Saints Who Destroyed Religious Images (Icon Reader, 2012)

NOTE: The following article is taken from: https://iconreader.wordpress.com/2012/08/19/saints-who-destroyed-religious-images/

For completeness, if nothing else, this post addresses how religious images not depicting Christ and His Saints were regarded by the Church, using the testimony of her martyrs. Below, is a roughly chronological list of Saints known to have destroyed idols: i.e. the religious images and statues venerated by non-Christians, and considered holy by them. The list is by no means exhaustive.

King Hezekiah (+687 B.C.)

This king of Judah gives a scriptural precedent for the physical destruction of idols (2 Kings 18-20). King Hezekiah is glorified because, in order to restore true worship of God in his kingdom, he“removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made…”; and as Scripture explains, the righteous king did these things because “he held fast to the Lord; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the Lord had commanded Moses.”
Commemorated Aug 28

King Hezekiah asherah-pole
King Hezekiah removed pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and knocked down the Asherah poles.

King Josiah (+609 B.C.)

In a similar way to King Hezekiah, Josiah also used his royal authority to “clean up” the faith of Israel, and destroyed idols and other objects related to the worship of Baal. Scripture describes his legacy thus: Neither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the LORD as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses. (2 Kings 23:25).
Josiah is included in the genealogy of the Evangelist Matthew and so is celebrated on the second Sunday before Christmas.

KING-JOSIAH-DESTROYING-THE-IDOLS-OF-BAAL
King Josiah Destroying the Idols of Baal. (Gustave Dore)

 

The Lord Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother (1st Century A.D.)

As part of the Church’s tradition, it is believed that during Christ’s flight into Egypt, statues to the native gods crumbled and fell at His presence; this led to the conversion of some of the inhabitants. This story is enshrined in the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God, which contains the following stanza addressed to Jesus:

By shining in Egypt the light of truth, Thou didst dispel the darkness of falsehood; for its idols fell, O Saviour, unable to endure Thy strength;

Flight into Egypt, showing the idols (white figures) falling from the city walls
Flight into Egypt, showing the idols (white figures) falling from the city walls

The Apostle Paul (+67 A.D.)

As recounted in the Book of Acts (19:11-20), the miracles of the Apostle Paul led many pagan sorcerers in Ephesus to convert to Christ, whereupon they publicly burned their spell-books. Scripture concludes this episode with the words: So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.

The destruction of Books of Magic at Ephesus..jpg

The Apostle Matthew (+ 1st century A.D.)

Some accounts of the Evangelist’s life state that in the place of his martyrdom the local ruler repented of executing the Saint and was baptized, taking the name Matthew. The newly-illumined king then proceeded to destroy the pagan idols in his temples.
Commemorated November 16 and June 30

The Apostle John (c. +97 A.D.)

Some accounts of the Life of John the Evangelist state that his exile to Patmos was a result of the Apostle causing pagan idols to fall through his prayers. In the Anglo-Saxon homilies from the 10th/11th centuries, there is an explicit mention of the Apostle John turning the idols to dust by the power of God (see here).
Commemorated September 26, May 8, and June 30

Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus (+ 2nd Century A.D.)

These Saints were stonemasons who settled in Ulpiana (in modern-day Kosovo) and were there employed by the Roman prefect in building a pagan temple. The Saints gave away all their salary to the poor. After the temple was complete, Ss Florus and Laurus gathered all the local Christians together, and then proceeded to smash all the statues of the temple before erecting a cross. The local authorities executed 300 Christians for this act, including the Twin-Saints, who were thrown down into a well.
Commemorated August 18.

Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus
Twin-Martyrs Florus and Laurus

Abercius of Hieropolis, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 167 A.D.)

After praying fervently for the conversion of the pagan-dominated Hierapolis, an angel of the Lord appeared to the bishop, and ordered him to destroy the pagan idols. Having done so, he presented himself to the pagans, who would have murdered him were it not for his miraculous healing of three demon-possessed youths.
Commemorated October 22.

St. Abercius striking the temple gods with his rod
St. Abercius striking the temple gods with his rod.

Martyr Julian of Dalmatia (+ 160 A.D.)

This youth was mercilessly tortured over a period of days for not offering sacrifice to the idols. During this time, the temple of Serapis and all the idols within it were destroyed. The pagans attributed the destruction to St Julian’s “magic” and demanded his immediate execution. Of the idols, Julian said boldly: “Listen, accursed ones, do not trust your gods, which you have made with your hands. Know, rather, the God Who out of nothing, has created Heaven and earth.”
Commemorated July 28.

