Category Archives: Atheism/Religion

The Tower of Babel: An Alternative Perspective

When people speak of a need for their faith in God/s, they almost always come around to expressing how–though they’ll readily grant that organized religion, as an institution, may at times fall short of the ideal–the faith and grace of the Almighty still resonates in the hearts of all mankind (whether they acknowledge His omnipresence or not), and serves as the one true guiding force by which we may hope to find solidarity; through which we can strive to attain peace of mind, and (ultimately) peace on Earth, as surely as we are to find it in the coming hereafter.

When looked through the scope of the narrative found in the Book of Genesis, important events like man’s banishment from Eden, and the subsequent Great Flood meant to purge the world from the sinfulness that man had spawned in the world thereafter, are further reassurances of the need man has for God’s eternal presence in his life, without which he is doomed to be lost to both personal solace and eternal salvation.  Moreover, if we dwell further into the Christian perspective, it is in the figure of Jesus Christ–wherein God became man, and died at the hands of man, for the sake of absolving said man of his sin so that he may once more gain eternal life in Heaven at the side of his Creator–where we find the long awaited mending of the rift between man and his spiritual soul, and bring peace between the physical and metaphysical realms.

Given all of the above, the Tower of Babel stands as a rarely explored peculiarity to the common narrative.  The story of the Tower begins in the first verse of Chapter 11, in the Book of Genesis (this is after the banishment from Eden, and after the Great Flood had already taken place):

1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.

2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

The whole earth was of one language, and presumably of a common understanding, as evident by the fact men journeyed and lived in some sort of union.  Though subtle, the placement of this story at this point of the Book is very significant in its relation to the theological underpinnings explored at the beginning of this post.  The story continues:

3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.

So united was man in his pursuits, he begins to set the stepping stones for architecture and human innovation by improving on common building techniques.  A symbolic act indicating the advent of greater civilization meant to sustain a decently sized population.

4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.”

The common theological perspective is that this verse signifies how, rather than a symbol of man’s ingenuity, the Tower is a symbol of man’s pride.  The emphasis being on the hubris of mere men wanting to make a name for themselves by reaching the realm of God by earthly means, rather than spiritual ones, thereby making mockery of the very concept of salvation through the grace of God.  This reasoning is satisfying to many faithful, but rings hollow on a number of accounts.  The first of which being that nowhere in the verse is there any reference to God, his grace, subverting his grace, or even wanting to reach Heaven to reside there against the wishes of God.  At it’s most basic interpretation, what the verse does demonstrate is a wish to push human innovation beyond its limitations, to surpass our natural inhibitions and master it to our advantage.  And if this is a grave sin, then one might as well deduce all modern technological achievements to be sinful (and if you’re reading this post, by means of some technological device, one can safely assume you are not of this opinion).  Furthermore, such speculation is rendered moot by the subsequent verses, wherein God clearly states his reasons for disapproving of man’s construction of the Tower:

5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.

6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.

The construction of the Tower isn’t the problem for God.  His concern is the implication it holds concerning man’s collective potential to rise higher than his nature (where nothing “they plan to do will be impossible to them”).  There’s no mention of man’s pride–his hubris, if you will–nor is it even hinted that God’s concerns rest in anything other than his own self-interest, as he only identifies two contentions he holds with man’s construction of the Tower: 1. They are doing it as one people, 2. the construction of the Tower symbolizes man’s power to be limitless.  Now, God’s solution to this problem is a simple one.  Since 2 stems directly from 1, he sets out to undo 1:

7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city.

Bible scholars will easily identify the Tower of Babel as being a clear example of an etiological myth, meaning a myth/story/legend meant to explain the origin of a phenomenon (i.e. think of the tale of how man received the gift of fire after Prometheus stole it from the Olympians).  In this case, the phenomenon being explained through the legend of the Tower of Babel is the origin of the diversification of languages.  Acknowledging this, from a philosophical/theological perspective, the actions of God as a character in the narrative are far more interesting of an indication of the dynamic between man and the Divine.  Because, for those who take this narrative seriously, God’s actions are not just responsible for the diversification of man’s languages, but also man’s segregation into different tribes, many of which undoubtedly grew to become opposing tribes, which inevitably led to these tribes waging war on one another on account of these differences.  Therefore, as the instigator of the tribalism among men, God can be credited as the direct catalyst of the warfare that came about as a result from said tribalism.  That is, if one takes the narrative seriously.  For those with a more scholarly interest in the subject, the greater plot implications between the characters are still equally intriguing.

Thus, to summarize the whole plot:  In a world following man’s banishment from paradise, following the Great Flood–a world just about all theologians and the faithful identify as being fallen and plagued by sin–humanity managed to surpass these great odds stacked against it and unite as one people, and coexist in such unity that it not only survived, but thrived in the harsh environment on the basis of its ingenuity alone.  According to the Bible itself, this great human unity did not need an appeal to the Divine to be achieved, nor did it require a blood sacrifice on the part of the Creator to bring peace and solace to the hearts of man.  And, amazingly, it was not man’s sins that halted this progress.  Nor was it man’s inherent wickedness that tore at the base of this serenity.  It was God, Himself.  Why?  In accordance to the story it can be simply put as God being afraid of man.

As heretical at it might sound, this underlying fear of man’s potential is not an uncommon theme throughout ancient mythology (when stories like the Tower of Babel would have been crafted).  The lineage of the Greek pantheon is a direct testament to this very concept.  The Titans were deposed by the very Olympians they had spawned, just as the Titans themselves had deposed the ancient gods that preceded them.  Given this tradition of cyclical deicide, it is not a farfetched interpretation to read the constant demand the Olympian gods place on being revered and worshipped by mankind not as a testament of their strength, but as a revelation of the fear that their own creation–man–will one day follow in the same traditions that all the higher beings in their history have done, and depose the makers that made them.

Aristotle could never rationally fathom way any god would be concerned with the daily happenings of a lower order of beings like mankind, and proposed a deity that took a laissez-faire approach towards human endeavors.  But perhaps Aristotle was not thinking creatively enough.  For what are gods without worship?  How many gods throughout the ages have met their fate in the graveyard of mythology simply because man stopped minding them any attention?  From this perspective, the prospect of man turning both inward to his own strength and ingenuity, as well as to that of his fellow man, is antithetical to the interests (and downright survival) of any halfway competent God.  And the God of the Book of Genesis is no exception to this, as shown by His own conduct in story of the Tower of Babel.

