbalah writings such as the Sefir Yetzirah were some of the sources of knowledge that were thus “reborn” during the Renaissance. Placing these ancient Hebrew writings in the context of Christian philosophy led to the formulation of a Christian Kaballah (Forshaw, 2016).
Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522) in Germany published De Arte Cabbalistica in 1517. He tried to reconcile some of the ideas of the Kabbalah with Christian theology, and mapped the Christian Trinity to the upper levels of the Sefirot. The early 16th Century saw the beginning of a campaign to facilitate the conversion of the Jews in the Holy Roman Empire by burning all their books. Reuchlin successfully argued against this (Price, 2011).
The other famous Renaissance scholar of the Kabbalah was Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) (Copenhaver, 2019, 2020; Howlett, 2021; Hanegraaff, 2012, pp 53-68). This young nobleman studied at the universities of Ferrara, Padua and Paris, becoming proficient in French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. He then became a member of the Medici court of Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence. His beautiful face and long chestnut hair was widely depicted in renaissance art. The illustration below shows him represented (posthumously) in Raphael’s School of Athens (1511) in the Vatican (upper left), in Cosimo Rosselli’s fresco Niracle of the Sacrament (1486) (lower left), and holding a medallion of Cosimo de’ Medici in an anonymous engraving (right).
In 1486 Pico published a set of 900 Conclusiones philosophicae, cabalasticae et theologicae in Rome, and offered to defend these propositions in debate with any scholar who wished to challenge them. He also published a general defense of his conclusions in his oration on the dignity of man, which became the foundational text of the new humanism, wherein man became the measure of all things:
For, raised to the most eminent height of theology, whence we shall be able to measure with the rod of indivisible eternity all things that are and that have been. (Caponigri translation, p 27).
Many of Pico’s Conclusions derived from his readings in the Kabbalah. The following are three examples (from Copenhaver, 2019, Appendix C):
Ein Sof is not to be numbered along with other Numerations (Sefira) because it is the unity of those Numerations, removed and uncommunicated, not a coordinated unity.
Someone with a deep knowledge of Kabbalah can understand that the three great fourfold names of God contained in the secrets of Kabbalists ought to be assigned to the three persons of the Trinity by a wondrous allocation so that the name אהיה (Ehyeh, I am) belongs to the Father, the name יהוה (the tetragrammaton, Yahweh) to the Son, the name אדני (Adonai) to the Holy Spirit.
One who has thought deeply about the novenary number of beatitudes that Matthew writes about in the Gospel (Matthew 5: 3:12) will see that they fit wonderfully with the novenary of nine Numerations (Sefirot) that come beneath the first, which is the unapproachable abyss of the Deity.
Pope Innocent VII considered many of Pico’s proposals, particularly those related to the Kabbalah, as heretical. He forbad the proposed debate and banned any subsequent publication of the Conclusions.
Pico treated all his different sources – Greek philosophers, Christian theologians, Egyptian magicians and Hebrew sages – as equal. His was a philosophy of “syncretism” (from the Greek syn together and krasis mix). The Christian Kabbalah thenceforth became part of a tradition of secret knowledge, a strange amalgam of Gnosticism, Hermetism, Alchemy, Astrology, Freemasonry, and Kabbalah. The word “cabal” entered the lexicon to denote a secret society conspiring to bring about political change by means of intrigue.
Hanegraaff (2012) characterized those systems of knowledge that are rejected by the majority yet followed by a secret few as “esotericism” – the “academy’s dustbin of rejected knowledge” (Hanegraaff, 2013, p 13). The popularity of such esoteric systems waxes and wanes. In the late 19th and early 20th Century various aspects of the occult – spiritualism, Tarot, theosophy – became popular. Later in the 20th Century various “New Age” religions made their impact.
In 1492 the Jews were expelled from Spain and the great flowering of Spanish Kabbalah ceased. Kabbalah scholars moved to other regions of Europe and the Middle East. The city of Safed in in Galilee, then part of Ottoman Syria, soon became an important center of Kabbalah learning. Moses ben Jacob Cordovero (1522-1570), also known as Remak, was one of the most important scholars in Safed. His name indicates that his family originally came from Cordoba in Spain. The following is from Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim, “Orchard of Pomegranates” (1548):
In the beginning Ein Sof emanated ten sefirot, which are of its essence, united with it. It and they are entirely one. There is no change or division in the emanator that would justify saying it is divided into parts in these various sefirot. … Imagine a ray of sunlight shining through a stained-glass window of ten different colors. The sunlight possesses no color at all but appears to change hue as it passes through the different colors of glass. Colored light radiates through the window. The light has not essentially changed, though so it seems to the viewer. Just so with the sefirot. The light that clothes itself in the vessels of the sefirot is the essence, like the ray of sunlight. That essence does not change color at all, neither judgment nor compassion, neither right nor left. Yet by emanating through the sefirot—the variegated stained glass—judgment or compassion prevails. (quoted in Matt, 1996a, p 38).
Cordovero was followed by Isaac ben Solomon Luria (1532-1572), also known as HaARI, “the lion.” He did not leave any writings of his own, but his teachings were later recorded by his disciples. He proposed that during Creation Ein Sof initially contracted (tsimtsum) so as to make space for the universe, and that when light was emanated into the Sefirot there was some unavoidable fragmentation (shevirah). The task of the faithful is to repair (tikkun) what was broken by means of good works, charity, social justice and prayer (Drob, 2000, pp 384-433). Matt (1996a, p 15) summarized these concepts:
Luria taught that the first divine act was not emanation, but withdrawal. Ein Sof withdrew its presence “from itself to itself,” withdrawing in all directions away from one point at the center” of its infinity, as it were, thereby creating a vacuum. This vacuum served as the site of creation. . . . Into the vacuum Ein Sof emanated a ray of light, channeled through vessels. At first, everything went smoothly; but as the emanation proceeded, some of the vessels could not withstand the power of the light, and they shattered. Most of the light returned to its infinite source, but the rest fell as sparks, along with the shards of the vessels. Eventually, these sparks became trapped in material existence. The human task is to liberate, or raise, these sparks, to restore them to divinity. This process of tikkun (repair or mending) is accomplished through living a life of holiness. All human actions either promote or impede tikkun, thus hastening or delaying the arrival of the Messiah.
There is much that is foolish in the teachings of the Kaballah. The use of the Kaballah in magic makes for wonderful stories but in reality is nonsense. The use of the Kaballah to predict the future is foolish. Sabattai Zevi (1626-1676) used the Kabbalah to claim that he was the Messiah. After gathering together thousands of followers, he was imprisoned by Sultan Mehmed IV and ultimately converted to Islam. He augmented rather than decreased the sum of human suffering.
The great Kaballah texts are magnificent works of the imagination. They present a view of a universe infused with number and language. In the general sense that we cannot understand or control anything without number and language, these teachings are true. The writings of the Kaballah also provide meditative tools to facilitate individual mystical encounters with the infinite.
Over the past century we have come to consider particular things as dependent on universal principles. Noam Chomsky has shown that different human languages are all related to a universal grammar; Claude Lévi-Strauss has proposed that different human societies all follow some basic rules for how human beings interact with each other. Perhaps the ideas of the Kaballah can provide us with a general structure with which to understand things – a template for the infinite. These issues are well discussed (though ultimately not resolved) in Levi’s 2009 paper “Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of mysticism or mystifications of science?”
Structural anthropology and Kabbalah, although on cursory appraisal having nothing in common—insofar as they stem from entirely different intellectual domains, the one being a modern social science and the other an ancient form of jewish mysticism—on deeper examination actually share a number of epistemological and ontological postulates. These include, but are not limited to, the idea that surface diversity conceals an underlying unity, specifically truth is discoverable within a layered model of reality, and that space, time, and matter are characterized by entropy and fragmentation.
Perhaps we might end this post with the concept of tikkun olam (“repair of the world”) as proposed in the Kabbalah teachings of Isaac Luria. this is one of the most powerful justifications of human ethics: we should be good not to benefit ourselves but to make the world a better place.
Atzmon, L. (2003). A visual analysis of anthropomorphism in the Kabbalah: dissecting the Hebrew alphabet and Sephirotic diagram. Visual Communication 2(1), 97-114.
Bar-Asher, A. (2022) Decoding the Decalogue: Theosophical re-engraving of the Ten Commandments in Thirteenth-Century Kabbalah. In Brown, J. P. & Herman, M. (Eds). Accounting for the commandments in medieval Judaism: studies in law, philosophy, pietism, and Kabbalah. (pp. 156-174). Brill.
Berenson-Perkins, J. (2000). Kaballah decoder: Revealing the messages of the ancient mystics. Barrons.
Chajes, J. H. (2020). Spheres, Sefirot, and the imaginal astronomical discourse of classical Kabbalah. Harvard Theological Review, 113 (2), 230-262.
Copenhaver, B. (2019). Magic and the dignity of man: Pico della Mirandola and his Oration in modern memory. Harvard University Press.
Kaplan, A. (1990, revised 1997). Sefer Yetzirah (The book of Creation). Weiser Books.
Levi, J. M. (2009). Structuralism and Kabbalah: Sciences of mysticism or mystifications of science? Anthropological Quarterly, 82(4), 929–984.
Matt, D. C. (1990). Ayin: the concept of nothingness in Jewish mysticism. In Forman, R. K. C. (Ed). The problem of pure consciousness: mysticism and philosophy. (pp. 121-159). Oxford University Press.
Matt, D. C. (1996a). The essential Kabbalah: the heart of Jewish mysticism. Harper.
Matt, D. C. (1996b). God and the big bang: discovering harmony between science and spirituality. Jewish Lights.
Matt, D. C. (2002). Zohar: annotated & explained. SkyLight Paths
Matt, D. C. (2004-2017). The Zohar (Pritzker edition.). Stanford University Press. (12 volumes).
McGinn, B. (1981) The God beyond God: Theology and mysticism in the thought of Meister Eckhart. Journal of Religion, 61(1), 1-19
Pico della Mirandola, G. (1486, translated by Caponigri, A. R., 1956). Oration on the dignity of Man. Gateway Books.
Price, D. H. (2011). Johannes Reuchlin and the Campaign to Destroy Jewish Books. Oxford University Press.
Tokarczuk, O. (2014, translated by Croft, J. 2022). The books of Jacob . Fitzcarraldo Editions.
Scholem, G. (1941, reprinted 1995). Major trends in Jewish mysticism. Schocken Books.
Scholem, G. (1965, reprinted 1996). On the Kabbalah and its symbolism. Schocken Books.
Scholem, G. (1987). Origins of the Kabbalah. Princeton University Press.
Shokek, S. (2001). Kabbalah and the art of being: the Smithsonian lectures. Routledge.
Valabregue-Parry, S. (2012). The concept of infinity (Eyn-sof ) and the rise of theosophical Kabbalah. Jewish Quarterly Review, 102(3), 405-430.
Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE) is one of the most famous of the Roman Emperors. Some of his renown is related to the many representations of the Emperor that have persisted to the present day: the Aurelian Column documenting the Marcomannic Wars he waged on the Northern frontiers of the Empire; the bas-reliefs that were initially mounted on a triumphal arch in Rome, and later preserved when the arch was destroyed; and the equestrian statue that, from the Renaissance, was displayed in Rome’s Piazza de Campidoglio on a pedestal designed by Michelangelo. Most of Marcus’ fame, however, derives from the book that he wrote during the many years when he campaigned against the Germanic Tribes who threatened to cross the Danube and invade the Empire. This book, which has come to be known as the Meditations, presents a philosophy that derives from Greek Stoicism: to live each day as if it were one’s last, to act in accord with nature, not to become upset by whatever happens, and to help others as best one can.
The Life of Marcus Aurelius
Marcus was born in 121CE, the son of Emperor Hadrian’s nephew. After his father’s death in 124 CE, Marcus was adopted by his grandfather Marcus Annius Verus.
Marcus was educated by a series of prominent tutors, whom he thanks in the first section of the Meditations. From Diognetus, he learned “about not getting carried away by empty enthusiasm;” from Rusticus “understanding the importance of correction and treatment of one’s character;” from Apollonius “self-reliance and indisputable immunity to the dice-rolls of fortune;” from Sextus “the true meaning of living in accord with nature;” and from Fronto “understanding the nature of despotic malice and hypocrisy.”
In 138 CE Marcus was adopted by his uncle, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, as his heir, and assumed the name Marcus Aurelius (“golden”) Antoninus. From his adoptive father, he learned “calmness and an unshakeable adherence to deliberately made decisions” (this and preceding quotations from the Waterfield translation, 2021). In 145 CE Marcus married Faustina, the daughter of Antoninus.
With the death of Antoninus Pius in 161 CE, Marcus became joint Emperor with Lucius Verus, whom Antoninus had also adopted. Together they assumed rule over the huge Roman Empire, which, since the days of the Emperor Trajan (53 -117 CE), extended from Portugal in the West to Syria in the East, and from Britain in the North to North Africa in the South:
At the accession of Marcus and Lucius, the empire was in turmoil. Rebellions were breaking out in Britain, and the Germanic tribes were harassing the Empire’s frontier on the Danube. Most importantly, the Parthian king, Vologases III, had invaded the Eastern province of Armenia, and threatened to enter Syria. Marcus dispatched generals to Britain and the Danube, and Lucius led an army against the Parthians. The Northern troubles were quickly subdued, and after some initial defeats, the Roman legions finally repulsed the Parthians and invaded Mesopotamia. By 165 CE the empire was once again secure. Lucius returned home to Roma, and Avidius Cassius, one of the most successful of the Roman generals in the East, was made governor of Syria.
However, soldiers returning from the Eastern wars brought with them the Antonine Plague which spread throughout the Roman Empire from165 to 180 CE, killing about 10% of the population. No one is absolutely sure of the nature of the disease. Most believe that it was a virulent strain of smallpox (Variola).
In 166 CE the Marcomanni (derived from proto-Germanic “men of the border”) crossed the Danube and invaded the province of Pannonia (present-day Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Hungary) – see map below. Marcus and Lucius led the Roman legions against the invaders, but the Marcomannic Wars dragged on until Marcus’ death. In 168 CE, Lucius Verus succumbed to the Antonine Plague on the way home from one of the Northern campaigns, leaving Marcus as sole Emperor.
In 175 CE Avidius Cassius, by then the Supreme Commander in the East, having been misinformed that Marcus Aurelius was near death, declared himself Emperor. Marcus Aurelius and the Roman Senate planned an expedition to the East to put down the usurper. However, there was no need. One of Cassius’ centurions murdered him, and sent his head to Rome. Marcus refused to see it and had it properly buried.
For the last decade of his life, Marcus was primarily involved in the Marcomannic Wars. He spent little time in Rome, apparently preferring the rigor and solitude of the campaigns to the pleasures of the capital. Slowly, he brought peace to the Empire’s Northern frontier. The Aurelian Column in Rome (planned in the late 170s and finally constructed just after Marcus’ death) portrays various episodes from the wars (Beckmann 2011). The scenes illustrated below show (in counter-clockwise order from the lower left): the legions crossing the Danube River on a bridge of boats; the “Rain Miracle” when the surrounded Roman soldiers, lacking food and water, were rescued by a tremendous downpour represented by the Rain God; the siege of a Barbarian fort using the testudo (turtle), wherein the Roman soldiers attacked under cover of their interlocked shields; and Marcus (at the center, perhaps with his son Commodus on the left and a Roman General on the right) accepting the surrender of two Barbarian chieftains, one of whom who offers the Emperor his mantle.
Marcus died in 180 CE in Sirmium, (presently Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia) a Roman settlement about 25 km south of the Danube. Sirmium was later to become a major capital in the Easter Empire, but at the time of Marcus’ death it was likely only a small fortified settlement. Marcus had been spitting up blood, and may have suffered from tuberculosis. It is also possible that he was another victim of the Antonine Plague. Some rumors suggested that his doctors had hastened his death in order to curry favor with his son and heir, Commodus, but there is no clear evidence for this.
Many portrait busts were made of Marcus Aurelius (Boschung 2012a). Below are a selection of these busts with approximate dates. The upper busts are from the Capitoline Museum in Rome and Farnborough Hall in Warwickshire, UK; the lower busts are from the British Museum and from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
The reign of Commodus, the son and successor of Marcus Aurelius, marked the end of the greatest years of the Roman Empire. In his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776), Gibbon describes the 84 years between the death of Domitian in 96 to the death of Marcus in 180 CE as the time when the Roman Empire truly flourished. The Emperors of this time (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius – often considered the “Good Emperors,” a term originating with Machiavelli) tempered their power with virtue. However, this could not last when all that stopped an Emperor from abusing his absolute power was his own sense of what was good:
The labors of these monarchs were overpaid by the immense reward that inseparably waited on their success; by the honest pride of virtue, and by the exquisite delight of beholding the general happiness of which they were the authors. A just but melancholy reflection imbittered, however, the noblest of human enjoyments. They must often have recollected the instability of a happiness which depended on the character of single man. The fatal moment was perhaps approaching, when some licentious youth, or some jealous tyrant, would abuse, to the destruction, that absolute power, which they had exerted for the benefit of their people. The ideal restraints of the senate and the laws might serve to display the virtues, but could never correct the vices, of the emperor. The military force was a blind and irresistible instrument of oppression; and the corruption of Roman manners would always supply flatterers eager to applaud, and ministers prepared to serve, the fear or the avarice, the lust or the cruelty, of their master. (Gibbon, 1776, Chapter III)
Commodus was just such a cruel master.