Virgin-Martyr Paraskevi (+ 170 A.D.)

This famous Orthodox saint was arrested for converting many pagans to Christ. After many tortures she meekly let herself be led to the Temple of Apollo to offer sacrifice. However, upon entering the temple, St Paraskevi made the sign of the cross and the statues in the temple were destroyed. The furious pagans ensured the Saint was condemned to death.
Commemorated July 26.

St. Paraskevi Smashes the Idols of Apollon
St. Paraskevi smashes the idols of Apollo.

Holy Martyrs Speusippus, Eleusippus, Meleusippus and their grandmother Leonilla (+ 175 A.D.)

Triplets who lived in France, as youths they were converted to the Christian faith by their grandmother, Leonilla, and in their zeal destroyed the pagan idols in the area.
Commemorated January 16.

Saint Glykeria (+ 177 A.D.)

The daughter of a Roman official in Thrace, she was a secret Christian who was forced to attend a pagan high-festival at the largest temple in the area. During the service, overcome by having to witness the ministering to false idols, she toppled the statue of Jupiter and upbraided the pagans for their folly. For this she was executed. Read more>>
Commemorated May 13

Saint Charalampus (+202 A.D.)

When already 113 years old, St Charalampus was subjected to fierce tortures for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. Upon witnessing his steadfast faith, the daughter of the Emperor Severus – called Gallina – converted to the Christian faith and destroyed all her pagan idols.

St. Haralambos trampling on a demon

Great-Martyr Christina of Tyre (+ 3rd Century A.D.)

The daughter of a pagan governor, Christina was instructed in the faith by an angel of the Lord, and afterwards she destroyed all the idols in her room and threw them from the window. When her father discovered the truth he had her cruelly tortured before he died. The next governor finished the job and executed St Christina by the sword.
Commemorated July 24.

Great-Martyr Tatiana of Rome (+225)

Secretly Christian, Tatiana was ordained as a deaconess, captured by the pagan authorities, brought into the sanctuary of Apollo, and forced to offer sacrifice. Through her prayers, the earth shook, toppling the statue of Apollo and causing some of the pagan priests to be crushed. As the statue fell, witnesses saw a demon flee from behind it. St Tatiana was cruelly tortured and beheaded.
Commemorated January 12.

Martyr Polyeuctus of Melitene, in Armenia(+ 255 A.D.)

A Roman soldier who confessed faith in Christ during the persecution by Emperor Valerian (253-259). In zeal he went to the public square and tore up the edict of Decius which required everyone to worship idols. A few moments later, he met a procession carrying twelve idols through the streets of the city. St Polyeuctus dashed the idols to the ground and trampled them underfoot.
Commemorated January 9.

Polyeuctus_of_Meletine_in_Armenia_(Menologion_of_Basil_II).jpg

Martyr Agatha of Palermo (+251)

Was also cruelly tortured under the edict of the Emperor Decius (see above) for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. During interrogations she openly mocked the idols as “not gods but demons”, and also mocked the city prefect who worshiped them. Before her final execution an earthquake shook the city destroying a number of the pagan temples, attributed to the prayers of St Agatha.
Commemorated February 5

Martyr Heliconis of Thessalonica (+ 3rd Century A.D.)

Suffered under the governor Perinus for refusing to offer sacrifice to the idols. After many tortures the virgin-martyr appeared to relent and so was brought to the temple. After requesting to be alone in the temple, St Heliconis manfully tore down all the idols and smashed them to pieces. On returning, the enraged pagans demanded her execution.
Commemorated May 28

Martyr Sozon (“Saved”) of Cilicia (+ late 3rd century)

A pious young shepherd who was foretold his martyrdom in a dream. Awaking he headed for the city of Pompeiopolis, where a festival to a golden statue was taking place. Secretly he broke off the hand of the statue and distributed the fragments to the poor. When persecutions began in order to find the culprit, St Sozon immediately presented himself to the emperor Maximian, confessing: “I did this, so that you might see the lack of power of your god, which offered me no resistance. It is not a god, but a deaf and dumb idol. I wanted to smash it all into pieces, so that people would no longer worship the work of men’s hands.” St Sozon gave up his life under pitiless tortures.
Commemorated September 7

Saint Victor of Marseilles (+290 A.D.)