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Friedrich Nietzsche on Religion and Atheism

Believe it or not, there actually exists some contention in Nietzschean circles about the philosopher’s religiosity (or lack thereof).  While most people maintain that Friedrich Nietzsche was undoubtedly an atheist, a few contemporary thinkers see his creeds against Christianity as being indicative of a deeper understanding of the mystical; leaving room open for a belief in the divine.  Adding to the possible confusion for some readers comes from the popular writings of certain cranks (i.e. Thomas J.J. Altizer), who promote a wholly bizarre “Death of God” theology that stretches Nietzsche’s writings to absurd lengths.

But the best way to put the issue to rest is to go straight to the source himself.  In his final and most autobiographical full book, Ecce Homo, Nietzsche begins the second chapter, “Why I am so Clever,” by plainly stating his position on religious matters.

He states:  “‘God,’ ‘immortality of the soul,’ ‘redemption,’ ‘beyond’–without exception, concepts to which I never devoted any attention, or time; not even as a child.  Perhaps I have never been childlike enough for them?”  Here, he clearly sets his worldview as being completely divorced from what one would call religious sentiments, and, one could argue by the inclusion of ‘beyond,’ as devoid of the supernatural in general.  It is important to bring attention to the way Nietzsche claims to have never “devoted” any time to anything vaguely religious, because it is vital in understanding the manner by which he addresses theological positions in his writings.

Some have quoted the next paragraph in the text, where Nietzsche says, “I do not by any means know atheism as a result; even less as an event,” to indicate that Nietzsche might have still held to a spiritual sort of mysticism.  But this is unfounded in the actual text, because it places too much emphasis on the first part of the sentence, while ignoring the last.  Nietzsche qualifies that his did not know atheism as a result or event, precisely because his unbelief was not the product of some grand epiphany; he did not lose faith, because he never had it to begin with.  He goes on to explain, “it is a matter of course for me, from instinct.  I am too inquisitive, too questionable, too exuberant to stand for any gross answer.”  To Nietzsche, disbelief is his natural disposition, his inquisitive nature demands him not to accept anything more.

Now, I mentioned earlier that it is noteworthy how Nietzsche never bothered to entertained any notion of the supernatural, and how this sentiment affected his approach to theology.  Unlike other prominent atheist writers of the 19th Century, who saw fit to argue against the existence of deities and religions, Nietzsche never bothered to engage or refute any of the arguments for the existence of gods.  He repeatedly affirms that gods do not exist, but his affirmations are meant to be taken as solid proclamations, rather than logical arguments.  The reason for this is that Nietzsche would have considered such engagements as insulting to his person, because to him, “God is a gross answer, an indelicacy against us thinkers–at bottom merely a gross prohibition for us:  you shall not think!”  To even go so far as to refute the standard theological arguments would have been too big of a concession in Nietzsche’s mind.  To him the nonexistence of gods was a given fact, unworthy of debate (a position that greatly influenced later existentialists thinkers, like Jean-Paul Sartre).

This might seem odd, since anyone who has read Nietzsche can attest to the fact that he spends a multitude of pages mentioning God.  Indeed, it can be argued that the topic seems to be somewhat of an obsession to the philosopher, even if he claims to not devote any time to it.  However, one must be very careful here.  In much of his writings, Nietzsche’s atheism takes on a very post-theistic tone (The Gay Science, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, etc.), where he asserts the death of God, not as an actual entity, but as a psychological concept.  Primarily, because that’s all gods are to Nietzsche, man-made concepts, whose humble origins have been forgotten.  What he discusses in his writings is not any sort of deity recognizable to the religious, but the role, power, and influence the concept of God has had on the psychology of humanity, as well as how modernity is leading to the gradual (and unavoidable) erosion of this concept from our psych, as supernatural suppositions become more and more untenable in contemporary discourse.

In these regards, Nietzsche’s post-theistic atheism is a unique take on the issue on religion and God, but one should avoid assigning to it any deeper meaning than even the philosopher himself intended.

Bibliography

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Ecce Homo. “Why I Am So Clever,” Section 1.

The specific translation I used for the quotes in this post, come from Walter Kaufmann’s Basic Writings of Nietzsche, 1967 (2000 reprint), The Modern Library: New York, pages 692-693.

William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

William Blake is a fascinating character in the world of literature.  A deeply spiritual man, whose writings seek to promote what he saw as the ideals of Christian virtue, but equally antagonistic towards all churches and established expressions of religion.  It is this sort of irony that is raised repeatedly in Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1793), which explores ideas of traditional theology and ethical logic, to uncover what the poet thought to be the true spark of man’s divine spirit.

Anyone looking to seriously discuss the doctrine of Contraries set forth in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake, must first grasp the rhetorical, and perhaps more importantly, the theological implications that come along with realizing that notions such as good and evil are not and cannot be described as antitheses of one another.  Plate 3 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, firmly calls on the reader to reflect on how s/he could honestly be able to fully comprehend positive components (such as attraction, reason, and love), unless there exist negative contraries (in this case, repulsion, energy, and hate) that must be known and understood to truly see the goodness of its opposites.  If these negatives (i.e. Evil) are absent, then there is no rational way to detect the positives (i.e. Good), thus gaining an understanding of evil is detrimental in recognizing good.  Plate 3 goes on to imply that Evil is the driving force of knowledge; it is the active factor that through its guiding principle, energy, focuses the senses of the passive recipient, Good, and allows its guiding principle, reason, to judge a given situation.  Blake finishes by affirming, “Good is Heaven.  Evil is Hell”, a clear attempt to distinguish between the two concepts.  But, while it is certainly true that the existence of Heaven is not contingent on there also being a Hell, any description associating Heaven with Good will lose all meaning in the absence of Hell.  If Heaven is the sole transcended plane, then to label it Good (or anything else for that matter) is an arbitrary description, akin to saying that Color is Heaven.  In such a case, what would anything outside Heaven be, non-Color, but what would that describe?—Nothing, which is precisely why it is vital for us to be able to articulately conceive of the Evil of Hell, so that we may understand the Good of Heaven.

It must be kept in mind that in Blake’s spiritualist view, these traditionally divine and damned settings are considered to be more psychologically real, than physical representations of actual places (as the churches teach).  Thus, Heaven and Hell, Good and Evil, are dependent on one another to ensure the promulgation of both entities in human consciousness.  A fact that is acknowledged and plainly stated by Blake, and (in his view) secretly acknowledged but never stated by the churches.  In plate 4, the voice of the Devil is presented in the form of a rational argument (even though reason is a component of Good), articulating Blake’s stance that although transcendent experience is real, any attribute we give to it is limited by the imagination of our minds, thereby making this real entity imaginary when we aim to analyze and categorize it rationally.  Resulting in irony, because whereas reason is supposed to be a principle of Good, it becomes entrenched by our energetic drive to grasp it (energy being the principle of Evil), which ultimately takes us further away from the divine truth but also gives us our only possible insight to divinity.  Meaning that, unlike what the church or organized religion teaches us, our physical and mental cravings are neither sin nor salvation, but manifestations of one transcendent property incapable of being dissevered.  Our projection outward towards the heavens is in truth just a reflection inward—where Heaven truly resides—towards our soul.