The Arch of Triumph
Towards the end of the reign of Marcus Aurelius, a monumental arch was erected in Rome to commemorate his triumph over the Barbarians (Boschung, 2012b). No one is sure where the arch was constructed or when it was taken down. Of the eleven known bas-reliefs on the arch, eight were re-used on the Arch of Constantine which was built in 315 CE. Three other reliefs are now in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. One of these (on the right) shows Marcus offering mercy to the conquered Barbarians. The other two (below) show Marcus in his triumphal chariot with a Nike of Victory on his shoulders, and Marcus making a sacrifice to the Gods in gratitude for his success.
The Equestrian Statue
The equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius was likely cast at about the same time as the monumental arch (Stewart, 2012). The statue is made of gilded bronze, as befits the name “Aurelius.” Its survival through the late Roman years and medieval period has been attributed to its being mistakenly considered a representation of Constantine the Great (272-337 CE), the Emperor who made Christianity the religion of the Empire.
Joseph Brodsky provided a marvelous description of the statue in his Homage to Marcus Aurelius (1995):
The Romans, superstitious like all Italians, maintain that when the bronze Marcus hits the ground, the end of the world will occur. Whatever the origin of this superstition, it stands to reason if one bears in mind that Marcus’ motto was Equanimity. The word suggests balance, composure under pressure, evenness of mental disposition; literally: equation of the animus, i.e., keeping the soul—and thus the world—in check. Give this formula of the Stoic posture a possible mis-spelling and you’ll get the monument’s definition: Equinimity. The horseman tilts, though, somewhat, as if leaning toward his subjects, and his hand is stretched out in a gesture that is a cross between a greeting and a blessing. So much so that for a while some insisted that this was not Marcus Aurelius but Constantine, who converted Rome to Christianity. For that, however, the horseman’s face is too serene, too free of zeal or ardor, too uninvolved. It is the face of detachment, not of love—and detachment is precisely what Christianity never could manage. No, this is no Constantine, and no Christian. The face is devoid of any sentiment; it is a postscript to passions, and the lowered corners of the mouth bespeak the lack of illusion. Had there been a smile, you could think perhaps of the Buddha; but the Stoics knew too much about physics to toy with the finality of human existence in any fashion. The face shines with the bronze’s original gold, but the hair and the beard have oxidized and turned green, the way one turns gray. All thought aspires to the condition of metal; and the bronze denies you any entry, including interpretation or touch. What you’ve got here, then, is detachment per se. And out of this detachment the Emperor leans toward you slightly, extending his right hand either to greet you or to bless you—which is to say, acknowledge your presence. For where he is, there is no you, and vice versa. The left hand theoretically holds the reins, which are either missing now or were never there in the first place: a horse would obey this rider no matter what. Especially it it represented Nature. For he represents Reason.
Brodsky notes that the fact that Marcus Aurelius has been so long remembered on horseback plays counterpoint to what the Emperor wrote about the transience of life, and quotes his own translation of Book VII Chapter 23 of The Meditations.
The universal nature out of the universal substance, as if it were wax, now molds the figure of a horse, then melting this down uses the material for a tree, next for a man, next for something else; and each of these things subsists for a very short time. Yet it is no hard-ship for a box to be broken up, as it was none for it to be nailed together.
The success of Marcus Aurelius as an Emperor owed much to his Stoicism. Gibbon (1776, Chapter III) remarked
At the age of twelve years he embraced the rigid system of the Stoics, which taught him to submit his body to his mind, his passions to his reason; to consider virtue as the only good, vice as the only evil, all things external as things indifferent. His meditations, composed in the tumult of the camp, are still extant; and he even condescended to give lessons of philosophy, in a more public manner than was perhaps consistent with the modesty of sage, or the dignity of an emperor. But his life was the noblest commentary on the precepts of Zeno. He was severe to himself, indulgent to the imperfections of others, just and beneficent to all mankind. … War he detested, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature; but when the necessity of a just defence called upon him to take up arms, he readily exposed his person to eight winter campaigns, on the frozen banks of the Danube, the severity of which was at last fatal to the weakness of his constitution.
Any understanding of the Emperor’s philosophy and writings will require at least some brief acquaintance with Stoicism, the philosophical system initially proposed by philosophers in Athens, most importantly by Zeno of Citium (344-262 BCE). The illustration on the right shows a Roman copy of an Hellenic portrait bust of Zeno, now in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
The name derives from the Stoa poikile (painted porch) on the Northern edge of the Agora (gathering place) in the center of Athens, where Zeno and his follows met to discuss philosophy. Stoicism was one of several schools of philosophy Hellenistic Athens. Epicureanism and Skepticism were others.
Stoicism was mainly concerned with three areas of knowledge: logic, physics and ethics. According to Diogenes Laertius’ Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers (3rd Century CE, quoted in Inwood & Gerson, p 110)
They compare philosophy to an animal, likening logic to the bones and sinews, ethics to the fleshier parts and physics to the soul. … Or to a productive field, of which logic is the wall surrounding it, ethics the fruit and physics is the land and trees.
The Stoics, particularly Chrysippus of Soli (279-206 BCE made significant advances in formalizing our logic. Aristotle had given us term (or predicate) logic of the form
All men are mortal
Socrates is a man
Therefore Socrates is mortal
The Stoics described the principles of propositional (or statement) logic of which the following syllogisms are examples
If p then q If p then q
Given p Given Not q
Therefore q Therefore Not p
(modus ponens) (modus tollens)
Term logic deals with what things are; propositional logic deals with how things are related. Term logic provides us with classifications and definitions; propositional logic gives us causes and their effects.
Stoic studies of logic had shown how the parts of the world were closely connected, and how reason could organize events according to cause and effect. The Stoics then proposed that the whole universe is pervaded by an intelligence, called logos (word, thought, discourse, reason), that arranges everything to ensure the maximum benefit for all its components. The idea of a universe directed toward the good by Providence (from pro+videre to foresee) clearly differentiated the Stoics from the Epicureans, who proposed a universe composed of atoms that interact without purpose.
The ideas of the Stoics were later taken up by the early Christians, who proposed that Christ was the physical representation of the logos. The Apostle Paul gave a sermon in Athens to an assembly of philosophers, many of them Stoics, relating the new religion to their ideas:
God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;
Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things;
And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation;
That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us:
For in him we live, and move, and have our being (Acts 17: 24-28)
Ethics was the essence of stoicism. Philosophy should be considered as a way of life rather than a body of knowledge. Stoics proposed that we should act in “accord” with Nature – living our lives the way that the logos intended us to live, and thereby fulfilling our own human nature. Their goal was not the happiness sought by the Epicureans but the virtue attained by doing good. Nevertheless, virtue brings happiness (or tranquility) through the knowledge that we are acting our part in the divine purpose of the universe.
The Stoics believed that things of themselves do not cause pain or happiness. These effects occur only if we allow our governing soul to be affected by them. The true stoic would not allow his or her inner self to be upset by pain or carried away by lust. Many have therefore concluded that the Stoic suppresses all emotion, but this is not true. As pointed out by Waterfield (2021, p lii) Stoics can experience three good feelings (eupatheia):
Volition (the rational pursuit of something), caution (the rational avoidance of something) and joy (rational elation).
Acting in accord with Nature means that we must do what we can to benefit our fellows. Stoics were drawn to formal public service. In this they once again distinguished themselves from the Epicureans who eschewed politics.
d) Roman Stoicism
The Romans took to Greek philosophy with enthusiasm. Although the poets were more likely to side with the Epicureans and live only for the moment, those in government found more comfort in Stoicism. They followed the ethics of Stoicism but cared little for the physics. It mattered not whether the universe was purposeful or random, one must still aspire to virtue. Seneca the Younger (4 BCE – 65 CE) wrote
Someone will say, “What use is philosophy to me if there is fate? What use is it if God is in charge? What use, if chance has the mastery? For what is certain cannot be changed, and against what is uncertain there is no way to prepare oneself. Either God has pre-empted my planning and decreed what I should do, or fortune has left nothing for my planning to achieve.” No matter which is true, Lucilius, or even if they all are, we must still practice philosophy. Perhaps the inexorable law of fate constrains us; perhaps God, the universal arbiter, governs all events; perhaps it is chance that drives human affairs, and disrupts them: all the same, it is philosophy that must preserve us. Philosophy will urge us to give willing obedience to God, and but a grudging obedience to fortune. It will teach you to follow God; to cope with chance. (Letters to Lucilius 16: 4-5)
During the last years of his life, Marcus would retire by himself in his army tent near the Danube to contemplate and to write about what he was thinking. As befitting their philosophical nature, these thoughts were written in Greek, even though Marcus was not completely fluent in this language. After his death Marcus’ notes were compiled by his secretaries into a book called Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν (Ta Eis Heauton, “Things to oneself”). Meric Casaubon entitled his translation of the book Meditations (1634), and this title has become widely accepted in English German uses Selbstbetrachtungen, self-examinations, and French uses the simple Pensées, thoughts. The illustration below shows the title page of Casaubon’s translation. He uses as an epigraph a quotation from Ecclesiasticus 18:8
What is man, and whereto serveth he? What is his good, and what is his evil?
In the first section (Book I) Marcus thanks those who helped him during his life. The next sections (Books II to XII) contain a variety of thoughts, questions, quotations, aphorisms, and longer discussions. Each of these sections is a combination of a diary of his thoughts and a “commonplace book” – a trove of ideas to be evaluated and remembered. The writing has no overall organizing principle, is very repetitious and occasionally contradicts itself. The ideas are easier to read intermittently and randomly rather than in sequence.
The book is not easy to translate. Marcus’ Greek “is not noted for its elegance; it can be crabbed and awkward” (Hard, 2011). His “writing is often concise, occasionally even to the point of being no more than notes and jottings” (Waterfield, 2021). The “expressions are often obscure and he uses awkward and unusual construction” (Staniforth 1964). As an example of the difficulties, we can look at the various translations of the famous first sentence of Book II Chapter11:
Casaubon (1634): Whatsoever thou dost affect, whatsoever thou dost project, so do, and so project all, as one who, for aught thou knowest, may at this very present depart out of this life.
Long (1862): Since it is possible that you may depart from life this very moment, regulate every act and thought accordingly.
Haines (1916): Let thine every deed and word and thought be those of a man who can depart from life this moment.
Staniforth (1964): In all you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your own hands.
Hard (2011): Let your every action, word and thought be those of one who could depart from life at any moment.
Dewinetz (2019): You could die right now, so act like it.
Waterfield (2021): Everything you do and say and think should be predicated on the possibility of your imminent departure from life.
Other than this famous exhortation to live as if one were about to die, the following are some of the main ideas proposed in The Meditations:
The universe is proceeding as it must. The mind must live in accord with the universe, accepting its ends and not worrying about its means.
Always think of the universe as one living organism, with a single substance and a single soul: and observe how all things are submitted to the single perceptivity of this one whole, all are moved by its single impulse, and all play their part in the causation of every event that happens. Remark the intricacy of the skein, the complexity of the web. (IV: 40, Staniforth)
There are thus two reasons why you should be contented with whatever happens to you. Firstly, that it was for you that it came about, and it was prescribed for you and stands in a special relationship to you as something that was woven into your destiny from the beginning …and secondly that, for the power which governs the whole that which comes to each of us individually contributes to its own well-being and perfection. (V: 48, Hard)
We are all working together to one end, some with knowledge and design, and others without knowing what they do. (VI: 42, Long)
The person has three parts – the body, the spirit and the mind (or ruling center). The impressions from the world affect the body and activate the spirit. Yet one must not let the mind be ruled by these reflex activations. One must keep oneself beyond the reach of the passions by retreating into the mind and acting only according to reason:
Be like a headland: the waves beat against it continuously, but it stands fast and around it the boiling water dies down. (IV: 49, Waterfield)
An intelligence free of passions is a mighty citadel, for man has no stronghold more secure to which he can retreat. (VIII: 48, Hard)
One should help others as best one can.
That which is not in the interests of the hive cannot be in the interests of the bee (VI: 53, Haines)
Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them or bear with them. (VIII: 59, Long).
Precisely because you personally are part of the whole that is the body politic, every one of your actions should contribute to a life the purpose of which is to improve society (IX: 23, Waterfield)
First, never act without plan and purpose. Second, set your sights on no other goal but the common good. (XII: 20, Waterfield)
Throughout The Meditations, Marcus Aurelius insists that his own life was but a tiny moment in the life of the universe and that he would not be remembered beyond his death:
Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you (VII;21, Staniforth).
Keep all time and all being constantly before your mind, and see that, in terms of being, every individual thing is no more than a fig seed, and in terms of time no more than a twist of a drill (X: 17, Waterfield)
Despite these comments, Marcus Aurelius has been remembered and revered for almost two millennia. I shall complete the post with a longer quotation from The Meditations about the passage of time, and with a photograph of the one of his best-preserved portrait busts, now in the Musée Saint-Raymond in Toulouse.
A person’s lifetime is a moment, his existence a flowing stream, his perception dull, the entire fabric of his body readily subject to decay, his soul an aimless wanderer, his fortune erratic, his fame uncertain. In short: the body is nothing but a river; the soul is dream and delusion; life is war and a sojourn in a strange land; and oblivion is all there is to posthumous fame. What, then, can escort us safely on our way? Only one thing: philosophy. This consists in keeping the guardian spirit within us safe from assault and harm, never swayed by pleasure or pain, purposeful when it acts, free from dishonesty or dissemblance, and never dependent on action or inaction from anyone else. It also consists in accepting what happens, the lot one has been assigned, as coming from the same source as oneself, and in always awaiting death with a serene mind, understanding that it’s no more than the disintegration of the elements of which every living creature is a compound. If there’s nothing unusual in the elements themselves changing moment by moment one into another, why should the alteration and disintegration of them all be a cause for anxiety? It’s in accord with nature, and nothing that’s in accord with nature is bad. Book II:17 (Waterfield, 2021)
Casaubon, M. (1634). Marcus Aurelius Antoninus the Roman emperor, hismeditationsconcerning himselfe treating of a naturall mans happinesse; wherein it consisteth, and of the meanes to attaine unto it. London: Flesher and Mynne. (A modernized version of this translation edited and introduced by W. H. Rouse was published by Dent under the title The Golden Book of Marcus Aurelius in 1906. Available at archive.org.)
Long, G. (1862, revised 1874). The meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. New York: Lovell and Coryell (This translation has been extensively republished in various formats). Available at archive.org.
Haines, C. R. (1916). Marcus Aurelius. Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press.
Staniforth, M. (1964). Meditations. Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome, 121-180. London: Penguin.
Hard, R. (2011). Marcus Aurelius. Meditations with selected correspondence. Oxford World Classics.
Dewinetz, J. (2019). Marcus Aurelius, Sort of. Vernon, BC, Canada: Greenboathouse Press. (A loose translation (or transmogrification) of Book II of The Meditations).
Waterfield, R. (2021). Marcus Aurelius. Meditations: The Annotated Edition. New York: Basic Books.
Baltzly, D. (2019). Stoicism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
Beckmann, M. (2011). The Column of Marcus Aurelius: the genesis & meaning of a Roman imperial monument. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Birley, A. (1993). Marcus Aurelius: A Biography (2nd ed., Revised). Routledge.
Boschung, D. (2012a). The portraits: a short introduction. In van Ackeren, M. (Ed) A companion to Marcus Aurelius. (pp 294-304). Wiley-Blackwell.
Boschung, D. (2012b). The reliefs: representation of Marcus Aurelius’ deeds. In van Ackeren, M. (Ed) A companion to Marcus Aurelius. (pp 305-314). Wiley-Blackwell.
Brodsky, J. (1995). Homage to Marcus Aurelius. In Brodsky, J. On grief and reason: essays. (pp 267-298). New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
Gibbon, E. (1776, revised 1845). History of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Volume I. London: Strahan and Cadell. Available at gutenberg.org
Hadot, P. (1992). La citadelle intérieure: introduction aux Pensées de Marc Aurèle. Paris: Fayard. (translated by M. Chase, 1998). The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Harvard University Press.
Inwood, B. (2018). Stoicism: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press.
Inwood, B., & Gerson, L. P. (1998). Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings (2nd ed.). Hackett Publishing Company
Kamtekar, R. (2018). Marcus Aurelius. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edward N. Zalta (ed.)