A Roman army officer in Marseilles, who publicly denounced the worship of idols. At the orders of Emperor Maximian he was brought before a statue of Jupiter in order to offer incense before it. Not only did St Victor refuse, he kicked the statue, causing it to fall and shatter. Crushed under a millstone.
Commemorated July 21.

Priest-Martyr Mocius of Amphipolis (+ 295 A.D.)

Overturned the altar during a pagan service to Dionysius (Bacchus) and exhorted those gathered to turn to Christ. Captured and forced to offer sacrifice to false gods, the Saint called upon the name of Jesus Christ and the idols shattered. He was finally brought to Byzantium and executed there.
Commemorated May 11

Sainted-bishop Sisinios and Artemon, Presbyter of Laodicea (+303)

When the Emperor Diocletian ordered a persecution of the Christians in the late 3rd century, St Artemon was already an elderly and long-serving priest of the Church. Saint Sisinios, knowing about the impending arrival in the Laodiceian district of the military-commander Patricius, went together with the priest Artemon into the pagan-temple of the goddess Artemis. There they smashed and burnt the idols. Although arrested and tortured, St Artemon’s life was miraculously spared so that he could go on preaching until 303 A.D., when he was finally seized by pagans and murdered.
Commemorated April 13.

Martyr Blaise of Sebaste (+ 316 A.D.)

An old man living a life of prayer in a secluded cave, the pagans did not forget his earlier life as a zealous bishop for the Christians. Dragging him back to the city to face trial, St Sebaste fearlessly mocked the idols (as shown in this detail from a Russian icon) for which he was savagely beaten and eventually executed along with pagan women who had been converted by his words and miracles.
Commemorated February 11

Great-Martyr Theodore Stratelates, or “the General” (+ 319 A.D.)

Was appointed military-commander in the city of Heraclea Pontica, during the time the emperor Licinius began a fierce persecution of Christians. Theodore himself invited Licinius to Heraclea, having promised to offer a sacrifice to the pagan gods. He requested that all the gold and silver statues of the gods which they had in Heraclea be gathered up at his house. Theodore then smashed them into pieces which he then distributed to the poor. After tortures, St Theodore was beheaded

Theodore Strataletes smashes the idols and gives the pieces to the poor
Theodore Strataletes smashes the idols and gives the pieces to the poor

Commemorated February 8.

Martyr Acacius of Apamea (+ early 4th century)

Holy Martyr Acacius was brought to trial for his belief in Christ. Sent from city to city enduring tortures along the way, the Saint publicly caused the toppling of pagan idols through his prayers… twice!
Commemorated July 28.

Saint George the Victory-Bearer (+ 303 A.D.)

Among the many stories relating to this great Saint, is one relating to the smashing of idols (and shown in the picture at the very top of this post). After being offered great riches and power, the Holy George was brought to the temple of Apollo to give sacrifice. St George made the sign of the Cross approaching an idol and turned towards it, as though it were alive: “You wishest to receive from me sacrifice befitting God?” The demon inhabiting the idol cried out: “I am not God and none of those like me are God. The One-Only God is He Whom thou preachest. We are of those servant-angels of His, which became apostate, and in the grips of jealousy we do tempt people.” “How dare ye to be here, when hither have come I, the servant of the True God?” – asked the saint. Then was heard a crash and wailing, and the idols fell down and were shattered.
Commemorated April 23.

Saint George topples the pagan idols (Decani, 14th c.)
Saint George topples the pagan idols; Decani, 14th Century

Priestly-Martyr Erasmus of Ohrid (+ 303)

Born in Antioch and after living a life of prayer on Mt Lebanon, he was ordained bishop and sent into Ohrid to preach the Gospel. Through miracles and preaching he converted many pagans in Ohrid, and overturned their altars. Brought before Emperor Maximian, Erasmus was commanded to worship a copper statue of Zeus. St Erasmus through prayer caused a terrible-looking dragon to appear from behing the idol and, again through prayer, caused it to wither and die. Through this sign the demonic nature of idol-worship was revealed, and the power of Christ to overcome it, converting 20,000 pagan souls. St Erasmus was beaten and imprisoned, but later was released and died in peace.
Commemorated June 2 (read his life here)

Empress Helena (+ 329 A.D.)

