Sunday, May 20, 2007

What they really want

Sometimes people reveal what they really believe in, when they describe what they would do. This is often in contrast to what they pretend to believe in, when they criticize what other people do. There's an example at the Astute Bloggers.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Existential Alienation Proves the Deity's Reality

In a comment on the previous entry, Sigmund, Carl, and Alfred mention an earlier essay on their site that discusses some similar issues. I had criticized Freud's misunderstanding of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself, in part because Freud seems to think that the only legitimate "commandments" are those which ratify -- and which derive from -- what he came to view as the essentials of human nature. The idea that the commandment might originate in a Transcendent Source and that it might actually be intended to transform human nature does not seem to have occurred to him.

Sigmund, Carl, and Alfred's post begins with an appealing apothegm from the celebrated English essayist, William Hazlitt:
Man is the only animal who laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.
That pithy maxim diverted me from further reflexion on Freud's Das Unbehagen in der Kultur, because it provides a very clear way of showing how a human being's sense of alienation in the world indicates the reality of a Transcendent Source beyond material life.

First, though, a digression.

Hazlitt's aper├žu also illustrates what is, I think, the real dividing line between human beings and the animals. Just how animals differ from humans was recently discussed in the comments to Gagdad Bob's evisceration of a dailykos screed which (taking off from the recent observation that chimpanzees or bonobos have been observed making sharpened spears with which to hunt bush babies) asserted than man could no longer pride himself on being the only toolmaking animal, and that men are only animals after all.

Leftists were not always so convinced. It was none other than the communist Brecht who wrote these haunting lyrics, with their defiant closing assertion:
Meine Herren, meine Mutter praegte, auf mich einst, ein schlimmes Wort:
Ich wurde enden am Schauhaus, oder an einem noch schlimmeren Ort.
Ja, so ein Wort, ist leicht gesagt! Aber ich sage Euch: Daraus wird Nichts!
Da konnt Ihr nicht machen mit mir --- Ein Mensch ist kein Tier!
(To open another tiroir: Why toolmaking should be the archetypal hallmark of humanity's humanity is not altogether clear to me; and although Sir William Osler once remarked that man is the only animal who desires to take medicines, there is good evidence that bears, primates, and elephants seek certain plants when they appear to have certain illnesses, in some cases the same plants that humans in the same habitats use for similar ailments, and in some cases the humans have the tradition that they learned about these medicines by observing the animals. So I don't think that is the difference, either.)

Hazlitt is on to something, although I think that animals have been observed to weep, and I think that some animals can be said to laugh, although probably only the laughter of sheer exuberance, and not the rictus sardonicus of satire or schadenfreude.

Where Hazlitt is magnificently accurate is in suggesting that the human "is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they ought to be." The phrasing he uses is exactly right: the human animal is not struck by the difference between what things are and what they might be, or could be, but by the difference between what things are and what they ought to be. In that "ought" I claim to find experiential proof for the Transcendent Source.

Here's how.

If we assume that there is no Transcendent Source (Heaven forbid), and that the human being emerges seamlessly from the natural world, just as the natural world emerges seamlessly from whatever it is that provided the basis for its emergence, without direction, purpose, or meaning, on the basis of purely natural and self-developing processes, then we would expect to discover that the human animal is perfectly at home in the world from which it emerged. Evolving naturally from the world as it is, the human animal would be completely at home in the world, and would find the world "right" just as it is.

As I think the other animals find the world to be.

And yet, the human animal is "struck by the difference between what things are and what they ought to be." Why should that be? How could the human animal, emerging seamlessly as part and parcel of the natural world, have any conception that it "ought" to be otherwise? And yet we do. In fact, the very atheistic leftists who rail against the notion that a human being is not merely an animal are themselves motivated by a discrepancy between what they perceive to be the shortcomings of the world as it is, and the utopia that they envisage. Why are human beings able to imagine another world, and realize that this world "ought" to be like the ideal (in Plato's sense) world they imagine?

It is because the human soul partakes of a Divine essence in a way that the animal soul does not. (Now of course the animals were created by the same Transcendent Source that created the human being, and we can be certain, from Perek Shira that the animals are all engaged in worship of the Divine, and we know that human souls can transmigrate into animal forms, and that souls that have been animals can be (re)incarnated as human beings. The simple explanation is that the animals do have a living soul, a "nefesh chaya" [Genesis 1:24], which is of the same order as the "nefesh chaya" of human beings; only human beings, however, have the "neshomoh" [Genesis 2:7] which the Transcendent Source breathed into their nostrils, and it is the "neshomoh" that accounts for the existential alienation that humans often experience in a world that they experience as beautiful but not quite "right.")

