The Soul With Its Pants On

I enjoyed this quote by the title character in Wendell Berry’s novel, Jayber Crow:

I took to studying the ones of my teachers who were also preachers, and also the preachers who came to speak in chapel and at various exercises. In most of them I saw the same division of body and soul that I had seen at The Good Shepherd. The same rift ran through everything at Pigeonville College; the only difference was that I was able to see it more clearly, and to wonder at it. Everything bad was laid on the body, and everything good  was credited to the soul. It scared me a little when I realized that I saw it the other way around. If the soul and body really were divided, then it seemed to me that all the worst sins–hatred and anger and self-righteousness and even greed and lust–came from the soul. But these preachers I’m talking about all thought that the soul could do no wrong, but always had its face washed and it’s pants on and was in agony over having to associate with the flesh and the world. And yet these same people believed in the resurrection of the body (p. 49).

A Terrible Indictment of Human Nature

I came across this quote listening to the audiobook of Basic Christianity by John Stott, which you can download for free here until the end of the month. Stott is talking about the development of liberal theology in the early 20th century, in which the biblical concepts of original sin and total depravity were replaced by a belief that men are fundamentally good. Rather than being sinful in our very nature, we are merely corrupted by things external to us; we are victims rather than criminals. But this does not jive with reality. Consider Stott:

Much that we take for granted in a civilized society is based upon the assumption of human sin. Nearly all legislation has grown up because human beings cannot be trusted to settle their own disputes with justice and without self-interest. A promise is not enough; we need a contract. Doors are not enough; we have to lock and bolt them. The payment of fares is not enough; tickets have to be issued, inspected and collected. Law and order are not enough; we need the police to enforce them. All this is due to man’s sin. We cannot trust each other. We need protection against one another. It is a terrible indictment of human nature.

Thanks be to God who, in Christ, has delivered me from this body of death! He has given me a new heart and a renewed mind. He has placed within me the Holy Spirit, by whose power I am delivered from slavery to my own sinful nature into the happy bondage of righteousness!

Where Can I Hide From God?

I love this passage from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, in which the great Reformation theologian expounds upon the sensus divinitatis — the “sense of the divine” — which exists within every human mind. Calvin argues that even those who most despise God are unable to escape the awareness of divinity which is “engraved upon men’s minds”:

If, indeed, there were some in the past, and today not a few appear, who deny that God exists, yet willy-nilly they from time to time feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe. One reads of no one who burst forth into bolder or more unbridled contempt of deity than Gaius Caligula; yet no one trembled more miserably when any sign of God’s wrath manifested itself; thus — albeit unwillingly — he shuddered at the God whom he professedly sought to despise. You may see now and again how this also happens to those like him; how he who is the boldest despiser of God is of all men the most startled at the rustle of a falling leaf.

Whence does this arise but from the vengeance of divine majesty, which strikes their consciences all the more violently the more they try to flee from it? Indeed, they seek out every subterfuge to hide themselves from the Lord’s presence, and to efface it again from their minds. But in spite of themselves they are always entrapped. Although it may sometimes seem to vanish for a moment, it returns at once and rushes in with new force. If for these there is any respite from anxiety of conscience, it is not much different from the sleep of drunken or frenzied persons, who do not rest peacefully even while sleeping because they are continually troubled with dire and dreadful dreams. The imious themselves therefore exemplify the fact that some conception of God is ever alive in all men’s minds.

A Preacher’s Best Kindness

Why Jonathan Edwards preached the doctrine of hell:

“If there be really a hell of such dreadful, and never-ending torments, as is generally supposed, that multitudes are in great danger of, and that the bigger part of men in Christian countries do actually from generation to generation fall into, for want of a sense of the terribleness of it, and their danger of it, and so for want of taking due care to avoid it; then why is it not proper for those that have the care of souls, to take great pains to make men sensible of it? Why should not they be told as much of the truth as can be? If I am in danger of going to hell, I should be glad to know as much as possibly I can of the dreadfulness of it: if I am very prone to neglect due care to avoid it, he does me the best kindness, that does most to represent to me the truth of the case, that sets forth my misery and danger in the liveliest manner.”

~ Jonathan Edwards, Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God

On Doing Good for the Poor

In the mid-18th century, the British Parliament was tampering with the price of various commodities, imposing tariffs and duties on the importing and exporting of these commodities in the American colonies and elsewhere in the Empire. Then, as today, this type of government meddling was ostensibly meant to help the poor. Thankfully, many American patriots realized that these centralizing policies helped no one but the State, and only served to perpetuate the dependency of the poor on their masters.

Check out this scathing commentary from a letter penned by Benjamin Franklin, published in The London Chronicle in 1766, titled “On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor”:

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavors to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burden? On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.

[Read the full letter here. It's great!]