The pious Christian mother of Constantine the Great, Empress Helena is best remembered in the Orthodox Church for finding the Holy Cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified during a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. On the site of the finding she erected the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Less well-known perhaps, but no less significant, is that a temple to the goddess Aphrodite (Venus) needed to be flattened for the church to be built. St Helena probably also ordered the destruction of a temple to Zeus (Jupiter) in order to build a church dedicated to St. Cyrus and St. John.
Commemorated, with St Constantine, on May 21.

The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem.
The empress gave orders to destroy the pagan temple and the statues in Jerusalem.

The finding of the true Cross is commemorated on September 14, and is one of the Great Feasts of the Church.

Saint Nino (or Nina), Enlightener of Georgia (+ 332)

A native of Cappadocia, the Saint Nino is called “Equal-to-the-Apostles” for her evangelism of Georgia in the 4th century. One time, St Nino was traveling to Mtskheta with a group of Georgian pilgrims on their way to venerate the god Armazi. There she watched with great sadness as the Georgian people trembled before the idols, and prayed:“O Lord, send down Thy mercy upon this nation …that all nations may glorify Thee alone, the One True God, through Thy Son, Jesus Christ.” A violent wind began to blow and hail fell from the sky, shattering the pagan statues.
Commemorated January 14.

Achillius of Larisa (+ 330 A.D.)

The earliest recorded bishop of Larisa, St Achillius was present at the first Ecumenical Council, where he defending the Orthodox faith. In his city, the miracle-working Achillius embodied well the fuller Orthodox understanding of “religious images”: he was renowned for both tearing down pagan temples and adorning the Christian churches with icons. Reposed peacefully.
Commemorated May 15.

Nicholas the Wonder-Worker of Myra (+ 345 A.D.)

One of the most celebrated Saints of the Orthodox Church worldwide, the wonderful feats of this miracle-working bishop abound. Among these acts is the destruction of all the temple of Diana and other pagan shrines in his city of Myra, after he was reinstated as bishop there during Constantine’s reign. Much of the demolition was carried out by his own hand, though he also had to struggle in prayer to overcome the demons that inhabited the temples. That this act of Nicholas is celebrated is evidenced in later church frescoes showing the event, and this account taken from his biography.
Commemorated December 6, May 9, and July 29.

st-nicholas-destroying-the-idols
St. Nicholas destroying the idols.

Martyr Mark, Bishop of Arethusa, in Syria (suffered 360 A.D.)

Under Constantine the Great St Mark, with the help of his deacon Cyril, had tore down a pagan temple and built a church in its place. When Julian the Apostate became emperor, idol-worship again grew, and the pagans wished to take revenge upon the now elderly bishop. Beaten, slashed with knives, his ears sliced off with linen, and with his hair pulled out, St Mark steadfastly refused to offer up any money in order to rebuild the pagan temple he had demolished. Even after the pagans kept lowering the price, St Mark refused to pay a single coin. Exhausted, and seeing that people were converted to Christ through his endurance, the torturers let St Mark go!
St Gregory the Theologian writes highly of St Mark, and uses his example in his writings against Julian the Apostate.
Commemorated March 29.

Saint Emilian of Thrace (+ 362 A.D.)

A servant of the governor of Dorostolon, in Thrace, during the reign of Julian the Apostate. When an imperial delegate arrived in Dorostolon to kill the Christians, he did not find a single one there. Delighted by this, he ordered a great feast in honour of the idols to take place the next day. That night, Emilian went throughout the town and smashed all the idols with a hammer. The next day, the outraged citizens grabbed a man, supposing him to be the culprit. Emilian said within himself: ‘If I conceal my action, what sort of use has it been? Shall I not stand before God as the slayer of an innocent man?’ He therefore confessed everything before the governor, explaining: ‘God and my soul commanded me to destroy those dead pillars that you call gods.’ The enraged governor ordered St Emilian to be flogged and burned.
Commemorated July 18.

Spyridon the Wonderworker of Tremithus, in Cyprus(+ 348 A.D.)

A shepherd who gave all his wealth to the poor, St Spyridon was made bishop of Tremithus after the death of his wife, under the reign of Constantine the Great. All the Lives of the saint speak of the amazing simplicity and the gift of wonder-working granted him by God. Through a word of the saint the dead were awakened, the elements of nature tamed, the idols smashed. At one point, a Council had been convened at Alexandria by the Patriarch to discuss what to do about the idols and pagan temples there. Through the prayers of the Fathers of the Council all the idols fell down except one, which was very much revered. It was revealed to the Patriarch in a vision that this idol had to be shattered by St Spyridon of Tremithus. Invited by the Council, the saint set sail on a ship, and at the moment the ship touched shore and the saint stepped out on land, the idol in Alexandria with all its offerings turned to dust, which then was reported to the Patriarch and all the bishops.
Commemorated December 12

Great-Martyr Irene of Thessalonica (+ 4th century A.D.)