To tie this back into the discussion of the Transcendent Source's commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves, recall that the Transcendent Source has addressed Himself to the human soul in a direct confrontation. The Bible records several such episodes of the Transcendent becoming Immanent, and confronting the human soul directly. The first such was in the Garden, and as we are all descendents of Adam, it was an episode that involved all of us.

The ability to receive the commandment, to participate in the confrontation, derives from the "neshomoh" that was planted, if you will, within the human being and which provides a sort of receiver for the Divine communication. (It's actually a transceiver, but the art and science of prayer are more about tuning the transceiver to the Divine frequency that the Transcendent Source is continually and continuously sending, than about transmitting back to the Transcendent Source what that Source already knows.) I must leave for another posting, and for further consideration, the question as to why the Creator created the human being with a "neshomoh" that requires a further confrontation and the communication of further instructions, in order to transcend its animal nature and become truly human, although I think it is evident that the involvement of the Creator in that communication, confrontation, and commandment is evidence of great kindness and mercy.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Discontented with Freud's "Discontents"

In the year or two that immediately followed the atrocities of September Eleventh, 2001, I turned to a re-reading of "Civilization and Its Discontents [Das Unbehagen in der Kultur]," to see if Sigmund Freud's magisterial deployment of the conflict between the archetypal forces of eros and thanatos, love and death, might account in some way for the destructive fury of the primitive demons who attacked civilization with its own technological power. I was disappointed, and I am going to try to account for one small aspect of my disappointment tonight.

This post will try to begin unraveling some of the unsatisfying shortcomings in Freud's essay. I should say at the outset that I think Freud occupies a position in the intellectual pantheon that is not in proportion to his actual accomplishments. He is a bravura writer, and a cogent and penetrating literary critic, but as a scientist and a philosopher, I think he is open to serious criticism. Although I was in my salad days much taken by the titanic personage evoked by Ernest Jones's bioography, I have been gradually disillusioned by the realization that most of Freud's insights, particularly as presented in the high-falutin' English translations of his work (e.g. "I and It" becomes "The Ego and the Id") are based on a very slim database, and that his observations of middle-class Viennese neurotics may not, after all, provide a sufficient basis for the sort of overarching philosophical psychology that he adumbrates. Nuff said.

Here's just one tiny footnote.

Professor Freud's discussion of "one of the ideal demands, as we have called them, of civilized society" which can be found in Section V of "Civilization and Its Discontents," (pages 64-75 of the "standard edition" published by W. W. Norton) is a curious demonstration of ignorance in the midst of profound learning, and obtuseness in the midst of very subtle acuity.

Let me explain.

Freud begins by describing this "ideal demand" as follows:
It runs: 'Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.' It is known throughout the world and is undoubtedly older than Christianity, which puts it forward as its proudest claim."
That is a very bizarre statement, as I hope to demonstrate. Bear with me.

Most of the Christians I know would say that the proudest claim of Christianity - and its unique claim - is the one encapsulated in John 3:16, rather than the one mentioned in Matthew 22:39. But that isn't Freud's most glaring obtuseness here.

Rather, I was puzzled by his blithe statement that the commandment "is undoubtedly older than Christianity." Unless this is a puckish, coy Freud, it is decidedly odd that he seems entirely unaware that Jesus was quoting verbatim, Leviticus 19:18, a text that was already more than 1,000 years old when Jesus was born.

It is an illustration, I think, that although Freud was, according to Ernest Jones's biography, proud of his Jewish identity, he was remarkably uneducated and uncurious about the Jewish tradition, and its traditional literature.

We'll develop that idea further as we describe Freud's bizarre interpretation of the Biblical commandment.

Freud goes on to give what he describes as an interpretation of the commandment from "a naive attitude." He does not attempt to understand what might have been signified by the original, terse Hebrew phrase "ve-ahavta le-re-acha k'amocha," and does not question his immediately everyday acceptance that he knows what "love," "neighbor," and "like yourself" might actually signify. Of course, plumbing the depths of meaning contained in that phrase, and those words, has much occupied religious thinkers, and in both the Jewish and the Christian traditions regarding them, in point of fact. Just who is a "neighbor" was asked, and what does it mean to "love" that neighbor. (The word "neighbor" indicates someone who is close or near to you. In one of the most interesting Jewish interpretations, that of the Sfas Emes, that "neighbor" is on one level none other than the Creator, and the commandment thus echoes that other great Jewish commandment [Deuteronomy 6:5] which Jesus indicated was the "first and great commandment" [Matthew 22:37] -- but I digress.)

