One of the greatest challenges for Judaism and Christianity has been to reconcile the law of Moses in the Hebrew Scriptures with the moral law described by Greek philosophers. Writers of every generation from the Hellenistic Age to our own have sought to understand their Jewish tradition in light of philosophical reason, because they had come to believe that both are true. This task has always been a difficult one, because, fundamentally, I think the Philosophical Law and the Hebrew Law work in different ways.
The philosophical law, is more familiar to modern people. Through reason, as described by Plato and Aristotle, man can deduce the best way to live his life. Living the best life is the highest happiness, therefore the promise of the philosophical law is human happiness. The philosophical law seeks universal application – how to order one’s actions, emotions, conversations, work, and beliefs by reason to achieve the best possible life for ourselves and others. The philosophical law has often been called the Moral Law. The Hebrew law, though, functions in a different way.
The Hebrew law, as described in the Hebrew Scriptures, is the law of an ancient community, the Jews. Its regulations are very contextual to that age – rules regarding livestock, slaves, barbaric punishment, and the like. Moreover, the law is delivered by God as a tyrant (in a classical sense of the word, as someone whose actions and decrees are a law to themselves and obey no higher standard). The Mosaic law is not subject to reason like the philosophical law. The promise of the Hebrew law is not happiness, but solely faithfulness to the one who designed it, God. The function of the Hebrew law, in the context of Christianity (this is the only context I can knowledgeably speak for), is to teach people how to be merciful. The Mosaic law is designed to trip us up – we are meant to never live up to it (unlike, again, the philosophical law, which is always practical). Proof of this is that Christ himself was cursed by the Mosaic law by doing a profane thing when he was hung on a tree (the cross). The purpose of the Mosaic law, then, is this: if everyone, even Jesus Christ, is guilty under this law, and if God has mercy on all people anyway, then every individual must forgive others their trespasses of the law as he himself is forgiven of his. The Hebrew law teaches us about repentance and mercy.
The difference between the philosophical (moral) law and the Hebrew law can be summarized as this: the best life according to the former is happiness by way of reason, while the best life according to the latter is godliness by way of obedience. But what if godly obedience does not seem reasonable? In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says that “not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass away from the law” and that anyone who teaches others to disobey any commandment at all will be condemned. But, in our Christian communities, we have let many letters of the Mosaic law pass away as society has progressed. Reason, it seems, has trumped obedience to God.
I’m not by any means advocating a return to following the Mosaic law. Perhaps this conflict between the moral law and the Hebrew law is much adieu about nothing. Perhaps there is no problem with being both a philosopher and Christian, though the Bible itself makes bold claims about the standard of lawful obedience. In any case, understanding the purpose and function of the philosophical law as opposed to the Biblical law can clarify one’s goals and beliefs to help one lead a better life.
Clitophon is the shortest Platonic dialogue but one that is very intriguing. In the dialogue, Clitophon, a student of Socrates, accuses his teacher of never leading him to happiness by failing to offer any positive knowledge. The dialogue ends with Clitophon exclaiming, “For I will say this, Socrates, that while you’re worth the world to someone who hasn’t yet been converted to the pursuit of virtue, to someone who’s already been converted you rather get in the way of his attaining happiness by reaching the goal of virtue.” Indeed, this feeling of wanting more is a familiar one to any serious reader of Plato. In Laches, Socrates refutes all proposed definitions of courage without offering any himself (cf. my post on Laches). Socrates ends the dialogue by saying to his friends that they should seek knowledgeable teachers of that virtue and that he will meet with them on the following day. The dialogue ends there, but the reader is left yearning to join Socrates and his friends the day after, where presumably Socrates, the ‘knowledgeable teacher’ he had coyly hinted at, would spill the beans about courage.
If nothing else, Clitophon is a testament to the meekness of Plato as an author. The work is a harsh denunciation of Socrates – Plato’s protagonist in almost all of his works – and a sober admission of the limitations of Plato’s method of philosophy. It reminds us that Socrates’ gift, as he described in the Apology, is to reveal the ignorance of others, not put forth positive knowledge himself. What Socrates offers us is first and foremost humility, not knowledge (at least not the kind that describes the definite nature of the good). It is easy to see how Aristotle, a student in Plato’s Academy for almost two decades, could grow frustrated with Plato’s approach and react against it. In his works, Aristotle offers the reader something Plato never directly does: a positive formulation of happiness, the virtues, and the good (rather, goods, which demystifies the problem) to give us practical advice on how to lead a better life.
Plato still stands as a giant among philosophers the more so because of his humility. But, at the risk of misunderstanding his deep meaning, I think Plato voluntarily left much of the work of learning how to live a better life to the hands of more able thinkers. We should remember Socrates lest our own theories fail his examination for ignorance, but we must not grow skeptical of personal improvement altogether (the leaders of the Academy took such a turn after Plato’s death). For Socrates never liked the timid of mind nor for that matter those lacking in courage, though he could never quite tell them exactly what that is.
I often follow the daily readings of the Orthodox Church in America and think about how the passages selected each day relate to each other. Sometimes the connection is clear and sometimes a common lesson is hard to discern or seems to not even exist.