McLynn. F. (2009). Marcus Aurelius: warrior, philosopher, emperor. London: Bodley Head.
Sellars, J. (2006). Stoicism. University of California Press.
Stephens, W. O. (2012). Marcus Aurelius: a guide for the perplexed. Continuum International Pub. Group.
Stewart, P. (2012). The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius. In van Ackeren, M. (Ed) A companion to Marcus Aurelius. (pp 263-277). Wiley-Blackwell.
Short Day with Sound
As I stated in my pre-Christmas post about On this Short Day of Frost and Sun, I have made a copy of the file with embedded sounds. For each of the poems, there is a recitation, often by the author of the poem. While inserting the soundfiles, I also corrected a few typographical errors in the original pdf.
The resultant pdf file is very large – 588 KB. Because of its size it is only available on my google drive:
I have not been able to download the file on my phone, and I think that it would too complicated to operate on a phone or a simple tablet. It should be downloaded onto a computer. Your browser may complain that the file is too large to check for viruses, but that you can “download anyway.” There are no viruses in the file.
Once you have downloaded the file to your computer, it should be opened using Adobe Acrobat Reader (free to download.) If the file is opened in other pdf-reading programs, the file will either be rejected as too large, or the sound files won’t work. For example, Google may automatically try to read the file using its Google-Doc programs but this will not work.
In order to listen to the embedded sound files, you must set up the Adobe Reader to play multimedia files. To do this follow these steps:
Edit > Preferences (bottom) > Multimedia & 3D (in menu)> tick box for Enable Playing of Multimedia & 3D content (topmost box).
Like its soundless cousin, the file is best viewed using a full-screen two-page viewing mode. To set this up in Adobe follow these steps:
View > Page Display > Two Page View
This is a screen-shot of what it looks like when it works.
On this Short Day
One of my most pleasant pastimes is reading poetry. For several years now, I have been putting together a collection of poems that I have enjoyed at various times in my life, and I have added some comments about each of them.
I realize that most people do not read poetry. However, on the off-chance that you might like it, the anthology is available in pdf format by clicking on the link below. Once the file is opened you can save it to your own device.
Although the pdf can be read by any pdf reader, it is probably best looked at two-pages at a time (like a book) using Adobe Acrobat Reader DC (free) and a relatively large screen. To do this, follow the instructions given at the beginning of the book. Adobe also allows you to search for particular poems by title or by author.
As noted in the preface, I also have sound-files containing recitations of all the poems, many by the authors, themselves. Early in the new year I shall find some way of embedding these in a larger “text and sound” pdf.
Condemned to be Free
When Paris was liberated in August, 1944, everything was possible. A new world needed to be created to protect their regained freedom. The philosophy that epitomized this desire for freedom was “existentialism.” The term, originally used in a derogatory sense to characterize those who followed the philosophical concept of the primacy of “being,” was grudgingly accepted by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir as a description of their thinking. Existentialism fitted easily with the idea of the absurd proposed by Albert Camus. These concepts became the main focus of both art and philosophy in the decade that followed the end of World War II.
Although there were precursors, existentialism was largely the work of Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986). They met in 1929 and became lifelong companions, although they were never married and never monogamous (Bakewell, 2016; Seymour-Jones, 2008). Women should be just as free as men (de Beauvoir, 1949). In the agrégation en philosophie of 1930, a national exam organized by the French civil service, Sartre and de Beauvoir placed first and second. Sartre was short – about 5 feet – and the exotropia of his right eye (caused by a childhood infection) gave him a disconcerting appearance; de Beauvoir was tall – about 5 feet 10 inches – and elegant.
Sartre and de Beauvoir were the leading intellectuals of France during the war. In a break with tradition, they were as much creative artists as philosophers. The theory of Sartre’s L’Être et le Néant (Being and Nothingness) was illustrated in the novel La Nausée (1938), and in the plays and Les Mouches (1943) and Huis Clos (1944). Since art is far more convincing than theory y, existentialism became more popular than any previous philosophy.
The main tenets of existentialism were summarized by Sartre in a lecture in October 1945, subsequently published as Existentialisme est un humanism (1946). The key to the philosophy is the idea that “existence precedes essence:”
What do we mean here by “existence precedes essence”? We mean that man first exists: he materializes in the world, encounters himself, and onlv afterward defines himself. If man as existentialists conceive of him cannot be defined, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature since there is no God to conceive of it. Man is not only that which he conceives himself to be, but that which he wills himself to be, and since he conceives of himself only after he exists, iust as he wills himself to be after being thrown into existence, man is nothing other than what he makes of himself. This is the first principle of existentialism. (Sartre, 1946)
We could therefore not look to God for guidance as to what was right. Instead, we must create our own morality. In her essay Existentialisme et la sagesse des nations (1945), de Beauvoir wrote:
I throw myself without help and without guidance into a world where I am not installed ahead of time waiting for myself. I am free, and my projects are not defined by pre-existing interests; they posit their own ends. … Man may not be naturally good, but he is not naturally bad either; he is nothing at first. It is up to him to make himself good or bad depending on whether he assumes his freedom or renounces it. (de Beauvoir, 1945).
In addition to being responsible for his own actions, a person must by his or her example be responsible for the actions of others. The recognition of others is part and parcel of the existential being:
Therefore, the man who becomes aware of himself directly in the cogito also perceives all others, and he does so as the condition of his own existence. He realizes that he cannot be anything (in the sense in which we say someone is spiritual, or cruel, or jealous) unless others acknowledge him as such. I cannot discover any truth whatsoever about myself except through the mediation of another. The other is essential to my existence, as well as to the knowledge I have of myself. (Sartre, 1946).
And so, we are “condemned to be free:”
If, however, God does not exist, we will encounter no values or orders that can legitimize our conduct. Thus, we have neither behind us, nor before us, in the luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. We are left alone and without excuse. That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does. (Sartre, 1946).
The existentialism of Sartre was atheistic. If there is no Creator, there is no design that defines the essence of man and that determines how he should act. Man defines his own essence. However, although most existentialists tended to atheism, several religious thinkers promulgated a Christian variant of existentialism (Marcel, 1949,1951; Macquarrie, 1965). In this philosophy existence is a gift – we are allowed rather than condemned to be free. Faith is an act of freedom.
Sartre had studied the philosophy of Husserl and Heidegger in the period when he was appointed to the Institut français d’Allemagne in Berlin (1933-34). The title of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness (1943) clearly alluded to Martin Heidegger’s, Being and Time (1927). The concept of existence preceding essence was likely derived from Heidegger’s philosophy, which distinguished man from other beings in terms of his freedom. Heidegger (§10) did claim that existentia preceded essentia, but for him the latter was simply the properties of a being, without Sartre’s connotation of a design used in the creation of particular examples (Flynn, 2014, p 237; Webber, 2018, p 8). For Heidegger, human beings were distinct from other beings since their consciousness granted them a particular point of view within the world – a Da-Sein or “being-there.” One of Heidegger’s numerous neologisms described this as Jemeinigkeit – always being my own being. Da-Sein was characterized by embodiment, location in space and time, and an awareness of mortality. Heidegger denied that he was an existentialist, though many have so described him (e.g., Kaufmann, 1963; Macquarie, 1965; Flynn, 2006).
Heidegger (1889-1976) had become Professor of Philosophy at the University of Freiburg in 1928, and was elected Rector in 1933, the year that Hitler came to power. Heidegger was entranced by the idea of the German Volk and became an enthusiastic member of the Nazi Party. He claimed to have been blind to the racism and warmongering of the party, but his reputation was forever tainted by his support of Hitler. Heidegger was a philosopher who recognized the importance of being, and realized the freedom it entailed. Yet he failed to exercise that freedom with responsibility. One of the main ideas of the existentialism proposed by Sartre and de Beauvoir was the necessity that actions freely chosen must be held accountable.
At the opening night of Les Mouches in 1943, Albert Camus (1913-1960) introduced himself to Sartre. Camus had just published a novel L’Étranger and a book of philosophical essays entitled Le mythe de Sisyphe. Sartre had been impressed by these works, and he was charmed by the young author. Sartre and Camus became fast friends (Aronson, 2004; Zaretsky, 2013).
Camus was an Algerian of French origin (derogatively known as a “pied noir,” though no one is completely sure of the origin of the term). After graduating from university, he joined the Algerian Communist Party and wrote for a leftist newspaper in Algiers. When this was banned by the new government of occupied France in 1940, Camus moved to Paris. There he worked for Combat, the clandestine newspaper of the French Resistance, becoming its editor in 1944. Throughout his life he suffered from chronic tuberculosis. The 1954 portrait below is by Karsh.
Camus’ Le Mythe of Sisyphe has the most striking opening of any work of philosophy:
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions whether the mind has nine of twelve categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer.
Camus points out the paradox of the question. What makes life worth living – whether it be freedom, truth, love, beauty –is also that for which one is willing to die. The absurd rests at the heart of the human condition (Carroll, 2007). The word derives from the Latin ab (from, out of) and surdus which means deaf (and by association, silent) and generally means lacking in reason or meaning. Nagel (1971) describes our sense of the absurd as the discrepancy between how seriously we attempt to understand the universe and how arbitrarily the universe actually proceeds. Camus describes it:
What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? A world that can be explained even with bad reasons is a familiar world. But, on the other hand, in a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity. (Camus, 1942).
Camus traces the idea of absurdity in Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Kafka. (The chapter on Kafka was removed from the initial edition of the book by the censors since Kafka was Jewish). Camus finds that the absurdity of the human condition is what makes artistic creation necessary. He quotes Nietzsche (from the Nachlass)
We have art in order not to die of the truth.
And proceeds to describe the process of art in an absurd world:
The problem for the absurd artist is to acquire this savoir-vivre which transcends savoir-faire. And in the end, the great artist under this climate is, above all, a great living being, it being understood that living in this case is just as much experiencing as reflecting. The work then embodies an intellectual drama. The absurd work illustrates thought’s renouncing of its prestige and its resignation to being no more than the intelligence that works up appearances and covers with images what has no reason. If the world were clear, art would not exist.
Camus concludes his book with an essay on Sisyphus. The illustration below shows a 1920 painting by Franz von Stuck. Sisyphus refused to accept death and insisted on living. For this love of life, the gods condemned him forever to roll an immense boulder up a hill only to have it roll back as soon as it reached the top, so that he must continuously begin again. Camus sees in Sisyphus the artist in an absurd world:
I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
Darkness at Noon
Between the liberation and the elections leading to the Fourth Republic in 1946, France was governed by the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Française, consisting of representatives from the communist party, the socialists, and the Christian democrats. Given the economic debacle of the 1930s and the war against the fascists, politics tended toward the left and many considered the possibility of joining the international communist revolution. However, the institution of the Marshall Plan in 1947 led the French government to exclude the communists from the governing coalition. The Cold war was beginning.
Everyone remembered Stalin’s Great Purge of 1937 and 1938, wherein countless members of the military and the government were put on trial for being traitors to the revolution, and either executed or sent to forced-labor camps in the Gulag. The most striking of these trials was that of Nikolai Bukharin, who had written The ABC of Communism (the “communist bible”), and who had served on the Politburo and the Comintern. The illustration below shows Bukharin with Stalin in 1929 on the tribune of the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square in Moscow.
At his trial Bukharin confessed to his crimes against the Revolution, but did not acknowledge any specific acts of treason. His confession is often interpreted as the last act of a true believer – one who willingly sacrificed himself so that the revolution might prosper.
In 1940, Arthur Koestler published Darkness at Noon, a novel that is based on the interrogation and trial of Bukharin. The title, derived from Job 5:14 by Koestler’s translator and mistress, Daphne Hardy, described the state of moral confusion that surrounded the trial.
They meet with darkness in the day time, and grope in the noonday as in the night.
The novel’s main character, Rubashov, undergoes three interrogations and finally admits to betraying the revolution, and is executed. The issue is whether it is justified to abrogate present morality for the sake of a future utopia. Should one deny truth and justice in order to bring about a paradise promised, but certainly not guaranteed, by the revolution. As the epitaph for the second interrogation Koestler quoted from Dietrich von Nieheim’s 1410 history of the Avignon papacy:
When the existence of the Church is threatened, she is released from the commandments of morality. With unity as the end, the use of every means is sanctified, even deceit, treachery, violence, usury, prison, and death. Because order serves the good of the community, the individual must be sacrificed for the common good.
When published in France in 1944, Koestler’s novel initiated extensive discussion. Could the show trials, the executions and the labor camps of the USSR be justified by the goals of the communist revolution? How far can the ends justify the means? In the years that followed World War II, the USSR continued to restrict the freedom of its artists, and to conduct show trials of those who had supposedly betrayed the revolution. In his 1947 essay on Humanism and Terror, Merleau-Ponty attempted to justify the purges and the labor camps. Merleau-Ponty later recanted, but Sartre continued his steadfast support of the communists, despite the Berlin blockade (1948-9) and the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution (1956). Only when the USSR invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, did he finally renounce the USSR’s claim to represent the true course of history
Man in Revolt
In 1951, Camus published L’homme révolté. The title is usually translated as The Rebel, though Camus is more concerned with revolution than rebellion – with changing society for the future rather than reacting against the past. In this work, Camus considered whether violence can be justified in order to alter the course of history toward a better future. The book poses a question complementary to that posed in Le mythe de Sisyphe:
In the age of negation, it was to some avail to examine one’s position concerning suicide. In the age of ideologies, we must examine our position in relation to murder.
In his book Camus reviews the history of revolution and terror as treated by philosophers and writers. He considers Ivan’s story of the “Grand Inquisitor” in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as representative of how revolutions end with loss of freedom:
the Grand Inquisitors who imprison Christ and come to tell Him that His method is not correct, that universal happiness cannot be achieved by the immediate freedom of choosing between good and evil, but by the domination and unification of the world. The first step is to conquer and rule. The kingdom of heaven will, in fact, appear on earth, but it will be ruled over by men — a mere handful to begin with, who will be the Caesars, because they were the first to understand — and later, with time, by all men. (Camus, 1951).
Camus castigates the totalitarian movements of the 20th Century – communism and fascism – for promising freedom but, in reality, making the people mindless slaves. The future must not be used to justify violence in the present. In opposition to totalitarianism he proposed, albeit not very forcefully, the need for solidarity and moderation.
Camus, the one-time communist, had come to realize that the cult of history can support crimes against humanity. He had thus distanced himself from many of his intellectual friends who supported the ideals of the communist revolution. His book was lauded by right-wing critics, and led to a complete rupture with Sartre (Aronson, 2004; Forsdick, 2007)
Sartre, the editor of Les Temps Modernes disliked the book’s conclusions, but did not wish to review it personally because of his friendship with Camus. Ultimately, he arranged for a very negative review by Francis Jeanson to be published in the journal. Jeanson’s critique infuriated Camus, who immediately wrote a rebuttal. He felt it inappropriate to be described as “being separated from reality” given his activity with the Résistance:
I am beginning to get a little tired of seeing myself – and even more, of seeing former militants who have never refused the struggles of their time – endlessly receive lessons in efficacy from critics who have never done anything more than turn their seats in the direction of history.
Jeanson replied to Camus, and Sartre then published a patronizing public letter to Camus, beginning “My dear Camus,” wherein he accuses him of a “dismal self-importance” and claimed:
If you really hope to prevent any movement of the people from degenerating into tyranny, don’t begin by condemning it without appeal, and threatening to retreat to a desert.
Camus and Sartre never talked again.
The Death of Camus
On January 4, 1960, Camus died in a car accident. After celebrating the New Year in Lourmarin, he accepted a ride back to Paris with his publisher Michel Gallimard. Gallimard was driving, Camus was in the front and Gallimard’s wife and daughter were in the back. The car suffered a punctured tire at high speed and crashed into a tree. Camus was killed instantly and Michel Gallimard died several days later. Gallimard’s wife and daughter survived.
There has been some speculation that the tire was sabotaged by the KGB to silence Camus as a critic of international communism (Catelli, 2020). However, there is little hard evidence. It is easier to accept the crash as another example of the arbitrary absurdity of human life. Camus had intended to take the train back to Paris, before Michel Gallimard offered him a ride in his luxurious Facel Vega.
In his eulogy for his old friend, Sartre, who had not been in contact with Camus since 1952 wrote:
He represented in our time the latest example of that long line of moralistes whose works constitute perhaps the most original element in French letters. His obstinate humanism, narrow and pure, austere and sensual, waged an uncertain war against the massive and formless events of the time. (Sartre, 1960).
Aronson, R. (2004). Camus and Sartre: the story of a friendship and the quarrel that ended it. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bakewell, S. (2016). At the existentialist café: freedom, being and apricot cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Karl Jaspers, Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and others. London: Chatto & Windus.
de Beauvoir, S. (1945). L’existentialisme et la sagesse des nations. Les Temps Modernes, 1(3): 385–404. [translated by M Timmerman in by Simons, M. A. (Ed.) (2005). Beauvoir, Simone de: Philosophical Writings, Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press].
de Beauvoir, S. (1949). Le deuxième sexe. 1, Les faits et les mythes2 L’expérience vécue. Paris: Gallimard. [translated by C. Borde and S. Malovany-Chevallier, 2010, The Second Sex. New York Vintage (Random House)].
