"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Beauty Is As Beauty Does - Rabelais, St. Paul, And The Futility Of Good Deeds

BEAUTY IS AS BEAUTY DOES - Good deeds are more important than good looks. The proverb was first recorded by Chaucer in 'The Wife of Bath's Tale' (c. 1387). In 1766, in the preface to 'The Vicar of Wakefield,' Oliver Goldsmith wrote: 'Handsome is that handsome does.' First attested in the United States in 'Journal of a Lady of Quality' . The saying is found in varying forms, including 'Handsome is as handsome does’  (From the "Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings" by Gregory Y. Titelman).

St. Paul wrote extensively about grace in his Epistle to the Romans, considered by many to be the most complete exposition of proto-Protestant theology in the Bible.  Grace, said Paul, a gift of God bestowed by him on those he chooses for salvation, a gift given freely and without condition; and one whose bestowal can never be influenced by good works.  No matter what one does to try to influence the Almighty; no matter what acts of charity, compassion, fidelity to the Law one does as offerings to God, their election is a matter of divine will – or, as some have put it, divine caprice.

Image result for images st paul

Paul, of course, was only a canny publicist for the new religion and only an interpreter of the words of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Jesus himself; so one must take a more comprehensive look at the entire New Testament to come to any definitive or at least workable assumptions.  In fact, Catholic theologians read Paul and the Gospels and came to very different conclusions.  Salvation was not a matter of grace but works – a man’s life devoted to Jesus’s words and examples did indeed have merit when it came to the Last Judgment.

But Paul was a brilliant man of singular talents – rhetoric, management, social savvy, and determination -  and it was his words, not those of the original Apostles that the early Christians heard.  They heard about grace, suffering, justification, redemption, and salvation as Paul understood them.  They also heard his prudish teachings about sex and marriage, lessons hinted at in the Gospels but never spelled out in such absolute and final terms.

Of course later Protestant theologians, of which Luther was only the first, had to be careful to craft their own non-Catholic, non-works messages for the reformed.  There was of course room for good acts in a sinful world, and these reflected one’s goodness and likelihood for election, they said; but these sensible lessons were themselves distorted, and many Protestant thinkers concluded that one could actually determine the status of one’s election by outward signs of wealth, status, and power.  America’s well-known neo-Puritanism was based on the assumption that enterprise, progress, and productivity – the energy behind the works – were higher goods, signifiers of faith, justification, and election.  While these early Protestants denied any association with Papist ‘good works’, they had to at least acknowledge some overlap with their own inflexible doctrine of grace.

Image result for images martin luther

Paul, Luther, and Calvin are not given enough credit for their philosophical vision, no matter how distorted it may have become when translated into religious dogma.  What indeed is the value of good works in a world which, when taken as a whole and viewed from the perspective of history, has had precious little goodness.  Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, was so unhappy at the transgression of Adam and Eve that he condemned their descendants in perpetuity – i.e. the entire human race forever and ever – to lives of penury, misery, and inescapable death.  Surprised and further disappointed that this lesson did not take hold, and that his chosen people were as corrupt, venal, and sinful as ever, he chose to destroy them – to teach them a lesson they would never forget. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah was only beginning.  The vengeful, angry, and wrathful God of Abraham sent a flood to destroy the entire world.  If human beings could not follow his Law and realize the nature of his divinity, then they, despite Creation, were worth no more time.

Image result for images god michelangelo ceiling

In short, it is far better to act on a principle of grace and divine election than to rely on the inevitably corrupt and incorrigible human race.  The world would always be a mess – Sin, said Paul reigned supreme before Jesus; and its remission was only conditional on God’s will.  Yes, Jesus died for the sins of humanity and through his death ushered in a new, more hopeful world; but that meant nothing in terms of the ordinary Christian who wanted respite from his short, nasty, brutish, lonely world; and wanted to do something to help his chances, but found little hope in a divine lottery.