Born in Persia, Irene was the daughter of the pagan king Licinius, and her parents named her Penelope. Locked in a tower to keep her away from Christian influence, Penelope received instruction from her tutor, Apellian, who was secretly Christian. Baptized by a priest named Timothy, she took the name Irene (meaning “peace”), and then smashed all her father’s idols, urging her parents to be Christians.
Commemorated May 5.

Emperor Theodosius the Great (+ 395 A.D.)

As ruler of the western and eastern Roman Empires, St Theodosius was zealous in upholding the Orthodox confession of the Holy Trinity, and is honored with the epitaph: “Right-Believing”. He ordered the destruction of many pagan temples, outlawed the old Olympic Games, and successfully defeated numerous armed, pagan rebellions, which sought to re-establish worship of the pagan gods.
Commemorated January 17.

Julius the Presbyter and Julian the Deacon (+ 5th Century A.D.)

Natives of Myrmidonia, these two brothers visited many outlying lands of the Byzantine Empire in order to win converts to Christ. To this end, they obtained permission from the Emperor Theodosius the Younger (+450) to build churches over the sites of dismantled pagan shrines. The grave of St Julius, which lay within a church built by Julius himself, dedicated to the Twelve Holy Apostles, became a site of healing.
Commemorated June 21.

Saint Porphyry of Gaza, Bishop and Confessor (+ 420 A.D.)

After many years as a monk, St Porphyry was elected Bishop of Gaza, a city where the Christian population numbered less than three-hundred, and idolatry was wide-spread. Discriminated against by the pagans, St Porphyry went to Constantinople and gained the support of Emperor Arcadius and the Archbishop, St John Chrysostom, to close down the idolatrous temples. Officials sent to close down the pagan shrines of Gaza were often bribed, and so after much labouring, St Porphyry undertook the destruction of the temples personally with his flock of Christians. Many temples were destroyed, including those dedicated to Aphrodite, Hecate, the Sun, Apollo, Kore (Persephone), Tychaion, the shrine of a hero, and the Marneion, dedicated to Zeus. In their place, Christian churches were erected. The pagan idols were burnt, and the marble from their temples were used to pave the way to the new Christian churches, so that all Christians on their way to worship would trample upon the remains of idolatry. These acts, along with much preaching, prayer, and humiliations suffered by St Porphyry, won the entire city of Gaza over to the Christian faith.
The Life of St Porphyry, recounting his struggles against the pagans, was written by the deacon Mark.
Commemorated February 26.

Saint Gregory the Great (+ 604 A.D.)

A Holy Father among the Saints, St Gregory is also known for sending, as the Bishop of Rome, the missionary St. Augustine of Canterbury to evangelize the English in the late 6th century. In a letter to Abbot Melitus, St Gregory writes:

Tell [Bishop Augustine] that I have decided after long deliberation about the English people, namely that the idol temples of that race should not be destroyed, but only the idols in them. Let blessed water be prepared, and sprinkled in these temples, and altars constructed, and relics deposited. For if these temples are well built, it is essential that they should be transferred from the worship of devils to the service of the true God.

We can be confident that St Augustine of Canterbury carried out faithfully the orders of St Gregory, and can also be counted among the list of those Saints which have destroyed pagan religious artifacts.

In another letter to Aethelbert, the first Christian king of England, St Gregory gives further exhortations to destroy the idols:

Almighty God raises up certain good men to be rulers over nations in order that he may by their means bestow the gift of righteousness upon all those over whom they are set… So, my most illustrious son, watch carefully over the grace you have received from God and hasten to extend the Christian faith among the people subject to you. Increase your zeal for their conversion; suppress the worship of idols; overthrow their buildings and shrines…

It should be noted that King Aethelbert is also revered by the Orthodox Church, even if he is not outrightly proclaimed as a Saint. Both these letters are found in full in St Bede’sEcclesiastical History of the English people (Book I).
St Gregory commemorated March 12 and September 3.
St Augustine commemorated May 26.