Synod of Whitby, and the History of Dating Easter in Western Christianity

In the 7th century, British Christianity was defined by two differing models of the same religion:  The Church of Iona, founded by St. Columba on the distinctly Irish traditions of Celtic Christianity, and the Church of Canterbury, which followed the guidance of Rome.  Despite being confined to separate regions of the British Isles, the two churches came into direct conflict in a highly unstable region that was prone to usurpation and political strive, called Northumbria.  The issue was a simple one, but immensely divisive for the competing churches, as it concerned the most important Christian traditions: how to properly date Easter.  Both had come up with their own methods to date the feast, and the Christian church in Britain was heading towards crises as the Celtic churches in Northumbria refused to concede to Roman customs.  The dispute ran deeper than a mere quarrel over when it was proper to feast or fast in celebration of the Christian faith, beneath this was a persistent social divide between the conservative mores of a dwindling generation being challenged by a relentless call for modernity from the evermore increasing youth.

Fearing a schism, and perhaps sensing a political opportunity, King Oswiu of Northumbria called a synod (a church council) at Whitby to resolve the conflict.  Both sides were to present their case for Oswiu to consider before passing the final judgment on which practice would be observed in the kingdom.  The Synod of Whitby was a defining moment in the history of British Christianity; its inception lies in a combination of religious and political factors that must be examined in order to gain a concrete understanding of the historical significant, and its role in creating a unified church, and more importantly a unified people.

 

Before the Conflict: the End and Reinstitution of Roman Christianity in Britain

The first decade of the 5th century was the last for the Western half of the Roman Empire.  In Britain this meant that roughly 470 years of Roman authoritative control was over, taking with it any established Romano-British identity that may have been formed by the native inhabitants of the British Isle.  What followed is a remarkable abandonment of Roman customs and traditions, as the native Britons no longer viewed themselves as being part of the Empire.

Amongst the discarded traditions was Christianity, which had been imported to Britain from Rome in the early 3rd century but apparently—outside of the higher Romanized sectors of society—never became fully integrated into the daily lives of the common villagers (hence how the Latin word for villager, paganus, eventually came to mean the pejorative pagan).

The exact process of how Christianity disappeared on the island is a mystery, no doubt a combination of social apathy and Anglo-Saxon raids played a role, but ultimately this period in history is one devoid of concrete records or narrative chronicles and largely left to speculations.  What is known is that from the 5th to 6th century, Britain underwent a drastic process of exogenesis, where its people willingly started to identify with the warrior rulers of the invading Germanic (mostly Saxon and Angle) tribes, who came from across the English Channel, settled, refashioned and integrated the native Britons under their own customs.  Immersed within these customs was the adherence to Germanic tribal religions, their native Heathenism (again a term referencing the uncooperative country villagers that will make its way into the Christian lexicon), which was readily adopted by the British people who dwelled under Anglo-Saxon rule.

The story of Britain’s rechristening under the Roman faith traces back to continental Europe, where in 596 Pope Gregory I saw it as his Christian duty to send missionaries to the island and save the souls of the nonbelievers.  The man he sent was Augustine, a prior of the Church—equivalent to an office administrator—who along with a handful of monks, headed north to make claims in the name of Christ.  The journey was a daunting one. What sort of barbaric peoples awaited the missionaries?  Have these unbaptized Anglo-Saxon any idea of civility?  Will they be able to communicate God’s word to the pagans in their foreign tongue?  Such questions must have been heavy on Augustine’s mind as he crossed the English Channel, making landfall in the Isle of Thanet, and headed towards Canterbury.  Unknowingly to the administrator, his first steps on the British coast would turn out to be the defining moment of English ecclesiastical history.

Upon his arrival, Augustine set up his congregational base in Canterbury within the Kingdom of Kent, where he restored several abandoned churches from the Roman era to conduct services and conversions.  Conversions were slow as the mission was constantly plagued by Augustine’s infuriating habit of getting bogged down in administrative jargon.  Throughout his time in Canterbury, Augustine had regular correspondences with Pope Gregory in which he shows a pattern of indecisiveness in dealing with issues (mostly concerning theft and marriage practices) that even for the most blase of theologians would have seemed palpable.  Gregory himself grew irate with this habit and often responded to Augustine in a patronizing tone, “You know your Bible well enough, just use common sense.”  However much of a nuisance it may have been for the Pope, Augustine’s lack of confidence would be of great consequence for the British Church, and eventually Western Europe:  Setting the precedent of always looking to Rome for guidance.  But any such significance was arcane to the early Christians involved in the mission, as the church itself could have easily fallen into oblivion were it not for the support and protection received from the King of Kent, Aethelberht.

Aethelberht was a pagan, but through possible persuasion by his Christian wife Bertha, he allowed Augustine to preach the Christian faith from Canterbury.  And although he resisted at first, by 601 the heathen king is known to have converted to Christianity (either out of sincere conviction or political motive to establish closer ties with Europe, or both).  Upon the fateful conversion of their king, the people of Kent followed suit and gave the young church the success needed to cement it as a legitimate institution of the land.  Pope Gregory was so pleased by the progresses of the mission that he had Augustine ordained a Bishop, with full authority over all British churches.  The intention was to create a lineage for the church to ensure its lasting presence in the region for generations thereafter, but what it did was undermine the authority of a possible ally Pope Gregory didn’t even know existed, namely that of the forgotten British Christians who had survived the Anglo-Saxon raids.

Unlike that of continental Europe, the existing British church had not had its development influenced by the turbulent political circumstances which had arisen in Europe after the Roman Empire fell.  Instead, the remaining few Christians moved West, away from the invading Germanic tribes settling into the island, and closer towards the influence of the growing Irish Church, whose practices in this era of early Christianity would not have been very dissimilar to their own.  Both sides underwent a process wherein Christian ideology begin to define itself within the context of the individual society of its practitioners, and more and more separate traditions formed in the two churches, completely independent from one another until Pope Gregory I sent his missionaries to the island to introduce Christianity to what he thought was solely a heathen land.  Once contact was established through Augustine’s presence in England, it became clear that the two sides had different views on what constituted true Christianity.  For one thing, the British church made no attempt to convert the heathen Anglo-Saxons, and instead chose to retreat away from social life in England altogether; a move Pope Gregory saw as counter to his evangelization efforts.  The original goal of the mission was to take the island for Christianity, but once the existence of the British Church was found out a pressing concern for Gregory and Augustine became to gain the trust of these rogue Christians in order to bring them in line with the Roman style of the faith.  Unfortunately, Augustine himself ruined any such hopes from the first meeting he had with the British priests.