Camus, A. (1942). L’Étranger. Paris:Gallimard.
Camus, A. (1942). Le mythe de Sisyphe: essai sur l’absurde. Paris: Gallimard. [English translation: J. O’Brien (1955). The myth of Sisyphus. London: Hamish Hamilton.]
Camus, A. (1951). L’homme révolté. Paris: Gallimard. [English translation: A. Bower (1954). The rebel: an essay on man in revolt. New York: Knopf]
Carroll, D. (2007). Rethinking the absurd: Le mythe de Sisyphe. In E. J. Hughes (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Camus. (pp 53-56). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Catelli, G., (translated by Tanzi, A., 2020). The death of Camus. London: Hurst & Company.
Dostoyevsky, F., (1880, translated by Pevear, R., & Volokhonsky, L., 1992). The brothers Karamazov. New York: Knopf
Flynn, T. (2006). Existentialism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Flynn, T. (2014). Sartre: a philosophical biography. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Forsdick, C. (2007). Camus and Sartre: the great quarrel. In E. J. Hughes (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Camus. (pp 118-130). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heidegger, M. (1927, translated by Stambaugh, J., 1996). Being and time: a translation of Sein und Zeit. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Kaufmann, W. (1963). Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre. Cleveland: World Publishing.
Koestler, A. (translated by Hardy, D. 1940). Darkness at noon. London: Macmillan.
Macquarrie, J. (1965). Studies in Christian Existentialism. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press.
Marcel, G. (1949). The philosophy of existence. New York: Philosophical Library.
Marcel, G. (1951). The Mystery of Being, vol.1, Reflection and Mystery, translated by G. S. Fraser, vol.2, Faith and Reality, translated by René Hague. London: The Harvill Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1947, translated by J. O’Neill, 1969). Humanism and terror: an essay on the Communist problem. Boston: Beacon Press.
Nagel, T. (1971). The absurd. Journal of Philosophy, 68, 716-727.
Sartre, J-P. (1938). La nausée. Paris: Gallimard.
Sartre, J-P. (1943). L’être et le néant, essai d’ontologie phénoménologique. Paris: Gallimard. [translated by Barnes, H. (1956). Being and nothingness: a phenomenological essay on ontology. New York: Washington Square Press.]
Sartre, J-P. (1946/1996). L’existentialisme est un humanisme. Paris: Gallimard. [translated and edited by Macomber, C., Cohen-Solal, A., & Elkaïm-Sartre, A. (2007). Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.]
Sartre, J-P. (1947). Huis clos; suivi de Les mouches. Paris: Gallimard.
Sartre, J-P. (1960). Tribute to Albert Camus. The Reporter, February 4, 1960, p. 34
Seymour-Jones, C. (2008). A dangerous liaison: Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. London: Century.
Webber, J. (2018). Rethinking Existentialism. Oxford University Press.
Zaretsky, R. (2013). A life worth living: Albert Camus and the quest for meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Intimations of Mortality
We have been here before. The coronavirus pandemic has many precedents. Over the centuries various plagues have swept over our world. Many millions of people have died before their time. From 1347 to 1351 the Black Death killed about 30 million people in Medieval Europe: over a third of the population. From 1918 to 1920 the Great Influenza killed about 50 million people: about 2.5% of the world’s population. Each of these pandemics was as deadly as World War I (about 20 million) or World War II (about 70 million). Pandemics are more worrisome than wars: we cannot sue for peace with a virus. Most of us survived even the worst of past infections. Our systems of immunity will likely once again become victorious in this present pandemic. But just like after a war, we shall be severely chastened. How close we will have come to death will change the way we think. Everything will be seen through the mirror of our own mortality and the transience of our species. The nearness of an ending will distort our thinking. We shall have strange dreams and frightening visions.
John of Patmos
Such dreams and visions came to a man named John almost two millennia ago. In the second half of the 1st Century CE, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian, the Christians of the Roman Empire were severely persecuted, the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the Roman Empire was shaken by attacks from without and rebellions from within. There was no pandemic but life was just as uncertain.
On the island of Patmos just off the west coast of what is now Turkey, a Christian named John experienced disturbing visions of the future. He described these in a manuscript that began with the word apokalypsis (Greek for “unveiling”). This became Revelation, the last book in the Christian New Testament (Koester, 2014; Quispel, 1979). The illustration on the right, from the Bamberg Apocalypse, an illuminated manuscript from the 11th Century, shows an angel telling John what he should write:
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John (Revelation 1:1)
For many years, Christian scholars assumed that John the Apostle, the youngest of Christ’s disciples, was the author of Revelation, the Gospel of John and the three Epistles of John. Most modern scholars consider it unlikely that he wrote any of these works. They suggest three separate authors one for the gospel, one for the three epistles, and one for the apocalypse. One telling point is that each author describes the end-times very differently. For example, the Antichrist is mentioned in the epistles (e.g. 1 John 2:18), but not in the apocalypse. The author of Revelation was probably a Jewish-Christian prophet living in Asia Minor – John of Patmos. He may have written the book over many years. One suggestion is that he began writing as a Jew and later converted to Christianity (Koester, 2014, pp 68-71).
The visions described by John are stunning in their force and detail. The Whore of Babylon, the Seven-Headed Beast, and the Four Horsemen have become part of our collective consciousness.
Revelation is the most interpreted and least understood book of the Christian Bible (Quispel, 1979; Koester, 2014). Some have interpreted the visions as describing the troubled time in which they were experienced. The Seven-Headed Beast could then represent Rome (with its seven hills, or its seven emperors), and the Rider on the White Horse could represent the Parthians who threatened the peace of the Middle East. Others have considered the visions as prophesying the later history of the Christian Church. The Whore of Babylon was the papacy of Rome for Protestants and the heresies of the Reformation for Catholics. Others believe that Revelation foretells the Last Days, that are yet to come, when Christ will judge both the quick and the dead.
John’s first vision was of the Lord seated upon a throne in Heaven. This is illustrated below in the 11th-Century Bamberg Apocalypse, and in the 1498 woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. Around the throne were four beasts in the form of Man, Lion, Ox and Eagle, probably representing the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Around them were four and twenty elders, clothed in white and wearing crowns of gold. In the Lord’s right hand was a book “sealed with seven seals.” The structure of this book is not clear. Perhaps it is made up of seven scrolls one rolled up within the other (Quispel, 1979, p 51). A mystical lamb appears and proceeds to open each of the seals.
The Four Horsemen
As the first four seals are opened four horsemen appear:
And I saw when the Lamb opened one of the seals, and I heard, as it were the noise of thunder, one of the four beasts saying, Come and see.
And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer.
And when he had opened the second seal, I heard the second beast say, Come and see.
And there went out another horse that was red: and power was given to him that sat thereon to take peace from the earth, and that they should kill one another: and there was given unto him a great sword.
And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.
And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine.
And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see.
And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth. (Revelation 6:1-8)
Only the fourth horseman is clearly identified by John as Death. The color of his horse has been interpreted as “pale,” although the Greek chloros is actually better translated as “green.” Perhaps John envisioned a sickly pale green color. The identity of the other three is unknown (reviewed by Koester, 2014, pp 392-398; and in Wikipedia). The rider of the black horse with his scales for weighing and pricing food was almost certainly Famine. The rider of the Red Horse was probably War. The first horsemen has been interpreted in many ways. Perhaps he is Christ, perhaps the Antichrist. Some have considered him as Conquest though this seems to overlap with the rider of the Red Horse. Pestilence or plague seems the most reasonable interpretation. His arrows could then represent the transmission of infection.
The most famous depiction of the Four Horsemen is the 1498 woodcut of Albrecht Dürer, illustrated on the right. The first three horsemen look like mercenary warriors from the Hundred Year War. Death is a skeletal figure riding an emaciated horse. He clears the world of those who die from pestilence, war and famine.
The 1865 wood-engraving by Héliodore Pelan based on a drawing by Gustave Doré gives Death a more majestic appearance, and grants him the scythe that has become his symbol. The scythe refers the apocalyptic passages in the Gospels that consider the final harvest of human souls. Doré also depicts the dark shades of Hades that John saw following after Death.
Pale Horse, Pale Rider
In 1918 Katherine Anne Porter almost died from the Great Influenza while she was in Denver working as a journalist (Barry, 1963). In 1939 she published Pale Horse, Pale Rider a short novel about that experience. In the novel she calls herself Miranda (from the Latin, “to be wondered at”). Pale Horse, Pale Rider was published together with two other stories – Old Mortality and Noon Wine – and gave its title to the collection.
The novel opens with a dream. Miranda is about to go riding, but she cannot decide which horse to borrow for a journey she does not wish to take. She decides against Miss Lucy “with the long nose and the wicked eye,” and Fiddler “who can jump ditches in the dark,” and choses Graylie “because he is not afraid of bridges.” These horses are those that were ridden long ago by Amy, the wife of Miranda’s Uncle Gabriel. Amy was a beautiful and spirited young woman, who committed suicide before Miranda was born. Her story was told in Old Mortality, one of several Miranda stories.
In the dream Miranda must go riding with a stranger who has been hanging about the place. She mounts Graylie, and urges him on. They fly off, over the hedge and the ditch and down the lane:
The stranger rode beside her, easily, lightly, his reins loose in his half-closed hand, straight and elegant in dark shabby garments that flapped upon his bones. (Porter, 1939, p 181)
Suddenly, she pulls Graylie up, the stranger rides on, and Miranda wakes up.
She remembers the events of the day before, particularly her visit to the infirmary at the army camp, and her tryst with her new boyfriend Adam, a young and handsome soldier about to be sent to France. She is not feeling well, but goes to work and once again meets Adam.
The next day she feels quite ill, and is seen by a doctor who prescribes some medications and says he will check on her later. Adam comes to see her and comforts her. They talk of their love for each other, about the war and about old songs they had heard when they were younger. One of these is a spiritual that began “Pale horse, pale rider, done taken my lover away.” The doctor returns and arranges for Miranda to be admitted to hospital. She has contracted influenza, perhaps from her visit to the infirmary.
While in hospital Miranda comes close to death but survives
Silenced she sank easily through deeps under deeps of darkness until she lay like a stone at the farthest bottom of life, knowing herself to be blind, deaf, speechless, no longer aware of the members of her own body, entirely with-drawn from all human concerns, yet alive with a peculiar lucidity and coherence; all notions of the mind, the reasonable inquiries of doubt, all ties of blood and the desires of the heart, dissolved and fell away from her, and there remained of her only a minute fiercely burning particle of being that knew itself alone, that relied upon nothing beyond itself for its strength; not susceptible to any appeal or inducement, being itself com-posed entirely of one single motive, the stubborn will to live. This fiery motionless particle set itself unaided to resist destruction, to survive and to be in its own madness of being, motiveless and planless beyond that one essential end. (pp 252-3).
She has a vision of a place reached by crossing a rainbow bridge. Graylie was not afraid of bridges. There Miranda sees in the shimmering air “a great company of human beings,” all the people she had known in life. From this apparent heaven she returns to the reality of the hospital. She has miraculously comeback from the dead. She lives up to her name – someone to be wondered at.
In her convalescence she learns that Adam had also became ill, probably having caught the disease from her. However, though Miranda had survived, Adam had died.
Outside the bells are ringing to celebrate the end of the war. As Miranda prepares to leave the hospital, she requests some essentials to begin her new life:
One lipstick, medium, one ounce flask Bois d’Hiver perfume, one pair gray suede gauntlets without straps, two pairs gray sheer stockings without clocks … one walking stick of silvery wood with a silver knob. (p 262).
She will be pale and elegant like the rider she dreamed about at the beginning of her illness, the rider that done take her love away. She has been irretrievably marked by death. As she leaves the hospital Miranda thinks
No more war, no more plague, only the dazed silence that follows the ceasing of the heavy guns; noiseless houses with the shades drawn, empty streets, the dead cold light of tomorrow. Now there would be time for everything. (p 264)
Life is now defined by what it is not – no war, no plague, no noise, no light. Porter’s words recall Wilfred Owen’s 1917 poem Anthem for Doomed Youth which begins with the “monstrous anger of the guns” and ends with “each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds” (Owen, 1985, p 76). Much poetry was written about the terrible loss of life in the Great War. Very little is concerned with the great epidemic of influenza that marked its ending (Crosby, 1989; Fisher, 2012).
Miranda’s final claim “Now there would be time for everything” is the tragedy of the book. She is now free to do as she wishes but there is nothing that she wishes to do.
Porter spent many years before she fully recovered from her experience in Denver. She did not publish her first stories until 1930, and Pale Horse, Pale Rider did not come out until 1939. Some sense of Miranda’s feelings at the end of that book is perhaps present in the 1942 portrait drawing of Porter by Paul Cadmus.
The Great Influenza
The influenza that almost killed Katherine Anne Porter swept across the world between 1918 and 1921 (Barry, 2004; Crosby, 1989; Spinney, 2017; Taubenberger & Morens, 2006). No one is sure where it began. The first cases were seen in Kansas, and the disease spread rapidly through the US army camps where young men were being trained before going to fight in France.
The following is the iconic image of the epidemic: the make-shift infirmary at Camp Funston, Kansas. The photograph is strangely still. It should be accompanied by the sound of intermittent coughing. The light rakes across the camp cots, randomly selecting one soldier or another, much as the disease would select those who would die. There was no treatment: oxygen would not be used for pneumonia until after the war (Heffner, 2013). About a quarter of the young men in this photo likely died of influenza. More US soldiers died of influenza than during battle.
The disease quickly spread to the battlefields of Europe. None of the combatant-countries wished to acknowledge that their troops were ill. Since the first officially reported cases occurred when the disease spread to Spain, the pandemic was thereafter miscalled the Spanish Flu. In this posting it is called the Great Influenza.
The 1918 pandemic was unusual in that it the young and healthy were more susceptible to the disease than the elderly. This may have been related to the close quartering of the young soldiers. Or it might have been caused by an overly reactive immune system.
Coronavirus COVID-19 acts similarly to the influenza virus in terms of its spread through airborne droplets, and in terms of how its major morbidity is due to a viral pneumonia. The coronavirus differs from the Great Influenza in that it affects the elderly more than the young. Nevertheless, we should look to the Great Influenza in terms of what might happen in our current pandemic.
A pandemic is characterized by two main parameters. The contagiousness of the disease is measured by the basic reproduction number (R0). This is the number of new people that will become infected from one individual patient. If R0 is less than 1 the disease dies out; if it is greater than 1 the disease spreads exponentially through the population. The virulence of the disease is assessed by the case fatality rate (CFR). This measures the proportion of infected patients that die.
For the Great Influenza R0 was about 2 (Ferguson et al. 2006), and the CFR was about 2.5% (Taubenberger & Morens, 2006). We do not yet know for sure how the present coronavirus COVID-19 compares. Early data from China suggest that R0 is about 2, and the CFR about 5% (Wu et al., 2020). Since we have not yet done sufficient testing to be sure of the number of cases in the population, the CFR is likely overestimated. Most of the tested cases are patients who have been severely symptomatic. If there is a significant number of asymptomatic (and untested) cases, the CFR will be lower (discussed extensively on the World in Data website). It might approach the CFR estimated for the Great Influenza, but it will be at least an order of magnitude greater than seasonal flu (<0.1%).
For those who wish to consider all the other great epidemics of human history, Wikipedia has listed their estimated values for R0and CFR.
The numbers for COVID-19 Pandemic indicate we must be extremely cautious so as not to endure a repeat of the Great Influenza. Since stories are often more convincing than numbers, we can briefly consider the effect of the Philadelphia’s Liberty Loan Parade on September 23, 1918. Despite warnings about the influenza, the city went ahead with a huge parade to drum up support for the US war effort. A few days after the parade, hundreds of people became ill. Soon the number of ill patients increased. Hospitals rapidly became overcrowded and unable to take new cases. By the end of the years the number of cases exceeded 100,000 and the number of dead approached 13,000, over 1% of the city’s population (Barry, 2004, pp 220-227; Kopp & McGovern, 2018)). In contrast after the first recorded cases of influenza in St Louis, that city quickly instituted measures against the spread of the disease, such as closing schools and banning public gatherings. The number of deaths in St Louis per 100,000 population during the epidemic was less than half that in Philadelphia (Hatchett et al, 2007).
In Philadelphia and across the world morticians and gravediggers rapidly became overwhelmed and bodies began to pile up in the streets. In Rio de Janeiro, Jamanta, a famous carnival reveller, commandeered a tram and a luggage car and swept through the city picking up bodies and delivering them to the cemetery (Spinney, 2017, p. 54-55).