To Freud, the commandment to love one's neighbor is intensely problematic. He begins by noting that his "love is something valuable which I ought not to throw away without reflection. It imposes duties on me for whose fulfillment I must be ready to make sacrifices. If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way." These are really remarkable assumptions and assertions, that have no basis other than Freud's own feelings. He goes on to say:
If I love someone, he must deserve it in some way. . . .He deserves it if he is so like me in important ways that I can love myself in him; and he deserves it if he is so much more perfect than myself that I can love my ideal of my own self in him.
Again, I think that these idiosyncratic notions do not derive from the text of the commandment, but from Freud's own ideology.

After concluding that the neighbor is really a "stranger" who is just "an inhabitant of this earth, like an insect, an earth-worm or a grass-snake" and thus "only a small modicum of my love will fall to his share," Freud wonders:
What is the point of a precept enunciated with so much solemnity if its fulfillment cannot be recommended as reasonable?
And he then concludes:
Not merely is this stranger in general unworthy of my love, I must honestly confess that he has more claim to my hostility and even my hatred. He seems not to have the least trace of love for me and shows me not the slightest consideration.
How is that for projection? It seems clear that Freud willfully chooses not to understand that the commandment comes from a Transcendent Source, and is intended to modify and direct human conduct, rather than being a logical outcome of what Freud has come to identify as human nature. He goes on:
Indeed, if this grandiose commandment had run 'Love thy neighbor as thy neighbor loves thee', I should not take exception to it. And there is a second commandment, which seems to me even more incomprehensible than and arouses still stronger opposition in me. It is 'Love thine enemies.'
To Freud, a commandment is only acceptable if it merely confirms what he already finds in human nature. The idea that civilization might be partially based on a commandment that is not necessarily in harmony with every aspect of human nature, baffles him. It seems pretty clear to me, however, that the commandments of the Transcendent Source are not intended to ratify every base impulse that may be present in human nature, but to control human behavior and thereby transform its nature.

At any rate, Freud next introduces his theme of innate human aggressiveness, saying that "men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among those whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him."

Freud's obtuseness prevents him from realizing that the Bible knows very well what real human beings are really like, and never shies away from that knowledge. The Transcendent Source of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself knows very well what is in your heart of hearts, and that is one reason why there is more than one commandment. The commandment is part of a comprehensive structure of the 613 commandments which are intended to guide the individual and collective lives of the Jewish people, and serve not only to control their behavior, but to remake their very essence in accordance with a higher plan. And the 7 Noachide commandments serve to accomplish the same thing for the other nations.

The point is, that you cannot understand what it is to love your neighbor as yourself in a vacuum, simply because, despite its evident importance (the kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria recommended reciting it before every daily prayer) it is a commandment that is one part of a larger systematic approach to human character and behavior.

Freud's entire discussion of innate human aggressiveness, I will leave for another occasion. My purpose this evening was merely to show that this otherwise highly educated and curious man was curiously ignorant about the sources from which the commandment he so glibly discusses emerged, and unwilling to tackle its meaning on its own terms. Like the caricature of Judaism which he presents in "Moses and Monotheism," Freud's analysis of the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is a cartoonish projection, rather than a well-studied and well-appreciated representation.

One final note: the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself is not at all the same thing as the "Golden Rule," whether that Rule is stated positively, as in the Gospels, or negatively, as in the Jewish tradition, or in any one of the ways in which the "Golden Rule" is stated in the dozens of traditional cultural sources in which it appears. But that's another story altogether.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Saturday, November 11, 2006


Bleeding from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

Down, but not out.

Over the next two years, Sharkey, Grima, and their henchmen will do everything they can to weaken and profane the shire.

But their dominion will not last forever.

And if the damage they do is not mortal, we must hope that the people will see their spiritual ugliness in the plainest light of day, and turn them out.

In turn.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Back from the Campaigns

Yes, I am back.

Back from the campaigns.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Site meter installation

The site meter has been installed.