The story goes that prior to the meeting, the British priests decided to test the Roman: “If he stands to greet us, then he is of sound moral character, but if he sits then he is too arrogant in demeanor.” When the meeting came Augustine remained seated throughout, and negotiations between the two churches broke down immediately as a consequence.  Even though the scenario is keeping in character with Augustine’s questionable competence for initiative, there is also a more divisive reason for the growing tension between the two Christian authorities.

The celebration of Easter, the most important feast in the Christian calendar as it celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ, was the issue that grew to be most discordant for the early church.  During the two centuries that the British and Roman Christians existed independently of one another, both sides develop their own method by which to date the feast.  By any means, determining on which day Christians are supposed to observe Easter is a complex matter.  The general system agreed upon by Christian authorities is that it had to fall on a Sunday, on the third week of the first lunar month of the year, but the first full moon could not fall before vernal equinox.  In the early-mid 6th century, Dionysius Exiguus came up with a system that became widely promoted by Rome, and carried by Augustine to Britain in 596.  Although Dionysius’ Easter table was not immediately adopted in Europe (the concept of Papal authority was not yet established), Pope Gregory was determined that the heathen converts adopt the traditions he considered most true to the Christian faith; a move that conflicted with the already present British Church, which dated Easter based on the system established by the Irish Christians, independent of Rome.  When the British refused to abandon their traditional observation of the feast, Gregory grew discontent, and deemed the practices of Celtic Christianity as heretical in nature, and in need of correction.  Unfortunately for Gregory, the British did not submit to his will, and their Irish counterparts were even embarking on an evangelical mission of their own just north of Augustine’s base.

 

Celtic Christianity:  Faith in Isolation

Ireland had never been part of the Roman Empire, yet due to the close proximity between Roman Britain and the Irish island cultural influences were inevitable.  How exactly the Irish became Christianized is another of the vast mysteries surrounding this period.  St. Patrick writes in his narrative how he converted to the faith after being kidnapped into slavery, thereby providing one possible means of transmission by which ideas (and religious conversions) could have spread during this time.  Whatever the exact details are the fact remains that after the fall of the Roman Empire Ireland’s spiritual life developed in isolation from the rest of Europe, spawning a seperate form of practices and traditions that can be described as uniquely Celtic in character.

By 600, the Irish church has developed a level of academic scholarship unseen by the European continent at the time.  In isolation Irish monks attained a mastery of Latin grammar, biblical exegesis and the indispensable discipline of chronological computation (a mathematical system by which to determine important dates on the Christian calendar), and revitalized monasticism as the functional structure of the early church.  These achievements gave Irish scholarship a high reputation and soon gave rise to the practice of Peregrinatio, where Irish monks went into self-imposed exile to Britain and Europe, thereby bringing their learning to these regions.  In the context of these cultures, which valued the protection of tribal and clan allegiances, exiles were deemed the worst punishment one could receive short of death because it placed the individual outside the protection of his clan.  Peregrinatio was a way for monks to show devotion to God by taking on the worst punishment for themselves and suffer as Christ had done.  A leading example of this sort of devotion would be personified in the person of St. Columba.

The details of St. Columba’s life and actions are often muddled in hagiography—literally the study of saints, but largely a term used to describe a form of hero worship—by his earliest biographers (as churches held a monopoly on literacy, and thereby history).  What is known is that he was born in Ireland to the powerful Ui Neill clan (often anglicized as O’Neill), and entered the monastery at a young age where he became a monk and subsequently was ordained a priest.  Circa 560, Columba was caught in a scandal over the ownership of a Psalter (Book of Psalms).  Columba had made a copy of the scripture from a manuscript belonging to St. Finnian, with the intent to keep the Psalter for himself.  Finnian charged that allowing Columba to keep the copy devalues the book, and as the source of the original material Finnian should be given ownership of Columba’s copy.  Formal judgment ruled in favor of Finnian but Columba refused to relinquish his book to Finnian, and got his family to defend him on the issue.  In 561, the dispute came to a devastating finish at the Battle of Cúl Dreimhne, where Columba’s side emerged victorious.  Although his side had won, the death toll of the battle was so high that a council of clerics threatened to excommunicate Columba for having caused and taken part in the battle.  Columba suggested he would put himself in self-imposed exile (Peregrinatio) as penance, to bring as many souls to heaven as have died from the consequence of his actions.

In 563, Columba founded his monastery in Iona, off the coast of Scotland.  He would spend the next three decades as a scholar, diplomat, and spiritual authority in the region.  From his base in Iona, he established missionaries in North Britain with the sole goal of evangelizing Christianity to the heathen populace and their rulers.  Consequentially, as a member of the ruling Ui Neill clan in Ireland, he served as a vital political liaison between the two islands, even mediating a territorial dispute in 575 between his home clan and the Scottish Kingdom (then known as the Kingdom of Dál Riata).  But, by far, Columba’s greatest significant lies in the legacy he set up in North Britain by founding a system of monasticism with the strictest intention of seeking conversion and spreading Christianity.  The turning point into true dominance for his church will come in the early 7th century, after his death, upon the conversion of the Northumbrian dynasty, thereby providing a political means by which to expend the influence of Iona into mainland Britain.  St. Columba died in Iona in 597, and was buried in the monastery he founded.

 

The Council: Confrontation between Two Ideologies

Throughout the early to mid-7th century, both Iona and Canterbury continued to seek converts to their faith and establish spiritual supremacy over the British people.  Augustine’s church went through some turbulent times after his death in 604, as his successors struggled to keep the Anglo-Saxon rulers and their subjects from reverting to their native Heathenism.  But, after several setbacks in the 610s-630s, the situation stabilized as many incoming rulers saw the political advantages of embracing Christianity in terms of legitimizing their sovereignty to Christian Europe. By 663, Canterbury was an integrate part of Britain’s political scene.  Iona, on its part, embedded itself firmly within the Northumbrian Dynasty, important in maintaining its stronghold over northern Britain.  Although the Roman Church of Canterbury was exercising its authority over a larger population than the Celtic Church of Iona, Iona held sway over the Bretwalda (overlord) of Britain at the time.  Thus, causing the unresolved strives between the two sides over their traditional disagreements, primarily concerning the dating of Easter, to remain at a tense stalemate.

While all these events were occurring, it is important to note there was no such thing as a unified British state.  Britain was composed of various kingdoms, each ruled over by individual kings, where usurpations were common and borders were never decisively established.  Policies were dictated by the most dominate power (a very unstable pattern of governance). In Northumbria, King Oswiu—who ruled as close to a British overlord as would be possible for the times—saw Christianity as an important factor of commonality for his subjects, and took great interest in the development of the church.