Despite its death toll, the Great Influenza was largely ignored by historians until the possibility of new influenza pandemics became real toward the end of the 20th Century. Thousands of monuments memorializing those who died in the Great War exist all over the world. Monuments to those who died of influenza are scarce, even though those who died of the disease outnumbered those who died in battle. The soldiers at Camp Fenton erected their own memorial to their colleagues who had died of the influenza (illustrated on the right, with its designer Henry Hardy). The monument was a simple pyramid of piled up stones with the names of the victims written in smaller stones on the grass. The camp and its monument have been long ago abandoned.
One of the reasons for the lack of attention that the Great Influenza received may have been that it did not fit with any overarching narrative. Though many died, they did not die for some noble cause. The disease was largely random it its killing.
The Black Death
Even though it did not kill so many, the Black Death had a far greater impact on our history. It shattered the society of the Middle Ages, disrupting the feudal system, and questioning the power of the Church. Part of this impact was due to the Bubonic Plague being far more virulent than either the influenza or the coronavirus. The Case Fatality Rate during the Black Death was over 30%. The disease was caused by a bacterium Yersinia pestis, which is endemic in rats and transmitted to human beings by fleas. The infected rats and their fleas came to Europe from the East on merchant ships. The plague began in port cities such as Naples, Venice and Genoa, are rapidly spread throughout Europe (McMillen, 2016; Snowden, 2019).
Nowadays we have antibiotics that can kill the bacteria that causes the Bubonic Plague. Furthermore, we understand how it is transmitted and can prevent this by controlling human exposure to rats and fleas. In the 14th Century there was nothing to do but flee. This flight actually increased the spread of the disease, which was carried by the fleas on all those who ran away.
The Black Death bequeathed us with our most potent image of death as a skeletal figure, often clad in a shroud or black cloak and carrying scythe – the “grim reaper.” Such figures were often portrayed leading various people from all stations of life in a “dance of death.” The statue illustrated on the right is from the tomb in Trier Cathedral of Johann Philipp von Wallerdorff who died in 1768.
Many considered the Black Death as God’s punishment for humanity’s sins, and decided that a great return to God was necessary. Yet the plague had randomly killed both saint and sinner. Others thought that the plague was God’s demonstration that the Church had gone astray and needed to be reformed. Yet both priests and parishioners were equally affected.
And so, a few came to the idea that perhaps there was no God. The only justice in the world was at the hand of human beings. And their only recourse was themselves. And if they could ultimately survive the plague, they could perhaps settle on a different world, where reason ruled instead of faith.
The Seventh Seal
In Revelation after the four horsemen, the fifth and sixth seals are opened. These bring forth to John a vision of the Christian Martyrs, and then a vision of all those who had been saved by faith in Christ. Finally, the last seal is opened:
And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven about the space of half an hour. (Revelation 8:1)
Christians interpret the silence as representing the awe that occurs when one realizes the greatness of God and his program for the future. Ingmar Bergman considered it differently. Much of his work is concerned with the silence of God. All our prayers no matter how fervent are met with silence. He made this the subject of a trilogy of films: Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Winter Light (1963) and The Silence (1963).
The idea is also at the heart of his earlier 1957 film The Seventh Seal. The quotation from Revelation about the opening of the seventh seal and the silence in heaven begins the film. A knight Antonius Block (Max von Sydow) has just returned to Sweden from the Crusades. He has brought with him a game of chess that he learned in Palestine. All of Europe is in the grip of the Black Death. On a beach Antonius prays to God. After his prayer, Death (Bengt Ekerot) appears. Antonius challenges Death to a game of Chess to decide his fate. The following is a clip from the movie. The sound of the waves goes silent when Death appears.
Bergman based the idea of the game of chess from a 1480 fresco (right) painted by Albertus Pictor in the Täby Church near Stockholm. As the film proceeds, Death ultimately wins the game, and leads Antonius and his family off in a dance of death. The film is not accurate historically: the crusades ended long before the Black Death. However, it is one of our most vivid depictions of human mortality.
Playing Chess with Death
Death is now among us. Not in as the dark figure portrayed by Bengt Ekerot, but in the form of a coronavirus epidemic. The disease is not as virulent as the Black Death. However, it is likely just as contagious and just as virulent as the virus that caused the Great Influenza. How do we prevent what happened in 1918 when Death took millions of people before their time?
How do we play our game of chess with Death? We still have no specific treatment, and there is as yet no vaccine. Unlike in 1918, however, we now have oxygen therapy and, if necessary, artificial ventilation. These procedures can help patients with pneumonia survive until their immune systems can finally destroy the virus. Furthermore, we have monitors such as finger oximeters that can determine when oxygen therapy is needed.
What is most important is to inhibit the spread of the disease in the population. The most powerful means to do this involves identifying all patients with the disease, tracing all people who have come in contact with these patients, testing these contacts, and quarantining both the patients and their contacts (whether or not they are infected) until they are no longer contagious. Since we have tests that are reasonably specific for the virus, this approach is definitely possible, and is being used successfully in China and in South Korea.
In the absence of contact tracing, we can limit the spread of the disease by staying away from our fellows beyond the distance that airborne drops can travel: “physical distancing” (a more appropriate term than “social distancing”). Physical distancing can certainly slow down the spread of the disease so that hospital facilities for treating those patients that develop pneumonia do not become overwhelmed. However, it will ultimately have to be replaced with contact tracing. Or the Dance of Death will continue.
Despite our best efforts many people will die in the pandemic. Though we know we have to die sometime, we generally believe that this will not be tomorrow. Nowadays death is closer. We need to come to terms with it. Through whatever stories, dreams and visions we can muster. We cannot play chess well without equanimity.
Barry, J. M. (2004). The great influenza: The epic story of the deadliest plague in history. New York: Viking.
Crosby, A. W. (1989/2003). America’s forgotten pandemic: The influenza of 1918. Cambridge England: Cambridge University Press.
Ferguson NM; Cummings DA; Fraser C; et al. (2006). Strategies for mitigating an influenza pandemic. Nature, 442 (7101), 448–452.
Fisher, J. E. (2012). Envisioning disease, gender, and war: Women’s narratives of the 1918 influenza pandemic. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
McMillen, C. W. (2016). Pandemics: a very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.
Owen, W. (Edited by Stallworthy, J., 1985). The poems of Wilfred Owen. London: Hogarth Press.
Porter, K. A. (1939). Pale horse, pale rider: Three short novels. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
Quispel, G. (1979). The secret Book of Revelation: The last book of the Bible. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Snowden, F. M. (2019). Epidemics and society: From the Black Death to the present. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Spinney, L. (2017). Pale rider: The Spanish flu of 1918 and how it changed the world. London: Johnathan Cape.
Taubenberger, J. K., & Morens, D. M. (2006) 1918 Influenza: the mother of all pandemics Emerging Infectious Diseases, 12, 15-22.
West, R. B. (1963). Katherine Anne Porter: American Writers 28. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Wu, J.T., Leung, K., Bushman, M. et al. (2020). Estimating clinical severity of COVID-19 from the transmission dynamics in Wuhan, China. Nature Medicine26, 506–510.
Story of Job
Everyone knows the story of Job. A righteous man is tested by God. All that Job owns is taken away, all his children are killed, and he is struck down by disease. Job’s friends advise him to seek God’s forgiveness since he must have somehow offended Him. However, Job insists on his own righteousness. He does not repent. He demands an explanation for why he is being unjustly punished. An angry God appears unto Job in a whirlwind. He proclaims His workings to be far beyond the understanding of Job. He talks of Behemoth and Leviathan. He castigates Job’s friends. He grants Job happiness and prosperity. He neither explains nor justifies what happened.
Everyone knows the story of Job. No one fully understands its meaning.
The Land of Uz
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil.
Thus begins the story of Job. The text was likely written in the 6th or 5th Century BCE (Crenshaw, 2011; Pope, 1965). Job was a righteous man who worshipped God. The God he worshipped went by the name “Elohim” (אלהים). Job was not Jewish; his god was not Yahweh (Sawyer, 2011). Job made all of the appropriate sacrifices. A Byzantine illumination from the 11th Century CE (Papadaki-Oekland, 2009) shows him making a sacrifice and receiving a blessing from the hand of God.
No one is sure about the Land of Uz (Pope, 1965). Some have suggested that it is equivalent to the land of Edom to the south and east of Israel. This fits with the idea voiced in the later Testament of Job written in the 1st Century BCE (James, 1897) that Job was descended from Esau, the son of Isaac who ceded his birthright to his brother Jacob, and left to found the nation of Edom. Others have suggested that Uz is located in the Hauran district of Southern Syria. Arabic traditions consider the town of Sheikh Saad (also called Karnaim or Dair Ayyub – “monastery of Job”) as the home of Job and site of his tribulations. A third possibility is raised in one of the Dead Sea scrolls called the War Scroll, which mentions Uz as one of the lands “beyond the Euphrates” (Vermes, 2000, p. 124).
I prefer the third explanation since stories similar to that of Job existed in the ancient literature of Mesopotamia – the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. The oldest story, written in cuneiform on clay tablets, comes from Sumer and may date from 2500-2000 BCE (Pritchard, 2011, pp 352-357; Kramer, 1956/81, Chapter 15). In this story the author laments his undeserved suffering. Ultimately, God hears his cries and turns “the man’s suffering into joy.” A later story, the Babylonian Theodicy, dated to 1500-1000 BCE is even more similar to the Hebrew story (Lambert, 1960, pp 63-91; Pritchard, 2011, pp 374-379). In it the persecuted man tells his troubles to a friend who, rather than offering comfort, accuses him of blasphemy. The following is an excerpt (Lambert, 1960, ll 72-80) in translation and in cuneiform:
Sufferer: In my youth I sought the will of my god; With prostration and prayer I followed my goddess But I was bearing a profitless corvée as a yoke My god decreed instead of wealth destitution A cripple is my superior, a lunatic outstrips me The rogue has been promoted, but I have been brought low.
Friend My reliable fellow, holder of knowledge, your thoughts are perverse You have forsaken right and blaspheme against your god’s designs. In your mind you have an urge to disregard the divine ordinances.
The Hebrew Book of Job is a far more complex and poetic creation than these Mesopotamian stories. The writer of Job may have heard these tales during the period of the Babylonian Captivity (597-539 BCE), and worked them into a poetic whole then or on his or her return to Jerusalem. The Book of Job does not directly mention the exile of the Jews. However, it might subtly reflect the idea that the people of Israel were for a while completely forsaken by their God.
Maimonides (1190, Chapter 22) considers the Land of Uz a fantasy. He points out that “uz” is the Hebrew verb “take counsel.” The name Uz is therefore an exhortation to study well this story.
… its basis is a fiction, conceived for the purpose of explaining the different opinions which people hold on Divine Providence.
Job’s name is as ambiguous as the land he lived in. On the one hand, it might derive from the root ‘yb meaning “enmity”; on the other hand, it might come from the root ‘ab indicating “repentence” (Pope, 1965). Is Job the enemy of God, or His repentant servant?
The Council of the Gods
After introducing us to its main character, the Book of Job takes us to Heaven where God has called a council. Amongst those gathered is one they call the “Adversary” (Alter, 2010) or the Satan, someone who is part the Lucifer of Isaiah, and part the Devil of later scriptures. The following is an illustration of the council from a Byzantine manuscript of the 11th century CE. God is represented only by his hand; the Adversary is dark and has been defaced.
God indicates his servant Job to the Adversary:
Hast thou considered my servant Job, that there is none like him in the earth, a perfect and an upright man, one that feareth God, and escheweth evil? (Job 1:8)
The Adversary claims that Job is only good because God treats him well. If he were not so well taken care of, he would curse God to his face. God refuses to believe this, and allows the Adversary to take away all that Job has, and ultimately to strike Job himself.
The Ruination of Job
The Adversary arranges for all Job’s holdings to be stolen or killed and for his children to die. Job is bereft but curses not God. He accepts his fate in a verse that has become the focus of the Judeo-Christian funeral rites (Eisenberg & Wiesel, 1987, p 13).
Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord. (Job 1: 21).
Although Job is not Jewish, this verse comes from the Jewish tradition. The Lord whose name is blessed is Yahweh.
Ultimately the Adversary strikes Job with a terrible disease. Job’s wife urges him to curse God, but he rebukes her. Covered with boils he sits disconsolately “among the ashes” (Job 2:8). The Greek Septuagint and the 14th Century Wycliff Bible translate this as a “upon a dunghill,” but this appears poetic license.
From ancient times human beings in mourning have covered themselves with ashes to signify bereavement and repentance. Ashes are particularly significant in Jewish history – the ashes of the first temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE, the ashes of the second temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, and the ashes of the millions of Jews murdered and cremated by the Nazis in the 20th Century CE. Dust and ashes go back to Genesis. Adam is expelled from Eden with the words “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return” (Genesis 3:19), and Abraham admits to God that he is “but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27). Dust and ashes return later as the final words of Job.
The peace and prosperity of Job and his family at the beginning of the story is well characterized in the first of William Blake’s illustrations for the Book of Job (Blake, 1821/1995). The cataclysm leading to the death of his children is the subject of his third illustration:
Three friends of Job – Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar – come to comfort him in his grief. They spend seven days and seven nights in silence with him. Only when Job finally speaks do they say anything. This is the way that those in mourning should be comforted: visitors should allow the bereaved to be quiet, and only speak when he or she initiates conversation.
After Job begins to talk, however, multiple debates follow. These form the bulk of the Book of Job – Chapters 3 to 27. Job describes the injustice of his situation. His friends attempt to show that it must in some way be his own fault. Job and his friends go through multiple exchanges, which are portrayed in exquisite Hebrew poetry, quite unlike the prose that describes the story of Job’s downfall.
Job begins by cursing the day of his birth. For this I shall use the translation of Stephen Mitchell (1987), which is more colloquial than the King James Version:
God damn the day I was born and the night that forced me from the womb. On that day—let there be darkness; let it never have been created; let it sink back into the void. Let chaos overpower it; let black clouds overwhelm it; let the sun be plucked from its sky. Let oblivion overshadow it; let the other days disown it; let the aeons swallow it up. On that night—let no child be born, no mother cry out with joy. Let sorcerers wake the Serpent to blast it with eternal blight. Let its last stars be extinguished; let it wait in terror for daylight; let its dawn never arrive. For it did not shut the womb’s doors to shelter me from this sorrow.
Job’s curse is remarkably similar to that of Jeremiah the prophet who lamented the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian Captivity (Eisenberg & Wiesel, 1987, p 60).
Cursed be the day wherein I was born: let not the day wherein my mother bare me be blessed. Cursed be the man who brought tidings to my father, saying, A man child is born unto thee; making him very glad. (Jeremiah 20:14-15)
Job’s friends attempt to demonstrate to Job that what has happened to him is just. He must have sinned in some way to warrant his misfortune. The illustration below shows Blake’s view of Job’s comforters casting accusing fingers at their friend. In the background is a large stone monument. Blake placed his land of Uz on the Salisbury plain.
Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar believe firmly in the idea that God rewards the good and punishes the evil. Job must therefore have sinned in some way. Their belief in Divine Providence is clearly expressed in the first of the Psalms:
Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night. And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper. The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous. For the Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Eliphaz’ first reply to Job restates this idea of divine justice:
Remember, I pray thee, who ever perished, being innocent? or where were the righteous cut off? Even as I have seen, they that plow iniquity, and sow wickedness, reap the same. By the blast of God they perish, and by the breath of his nostrils are they consumed. (Job 4:7-9)
Eliphaz then recounts a dream (Job 4:12-21) that warns us not to question the justice of God (Blakes illustration is shown on the right. In 1815 Lord Byron wrote some lyrics for Hebrew Melodies that were composed by Isaac Nathan (Byron, 1815; Cochran, 2015). One of these lyrics was a translation of the dream of Eliphaz:
The face of immortality unveiled— Deep sleep came down on every eye save mine— And there it stood,—all formless—but divine; Along my bones the creeping flesh did quake; And as my damp hair stiffened, thus it spake:
‘Is man more just than God? Is man more pure Than He who deems even seraphs insecure? Creatures of clay—vain dwellers in the dust! The moth survives you, and are ye more just? Things of a day! you wither ere the night, Heedless and blind to wisdom’s wasted light!’
Nathan’s music is not memorable. In 1854 the violinist Joseph Joachim wrote Hebrew Melodies for Viola and Piano. His music presents an impression rather than a setting of Byron’s poems. The sound of the viola suits the pathos of Job. The following is the ending to the second movement played by Anna Barbara Dütschler and Marc Pantillon:
Job insists that he has done no wrong and that his suffering is therefore unjust. He demands that God confront him with his sin. The illustration below shows a representation of Job attributed to an unknown Spanish painter from the early 17th Century. Some have suggested that the painter might actually have been the young Velasquez (Terrien, 1996). Job says unto God “Noli me condemnare” – “Do not condemn me” (Job 10:2).
