Friday, May 8, 2009

Aristotle on the Golden Rule

Aristotle on the Golden Rule: A (Mere) Preface

Two Aristotelian problems have occurred this week. Alas, convenient natural categories are getting blurred again despite the work of academicians and politicians.

First, some Bible bloggers are arguing this week about whether "the historical" Jesus really taught the Golden Rule. For instance, Mark Goodacre (also a New Testament scholar) is questioning the parroted answer of Loren Rosson III to the somewhat rhetorical question of John Meier, that question (you remember) which was once asked and definitively answered so long ago by the votes of the majority of scholars of the "Jesus" Seminar. Just look at all that black and grey ink for the words Jesus didn't say. But Meir, you see, is not content to sell just three volumes of his scholarship; so he's added another: A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus, Volume 4: Law and Love. Lest you missed it, or failed to imagine it, or were distracted by Love, their univocal answer (Goodacre's doubts aside) is: "No." "Christianity's founder" did not "champion" the "secular wisdom" called the Golden Rule."

Second, there's this: This week President Obama apparently did not get the memo; he certainly did not read the biblioblogger dispute. When he wrote his own memo to his Nation yesterday, he came off sounding like he thought the Golden Rule is religious (not secular) and, as such, has something to contribute annually and perennially to the Day of Prayer: ". . . we remember the one law that binds all great religions together: the Golden Rule, and its call to love one another; to understand one another; and to treat with dignity and respect those with whom we share a brief moment on this Earth." And that memo-to-remember is inserted right in the middle of another fat debate or two or three this week: (you know) - the debates over how to keep separate church and state and Law and Love and executive prayer and Executive propriety (when the rest of the secular government gets stood up and is left all alone, right out in public with their voices cocked up towards the skies, with television camera crews from Fox News and CNN News and so forth making ready for youtube).

These are threats of a perhaps-real historical rabbi teaching something secular. OR of certain Christian writings (albeit with an academically-doubtful founder) harking back maybe to something Jewish. These are risks of mixing absolute categories - and of bringing together very distinct domains of dominance - that may cause some of us even to want to change the natures we were born with!

It reminds us of that lovable literary scholar who turned from solid atheism to intellectual theism to a path towards life-bending concessions of something radically different altogether. He also turned from serious literature to popular apologetics (and, thankfully, vowed never intentionally to mix the two, leaving his readers to do that job for him). Yes, I'm thinking of C.S. Lewis and of his little afterthought of an "Appendix" to The Abolition of Man. Yes, you remember it too, don't you? It's what he called, "Illustrations of the Tao," which, I think, too many Christians have appropriated in the pages as some aristotelian natural law if not that platonic ideal found also within the words of "The Word of God," which is also known as "The Bible." (Fair enough - that appendix was no afterthought of the author. And Lewis really was the evangelist of Mere Christianity, wasn't he?)

But Lewis was also thoroughly anti-modernist well before the French post-philosophers posted anything along those lines; and he says (to introduce the Appendix) that he is "not a professional historian," and he adds, "I am not trying to prove its [the Tao's] validity by the argument [of historical artifacts]. . . ," and he goes on to claim that "biology and anthropology" won't support some universal construct of a meta-narrative absolute Law. Which is why his first illustrations of rules found around the world and through the histories of it run right into Love.

He notes (8 illustrated LAWs - 8 and not 7; 8 and not 10 Commandments, nor 2 in 1), the first being:


And he lists "Ancient Egyptian" and "Ancient Jewish" and "Old Norse" and "Hindu" and "Babylonian" and "Ancient Chinese" and "Roman" and "British" and "Christian" quotations from religious and from secular texts. What a mix. What a motley mix.

In his appendix, Lewis seems to have forgotten that he quoted Aristotle in Chapter One, where he quoted him right out of the Nichomachean Ethics. And here's the thing: the evangelical Christians I know who've read Lewis's little book - and who have liked it - have also likened it to "The Bible." They have likely done so because of Aristotle. It's not so much that they really have Lewis's appreciation for the Ethics (and Lewis seems to stomach Aristotle's ethics because he finds Aristotle's ostensibly natural "ought to" to be just a surfaced outcropping of the much deeper, less visible morality of Plato's ideal. Hence, Lewis says he doesn't have to "argue" or "prove" the Tao as Aristotle would, because Plato spared thinkers of that problem). The Christians who I know who have liked Lewis's book rather like the game of logic, which they play very seriously. Absolute premises can lead to absolutely rigid conclusions. Therefore: Categories are inherently natural and cannot (therefore: "should not") be mixed.

What hardly anybody notices and talks about out loud is that Lewis's "illustrations" of the "Tao" start (and end) with The Golden Rule. (Keep your eye on and your ear to The End.)

The mix of secular and religious historical quotations that Lewis cites (several from various groups and cultures of histories) is a mix of a Law, which is a mix of Law with Love. We rarely laugh at the irony, "Thou shalt love . . . ," but we "ought to" laugh. And we ought to laugh "involuntarily," - just the way we do when we've had just a bit too much to drink at a party and our best friend more-than-whispers that inside joke (within earshot of everyone else). We know, right then, while still sober, that categories have been mixed. Helplessly mixed.

(There now can be no Berlin wall erected between the "Greco-Roman world, going back as far as Herodotus and the sophists" and "Jesus" and "the historical" Jesus.)

And is there really a logical "reason" that the last illustration in Lewis' mixed up set comes from "Matt. vii. 12.": "Do to men what you wish men to do to you."?

Aristotle would say there is a reason. He'd join that argument to keep Jesus out of it. He'd repeat some of what he said in his secular Politics too. But he wouldn't be talking to you, or to me. Not if you're a woman, or any kind of bar-bar-ian. His Ethics were written for his son, Nicomachus, and for his father, Nicomachus, and for the elite boys in his Academy who might just some day conquer the world, logically and so forth. (Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics were not written for his mother. Nor were they for his wife who only bore him a daughter, nor for that daughter who is a female which is a mutant male according to his logic, nor for his concubine who bore him his Nicomachus, nor for any of his slaves.)

At the risk of breaching such natural categories, however, wouldn't you like to know how Aristotle writes the Golden Rule? If you've peeked by translation at his Ethics alone, then you know how Aristotle was concerned about three categories of "love." (I'm not just talking about how separate he must keep notions such as "agape," and "phileo," and "eros." He gets enough mere help from C.S. Lewis and Christian Bible scholars on that). When we have more time together, let's look and eavesdrop.