King Oswiu was an observer of the Celtic Easter, but was married to Queen Eanfled who feasted according to the Roman tradition.  He found it odd that he feasted while she fasted, and saw the unresolved disparity as a dispute that would prove catastrophic to Britain political/spiritual structure.  He sought to end the debate between the two Churches, and referred that each side present its case to him at Whitby, so he could decide on which resolution would be the best for Britain to follow.

In 664, the Synod of Whitby met, with Bishop Colman of Northumbria defended the Ionan position, while Abbott Wilfrid argued in favor of the Roman practice.  Colman maintained that the Celtic system was the one advocated by St. Columba, who himself was following the tradition of St. John, and as holy men their judgment should not be questioned.  Wilfrid retorted by appealing to St. Peter as the founder of the Roman Church and gatekeeper to heaven.  With respect to St. Columba, it would be of the utmost folly to act counter to the will of St. Peter, and that in light of everything it was only Iona which was resisting Roman custom (Ireland itself had recently accepted the Roman Easter tables).  After the cases were made, Oswiu rose and asked both sides as to whether or not they agreed that St. Peter was pronounced by Christ as the rock on whose model the Church would be built, as both sides affirmed the truth of what he said, King Oswiu proclaimed that between St. Columba and St. Peter he is obliged to side with St. Peter as the ultimate authority of the Christian Church.

Along with settling the dispute over how to date Easter, the decision reached at Whitby also enabled the English Church to become unified, and unite the British wholly back to the European continent (a political move Oswiu must have been aware of prior to making his choice).  The influence of Celtic Christianity did not disappear altogether, instead its imagery and scholarship blended with the English Church, and gave it a uniquely British individuality.  By the end of the 7th century the English Church, presiding from Canterbury, became all about ecclesiastical order and unity, which allowed it to rise and become an indispensable factor in defining the future British state.

 

Further Readings:

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People

Adamnan. The Life of St. Columba

St. Patrick. The Confession of St. Patrick

The Euthyphro Dilemma, and Socrates’ Guilt

Socrates holds a special place in the ranks of philosophy for having enough wisdom to declare how he can only claim to know that he knows nothing.  This statement reflects how the purpose of the Socrates-character throughout Plato’s dialogues serves as an inquisitor to those around him, proposing questions for the sake of establishing clear and concise definitions from his contemporaries, rather than issuing ethical proclamations of his own.

However, it is apparent that through his inquisitive prose, Plato does in fact have Socrates indirectly pronounce several positive decrees on ethical and spiritual matters.  The importance of this is best seen in Euthyphro, where just before standing to defend himself against charges of corrupting Athenian youths through impious teachings, Socrates questions the piously motivated actions of Euthyphro by boldly asking whether he knows that a matter is indeed pious because the gods command it, or do the gods deem a matter pious because they recognize it to be pious in its own right.  Unbeknownst to Euthyphro, Socrates has really planted a trap, in which any answer given will be unsatisfactory to truly define the origin of piety, dispelling the notion of divine commandments, and indirectly giving credence to the impiety charges that have been raised against him in the dialogue.

The central argument of Socrates’ exchange with Euthyphro is made when Socrates asks of his contemporary, “Consider the following: is the pious loved by the gods because it’s pious?  Or is it pious because it’s loved?”(Plato, Euthyphro, 10a).  Here, Socrates is raising a valid distinction between something that is loved, and something that is loving; the former being defined by the will of a secondary participant, while the letter being defined by its own essence that is merely recognized to be so by a secondary participants.  In terms of what is being discussed by Socrates and Euthyphro—is piety loved by the gods because they recognize the nature of what is pious, or because they themselves decide on what is to be considered pious—attention must be given to define what in fact piety is.  Namely, do the gods decide what is pious, making their will the defining quality of piety, or do the gods just recognize something to be objectively pious, placing the defining quality of piety independent of the gods’ will?  Euthyphro immediately dismisses the first interpretation (10d) on account that it would render piety as an arbitrary impulse of the gods (who often disagree over what is to be considered pious, and occasionally even change their minds on what they previously considered to be pious), which means that piety does not exist as an independent component; nor can a concise definition of piety be established, if it is warrant to change through the whims of volatile and capricious deities.  Thus, the only option remaining for Euthyphro is to insist that if a matter is to be called pious it must be universally so (accepted by all the gods), meaning that it must be an essence that stands independent of the gods’ will.  Leaving the philosopher with the second option, that the gods recognize something to be pious not because they have deemed it so, but because they are recognizing the independent of nature of piety.

The dialogue continues with Euthyphro ceding that something that is pious is loved because it is pious and not pious because it is loved (10d).  Once again, Socrates has cornered Euthyphro, as this explanation is no better than the first in defining what truly piety is.  The issue here is that if the gods merely love something pious because they are recognizing its piety, then one must grant the conclusion that there is a standard of piety completely separate–and possibly even above that–of the gods.  Therefore to define piety as that which is loved by the gods, serves as no definition at all of what is objectively pious, or as Socrates puts it:

If the god-loved and the pious were really the same thing, my dear Euthyphro, then, if the pious were loved because it’s pious, what’s god-loved would in turn be loved because it’s god-loving; and if what’s god-loved were god-loved because it was loved by the gods, the pious would in turn be pious because it was loved by them.  But, as it is, you can see that the two are related in the opposite way, as things entirely different from one another (11a).

The dialogue ends soon after with Euthyphro leaving Socrates without looking to resolve the dilemma.  The whole exchange between the two philosophers is more than just a practice in analytics, as Socrates likes to portray his mode of reasoning, but implies something much deeper than Plato is willing to blatantly say in his writings: i.e. the gods cannot be the source of piety.

It is no accident that just as Plato’s Socrates-character is scheduled to defend himself against impiety charges he gets involved in a discussion concerning the definition of what is pious.  Although Plato’s other dialogue, Apology, depicts the details of Socrates’ trial, Euthyphro serves as a superb piece of insight for what sort of reasoning might have lead up to the accusations being levied against the philosopher.  In Euthyphro, Socrates strongly implies that any divine origins that are likely to be attributed towards piety are unsatisfactory to tell one the actual definition of what it means to be pious, and where this meaning comes from—for the various reasons mentioned earlier.  While Socrates does not attempt to positively state what the true essence of piety is, he does successfully conclude what it cannot be.  Before the main argument of Euthyphro is presented, Socrates asks, “Could this be the reason / I face indictment, that when people say such things about the gods, I find them somehow hard to accept?”(6b).  Hence, from the beginning, Plato seems to be giving little concern to deny the charges made against Socrates.  Socrates freely admits that the orthodox characterization of the gods appears to him beyond belief, and hints that they may very well be the workings of poets and painters (6c).  This sort of bold heresy spoken by Socrates serves to convey to the reader the amount of seriousness (or lack thereof) that Socrates is giving to his accusers.