Capitalists and libertarians are often accused of being apathetic toward the condition of the poor. In reality, capitalism remains the best and most effective means of alleviating poverty ever devised. For more on why Christians who are concerned for the poor (and, really, this ought to be a redundant phrase) should be capitalists, I highly recommend Jay Richards’ book Money, Greed, and God (my review).

Cashing In On Guilt

“There’s no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted—and you create a nation of law-breakers—and then you cash in on guilt.”

~from Atlas Shrugged

Pet Peeves and Plato’s Politics

Earlier this year, I finally got around to finishing Plato’s philosophical treatise, The Republic. Though written almost 2500 years ago, in many ways it speaks into contemporary issues as if it were written yesterday.

Unfortunately, in the meme-driven world of social media, it has become commonplace to paraphrase and/or wrongly attribute quotations online. This is one of my biggest pet peeves! While I acknowledge that paraphrasing can be a useful way to introduce difficult concepts, I think it matters very much who said what, and in what manner and context it was said. One of the biggest recipients of what I call “the meme treatment” is Plato.

Yesterday, in trying to determine the genuineness of a quote that appeared in a meme on Facebook, I came across an article called “Five Surprisingly Hip Political Ideas from Plato”. It’s short if you want to read the whole thing, but I thought I’d re-post just the quotes in case you’re in a hurry:

  1. “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”
  2. “The curse of me and my nation is that we always think things can be bettered by immediate action of some sort, any sort rather than no sort.”
  3. “There will be no end to the troubles of states, or of humanity itself, until philosophers become kings in this world, or until those we now call kings and rulers really and truly become philosophers, and political power and philosophy thus come into the same hands.”
  4. “Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws.”
  5. “When the tyrant has disposed of foreign enemies by conquest or treaty, and there is nothing more to fear from them, then he is always stirring up some war or other in order that the people may require a leader.”

Each of these quotes appears (and is attributed to Plato) on just about every “famous quotations” site on the Web. Unfortunately, only one of them is a genuine Plato quote. And as you’ll see, I’m not sure the author did her homework in rounding up these “ideas”, hip as they may be.

Here is what I have determined to be the “real” version of the above quotes, and I’ve added citations in case you’d like to look them up in context:

  1. “But the chief penalty [of good men who refuse to lead] is to be governed by someone worse if a man will not himself hold office and rule.” [Republic, Book I, line 347c]
  2. “The curse of me and my nation…” The quote is accurate; the source is not. [Though the Internet widely attributes this quote to Plato, I was skeptical. It took me a while to track it down, but thankfully, according to The Columbia Book of Quotations this phrase is rightly attributed to Ezra Pound, in a 1920 letter to James Joyce.]
  3. “Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils — no, nor the human race, as I believe — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.” [Republic, Book V, line 473c]
  4. “Laws are made to instruct the good, and in the hope that there may be no need of them; also to control the bad, whose hardness of heart will not be hindered from crime.” [Laws, Book IX]
  5. This is the one accurate quote from the above list. [Republic, Book VIII, line 566e]

In the final analysis, I think the paraphrases of the first and third quotes do justice to the original, though I’d still prefer to see some acknowledgement that they are paraphrases.

The second quote doesn’t even remotely resemble anything Plato ever wrote, as far as I can tell. Ironically, Ezra Pound was a poet (and thus would have been excluded from Plato’s ideal Republic) who, shortly after writing the letter the quote is from, became disillusioned with America and ultimately became a Fascist living in Mussolini’s Italy. Something tells me neither he nor Plato would approve of the attribution of his work to a philosopher that could hardly have a more different political ideology!

The fourth quote in the top list is the one I’ve seen most commonly as an Internet meme, and the one I was looking up yesterday. While it’s true that Plato did say something vaguely similar in Laws, I think the paraphrase misrepresents what Plato was really saying. The “good” do need the law, both for instruction in what is right, and for the restraining of the “bad” (this is actually quite similar to the first two of the three uses of the Law proposed by John Calvin and other Reformed scholars as a way to understand God’s moral law). As the quote normally appears, it more closely resembles something written by an Anarchist, Ammon Hennacy: “Oh, Judge, your damn laws! The good people don’t need them, and the bad people don’t obey them, so what good are they?” It may seem a subtle distinction, but Plato also believed there was but a subtle distinction between democracy and anarchy, which ultimately degenerate into tyranny… a far cry from the Republic he envisioned!

If you take nothing else away from this post (a distinct possibility!) I hope I’ve been able to impart to you some of my extreme skepticism toward quotes that appear on the Internet without citation. And be forewarned, Facebook friends… I’ve got a couple weeks off from both work and school, and plenty of time to indulge my meme-busting urge to research the authenticity of things that show up on my news feed!

Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.