Only do not two things unto me: then will I not hide myself from thee. Withdraw thine hand far from me: and let not thy dread make me afraid. Then call thou, and I will answer: or let me speak, and answer thou me. How many are mine iniquities and sins? make me to know my transgression and my sin. (Job 13: 20-23)
Job describes the transience of human life in verses that recall Ecclesiastes, and remonstrates that God should judge him rather than pity him:
Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down: he fleeth also as a shadow, and continueth not. And doth thou open thine eyes upon such an one, and bringest me into judgment with thee? (Job 14:1-3)
Then he asks God not to deprive him so much during his brief time on earth that he not be able to accomplish something:
Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass; Turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall accomplish, as an hireling, his day. For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant. (Job 14:5-9)
Sins of Omission
After a while Job’s insistence on his own innocence becomes tiresome. No one is perfect. Indeed, as Wiesel points out a true Tzadik (“righteous one”) would never proclaim his own goodness (Wiesel & Eisenberg, 1987, p 32). Even if he has done no wrong, he may not have done sufficient good. In one of his speeches (Job 22), Eliphaz accuses Job of not giving water to the weary or bread to the hungry. Job does not immediately reply to this rebuke. Later (Job 29-31) he insists that he always helped the poor and the orphans. But was this sufficient? Job remained rich and the poor remained poor.
Wiesel retells a story from the Midrash that attempts to explain why Job’s appeals to God are initially met with silence (Wiesel & Eisenberg, 1987, p 22-23). When asked by Moses to “let my people go,” the Pharaoh consulted three counselors: Jethro, Billam and Job. Jethro urged the Pharaoh to agree, Billam rejected the proposal, and Job stayed silent. The Midrash insists that when faced with the suffering of others one must not remain neutral. Not to attempt to prevent evil is as great a sin as the evil itself.
The debates continue between Job and his friends. At one point, Job calls upon a redeemer or a “vindicator” to bear witness to his righteousness.
Why do ye persecute me as God, and are not satisfied with my flesh? Oh that my words were now written! oh that they were printed in a book! That they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock for ever! For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God (Job 19: 22-26)
Christians have taken this passage as a prophecy of Christ. George Frideric Handel set the last two of these verses for soprano in his Messiah of 1741. The Christian interpretation does not make sense. According to Christian teachings, Christ came to save the sinners not to vindicate the righteous.
Who then is this “vindicator”? Job is appealing to someone in God’s entourage to serve as his advocate. In his Answer to Job, Jung (1956/2010) suggests that Job’s god has many aspects. The very name of God – Elohim – is in the plural. God is both good and evil – Satan is as much a part of him as Christ. God is both knowing and unknowing. According to Hebrew traditions, Wisdom or Sophia was part of God from the beginning. In the Proverbs Wisdom describes herself as being with God from before the creation of the universe:
The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was. When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water. Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth: While as yet he had not made the earth, nor the fields, nor the highest part of the dust of the world. When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth: When he established the clouds above: when he strengthened the fountains of the deep: When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth (Proverbs 8:22-29)
Christians often take this as indicating that God the Father and God the Son were together from the beginning. This fits with the idea that Christ was the word or logos, a concept similar to wisdom. However, this is not the meaning of the idea in the Hebrew bible and Christ is not the advocate to whom Job calls.
The Book of Job also contains a full chapter devoted to Wisdom (Job 28). Many commentators believe it to be a later interpolation. However, it fits nicely at the end of the disputation between Job and his comforters:
Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding? Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air. Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears. God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven; To make the weight for the winds; and he weigheth the waters by measure. When he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder: Then did he see it, and declare it; he prepared it, yea, and searched it out. And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.(Job 28 :20-28)
After Job makes his final statement of innocence, he is rudely interrupted by Elihu, a brash young man who cannot understand why foolish old Job does not recognize the justice of God. Most commentators consider this section of the book (Chapters 32-37) to be a later interpolation. One possibility is that it is the work of a young scribe who, when copying the initial version of book, became frustrated with Job’s refusal to acknowledge justice and inserted more argument for the benefit of the reader. Wiesel (p 390) remarks that some Talmudists have suggested that Elihu might be Satan in disguise, muddying the waters of the argument.
Yahweh’s Response to Job
After Elihu’s diatribe, God suddenly appears to Job. Yahweh – this is indeed the one true God – describes the creation and maintenance of the universe. This exuberant paean to the wonders of the world is expressed in some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible.
Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said, Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? Or who shut up the sea with doors, when it brake forth, as if it had issued out of the womb? When I made the cloud the garment thereof, and thick darkness a swaddlingband for it, And brake up for it my decreed place, and set bars and doors, And said, Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further: and here shall thy proud waves be stayed? (Job 38:1-11)
On the left below is William Blake’s illustration of the appearance of God in the whirlwind, and on the right is his image of the sons of God. In 1930 Ralph Vaughan Williams set this latter image to music as part of his Job, a Masque for Dancing. This particular piece is called Pavane for the Sons of Morning, a slow and stately dance appropriate to the majesty of creation.
The Patience of Job
interpretations have been provided for the story of Job. The most common
focuses on the patience of Job. In the Epistle of James (5:11) we have
Behold, we count them happy which endure. Ye have heard of the patience of Job, and have seen the end of the Lord; that the Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.
The idea is that
if we are patient everything will turn out fine. In the 2011 movie The Best
Exotic Marigold Hotel the hotel manager Sonny (Dev Patel) claims “Everything
will be all right in the end and if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the
end.” This saying has been attributed to John Lennon, but it is probably just
an old Indian proverb, similar to the thought of Ecclesiastes 7:8:
Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than
the proud in spirit.
of Job and the mention of Job in the Qur’an (sura 21:83) both stress
the idea of Job’s patience and God’s mercy in his time of adversity. Joseph
Roth’s novel Job (1931) tells the story of a good and pious Jew from the
Pale of Settlement who undergoes much suffering but is finally rewarded in his
The Justice of God
The interpretation of Job as a man who patiently awaits the mercy of God misses the great poetic center of the book. The debates between Job and his friends deal with theodicy – the justice (dike) of God (theos). If God is just then righteousness should be rewarded and evil should be punished. This is not the case. Suffering occurs without regard to innocence or guilt.
The term “theodicy” originated with Leibniz’s book Theodicy (1710), based on his discussion of the problem of suffering with Queen Sophie of Prussia. The understanding of suffering for those who live in comfort differs from the experience of those who survive in poverty (Guttierrez, 1987). Leibniz argued that God chose to create a world with as much good in it as possible. Though this entailed some concurrent evil, the optimal world contained much more good than world completely devoid of evil. Leibniz’ idea that this is the “best of all possible worlds” was ridiculed by Voltaire in Candide (1759).
The philosophical problems concerning God and justice have been discussed for centuries (Draper, 1989; Laato & de Moor, 2003; Hume, 1799; Illman, 2003; Larrimore, 2013, Chapter 4; Sarot, 2003; Surin, 1986; Tooley, 2015), and are beyond the scope of this posting. The main problem of theodicy has to do with the concept of God as an omnipotent and omnibenevolent entity. In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1799), David Hume states the basic trilemma of theodicy, attributing it to Epicurus:
Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? (Section X)
Whence then is evil? The question of evil became acute during the 20th Century with the Holocaust (Wollaston, 2011). How could God have allowed this to occur? In his memoir La Nuit (1958), Elie Wiesel recounts how in Auschwitz he took Job’s part and railed against God. He later described how certain great Talmudic masters convened a rabbinic court in Auschwitz to indict the Almighty for failing to protect His people (Wiesel, 1980). After hearing witnesses, and following due deliberation, the court pronounced a verdict of guilty. After a brief but profound silence, the judges moved on to evening prayer. Wiesel (1978) later wrote a play about The Trial of God (1979), though he distanced it from his experience by placing it in the fictional Ukrainian village of Shamgorod in the immediate aftermath of a pogrom that happened there three centuries before.
MacLeish’s 1958 play J.B. tells the story of the complete ruin and ultimate redemption of a successful American businessman. In a framing story, two out-of-work actors using masks play the parts of God (“Mr. Suss” from Zeus) and Satan (“Nickles” from “Old Nick”, an ancient name for the Devil, perhaps coming from “Old Iniquity”). In the Broadway debut these roles were played by Raymond Massey and Christopher Plummer (illustrated on the right). Hume’s question about the omnipotence and omnibenevolence of God is presented in in Nickles’ song
I heard upon his dry dung heap That man cry out who cannot sleep: “If God is God He is not good, If God is good He is not God; Take the even, take the odd, I would not sleep here if I could Except for the little green leaves in the wood And the wind on the water.”
In A Masque of Reason (1945), the American poet Robert Frost has God discuss with Job the meaning of his story. The portrait on the right shows the poet in full didactic mode as photographed by Yousef Karsh in 1958. As Frost points out, the story of Job brings to an end the idea that a Divine Justice rewards and punishes each individual based on his or her behavior. We are not guaranteed our just deserts:
I’ve had you on my mind a thousand years To thank you someday for the way you helped me Establish once for all the principle There’s no connection man can reason out Between his just deserts and what he gets. Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed. ‘Twas a great demonstration we put on. I should have spoken sooner had I found The word I wanted. You would have supposed One who in the beginning was the Word Would be in a position to command it. I have to wait for words like anyone. Too long I’ve owed you this apology For the apparently unmeaning sorrow You were afflicted with in those old days. But it was of the essence of the trial You shouldn’t understand it at the time. And it came out all right. I have no doubt You realize by now the part you played To stultify the Deuteronomist And change the tenor of religious thought. My thanks are to you for releasing me From moral bondage to the human race. The only free will there at first was man’s, Who could do good or evil as he chose. I had no choice but I must follow him With forfeits and rewards he understood— Unless I liked to suffer loss of worship. I had to prosper good and punish evil. You changed all that. You set me free to reign. You are the Emancipator of your God, And as such I promote you to a saint.
Job is indeed commemorated as a Christian Saint in the Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
A Scent of Water
In his discussion of theodicy in the Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1799), Hume concludes that the forces that drive the universe are neither benevolent or malevolent. Rather the original source of all things is indifferent, and
has no more regard to good above ill than to heat above cold, or to drought above moisture, or to light above heavy. (Section XI).
These thoughts are remarkably similar to those of Marvin Pope in the conclusion to his introduction to Job (1965, p lxxvii)
Viewed as a whole, the book presents profundities surpassing those that may be found in any of its parts. The issues raised are crucial for all men and the answers attempted are as good as have ever been offered. The hard facts of life cannot be ignored or denied. All worldly hopes vanish in time. The values men cherish, the little gods they worship—family, home, nation, race, sex, wealth, fame—all fade away. The one final reality appears to be the process by which things come into being, exist, and pass away. This ultimate Force, the Source and End of all things, is inexorable. Against it there is no defense. Any hope a man may put in anything other than this First and Last One is vain. There is nothing else that abides. This is God. He gives and takes away. From Him we come and to Him we return. Confidence in this One is the only value not subject to time. But how can a man put his faith in such an One who is the Slayer of all? Faith in Him is not achieved without moral struggle and spiritual agony. The foundation of such a faith has to be laid in utter despair of reliance on any or all lesser causes and in resignation which has faced and accepted the worst and the best life can offer. Before this One no man is clean. To Him all human righteous-ness is as filthy rags. The transition from fear and hatred to trust and even love of this One—from God the Enemy to God the Friend and Companion—is the pilgrimage of every man of faith. Job’s journey from despair to faith is the way each mortal must go.
The description does not differ much from the scientific view of Nature (e.g. Williams, 1993). Is there anything beyond this view? Does God exist in any way other than as an impersonal force? Is there any reason for human beings to have faith in this God or in its goals? Does Nature have a goal toward which it is moving or does everything occur by chance? Can human beings significantly alter the course of Nature?
Perhaps in the poetry of Job we might find some inkling that the universe is proceeding towards something that is good rather than evil (Janzen, 2009). And that we can perhaps contribute in some way to this evolution. As we have already considered, at the center of his story, Job asked God to allow him time to accomplish something:
Seeing his days are determined, the number of his months are with thee, thou hast appointed his bounds that he cannot pass; Turn from him, that he may rest, till he shall accomplish, as an hireling, his day. For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Though the root thereof wax old in the earth, and the stock thereof die in the ground; Yet through the scent of water it will bud, and bring forth boughs like a plant.(Job 14:5-9)
The idea of the rain bringing forth new life recurs throughout the Book of Job. Yahweh mentions it in his description of the thunder, and Nickles mentions the “little green leaves” in his song about the nature of God. This continual rebirth makes us wonder whether there is some mindfulness behind Nature’s apparent randomness. And makes us wonder whether we might somehow contribute to this purpose.
Alter, R. (2010). The wisdom books: Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes: a translation with commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Blake, W. (1995). Blake’s illustrations for the Book of Job. New York: Dover Publications.
Vermes, G. (2000). The Dead Sea scrolls: a selection of original manuscripts. London: Folio Society, 2000.
Wiesel, E. (1958). La nuit. Paris: Editions de Minuit.
Wiesel, E. (1979). The trial of God (as it was held on February 25, 1649, in Shamgorod): A play in three acts. New York: Random House.
Wiesel, E. (1980). The story of The Trial of God. In Abrahamson, I. (Ed.) (1985). Against silence: The voice and vision of Elie Wiesel. (Volume III pp 112-113) New York: Holocaust Library.
Williams, G. C. (1993). Mother nature is a wicked old witch. In Nitecki, M. H.; Nitecki, D. V. (Eds.). Evolutionary Ethics. (pp 217–232). Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Wollaston, I. (2011) Post‐Holocaust Jewish Interpretations of Job (2011). In Lieb, M., Mason, E., & Roberts, J. (Eds.) The Oxford handbook of the reception history of the Bible. (pp 488-501). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hatred is directed anger. Though we can claim metaphorically to hate
unconscious objects or abstractions, hatred is typically directed at another person or persons. Hatred is evoked by suffering that we perceive they caused. Since it leads to actions against these persons, hatred can also be described as “ill
Emotions can overwhelm reason. Passion is not logical. We often hate
without any justification. Hatred must then be maintained by fictions that describe the evil nature of those we hate.
Antisemitism is the most enduring and most unjustified of human hatreds.
The ill will suffered by the Jewish people has lasted for thousands of years, and has led to countless crimes, the most terrible of which was the Holocaust wherein 6 million Jews were put to death by the Nazi Government of Germany (Bauer, 2001; Marrus, 1987). ;
Antisemitism has been inspired by many fictions. This posting considers the unfortunate power of some of the stories that paved the way to the Holocaust.
Some Simple Psychology
Anger arises when we experience suffering, especially when we believe it
to be unwarranted, and when we are thwarted from achieving what we desire,
especially when we believe that we entitled to it. Anger seeks to attack these causes: to hit out at those who strike us; to break those who obstruct us.
We tend to think of events as caused by persons. Even when forces of
nature act against us we may attribute them to a divinity or a devil, or to
those who worship them. Only in that way can anger find a target for its
Sometimes the causes of our anger are too complicated to understand or too powerful to fight against. In these cases, we may vent our anger elsewhere and attack other human beings, while inventing plausible (though fictional) reasons for so doing.
…every instance of suffering, every feeling of displeasure, by whomsoever and in whatsoever way it may have been caused, whether it arises from the guilt or from the lawful activity of another person, or through the sufferer’s own fault, or without any fault, or even without any human influence, tends to transform itself into a feeling of enmity, to direct itself against fellow-humans and if possible to express itself against them. (Bernstein, 1951, p 85)
As we were growing up during childhood, we realized – at about the age
of three – that we can exert some control over our environment. We therefore created a self as the agent of this control. At about the same time we realized that the world contains other agents. These could either help us or hinder us. We became comfortable with those that helped and learned to cooperate with them. We feared the others.
The group appears to be a curious form of extension of the individual. It seems as if under the influence of the necessities of human communal life, human beings who need love and produce hate combine into new, collective and collectively selfish individualities of a higher order; directing their love inwards, their hate outward, their social instincts towards the insider, their anti-social tendencies toward the outsider. (Bernstein, 1951, p 109-110)
Those who cooperated in groups came to have similar desires and modes of
behavior. They followed the same rules and sought the same goals. Those who
were different became isolated. These “others” challenge our group-identification (Chanes, 2004, p 3). In our search for where to vent our anger, we often light upon those that are different from us. Especially if these people are small in number and not inclined to violence.
