Paul of Tarsus
1. On Perfect Virtue
If you had to wait for the world to stop being corrupt before you could free your soul from corruption, you would wait a very long time. In fact, you would probably die before you achieved the innocence you sought.
Philosophers long ago recognized it would be remarkable if good people and people in power happened to coincide. Instead of waiting and hoping for this rare coincidence, philosophers devised techniques for freeing the soul from corruption in a corrupt world.
Here’s what Plato has to say on the subject—as relevant today as it was two millennia ago:
Worthy disciples of philosophy. ... have tasted how sweet and blessed a possession philosophy is, and have also seen and been satisfied of the madness of the multitude, and known that there is no one who ever acts honestly in the administration of States, nor any helper who will save any one who maintains the cause of the just. Such a savior would be like a man who has fallen among wild beasts—unable to join in the wickedness of his fellows, neither would he be able alone to resist all their fierce natures, and therefore he would be of no use to the State or to his friends, and would have to throw away his life before he had done any good to himself or others. And he reflects upon all this, and holds his peace, and does his own business. He is like one who retires under the shelter of a wall in the storm of dust and sleet which the driving wind hurries along; and when he sees the rest of mankind full of wickedness, he is content if only he can live his own life and be pure from evil or unrighteousness, and depart in peace and good will, with bright hopes.Worthy disciples of philosophy (ἀξίαν ὁμιλούντων φιλοσοφίᾳ) don’t adopt the values of the corrupt world. We don’t entrust the fate of our souls to the corrupt world. We crouch behind a wall with other innocent souls, meditating, thinking, debating, praying and studying.
In modern terms, we would have to say worthy disciples of philosophy are disabled. Our awareness and understanding of the corruption of the world make us unfit for the social roles the world expects.
Competent souls, souls that are not psychologically disabled, function in the world in one of two ways. They pretend rulers are good. They resign themselves to being bad. The worthy disciple of philosophy isn’t capable of either.
Will the worthy disciple of philosophy be able to persuade the disability office he deserves a pension? Probably not. Perhaps he might try the method of Hindus and Bhikkhus: don robes and sit on the street begging for food. But this might not be practical in winter. So what’s our poor soul, unwilling to pretend the world is good, and unwilling to be bad, what is he to do?
In 13th century Italy, Francis offers one possible answer. If you enter the world with nothing but your perfect virtue, other souls will see your virtue. They will come forward and offer you food and shelter.
What if no one is coming forward with offers?
Don’t be impatient, says Francis. Strive to perfect your virtue even more.
“What if I don’t perfect my virtue in time for winter,” asks the cynic.
If no one comes forward to help us, says Francis, we must become even more virtuous, not adapt to the ways of the world.
We know that path ends on the cross. And we follow it.
2. Ancient languages
When I meet God, I want to be able to tell Him I did my best to learn His word. I haven’t had time yet to learn Hebrew and Latin. But I want to know at least a few dozen words in each, so God will know, at least, I tried.
This is why I’m unemployable. This is why I’m poor. I just can’t imagine what could possibly be more important than the words of salvation, whether from Bhikkhunis or Plato or Aristotle or God. If learning Greek and Sanskrit takes me one step closer to the purity and innocence my soul craves, what could be more important than that?
If, in order to assure the survival of body, I lose the innocence of soul, I have lost something higher for the sake of something lower.
3. The Forest
In order to go deep into thought, it’s helpful to have a time and place free of distractions. This is why the Bhikkhuni goes to the forest to meditate.
The flies distract her. But they aren’t deliberately trying to redirect her attention from the Dhamma to the market.
4. The cynical philosophy
Cynical minds have undoubtedly stopped reading by now. So we can get down to business and discuss their philosophy. The cynical philosophy loves pleasures of the flesh. It ignores pleasures of mind, soul and spirit. It denies mind, soul and spirit even exist.
Here, for the record, is a quick refutation of this cynical philosophy.
Assertion 1. The legacy of information passed from one generation to the next includes both genomic material and textual material.
Assertion 2. Human behavior is influenced by both genomic and textual material.
Conclusion. Human behavior can’t be explained by a reductionist theory that excludes textual material from its domain of study.
The cynical philosophy refuses to entertain the possibility that the words “Love thy neighbor as thyself” might have as profound an influence on the behavior of a human specimen as any nucleic acid ever could. The specimen of homo cynicus (anthropos kynikos) has decided to acquiesce to genome and give up any attempt to make the neurological alterations that occur with the study of texts. And, to protect its pride, the specimen adopts a philosophy in which indolent acquiescence to the genome is characteristic of the species.
The canine genome can be overcome by training. But the human genome cannot?
5.1 First step of the training
Consider how a worthy disciple of philosophy might fare in Hollywood.
“Should we really appeal to the base animal instincts of our viewers, their lust, pride and greed. Won’t that be a bad influence on their souls?”
“In Hollywood we do whatever it takes to get attention. Attention means viewer share. Viewer share means revenue. Revenue means profit.”
“But is it right to show beautiful faces? Won’t that teach people to admire the external beauty, and fail to see the beauty within?”
5.2 Second step of the training
A passage from Augustine:
In how many of the most minute and trivial things my curiosity is still daily tempted, and who can keep the tally on how often I succumb? How often, when people are telling idle tales, we begin by tolerating them lest we should give offense to the sensitive; and then gradually we come to listen willingly! I do not nowadays go to the circus to see a dog chase a rabbit, but if by chance I pass such a race in the fields, it quite easily distracts me even from some serious thought and draws me after it—not that I turn aside with my horse, but with the inclination of my mind. And unless, by showing me my weakness, thou dost speedily warn me to rise above such a sight to thee by a deliberate act of thought—or else to despise the whole thing and pass it by—then I become absorbed in the sight, vain creature that I am.What serious thought is the circus of Hollywood distracting you from?
The mass media profits handsomely telling idle tales and seducing vulnerable minds.
You need a deliberate act of thought to rise above the circus and find the most sacred texts. Don't let the profiteers of spectacle, the ringleaders of the modern circus, choose them for you.
Moving pictures are a snare. They seduce eyes meant for study to love pleasure instead. They teach us to adore beautiful, rich people and despise the poor and oppressed.