After the main crux of the argument between Socrates and Euthyphro has abated, Socrates steps out of character for a moment and tries to define piety as something that is part of what is just (12d). This definition is not meant to be conclusive, or even adequate, but simply a means by which to further engage Euthyphro into the problems of the earlier discussion.  However, it is telling that Socrates’ sole attempt at defining piety would have him label it as a subset of something else; deeming it dependent on a greater concept.

This raises another possible quandary in the prose, though albeit an unspoken one: just how much value does Socrates hold for piety as a virtue?  It is never explicitly addressed by Plato, but it is a question that might very well be a key factor driving the narrative.  After proclaiming doubt in the various stories about the gods, he subtly rejects Euthyphro’s invitation to discuss the veracity of these tales (5d).  He effortlessly picks apart the idea of paying devotion to the gods as ultimately incoherent (13a-14a).  And he never fails to (patronizingly) point out the inadequacy of Euthyphro’s responses to his questions, “You see, when you were just now on the point of answering you turned away.  If you had given the answer, I’d already have been adequately instructed by you about piety” (14c).  All of these points converge to form the image in the readers mind that Socrates’ interest in wanting to find a suitable definition for piety is not his sole motive in his discussion with Euthyphro.  That perhaps he is also eager to dismantle the notion that piety has any knowable definition, and therefore, can have little practical use as a claimed virtue.

C.S. Lewis’ Abolition of Man, “Men Without Chests”: A Critique

C.S. Lewis may very well be one of the most prolific writer’s of the 20th Century, having gained eminence through his apologetics writings (Mere ChristianityThe Problem of Pain, etc.) and the popular children’s book saga The Chronicles of Narnia.  In his 1944 lecture compilation, The Abolition of Man, Lewis sets out to defend the reality of universal, absolute human values, against what he perceives to be the relativistic subjectivism of modern society. His first lecture, “Men Without Chests,” attempts to raise the reader’s consciousness to the prevailing menace that Lewis insists is eating away at the essence of humanity, and the method by which it permeates into popular thought.

Lewis sets up the lecture as a critical response to a pair of elementary textbook authors (referred to as Gaius and Titius), and the faulty reasoning by which the prose in their work (referred to as The Green Book) is irreparably corrupting the minds of young children with its promotion of subjectivist values.  Lewis makes sure to clarify that he does not believe the authors to be doing this out of intentional malice, “I do not want to pillory two modest practicing schoolmasters who were doing the best they knew: but I cannot be silent about what I think the actual tendency of their work.”[1]  In this view, the authors are as much a product of the greater problem they are propagating, than the root cause of it.  Lewis presents his first case against the authors by quoting a section from their textbook, “‘When the man said This is sublime, he appears to be making a remark about the waterfall…Actually…he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feeling,’” which they clarify with, “‘This confusion is continuously present in language as we use it.  We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.’”[2]  Lewis takes issue with these two statements for two specific reasons: firstly, it will teach a young student, “that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker,” and secondly, “that all such statements are unimportant.”[3]  Lewis goes on to acknowledge that neither of the authors have actually stated this much in so many words, but Lewis, “is not concerned with what they desired but with the effect their book will certainly have on the schoolboy’s mind,”[4]  since Lewis has already conceded that the authors are as unaware of the harm they are causing, as the young pupil is of the harm that is subconsciously being done to him.[5]  Lewis’ position is that the reduction of emotive language to the realm of subjective thought is a subversion of the greater essence of humanity; it cuts out man’s soul, long before he is able to fully appreciate the transcendent reality of his emotional experiences.[6]  Lewis sees this as going well beyond providing young minds with a proper education, and calls such tactics as an attempt to debunk emotions on the basis of commonplace rationalism, “They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda—they have learned from traditions that youth is sentimental—and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotions.”[7]  An action Lewis loathes, because “by starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”[8]

What Lewis is doing here (as he does in most of his apologetic works) is setting up a false dichotomy, infused with imaginative hyperbole: either educators teach a student to give full credence to the objective truth of his emotional introspections, or they “have cut out of his soul.”[9]  Lewis presents no logical, coherent argument to support any of his claims, other than his own subjective opinion that he is clearly right on this matter.  It is not self-evidently true how explaining to a young student that our tendencies to attribute traits to inanimate objects is a reflection of our own personal feelings about the object and not an actual attribute of the object, will cause them to develop long-lasting character deficiencies.  When I stub my toe on my coffee table, my instinctive reaction is to curse the table for hurting me.  I know that the table is not alive; I know that the table didn’t actually set out to hurt me; I know that the table is not malicious; I know that the foul words I’m attributing to the table are a subjective emotional response, and not an actual reflection of the table itself; I know that the table cannot hear or sympathize with me, but I still can’t help but animate the inanimate object.  Why?—Because I’m human, and I can’t control the chemistry in my brain that dictates my responses to the stimuli of my environment.  Knowing and recognizing this reality has not hindered, or stunted, my emotional development, nor has it done so for anybody else.  And even if it did have negative repercussion to our human psyche, this still would not be an argument against the veracity of our emotional attributes to the surrounding world being an entirely subjective experience.  As it stands, Lewis’ entire reasoning for opposing this view rests on the basis that he finds it unpleasant and harmful.  To which the only salient response can be, so what?  The veracity of a claim does not depend on its supposed bleakness and implication of unpleasantness.

Lewis also tries to give further authority to his position by claiming how, prior to modern times, all men believed that, “objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval and disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”[10]  Prior to modern times, men also attributed the occurrence of epilepsy to demonic possession, instead of a treatable neurological disorder; the mistaken beliefs of the past need not hold credence to us in the present, especially as we gather more information and knowledge about the world.  Also, the claim that objects can merit approval and disapproval is a baseless assertion.  Objects can cause us to respond towards them in one manner or another, but they do not merit our response, since objects are devoid of any kind of intent, and thereby, do not/cannot strive to live up to anyone’s conceived expectations.  Not to mention, out responses to objects are entirely dependent on the context of the situation we find ourselves in, and likely to change under different circumstances.  Hence, our emotional responses remain a subjective experience every way one wishes to look at it.