Edwin of Northumbria, King and Martyr (+ 633 A.D.)

A thoughtful king who took many years before finally accepting baptism by the hand of St Paulinius, despite his wife already being a pious Christian. After much deliberation, it was a miracle which finally convinced the king of Christ’s power, and upon making the decision to convert, his loyal lords and pagan priests were convinced too by his firmness of confession. The first thing St Edwin did, before even being baptized, was to order the “profaning” (according to Bede’s history) of the pagan altars and shrines. The chief-priest, Coffi, volunteered to do this, riding on horseback to the main pagan temple and throwing a spear at the altar, before tearing the whole edifice down (this happened not far from York, UK).
Commemorated October 12.

Saint Romanus (also Godard) of Rouen (+ 640 A.D.)

A sainted bishop of Rouen, before his consecration the faithful of the city asked Romanus to do something about the Temple of Venus in the Gallo-Roman amphitheatre. St Romanus entered the temple and tore the dedication from the altar, causing the temple to miraculously crumble and collapse.
Commemorated October 23.

Saint Boniface (+ 754 A.D.)

Born Wynfrith in Devonshire, England, St Boniface went on to spread the Gospel throughout the German lands. One of his most famous evangelic feats was the felling by his own hand of a sacred Oak dedicated to Thor, using the timber to build a chapel on the site where today stands the cathedral of Fritzlar.
Commemorated June 5.

Saint Michael, first Metropolitan of Kiev (+ 992 A.D.)

Possibly a native of Syria, St Michael was sent by St Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople to be the first Metropolitan (head-Bishop) of Kiev, after that nation’s ruler, Prince Vladimir, accepted baptism. Saint Michael spent the rest of his days tirelessly traveling the Kievan lands preaching, shepherding the faithful, establishing churches, and overturning the pagan shrines.
Commemorated September 30 and July 15.

Holy Prince Vladimir, Equal-to-the-Apostles (+ 1015 A.D.)

Previously a war-monger, fanatic idol-worshiper, and polygamist, the change in Prince Vladimir after his baptism in the year 988 cannot be more dramatic. Immediately after his baptism, the newly-illumined ruler also had his twelve sons baptized, along with many boyars. Prince Vladimir then went on to have the wooden idols he had erected, torn down and hacked to pieces, with a statue of the chief pagan God, Perun, cast into the River Dnieper. These acts of Prince Vladimir had such far-reaching consequences that they later became known as the Baptism of Rus’. Prince Vladimir spent the rest of his twenty-eight years establishing churches and Christian schools throughout his lands, supported in his efforts by Sainted Metropolitan Michael (see above).
Commemorated July 15, also the day designated to celebrate the Baptism of Rus.

Saint Abraham of Rostov (+ 1077 A.D.)

A pagan convert who became a monk and dwelt in the areas around Rostov, in Russia. St. Abraham prayed fervently before an icon of Christ that he may be able to topple the idol of the local’s chief god: Veles. In answer to his prayers, the Apostle John appeared to the monk, and gave him a staff. With this, St. Abraham went to the shrine of Veles and toppled the statue of him, smashing it into pieces. Abraham founded the monastery of the Theophany in Rostov, as well two parish churches.
Commemorated October 29.

640
L: St. Abraham receives a staff from the Apostle John R: St Abraham uses it to destroy the idol of Veles

+++

Some of the saints listed above are chiefly remembered for their fearless acts of destroying idols, though the majority are not. However, all the saints listed above are, among their other works, openly celebrated by the Church for their destruction of non-Christian temples, shrines, and statues.

What to take from this all? As with other miraculous deeds of the Saints, the destruction of the idols can be understood symbolically as the victory of right-believing Christians over all other idols, whether they be demons pretending to be gods or man-made constructs that lead our minds from the contemplation of God. This can be done without denying the historical fact of the Church’s Saints physically destroying non-Christian religious images. Of course, when considering other deeds of the Saints, we try to use their acts as an example for our own conduct. In the case of idol-smashing, most Christians today would shy away from literally following the Saints’ example, even though non-Christian idols abound. Perhaps this is wise, though the courage of these idol-smashing Saints is certainly something worthy of imitation. In striving for this, we can pray to Christ that we may emulate the martyr’s strength:

Thy Martyr, O Lord, in his courageous contest for Thee
Received the prize of the crowns of incorruption
And life from Thee, our immortal God.
For since he possessed Thy strength, he cast down the tyrants
And wholly destroyed the demons’ strengthless presumption.
O Christ God, by his prayers, save our souls,
Since Thou art merciful.