While for normal group enmity a certain regularity in the mutual expression of enmity is characteristic, the antagonism between a powerful majority and a powerless minority is characterised by a onesidedness of hostile actions which is fatal for the minority. For the latter is exposed to continual attacks and must confine itself to laborious attempts to maintain its existence, without a chance to resist actively to any extent; even its passive means of defense are totally inadequate and its existence often has to rely on nothing but periodical flight from place to place. This onesided relation of
permanent attack and failing defense is called persecution. Weak minority
groups are usually persecuted more or less emphatically. (Bernstein, 1951, p 224)
The actual psychological mechanisms that lead to antisemitism are not
really understood. Some believe that there are personality-types that are more easily convinced to vent their hatred on minorities. The role of authority and power is undoubtedly a factor (Morse & Allport, 1952; Milgram, 1974). Those who seek power or wish to maintain it gain great support by fomenting hatred. Propaganda – invented stories – have a tremendous power. For some reason the more incredible the story the more easily it is believed (Baum, 2012). Dehumanization of the victims serves to attenuate our inherent tendency to help our fellows. (Bandura et al., 1975)
For millennia the Jewish people have allowed us to vent our hatred. For
millennia we have invented reasons for our violence.
The hostility toward a minority exacerbates the feelings that initially triggered. When persecuted, a minority does not fare well in society and often comes to appear even more deserving of denigration and oppression (Beller, 2007, p 5).
Antisemitism is not caused by the Jews but by the inadequacy of those who need to hate them.
…two psychological characteristics are present in the individual antisemite: excessive hostility and the need (and a capacity) to project one’s aggression on other groups. Persons who have these traits generally suffer from feelings of inadequacy and from the feeling that their own personal borders, psychologically speaking, are easily invaded by others (Chanes, 2004, p 7)
We can perhaps conclude this section with two epigrams from Jean-Paul Sartre (1948):
If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him (p 13)
Antisemitism is not a Jewish problem: it is our problem. (p 152)
The People of the Covenant
The Jews consider themselves God’s chosen people. In the Hebrew
scripture Yahweh made a covenant with Abraham, and then renewed the covenant with Jacob and with Moses. The Jews were to worship Yahweh as the one true God and to follow his commandments. The Jews would then serve as an example for the rest of humanity
I the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles (Isaiah
In return, the Jews would be considered special
For thou art an holy people unto the Lord
thy God, and the Lord hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto
himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
And were promised as their home the land containing what is now the country of Israel
In the same day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates (Genesis 15:18)
God’s covenant with the Jews was based on their keeping the commandments that he revealed to Moses. Rembrandt’s 1659 painting Moses with the Tablets of the Law shows Moses holding aloft the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments had been written. These were engraved on two separate stones (Exodus 31:18, 32:15). In the painting, only the second tablet is completely visible giving the 6th to 10th commandments (Exodus 20:13-17). These begin with: “Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal:” (Hebrew illustrated on the right).
No one is sure what moment in the story of the tablets Rembrandt is representing. Is it when he first displays these to the Hebrews? or when he is about to shatter them on the ground because the Hebrews had been worshipping the Golden Calf while he had been on Mount Sinai with God (Exodus 32:19)? or is it when he returns to God and brings a second set of tablets back to the chastised Hebrews (Exodus 34:1). Moses’ face is shining with revelation rather than angry. Perhaps, Rembrandt has painted the moment when Moses first displays the commandments.
No group of people is perfect. However, the Jews have contributed more than their share to the human endeavor – in philosophy, science, medicine, politics, art, music, literature. And for the most part the, laws that they accepted as part of their covenant with God have served them well. They are indeed an example to other people.
So why were and are they so often reviled? It is unlikely a reaction to their chutzpah in claiming to be God’s chosen. In the Middle Ages this was called the Insolentia Judaeorum. Yet every one of the world’s many religions claims to be just as special.
One defining aspect of the Jewish religion is that it is monotheistic. The first commandments state that a Jew must obey Jehovah and not even pay lip-service to any other god or idol:
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them (Exodus 20:2-5).
The Jewish religion thus combines the worship of one god with strict obedience to his commandments. As Prager and Telushkin (2003) have suggested, this ethical monotheism may have offended those who followed other gods. Jews refused to follow the proverbial injunction that when in Rome do as the Romans do. For example, the outburst of violence against the Jews in Alexandria in 38 CE (then part of the Roman Empire) was triggered by their refusal to place statues of the Emperor Caligula in their temples (Goldstein, 2012).
One should respect the beliefs of others. However, respect does not mean obeying rules that go against one’s own moral principles. The Jewish people’s refusal to acknowledge or worship other gods has continued to the present. In particular Jews do not recognize the divinity of Jesus Christ.
In addition to the Ten Commandments, Yahweh’s covenant with the Jewish people involved numerous other rules of behavior. These included strict stipulations about the types of food that they might eat and the methods in which this food should be prepared. Over the ages observant Jews have thus been unable to share meals with those of other faiths. And although some of the ancient Jewish philosophers – Hillel and Maimonides for example – were open to ideas beyond the Covenant, strict Judaism limited itself to the study of the Torah and its interpretations.
The Covenant with Yahweh thus isolated the Jewish people from the rest of humanity. They could not share the beliefs, the food or the thoughts of others. They antagonized others by their claim to be the chosen people.
So we have the idea that antisemitism is in part caused by the very character of the Jewish religion. This would explain why the Jews have been reviled by so many different people in so many different countries. The following was written Bernard Lazare in 1894. He was a Jewish polemicist who wrote the first defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus. Yet even he thought that the Jews were partly to blame for antisemitism.
Inasmuch as the enemies of the Jews belonged to divers races; as they dwelled far apart from one another, were ruled by different laws and governed by opposite principles; as they had not the same customs and differed in spirit from one another, so that they could not possibly judge alike of any subject, it must needs be that the general causes of antisemitism have always resided in Israel itself, and not in those who antagonized it…. Which virtues or which vices have earned for the Jew this universal enmity? Why was he ill-treated and hated alike and in turn by the Alexandrians and the Romans, by the Persians and the Arabs, by the Turks and the Christian nations? Because, everywhere up to our own days the Jew was an unsociable being. (Lazare, 1894/1903, pp 8-9)
This seems so reasonable. Yet it is false. It does not explain the cause of antisemitism. It is just an excuse. It blames the victim for the crime.
The Crucifixion of Christ
In the early decades of the Common Era, Jesus, a Jewish teacher from Nazareth, brought new insight to the interpretation of Jewish law. He simplified the commandments by expressing them as the need to love the Lord and to love one’s neighbor as oneself. He criticized the rigid adherence to the Sabbath, and the commercialization of the Temple. He proclaimed the idea of a Kingdom of Heaven. Many of the more observant Jews were disconcerted by his teachings. The Romans were upset that he was proposing a new kingdom. Jesus was arraigned before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, condemned and crucified.
A few days after his death and burial, the tomb of Jesus was found empty. Many of his followers claimed that they afterwards saw him in person. They therefore believed that he had been resurrected. They continued to meet and discuss his teachings. They were either tolerated by other Jews or condemned as heretics.
A learned Jew named Saul was one of those that persecuted the followers of Jesus. However, on the road to Damascus he had a vision of Jesus that completely altered his thinking. He changed his name to Paul, and began to provide an over-arching theory about the death and resurrection of Jesus. His main ideas were that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah prophesied in the scriptures, that he died to release us from our sins, and that we shall all be saved from death by having faith in Jesus called Christ (the “anointed”).
For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures (I Corinthians 15:3-4)
Paul’s major teaching was that one could never attain salvation by following the Mosaic laws. No one is perfect. Everyone breaks the law. However, Christ offers salvation if we repent our sins and have faith in him.
Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. (Galatians 2:16).
Paul’s letters describing these ideas are the earliest of the Christian scriptures. Written in the years 50-60 CE these predate by 20 to 50 years the four gospels, which describe the life and teachings of Jesus.
The followers of Jesus in the 1st Century CE differed in their opinion about his relationship to the Jews. Some thought that the message of Jesus was for the Jews; others that it was for both Jews and Gentiles. Most of Paul’s teaching was directed to the Gentiles. In some of his letters he laments the inability of many of his Jewish colleagues to understand God’s new covenant.
For ye, brethren, became followers of the churches of God which in Judaea are in Christ Jesus: for ye also have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews: Who both killed the Lord Jesus, and their own prophets, and have persecuted us; and they please not God, and are contrary to all men: Forbidding us to speak to the Gentiles that they might be saved, to fill up their sins alway: for the wrath is come upon them to the uttermost. (I Thessalonians 2:14-16)
Some of the gospels continued this criticism of the Jews (Crossan, 1995). This is perhaps most evident in the gospel of Matthew. He describes how the Jews forced Pilate to crucify Jesus, and willingly accepted the responsibility for his death:
When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. (Matthew 27: 24-25)
The major event in Jewish history of the 1st Century CE was the Great Revolt of the Jews against Roman rule. This began in 66 CE and culminated in the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. The illustration below shows a representation in the Arch of Titus of the Romans carrying the spoils from the temple. Among the spoils is the great Menorah that once gave light to the Tabernacle.
At this time many Jews fled their homeland and settled in other countries. The Jewish people have been exiled at many times in its history – the Assyrian conquest (733 BCE), the Babylonian captivity (597 BCE), the Great Revolt (70 CE), the later Bar Kokhba Rebellion (132 CE). Though some Jews remained in Israel, most lived in the Diaspora (“scattering”) – far from the land that from the days of Moses they had considered their God-given home.
The Destruction of the Temple seemed to many Christians a divine response to the action of the Jews in crucifying their Lord. Though the Romans crucified Jesus, some of the early Christians considered the Jews responsible. The Jews were thus guilty of deicide and should be reviled and cast out from Christian society. Even if they were not guilty, they should be chastised for not recognizing the salvation offered by Christ – for staying with the old dispensation rather than following the new.
These ideas have long permeated the thinking of the Christian Church. Many of the cathedrals illustrate these concepts by contrasting sculptures of Ecclesia and Synagoga. The statues on the south portail of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Strasbourg from the 13th Century CE are particularly impressive. Legend has it that these were created by a female sculptor Sabina von Steinbach, though there is no real evidence for this. Ecclesia with her crown, holds in her hands the cross and the chalice. She looks with pity on Synagoga, who is blindfolded and cannot see the truth. She holds in her hands the tablets of the law and the lance that the centurion used to bring the crucifixion to an end. The lance was shattered by the resurrection.
The following illustration shows the complete portail. Ecclesia and Synagoga are on the left and right sides. In the center sits Solomon in judgement between the old covenant and the new. Above him is Christ, Salvator Mundi (savior of the world). The carvings in the tympanums represent the dormition, assumption and coronation of the Virgin Mary.
The statues of Ecclesia and Synagoga are impressive examples of gothic art. Though superficially beautiful, they obscure rather than convey the truth. The feelings against the Jews that they evoke are a complete betrayal of Jesus, a Jew who taught in the synagogues of Palestine.
One might have hoped that the antisemitism of the Christian Church would have been excised by the Reformation. But this was not to be. Martin Luther was virulently antisemitic. In his The Jews and Their Lies (1543, pp 39-42) he advises Christians to burn their synagogues of the Jews, their houses, and their books, prohibit their Rabbis from teaching, not allow them to travel on the highways, and prohibit them from lending money. Luther was a harbinger of Kristallnacht.
During the Middle Ages people could not understand why life was so often brutal. An easy way to explain the various disasters was to attribute them to the Jews. If the Jews could kill God, there was no telling what other crimes they were capable of.
On Good Friday in 1144 the body of a child called William was discovered in the woods near Norwich in England. The Jews were accused of murdering the child. No credible evidence was ever found. However, a monk who had just converted from Judaism to Christianity claimed that the Jews had decided to sacrifice a Christian child to re-enact the death of Christ. Several Jews were slaughtered. William was declared a martyr. Pilgrims flocked to his tomb. Miracles occurred.
William of Norwich was the first documented case of Jews being accused of ritual murder. As the years went by similar accusations arose in multiple different regions of Europe (Goldstein, 2012). Many of these cases included the idea that the Jews used the blood of their victims to make the unleavened bread used in the celebration of Passover. This particular accusation was called the “blood libel.” It makes no sense. Kosher regulations require that observant Jews never eat food contaminated with blood. Jews go to great lengths to remove blood from meat before it can be eaten.
The Christian Bible contains the Hebrew scriptures in what it calls the Old Testament. Some of these writings described how the blood of sacrificed animals played an important role in the ceremonies of the ancient Hebrews, e.g.
And he shall kill the bullock before the Lord: and the priests, Aaron’s sons, shall bring the blood, and sprinkle the blood round about upon the altar that is by the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. (Leviticus 1:5).
Other ancient Hebrew writings are even more disconcerting. One of the foundational stories of Judaism is the Akedah (“binding”), wherein the Patriarch Abraham, at the request of Jehovah, takes his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to sacrifice him (Genesis 22). Although an angel stays Abraham’s hand at the last moment, this fails to attenuate the story’s horror. The illustration below shows Rembrandt’s 1655 etching.
The Old Testament contains other stories wherein children were sacrificed. To defeat the Ammonites, Jephthah promised the Lord that he would sacrifice whatever came out of his house when he returned from battle. Jehovah gave the victory to the Israelites. When Jephthah returned home, his daughter came to greet him, dancing and playing the tambourine (Judges 11).
There is also a suggestion that King Manasseh sacrificed his son – the wording is “he made his son pass through the fire” (2 Kings 21:6). These events and the idea that the terrible place near Jerusalem called Gehenna or Tophet was actually a site of human sacrifice are discussed at length by Stavrakopoulou (2004). The practice was banned by Yahweh speaking through his prophet Jeremiah:
And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not; neither came it into my heart. (Jeremiah 7:31).
One can perhaps imagine how such stories from the Old Testament might have allowed credulous people to accept the idea that the Jews might sacrifice Christian children and use their blood for their ceremonies. When one’s faith requires a belief in miracles, wild rumors are not easily contradicted.
The main sacrament of the Christian Church is the Eucharist, wherein the congregation partakes of bread and wine that have been especially blessed. According to the church, these had been miraculously “transubstantiated” to the body of Jesus, who was sacrificed to save the world. The sacramental bread is called the host (from the Latin hostia for sacrificial victim). In many places and at many times the Jews were accused of “desecrating” the host. The following illustration shows a 1469 sequence of paintings by Paolo Uccello that tell the story of the Miracle of the Desecrated Host. Both the full sequence and the particular panels illustrating the second and fifth episodes are shown. The paintings were on the predella to the altar in the Corpus Domin church in Urbino. The retable painting above the predella by Justus van Gent presented the Institution of the Eucharist.
The six episodes in the predella show
a woman sells a portion of the consecrated host to a Jewish merchant
when the Jew tries to burn the host, it starts to bleed, alerting the city guards
a holy procession is needed to re-consecrate the host
the woman is burned at the stake; she repents and an angel descends from heaven to save her
the Jew and his family are burned at the stake; no angel intervenes
two angels and two devils argue over the woman’s body
As the Black Death (Bubonic Plague) spread across Europe in the 14th Century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells and spreading the disease. Many Jews were condemned to death by fire fort these crimes. No one noticed that Jews died from the pandemic just as frequently as their Christian neighbors. Nor that burning Jews at the stake had no effect on the spread of the disease. A half century later, Jacob von Königshofen wrote a critical history of these times. The following is his description of the massacre of the Jews in Strasbourg at the height of the Black Death in 1349:
In the matter of this plague the Jews throughout the world were reviled and accused in all lands of having caused it through the poison which they are said to have put into the water and the wells – that is what they were accused of – and for this reason the Jews were burnt all the way from the Mediterranean into Germany, but not in Avignon, for the pope protected them there. On Saturday-that was St. Valentine’s Day, they burnt the Jews on a wooden platform in their cemetery. There were about two thousand people of them. Those who wanted to baptize themselves were spared. Many small children were taken out of the fire and baptized against the will of their fathers and mothers. And everything that was owed to the Jews was cancelled, and the Jews had to surrender all pledges and notes that they had taken for debts. The council, however, took the direct cash that the Jews possessed and divided it among the working men proportionately. The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews. If they had been poor and if the feudal lords had not been in debt to them, they would not have been burnt. After this wealth was divided among the artisans some gave their share to the Cathedral or to the Church on the advice of their confessors. Thus were the Jews burnt at Strasbourg. (quoted in Marcus, 1938, p.47)
Forces other than the plague were at play. Debt caused as much suffering as disease. As the historian notes, “The money was indeed the thing that killed the Jews.”
The Old Testament contains several injunctions against usury. Originally “usury” was simply any interest charged on loans. The meaning of the term has changed as the relations between religion and commerce have developed. At present, usury is generally limited to exorbitant interest.
In one of the earliest mentions of usury in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Jewish people are forbidden to charge interest on loans to fellow-Jews although they may so charge strangers:
Unto a stranger thou mayest lend upon usury; but unto thy brother thou shalt not lend upon usury (Deuteronomy 23:20).
In the New Testament usury is only occasionally considered:
But love ye your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again (Luke 6:35).