Dostoevsky stated the case against Jesus’ teachings and implicitly the doctrine of grace in his chapters on The Grand Inquisitor.  The common man only wants miracles, magic, and authority, wrote Ivan Karamazov.  Christ betrayed his human subjects when he confronted the Devil in the desert, insisting that Man does not live by bread alone.  That statement alone – not a guarantee nor a promise but a vaguely worded hope – allowed for the development of an exploitive, manipulative, and venal Church. 

Image result for dore christ temptation in the desert

How could God possibly allow the suffering of innocent children, too young to appreciate Christ’s appeal, and too young to believe?  Where was divine justice? Suffering, as Paul wrote, is a way to co-exist with the crucified Christ; but what of little children?

Despite 2000 years of a compassionate, loving, and considerate Christianity, the world is as barbaric as ever.  While individual acts of compassion, mercy, and forgiveness will always exist, they do so within a larger context of violence, retribution, penalty, and brutal death.  The Catholic idea of good works never caught on; and while Protestant theologians have tried for centuries to square the concept of community responsibility (i.e. a community held together by the good works of respect, consideration, negotiation, and compassion) with divine election, they have only muddled the waters.

Rabelais made sense of it all when he wrote Candide a cynical tale of the inevitable impossibility of human progress. 

Master Pangloss taught the metaphysico-theologo-cosmolonigology. He could prove admirably that there is no effect without a cause, and in this best of all possible worlds the baron's castle was the most magnificent of all castles, and my lady the best of all possible baronesses.

"It is demonstrable," said he, "that things cannot be otherwise than they are; for as all things have been created for some end, they must necessarily be created for the best end. Observe, for instance, the nose is formed for spectacles; therefore we wear spectacles. The legs are visibly designed for stockings; accordingly we wear stockings. Stones were made to be hewn and to construct castles; therefore my lord has a magnificent castle; for the greatest baron in the province ought to be the best lodged. Swine were intended to be eaten; therefore we eat pork all year round. And they who assert that everything is right, do not express themselves correctly; they should say that everything is best."

Image result for images candide rabelais graphics

These remarks of Pangloss, are a parody of the philosophy of Gottfried Leibniz who coined the phrase "the best of all possible worlds". The claim that the actual world is the best of all possible worlds is the central argument in Leibniz's theodicy, or his attempt to solve the problem of evil.

Both Paul’s doctrine of grace and Rabelais’ cynical vision accomplish the same thing – by way of mythology/theology (Paul) or observational philosophy (Rabelais), one should pay no attention to good works.  At the very most they are the expressions of a human nature whose only purpose is survival – good works help to establish order and rule and escape chaos.  There is nothing inherently right about ‘doing good’.

Nietzsche expressed this even more cogently than Rabelais.  In a meaningless world, he wrote, the only validation of human existence is the expression of pure will.  Human acts have nothing to do with ends, purpose, salvation, or redemption, but a powerful statement of being.   Such a powerful, individualistic philosophy is ironically reminiscent of the Yahweh in Exodus who when asked his name, said simply “I am who I am”.

It is far easier to adhere to the nihilistic philosophy of Nietzsche and Rabelais than to put all one’s hopes for salvation in Paul’s election lottery.  If I can do nothing to improve my chances of salvation, if works are worth nothing, and if my salvation has only to do with God’s fancy, I am in a pickle.  If I accept the world as meaningless and without hope, I may be depressed by the idea, but at least it corresponds to reality.

Which is why the old adage, ‘Beauty is as beauty does’ is so popular.  Not only does it dismiss the value of personal beauty, allure, and attractiveness per se, it suggests that the ugly and the virtually unattractive – if they do good works – can make up for all their misshapenness, warts, misalignments, and gaucheries.

Image result for images tuba buyukustun

Of course, this idea is wrong on both fronts – good works do not matter; and they certainly do not make up for physical beauty in a world obsessed by it. 

Modern progressives are still the most outspoken advocates for good works and human progress.  Humanity is indeed perfectible if only we try hard enough, and if we work together to promote world peace, a more congenial climate, and a more just society.  Millennia of human history, however, give lie to that notion.  Definitely better to accept the odds of the divine lottery or believe in Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Camus.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.