The daily readings for today are from the Book of Acts and the Gospel of John. The first reading describes Paul’s mission to some of the Gentile cities (Acts 14:20-27), the second one presents Jesus Christ claiming to be the Good Shepherd and the gate to God’s kingdom (John 9:39-10:9), and the third reading shows Paul defending himself before King Agrippa and describing his credentials in Judaism and conversion to Christianity (Acts 26:1-5, 12-20). What is the connection between the readings? I think the compilers of the lectionary are drawing attention to the relationship between the Apostle Paul and the teaching of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, ” ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice.’ ” If in this allegory Jesus is the Good Shepherd who enters through the gate to the human community, then the Book of Acts suggests that Paul is the gatekeeper. After describing Paul’s mission in Gentile lands, the author of Acts states that “[Paul] had opened a door of faith for the Gentiles”.
Though he is the gatekeeper, Acts also describes Paul’s credentials in Judaism, how he “belonged to the strictest sect of [Judaism] and lived as a Pharisee”. Thus the daily readings establish both the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ as trustworthy teachers who approach the human community through the front gate of old Judaism. While Jesus is the Good Shepherd of God’s people, Paul is the gatekeeper that opens the door for the Gentiles to receive this teaching.
A while ago, I was reading Stephen Colbert’s biography on Wikipedia and was impressed by why he decided to become an actor. The article states, “After two years [at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia], he transferred to Northwestern University’s School of Communication to study performance, emboldened by the realization that he loved performing even when no one was coming to shows.” What a way to live and work! Although Stephen Colbert’s career as a comedian and social commentator is presently monumental, it did not seem to be heading that way when he first started acting. But, choosing to pursue work whose excellent completion was its own reward (detached from other incentives such as money or praise), Colbert truly has lived the good life.
Thoreau, in Walden, writes, “The life which men praise and regard as successful is but one kind. Why should we exaggerate any one kind at the expense of others?” Most people work not to perfect their chosen art but rather to fulfill other desires – for money, women or reputation. The classic example of living in this sort of way is the hero Achilles from the Iliad. His greatness is completely a function of the honor ascribed to him by others. He kills to acquire others’ wealth. He possesses women for the same reason. He amasses this plunder to build his reputation, exhibiting his power before others. He is not self-sufficient in his greatness; he requires others to perceive him as great. To be fair, many people labor for personal motives, such as supporting their family, even though they may not care for the work they do itself. That, too, is noble. But in so much as Stephen Colbert’s work is self-sufficient and done for the love of its own perfection, he is greater than Achilles.
From my journal, the last segment of the Holy Week commentaries:
“PASCHA. Slept late into the morning. Went to Agape Vespers, the last service of Holy Week. How interesting: the gospel reading, the very last Scripture in the Holy Week services, ends with Thomas doubting Christ’s resurrection (John 20:19-25). But the following verses about Jesus showing himself to Thomas are not read! [. . .] There is no closure, interestingly. But I don’t know what that means. [Actually, as my friend Jesse has pointed out, the readings on the next day, Bright Monday, pick up where the ones on Pascha leave off. Nevertheless, it’s still odd that the Holy Week readings ‘end with a whimper’ with the doubting Thomas passage].”
From my journal:
“Went to the Pascha midnight service. The joy of the holiday, I think, was not mimicked in our congregational celebration [. . .]:
‘Before the symbolic ark, David, God’s forefather, did leap and dance. Let us, therefore, the holy people, seeing the fulfillment of those symbols, rejoice with divine rejoicing; for Christ the Almighty is risen’ (719).
“The Paschal Orthos service, during the Paschal Canon, refutes the point I mentioned yesterday and describes why Sunday is now the day of rest for Christians:
‘The Paschal Feast was called Pascha from the Jewish name; for Christ by his Passion and Resurrection translated us from the curse of Adam and the bondage of Satan to the ancient liberty and bliss. As for the day of the week, which is called in Hebrew, the first day, being dedicated to our Lord for his glorification and magnification, it is called in Greek, Kyriake, or the Lord’s Day. The Disciples transferred to it the dignity of the sabbath after the Law of the Old Testament, and prescribed that it be a holiday and a day of rest’ (724).
“I wonder about the source documenting the ‘transfer’. The readings of the Paschal Divine Liturgy are interesting because they suggest that Christ has become known to us. The Epistle is of the beginning of the book of Acts, which begins the story of the work of the Holy Spirit after Christ’s resurrection was revealed to his disciples. The Gospel reading is from the beginning of the Gospel of John, which is the gospel book that reveals Christ’s nature from the first chapter of the book. Finally, I admired the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom for conveying God’s love and mercy to all people, regardless of their faults [. . .]:
‘Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord, and, whether first or last, receive your reward. O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy! O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day! You that fasted and you that have disregarded the fast, rejoice today! The table is rich-laden; the calf is fatted; let no one go forth hungry! Let all partake of the feast of faith. Let all receive the riches of goodness. Let no one lament his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one mourn his transgressions, for pardon has dawned from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free’ (787).
“And so we feasted after the service and came home late, in the early dawn.”