Nevertheless, the Christian Church decided early in its history that usury was a sin (Moehlman, 1934). In the council of Nicaea of 327 CE it forbade clergy to collect interest on any debts. In the Third Lateran Council of 1179, it decreed
Since in almost every place the crime of usury has become so prevalent that many persons give up all other business and become usurers, as if it were permitted, regarding not its prohibition in both testaments, we ordain that manifest usurers shall not be admitted to communion, nor, if they die in their sin, receive Christian burial, and that no priest shall accept their alms. (Moehlman, 1934, pp 6-7)
Thus for most of the middle ages it was difficult for people in business to obtain financial support for their enterprises. Jewish merchants, untrammeled by Christian prohibitions, unable to own land, and often prevented from practicing trades because of exclusively Christian guilds, gradually assume the responsibility for lending money in return for interest (Foxman, 2010). Some kings and princes found the linguistic abilities and financial connections of the Jews appealing and appointed them to their courts. However, most Jews remained poor and unrecognized – traders, shopkeepers, pawnbrokers and minor moneylenders.
In later years the Catholic Church found itself in need of capital to build its churches, and revised its doctrine on usury, founding its own lending organizations called Mounts of Piety (Monte de Pieta). The oldest bank in the world, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, derives from one of these lenders. After the Reformation, Protestants re-interpreted the scriptures and established their own investment banks.
Jewish lenders prospered and some of our current banks have Jewish roots, the Rothschild banks and Goldman-Sachs being two of the biggest. However, almost all of the world’s largest banks were actually founded by Gentiles. The idea that the Jews control international banking is ludicrous. Why one should only consider the religion of a banker when he is Jewish is invidious (Foxman, 2010). One never mentions the Roman Catholic origins of the Bank of America or the Presbyterian origins of Wells Fargo. Yet Jewish bankers have long been game for hateful cartoons. The depiction of “King Rothschild” by Charles Lucien Léandre shown on the right is from the cover of Le Rire, April 16, 1898. Above Rothschild is the Golden Calf that was worshipped by the the idea of Mammon, the idol of wealth condemned in the New Testament:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24).
The myth of Jewish greed has become a mainstay of antisemitic thought. Richard Wagner (1850) cannot get away from it even though he is supposed to be writing about music.
According to the present constitution of this world, the Jew in truth is already more than emancipate: he rules, and will rule, so long as Money remains the power before which all our doings and our dealings lose their force.
Even Jewish writers have been convinced of the myth
Thus, by himself and by those around him; by his own laws and by those imposed upon him; by his artificial nature and circumstances, the Jew was directed to gold. He was prepared to be changer, lender, usurer, one who strives after the metal, first for the pleasures it could afford and then afterwards for the sole happiness of possessing it; one who greedily seizes gold and avariciously immobilizes it. (Lazare, 1903, p 110).
The Pale of Settlement
As the Middle Ages progressed, the Jews were expelled from many European countries: England, 1290; France, 1306; Hungary, 1349; Austria, 1421; Spain, 1492; Portugal, 1497 (Baum 2012, p. 18). Other countries required that the Jews live apart from Christians in regions that came to be known as ghettos, from the Venetian dialect word for “foundry” located near where the first ghetto was established in Venice in 1516. Other ghettos were later set up throughout Italy, and then in Germany and in Poland (Goldstein, 2012, p 130)
Many of the expelled Jews moved to Eastern Europe. They settled in the regions that now form the countries of Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. Much of this area was then part of the Kingdom of Poland. Polish nobles welcomed the new immigrants. Many Jews were used as tax-collectors. This did sit well with some of the Eastern Orthodox Slavic people who chafed under the control of Catholic Poland. In 1648, the Cossacks in Ukraine rebelled under the leadership of Bohdan Khmelnytsky. During this war, tens of thousands of Poles and Jews were massacred (Bacon 2003). The Eastern Orthodox Church was every bit as antisemitic as the Roman Catholic Church. Ukraine became independent of Poland and soon became part of the Russian Empire. Later Poland itself would be partitioned between Prussia, Austria and Russia and cease to exist as an independent kingdom.
The “Pale of Settlement” was set up in 1791 by Catherine the Great. This was an area in the Western regions of the Russian Empire wherein Jews were allowed to live. The term “pale” refers to the stakes that delineated the area – the word was originally used to describe an area in Ireland under the control of the English crown. Over the years many of the Jews in central Russia were exiled to the Pale of Settlement. As shown in the map (adapted from Wikipedia, originally created by Thomas Gun) the Jewish percentage of the population in these regions was significant. Around 1900, the Jews in the Pale of Settlement numbered almost 5 million (about half the total number of Jews in the world), and formed about 10% of the general population of the area.
The ghettos and the Pale of Settlement separated the Jews from their neighbors. Their resultant isolation of the Jews increased their “unlikeness” or “otherness.” By closing them off in localized areas beyond the reach of normal civil authorities, it also made them more susceptible to random violence.
In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated in St. Petersburg by a group of revolutionaries. The group Narodnaya Volya (“People’s Will”) was composed of Russian-born anarchists, but one young woman was Jewish. The new Tsar Alexander III believed that the Jews were behind the assassination and unleashed a series of pogroms in the Pale of Settlement to avenge his father’s death.
The word “pogrom” derives from a Russian word for storm or devastation. Christians in a community were encouraged to murder their Jewish neighbors – killers of Christ and assassins of the Emperor. The police were ordered not to intervene. These pogroms continued into for several years. Thousands of Jews were killed.
The pogroms returned in 1903-1906 during the reign of Tsar Nicholas II. These appear to have been instigated by members of the Tsar’s secret police. One political rationale for these actions against the Jews was to rally the Russian people around the Tsar and against all those that were promoting the modernization of Russia.
The first pogrom of the 20th Century began in Kishinev, Moldava (then known as Bessarabia), on Easter Sunday in 1903. A child had been found murdered, and city leaders accused the Jews of his murder. Patriotism, blood libel and deicide worked together to create a rampaging and murderous mob (Penkower, 2004). The following is an illustration from the French Journal L’Assiette de Beurre of April, 1903, depicting the aftermath of the Easter pogrom.
The novel The Lazarus Project by Aleksander Hemon (2008), which tells the story of a survivor of the Kishinev pogrom who immigrated to the United States, provides a vivid description of the violence and its far-reaching consequents. The epic poem City of the Killings written in 1903 by the Jewish poet Chaim Bialik to commemorate the massacre begins:
Rise and go to the town of the killings and you’ll come to the yards and with your eyes and your own hand feel the fence and on the trees and on the stones and plaster of the walls the congealed blood and hardened brains of the dead.
At about this time there appeared the first traces of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (Nilus, 1906/1922). This document purported to be the secret plans of Jewish Leaders to take over the world. The protocols describe how these elders will sow dissension and confusion amidst the goyim and ultimately step in to rule:
In order to put public opinion into our hands we must bring it into a state of bewilderment by giving expression from all sides to so many contradictory opinions and for such length of time as will suffice to make the goyim lose their heads in the labyrinth and come to see that the best thing is to have no opinion of any kind in matters political, which it is not given to the public to understand because they are understood only by him who guides the public. This is the first secret. The second secret requisite for the success of our government is comprised in the following; To multiply to such an extent national railings, habits, passions, conditions of civil life, that it will be impossible for anyone to know where he is in the resulting chaos, so that the people in consequence will fail to understand one another. This measure will also serve us in another way, namely, to sow discord in all parties, to dislocate all collective forces which are still unwilling to submit to us, and to discourage any kind of personal initiative which might in any degree hinder our affair. There is nothing more dangerous than personal initiative; if it has genius behind it, such initiative can do more than can be done by millions of people among whom we have sown discord. We most so direct the education of the goyim communities that whenever they come upon a matter requiring initiative they may drop their hands in despairing impotence. The strain which results from freedom of action saps the forces when it meets with the freedom of another. From this collision arise grave moral shocks, disenchantment, failures. By all these means we shall so wear down the goyim that they will be compelled to offer us international power of a nature that by its position will enable us without any violence gradually to absorb all the State forces of the world and to form a Super-Government. (Protocol 5)
The reader easily recognizes the confusions of the modern world. Our natural paranoia quickly attributes this to outside agents rather than to the simple complexity of political forces. Human beings have long imagined that our lives are controlled by secret societies such as the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Illuminati, the Masons, and the New World Order (Eco, 1994, pp 132-139). The Protocols of the Elders of Zion identified these clandestine agents as the Jews.
The protocols are a complete fiction (Eisner, 2005; Hagemeister, 2008). They were largely plagiarized from a satire against the French Emperor Napoleon II written by Maurice Joly in 1864 entitled The Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu (Graves, 1921). The most widely accepted story is that a Russian exile living in France, Mathieu Golovinski, adapted Joly’s satire into an antisemitic tract at the instigation of the Tsar’s secret police, who wished to impugn the forces of modernization in Russia, and to whip up hatred of the Jews as a distraction from the government’s problems.
Despite being proven a fiction, the Protocols have been republished over and over again. The illustration at the right shows the cover of a French Version published in 1934. The design is loosely based on Léandre’s 1898 cartoon depiction of Rothschild. The cover artist goes by the alias ‘Christian Goy.” In the 20th Century the Protocols are widely published in Muslim countries, where they serve to foster animus against Israel. Why do people still believe that this tract represents the truth? It is easier to believe in a simple fiction than in complex facts. The confusion of the modern world is caused by the interactions of many different political forces. It is simpler to believe it is caused by the Jews than to try to understand the real causes.
During the 18th and 19th Century nationalism became one of the main forces in European politics. As the Age of Enlightenment and the Age of Revolution undermined the legitimacy of divinely ordained dynasties, the people developed the idea of a nation – a community conceived or “imagined” in three ways: shared culture, limited geographic extent, and governance by the people (Anderson, 2016). Inherent in the concept of a nation was the idea that all its citizens should have equal rights. Nationalism gained its greatest impetus from the revolutions in the United States and France in the 18th century, and from the later Revolutions of 1848 in Europe.
According to the ideals of nationalism, no one should be discriminated against on the basis of their religion. As part of this movement Jewish citizens began therefore to be accepted as equal participants in the new nations (Mendes-Flohr, 1996; Barnavi, 2003, pp 158-9). This emancipation occurred slowly: France in 1791; Prussia in 1812; Belgium in 1830; the Netherlands in 1834 the United Kingdom in 1858; Austria 1867; the United States in 1877 (reviewed in Wikipedia).
Although nationalism wants all its citizens, regardless of their beliefs or background to be equal, it would prefer them to be homogeneous, all believing in the same national ideals. Yet no nation is homogeneous. The success of a nation depends on how it comes together despite its differences.
As nationalism progressed, suspicions about the Jewish people remained. This worry was presaged by the Conte de Clermont‑Tonnere in a speech to France’s new National Assembly in 1789. He initially proposed the principle “that the profession, or manner of worship of a man, can never be motives for depriving him of the Rights of Election.” He then listed some of the arguments against giving citizenship to the Jews and declared them invalid:
It is here I am at tacked by the adversaries of the Jews. That people, say they, are unsociable; usury is enjoined them; they cannot be united with us, either by marriage, or habitual intercourse; they are forbidden our meats, and interdicted our tables. Our armies will never be recruited by Jews; they will never take up arms for the defense of their country. The weightiest of these reproaches is unjust, the others are but specious.
However, he then recognized that Jews may have commitments outside of the nation in which they would be granted full citizenship. They have religious and financial ties to colleagues in other nations. They may wish to be governed by their own laws and judged according to their scriptures. They could thus be a nation within a nation. So he suggested that
you should deny the Jews every thing as a distinct nation, and grant them every thing as individuals.
This idea that Jews were still different from other citizens persisted. The very fact of the diaspora worked against them. With their allegiances to other Jewish communities in other countries, they seemed “cosmopolitan” rather than patriotic. They interfered with a nation’s sense of itself. In the Middle Ages the Jew was assailed because he was not Christian. In the Modern Age he was assailed because he was not truly French or German or Russian. In both cases he was not “one of us.”
The idea of the Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” was (and is) one of the main tenets of Russian antisemitism. It was basic to the foundation of the Pale of Settlement in Tsarist times and it continued in the socialist regime that followed the Russian Revolution. The following is a description of cosmopolitans from Vissarion Belinsky, a 19th century literary critic who promoted the idea of a truly Russian literature:
The cosmopolitan is a false, senseless, strange and incomprehensive phenomenon, a manifestation in which there is something insipid and vague. He is a corrupt, unfeeling creature, totally unworthy of being called by the holy name of man (quoted in Pinkus, 1988, pp 153-154).
Despite Soviet Russia’s professed goal of the brotherhood of man, the idea of the Jew as a “rootless cosmopolitan” persisted after the Revolution. It came to a frightening culmination in the accusations against the Jewish doctors in 1952-3 (Carfield, 2002). It is frightening to note the similarity between Communist thought and the Fascist idea of Bodenlosigkeit (lack of “ground” in the sense of a place to have roots).
The ideas of nationhood radically changed the lives of many Jews (Arendt, 1951). Intent on proving themselves good citizens of the new nations, they relinquished some of their religious beliefs and behaviors. They became secular. Some even converted to the state religion, hoping to become “assimilated” into general society. Despite all these efforts to become involved as a citizen, the Jews continued to be considered alien. Rather than being welcomed as a compatriots they reviled as pretentious upstarts.
And so many Jews began to think that the only solution was to return to Palestine to found their own new nation of Israel. No longer cosmopolitan they would reclaim their homeland. Zionism would provide Jews with a nation wherein they were not alien (Miller& Ury, 2010).
These new developments made it even more difficult for the Jews who remained in the countries of their birth. Would a Jew support Israel against the interests of the country in which he lives? Zionism raised fears about the allegiance of the Jews, and provided an excuse to exile them from the nations they could not be part of.
So arose the idea that the Jews could never really be part of any non-Jewish nation. This concept was presented by T. S. Eliot (1934) in a series of talks about literary traditions. He describes “tradition:”
What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of ‘the same people living in the same place.’ (p 18)
He goes on to suggest how tradition should be established and maintained:
What we can do is to use our minds, remembering that a tradition without intelligence is not worth having, to discover what is the best life for us not as a political abstraction, but as a particular people in a particular place; what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions, within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desired. (p. 19)
And then he brings up something that is essential to any great tradition:
The population should be homogeneous; where two or more cultures exist in the same place they are likely either to be fiercely self-conscious or both to become adulterate. What is still more important is unity of religious background; and reasons of race and religion combine to make any large number of free-thinking Jews undesirable. There must be a proper balance between urban and rural, industrial and gricultural development. And a spirit of excessive tolerance is to be deprecated.
The remarks about the free-thinking Jews are strange and terrifying. They are completely out of context in a discussion of the literary traditions of the American South. They clearly reflect the antisemitism of the writer and of his time. In the years subsequent to Eliot’s book, the great liberal democracies of the world refused to accept Jews fleeing from the Nazi regime in Germany for fear that they would pollute their national identities.
Although nationalism fostered the idea of governance by the people, it also promoted war in the pursuit of a nation’s destiny. As Anderson (2016) has pointed out, one of the measures of nationalism’s success is how easily a people will lay down their lives to defend their country. Surely cosmopolitanism is a better ideal.
Human beings unfortunately seem to need to hate. We make an enemy of any one who is different from us. And so we revile those who gave us the Ten Commandments. We need to stop this senseless behavior. The main way forward is to learn abou those who are not us. This will broaden our understanding. With understanding will come tolerance and cooperation. And we should follow ideals that refuse to be limited to one faith or to one nation.
Anderson, B. R. O’G. (1983/2016). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. Revised Edition. London: Verso.
Arendt, H. (1951, reprinted 1973). The origins of totalitarianism. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.
Bacon, G. (2003). “The House of Hannover”: Gezeirot Tah in modern Jewish historical writing. Jewish History, 17, 179-206.
Bandura, A., Underwood, B., & Fromson, M. E. (1975). Disinhibition of aggression through diffusion of responsibility and dehumanization of victims. Journal of Research in Personality, 9, 253–269.
Barnavi, E. (2003). A historical atlas of the Jewish people: From the time of the patriarchs to the present. New York: Schocken.
Bauer, Y. (2001). A history of the Holocaust. Revised edition. New York: Franklin Watts.
Baum, S. K. (2012). Antisemitism Explained. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Beck, A. T. (2002). Prisoners of hate. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 40, 209-216.
Beller, S. (2007). Antisemitism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Bernstein, P. (1951). Jew-hate as a sociological problem. New York: Philosophical Library.
Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55, 429–435.
Chanes, J. A. (2004). Introduction and Overview. In Antisemitism: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-CLIO
Clermont Tonnerre, S. (1790) Translation of a speech, spoken by the Count Clermont Tonnere, Christmas-eve last: on the subject of admitting non-Catholics, comedians, and Jews, to all the privileges of citizens, according to the Declaration of rights. Available at Hathi Trust.
Crossan, J. D. (1995). Who killed Jesus? Exposing the roots of anti-semitism in the Gospel story of the death of Jesus. San Francisco: Harper
Eco, U. (1994). Six walks in the fictional woods. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
Eisner, W. (2005). The plot: The secret story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. New York: W.W. Norton.