At times, Lewis seems to acknowledge that emotional attributes are person-specific, he states [quoting Plato], “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses.  It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.”[11]  So, to clarify, our emotional responses towards objects (or anything else for that matter) are objectively true, but we need to be trained in order to feel the “right responses”?  Does that not imply that if my initial emotional response to an object strays from the response Lewis considers to be the “right response,” my emotional response is not objectively true to begin with?  If my emotional responses have to be trained to follow suit with that of others, are they even still my emotional responses anymore?  Am I not just subverting my emotions in favor of someone else’s?  And if that’s the case, how can I trust that Lewis’ interpretation of what constitutes the right emotional responses are anymore trustworthy than my own?

Lewis’ response to this is to posit the existence of a universally recognizable “greater thing,” that he identifies as the Tao, “It [referring to the Tao] is the reality beyond all predicates, the abyss that was before the Creator Himself.”[12]  It would be completely appropriate to stop Lewis right there, and point out the disingenuous way he is presenting an Eastern concept–the Tao–as if it was congruent with the monotheistic, Abrahamic, worldview of the West.  (Although, his following sentence does a better job of characterizing the Tao, “It is the Nature, it is the Way, the Road.  It is the Way in which the universe goes on, the Way in which things everlastingly emerge, stilly and tranquilly, into space and time.”)[13]  It is of importance to note that no warrant is given by Lewis to justify this sleight of hand, where he tries to misconstrue the Tao by associating it with his Christian conception of a conscious “Creator,” and in particular his desire to designate this creator as a “Him.”  Lewis’ motivation here is to demonstrate that since our emotional responses are kind-of-sort-of similar across cultural lines, we must collectively be appealing to a universal, objective, authority as a point of reference:

And because our approvals and disapprovals are thus recognitions of objective value or responses to an objective order, therefore emotional states can be in harmony with reason (when we feel liking for what ought to be approved) or out of harmony with reason (when we perceive that liking is due but cannot feel it).[14]

But Lewis has failed to logically establish that out approvals and disapprovals are recognitions of anything but our own subjective experiences.  It certainly has not been shown that our value judgments are any indication of an objective order (or arbitrator of any sort).  Not to mention that Lewis’ only defense against the prevalence of divergent emotional responses to particular situations/objects seems to be a weak call for the need to “train” people to have the “right responses.”  The question he continuously ignores to definitively answer is why, if he is right, people’s experiences are not convergent on all matters of emotional responses?  And even on matters where they do converge, people will often demonstrate no unified reasoning for their responses.  It can be said that my observational experience that the sky is blue is objective; no one absent of some kind of physical or neurological disorder would deny that the sky is blue.  However, my emotional experience that the sky is sublime is not objective, since another person can honestly say that his emotional experience is that the sky is dull; or he could agree with me that the sky is sublime, but for a varying array of reasons that have nothing to do with my own experience. Neither one of our subjective claims holds more merit than the other.  And no resolution on the matter can be reached, since we can both accuse one another of not being “trained” to hold the “right response” towards the sky.

A frustrating part about Lewis is his apparent inability to differentiate between the objective fact of a matter (such as the fact that I happen to have feelings XYZ about an object), and the subjective response that stems from it (the actual emotions cause by feelings XYZ, the specifics of which, in any particular situation, are unique to me alone).  He states, “It can be reasonable or unreasonable only if it conforms or fails to conform to something else,”[15] in an attempt to make his notion of an absolute objective value sound assertive.  But being assertive doesn’t make an unfounded claim any more true, because even if one grants the veracity of his statement (namely, that we judge things as reasonable only as they pertain to other things), this admission does not warrant the stipulation of any sort of objective, or absolute, greater value judgment.  Our interactions with our surroundings foster the values and emotional responses we attribute to objects/matters; meaning that we are the fundamental arbitrators of our perceptive values.  Furthermore, our values and emotional responses change as we gain more information and data about out surroundings.  No universally objective point of reference is needed.  This does not invalidate the reality of our emotional experiences, but it is nonsensical for Lewis to claim that the mere existence of our emotional experiences must also confirm the existence of some kind of objective source for our emotions.

Towards the end of the lecture, Lewis begins to settle into a string of fallacious and bullying tactics against his detractors:

Either [Gaius and Titius] must go the whole way and debunk this sentiment like any other, or must set themselves to work to produce, from outside, a sentiment which they believe to be of no value to the pupil and which may cost him his life, because it is useful to us (the survivors) that our young men should feel it.[16]

“Which may cost him his life,” here Lewis is either keen on overdramatizing matters, or he is the most deranged man that has ever lived.  Telling a student that the emotional attributes he assigns to inanimate objects (which was the point that Lewis started his argument on), is not in reality a reflection of the objects themselves, but a subjective value that reflects on the feelings of the person making the attributes, does not, in any way, rob said student of the emotions he is experiencing.  Lewis has not established, in any way imaginable, that this is the case.  Being able to understand the subjectivity of one’s emotional experience will not render one as some kind of blasé automaton, since the emotions we feel are involuntary to begin with (we can’t stop feeling them).  Lewis tries to squirm out of the fact that he has not logically presented his case by stating, “In battle it is not syllogism that will keep reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of bombardment”[17]  This, combines with his call that emotional response that diverge from what he perceives to be the “right response” must be trained to conformity, is evidence enough to assume that Lewis is a man who doesn’t accept the fact that a person is not obligated to give even the slightest credence to his subjective, emotional diatribes, absent of any logically coherent, and consistent, argument.

To some readers this might sound especially harsh, but they might want to read the manner in which Lewis addresses his opponents, “It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals.  This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence.”  The last line is particularly ironic, since such form of fallacious engagement is best characterized by Lewis himself, “a perceived devotion to truth, a nice sense of intellectual honour, cannot be long maintained without the aid of a sentiment which Gaius and Titius could debunk as easily as any other.”[18]  The message Lewis is presenting to the reader here is that one cannot disagree with what he has said, because only those who accept his premises of an absolute, objective, value have any basis upon which to argue about truth.  Of course, this is completely dishonest and unfounded to anyone who does not already agree with Lewis’ [subjective] point of view.

The authors of the textbook he has been arguing against don’t say that there exists no means by which to perceive truth, nor is there any rational extension by which one can make such a claim (this is another one of Lewis’ retreats to fallacies).  Instead, what they rightly say is that one’s personal feelings on a matter are irrelevant when it comes to evaluating reality, because reality is not contingent on the perceptions of any person’s emotional response to it; nor does it ultimately care about your meager opinions.  But Lewis cannot accept this, which is why this entire lecture can be summarized as follows: “I don’t like the implication of X, therefore X needs to be wrong.”  His entire justification of the objective truth of emotional responses collapses into one giant emotional response; one subjectively giant emotional response.


[1] Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. “Men Without Chests,” Harper One: 1944, p. 1-2.

[2] Lewis, p. 2-3.

[3] Lewis, p. 4.

[4] Lewis, p. 4-5.

[5] Lewis, p. 5.

[6] Lewis, p. 9.

