Category Archives: Ethics

The Gift of Morality

A room-mate of mine has a university book on the shelf named Great Political Thinkers: From Plato to the Present written by Alan and William Ebenstein. I haven’t read the book, although it does look very interesting. I have read the first chapter which is a sort of introduction to the book. In this introduction the authors have some very kind words about the impact of the Jews on western civilization.

The authors argue that the three pillars of western civilization are the belief in reason, monotheism and ethics, and love. Reason from the Greeks, monotheism and ethics from the Jews and love from the Christians. That love comes from Christianity sounds like a slightly strange claim to me. You can read the passage below to see exactly what they mean and judge for yourself.

This must surely be the greatest Jewish achievement of all time. I have posted a lot in the past about Jewish nobel laureates, billionaires, musicians, entertainers, chess players and more. Jews have accomplished great things in the modern era; far, far beyond what one would expect from such a small people. Many of the Jews I post about have made tremendous contributions to the world. The world would look very different today if it were not for people like Einstein, Marx or Freud (for good or for bad). But ultimately, these are not the most important things in life. Being a good person and living a moral life is far more important than any number of medals, awards or the amount of money in one’s bank account. So for the Jewish people to be identified with bringing ethics and morality to the western world – I think this is the Jewish people’s greatest achievement and as always, it is quite remarkable the enormous influence such a historically small people has had on world history.

Lastly, I will add that monotheism and morality go hand in hand. It is difficult to conceive of a true value to morality without the existence of a personal God. This doesn’t mean that God exists or that morality has an objective reality. One could believe in neither or both. I personally believe in both. This doesn’t mean that an atheist cannot be a moral person either. One can be a highly moral person, irrelevant of whether he believes in objective morality or not. A lot has been written about the sources of morality and it is a highly debated topic, but I agree with the statement commonly attributed to Dostoevsky “If God does not exist, everything is permitted”. There’s a bit of a debate whether Dostoevsky said this or not. I don’t really care though. Either way I think the statement is true. You may be put in prison for breaking the law, but ultimately that’s not for doing something objectively wrong, if we assume the non-existence of God.

And this brings us to my current, favourite two verses in Scripture. Jeremiah 9:22-23:

כב כֹּה אָמַר יְהוָה, אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל חָכָם בְּחָכְמָתוֹ, וְאַל-יִתְהַלֵּל הַגִּבּוֹר, בִּגְבוּרָתוֹ; אַל-יִתְהַלֵּל עָשִׁיר, בְּעָשְׁרוֹ.  כג כִּי אִם-בְּזֹאת יִתְהַלֵּל הַמִּתְהַלֵּל, הַשְׂכֵּל וְיָדֹעַ אוֹתִי–כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, עֹשֶׂה חֶסֶד מִשְׁפָּט וּצְדָקָה בָּאָרֶץ:  כִּי-בְאֵלֶּה חָפַצְתִּי, נְאֻם-יְהוָה.

22 Thus saith the LORD: Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches; 23 But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth, and knoweth Me, that I am the LORD who exercise mercy, justice, and righteousness, in the earth; for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.

Here’s the entire passage from Great Political Thinkers (bold added by me):

The questions we have to answer are, what is so essential about the structure of western civilization that, were it removed, the whole whole building would collapse or at least require overall reconstruction rather than patchwork repairs; and, on what principles are its ethical, legal, economic, social, and political structures founded? It is difficult to know what is fundamental, because every aspect calls for attention. We shall find the roots of western civilization and its political theories when, in going back into the past, we reach a point beyond which it is either impossible or impractical to inquire. This process will allow us to sift the enduring from the ephemeral, the essential from the incidental, and the fundamental from the decorative.

We know that reason, the belief in reason, and the use of reason are not inventions of the twentieth century. Immediately, one recalls the great Age of Reason or Enlightenment which reached a peak in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France and irradiated throughout the entire western world. Yet, we know France did not invent the cult of reason – rationalism as a way of life – and so we go back and back until we finally find the origin: the sixth-century B.C. Greece.

It is true, of course, that the Greeks did not start from scratch – various Oriental peoples influenced them. Nevertheless, Greek civilization, as it imprinted itself on much of the world, was original; it was not derived from any earlier people in the same direct way in which other peoples borrowed some of their basic ideas from the Greeks.

The second root of the west is the Jewish belief in one God (monotheism), with the resulting concepts of the brotherhood of mankind (all men and women being children of the same Father) and of one world ruled by a higher law which is above human whim and arbitrariness. Again, it can be shown that some other nations “came close” to the concept of one God before the Jews did. But just as the Greeks were the first to assign to reason a place in thought and conduct such as no society had done before, the Jews were the first to build their whole life around their belief in one God, and to base their thought, ethics, law, and government on this belief.

The practical expression of thought in action is central in classical Judaism. Had the Jewish contribution been confined to an original discovery in religion as a philosophical exercise, its impact on western civilization would have been temporary. But Jewish belief in one God was reflected in a moral code that remains the foundation of western law and ethics. Whereas the supreme Greek ideal was to think clearly, the supreme Jewish aspiration was to act justly.

The third western root is the Christian conception of love. Christianity incorporated Greek rationalism and absorbed Jewish monotheistic ethics, and added a new dimension that went beyond both: the principle of love as the basis of people’s relation with God, and, more importantly, each other.

Once again, the point can be made that Greek thought and life put a great value on “sympathy” (a Greek word meaning “to feel with”) and friendship, the latter considered by Aristotle, for example, to be the basis of all social and political organizations, The Greeks were intensely interested in love; Plato’s dialogue Symposium is one of the great conversations on love in world literature. Yet love in the Symposium is primarily the mutual embrace of two souls soaring together to the heights of perfection in the life of reason. On a lower level, love was seen by the Greeks as a fierce demon, something approaching madness. Similarly, classical Jewish thought emphasizes compassion and charity, and admonishes its adherents to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” But neither the Greek nor the Jewish conception of love has the unconditional, universal character of Christian love. In Christian thought, love is not in the periphery of life, in the rare moments of ecstasy, but in the center of life: Love is life itself.

The three roots of western life – Greek rationalism, Jewish monotheism, and Christian love – are so encompassing that it is difficult, if not impossible, to derive specific social, economical, or political systems from them. Both the Old and New Testaments have been invoked to justify slavery and human freedom, obedience to government and revolution, democracy and monarchy, and capitalism and socialism, to mention but a few. Similarly, Greek rationalism has been appealed to in support of authoritarianism and liberalism, the planned economy and free enterprise, censorship and freedom of thought, and many other contradictory political and philosophical systems.

These contradictions have two causes. First, the conceptions of Greek rationalism , Jewish monotheism, and Christian love have never fully been lived up to in the western world. They have served as guiding ideals, but practice has often lagged behind the ideals. Second (and a reason which is often overlooked), these three sources of western thought are not completely complementary. There has always been a tension – though not irreconcilable – between the three elements, a pressure which has been both painful and fruitful. In antiquity itself, for example, Greeks and Jews were not overly fond of one another. To the ancient Greek, the ancient Jew was a fanatical puritan, living by a strict code that knew of no concessions to human frailty or levity. To the Jew, the Greek – with all his theorizing and endless philosophizing – was an ethical barbarian, whose gods indulged in debaucheries worse than world be tolerated among the lowest sinners in Israel.

Similarly, there is the tension between Christianity on the one side and Greek and Jewish ideals on the other. Christianity is not the mechanical merger of Greek and Jewish ideals, but an attempt to transcend them with something new and different; this process of “going beyond” Greek and Jewish ideals inevitably produced spiritual distances, gaps, stresses. At their worst, these tensions resulted in the burning of “pagan” Greek and Roman books by Christian priests and zealots in the early Middle Ages, or in Christian persecutions of Jews at various times. At their best, tensions between Christianity and its Greek and Jewish antecedents have been harmonized in exceptional persons like Albert Schweitzer. His example testifies that it is possible to unite in one life the three Greco-Judeo-Christian ideals of reason, ethics and love. As a scholar-philosopher-artist, he would have been completely at home if he had been suddenly transported to fifth-century Athens; his conviction that moral belief must be expressed here and now in action that knows no allegiance other than God places him in the central tradition of Judaism; his choice to work among the poorest of humanity places him among the great Christians of all time.

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