[7] Lewis, p. 13.

[8] Lewis, p. 14.

[9] Lewis, p. 9.

[10] Lewis, p. 15.

[11]Lewis, p. 16.

[12] Lewis, p. 18.

[13] Lewis, p. 18.

[14] Lewis, p. 19.

[15] Lewis, p. 20.

[16] Lewis, p. 22.

[17] Lewis, p. 24.

[18] Lewis, p. 25.

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and the Political Utility of Religion

Niccolo Machiavelli is one the many writers in history fortunate enough to be extensively quoted by individuals who have little patience to actually read his large body of work.  Most (in)famous of the man’s oft cited prose is his 1513 political tract advising ruling figures on how to govern, simply titled The Prince.  In it he boldly states that when it comes to exercising one’s authority, the ruler needs to adhere to the basic principle that the ends always justify the means; with the ends always being a retention of power, and means being whatever will bring about that desired end.

Although at face value the work is a clear promotion of totalitarianism, there exist several peculiarities with the way Machiavelli formats his dictatorial learner’s manual.  For instance, despite it being address to the ruling classes of society, the book is actually written in the plain Italian of Machiavelli’s day, making its sensitive instructions to rulers available to the very commoners whose exploitation Machiavelli is encouraging.  Granted, literacy wasn’t too high among the lower classes, but for a manuscript aiming to teach governing sovereigns how to be more deceitful, one would think that Machiavelli would at least have bothered to make the message a bit more cryptic to the masses (possibly by writing it in Latin, which was already in disuse outside of aristocratic functions).  Even stranger is the fact that only six years later Machiavelli wrote Discourses on Levi, a political book that enthusiastically taunts the superiority of democratic republicanism over monarchical forms of governance; completely contradicting the authoritarian advise he offers in The Prince.  It’s possible that between 1513 and 1519, Machiavelli changed his preference from despotism to republicanism, but I think it is also very likely the allegations labeling The Prince a clever work of political satire should not be so quickly brushed aside, as it appears to be the most plausible answer to account for the discrepancies mentioned above.  If it is true that The Prince is nothing more but a satirical revelation of the aristocratic mindset, meant to convey to the lowly subjects the true nature of their rulers’ motivations, then Machiavelli deserves to be acknowledged as the greatest writer in all of history for composing a piece of satire that continues to fool people (scholars and laypersons alike) to this day.

Although Machiavelli’s politics might be evasive, his views on religion appear to be fairly consistent throughout his writing career.  In The Prince, Machiavelli refers to religion as a tool of the ruler, to be used as a method by which he can convince the masses of his benignity.  Machiavelli makes it clear that the sincerity of the ruler’s piety is of no importance:

Every one knows how praiseworthy it is in a Prince to keep faith, and to live uprightly and not craftily.  Nevertheless, we see from what has taken place in our own days that Princes who have set little store by their word, but have known how to overreach men by their cunning, have accomplished great things, and in the end got the better of those who trusted to honest dealings (Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince.  Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York) 2004 reprint, p.83).

Machiavelli does not dispute the notion that faithfulness is a popular virtue, but he is arguing that while the Prince (i.e. the ruler) should take care to be seen as ideally faithful by his subjects, his actual actions need not be limited by any pious restraints.  In other words, if left to choose between preserving one’s crown and staying true to one’s religious principle, the competent ruler will always choose the former over the latter, “a prudent Prince neither can nor ought to keep his word when to keep it is hurtful to him and the causes which led him to pledge it are removed” (Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 84).  While Machiavelli’s words sound odious to our most basic sentiments concerning decorum and public honesty, it needs to be remembered that the writer is merely stating a fact that holds true for almost every person living, then and now.  Few of us are unwilling to amend even our most cherished convictions if opportunity demands it of us.  I will even go so far as to say that every single person, functioning in society, has at one point or another been faced with a situation in which s/he has gone against a core principle s/he claims to adhere to.  Of course, when confronted with our obvious hypocrisy we will find some way to rationalize it away as irrelevant, but what Machiavelli is advising is for the Prince to fully embrace his hypocrisy as a necessary part of his position.

On the topic of religion, Machiavelli considers it important for a ruler to exhibit the outwardly qualities that are popularly associated with the practice:

A Prince should therefore be very careful that nothing ever escapes his lips which is not replete with the five qualities above named, so that to see and hear him one would think him the embodiment of mercy, good, faith, integrity, and religion.  And there is no virtue which it is more necessary for him to seem to posses than the last (Machiavelli, The Prince, p.85).

Special attention should be given to Machiavelli’s word choice at the end of the above quote; note he says it is necessary for the Prince to merely seem religious, not to be personally sincere about it.   The reason being that people look for commonality when identifying with other individuals, and religiosity is a widespread system by which a variety of people pledge some base level of identification with one another.  Hence, an open proclamation of religiosity by the ruler is a key way for him (or any public figure for that matter) to retain support from the populace.  But it is inevitable that at some point the ruler will be faced with having to violate some religious decree, and according to Machiavelli this is perfectly acceptable, as long as he gives of the impression of being pious it is enough to convince the masses; actions are meaningless, “Everyone sees what you seem, but few know what you are, and these few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many who have the majesty of the State to back them” (p. 85).  This is especially true for leaders who gain endorsement from the main religious institution, like the church, since such organizations often hold the final word on what is pious and what is not (religious belief itself is usually a secondary concern in these sort of church-state relations, if it is a concern at all).

It needs to be remembered that Machiavelli’s aim is not to teach how to deceive the common folk; rather what the writer is doing is measuring the worth of a Prince/ruler by the merits of his efficiency, “Wherefore if a Prince succeeds in establishing and maintaining his authority, the means will always be judged honourable and approved by everyone” (p. 86).  People don’t mind being lied to as long as it is a blissful experience.  Nor do they care about the piety of their leaders actions, as long as her/his words align with what they want to hear and their living standard remain comfortable.

I suspect–though I can’t be sure–that Machiavelli’s other aim was to openly document the method by which the lowly masses are kept content by their deceitful figure heads.  Perhaps his intention was to alarm the common man into action, but judging by the way political leaders to this day swoon their constituencies by a never-ending array of appeals to their personal piety (all while being documented adulterers, liars, frauds, cheaters, warmongers and war-propagators, and a whole lot of other “moral” transgressions), I doubt we really want anything else but to be deceived.  Or as Machiavelli himself put it, “”men are so simple, and governed so absolutely by their present needs, that he who wishes to deceive will never fail in finding willing dupes” (p.84).

Bibliography

Machiavelli, Niccolo.  The Prince. Chapter XVIII, “How Princes Should Keep Faith,” (Pocket Books:  New York), 2004 reprint.  Original publication 1513.