(General Apolytikion to a Martyr)

Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)
Saint Abraham of Rostov destroys a statue of pagan god Veles (11th century)

http://www.amazon.com/Making-Breaking-Gods-Christian-Mediterranean/dp/8771240896

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St. Gregory Palamas’ Vision of the World (Efthymios Nicolaidis, 2011)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Science and Eastern Orthodoxy: from the Greek fathers to the age of globalization, pp 98-105

Science & Eastern Orthodoxy

Gregory Palamas, originally trained in the spirit of Byzantine humanism, including Hellenic logic and science, later combated this same humanism with his own tools. He did not object to the deductive syllogism known as the apodictic—on the contrary, he applied it to theology. But whereas with respect to nature he observed that the generalization of our knowledge through experience could lead us to erroneous results, he thought that the apodictic syllogism was infallible with respect to dogma. Dogma cannot admit dialectical thought; it must be clear and stable. How can we reach this certitude? By applying logic and deduction based on the sacred texts that embrace Holy Scriptures and the writings of the church fathers. God presented himself to the world and was materialized, and therefore man can indeed approach God, simultaneously by the mystery employed for spiritual things and by logic employed for material things. It goes without saying that a person who does not have the grace of God (i.e., a humanist) cannot apply apodictic syllogism successfully.1 Palamas was aware that his use of reason and deductive logic required a defense. “Are learning and the science of discourse bad things?” he wondered. “Of course not, since God has given us science and methodology. Therefore it is not they that are wrong, but their wrongful usage by sinners.”’2

Similarly, the created world can be understood and explained only by those who have grace—the Hesychasts. Aristotle, and the other Greek savants, though realizing that nothing is created from nothingness and that nothing will disappear completely, came to the erroneous conclusion that the world was not born and will never die. Therefore, they deduced something incorrect though starting from a correct realization. To arrive at a true image of the world, experience is not sufficient; one needs the illumination that is granted only to those who believe in the mystery of the church and, through it, enter into communion with God.’“3

According to Palamas (and contrary to the letter of scripture). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit created the world together. This world was actually created in six days, and the seventh that followed was longer than the others because it comprised the whole era that began with the last day of Creation and terminated in the crucifixion and death of Christ. The Resurrection marks the start of the eighth day, which we are traversing now and which will endure until the Last Judgment. This judgment will take place on a Sunday, which is the privileged day because the first day of the week is comparable with the first day of Creation. Palamas contributed also to the discussion by Philo, Basil, and others of why Moses should have called the beginning of Creation “day one” and not “first day”—quite simply in order to make a distinction between them.”4

Rejection of Aristotle

An admirer of Basil, Palamas followed the cosmology of the school of Alexandria. Regarding the angels, his ideas were close to those of Philoponus, despite the fact that their conceptions of science were diametrically opposed. Philoponus, as I have already mentioned, was followed enthusiastically by the Byzantine humanists; he considered that the learning of the Hellenic philosophers was valid because they were illuminated by knowledge of the Bible—although similar ideas were truly sacrilegious in the eyes of the Hesychasts. According to Palamas, angels were created before the world, and so they are incorporeal and do not take part in the functioning of nature (as followers of the school of Antioch maintained) but serve for the salvation of humans.”5 Palamas cited Saint Basil’s comment that angels are found amid uncreated light; they can traverse the firmament as light does.

The revelation of uncreated light to the Hesychasts was an opportunity to debate the nature of starlight and especially Saint Basil’s ideas on this subject. We recall that Basil considered that the light that would illuminate the world existed before Creation, and therefore it is uncreated light. The world was isolated from the light by the firmament, and at the command fiat lux it traversed the firmament and lit up the world. This explanation, which was completely revised by Gregory of Nyssa, who gave corporeal characteristics to the light of the world, is truly problematic, because it introduces into nature an uncreated element, and also because it posits that a created element, the firmament, can arrest uncreated light. This is how the leader of the anti-Hesychasts, Akindynos, posed the question: How is it possible that uncreated light is prevented from traversing the firmament, while the angels do traverse it?”6 Although Akindynos was an adversary, Palamas could only concede to the argument that uncreated light is everywhere and no material wall can stop it. However, it cannot be perceived by the senses, except by a few of the happy elect who have made the superhuman effort of prayer and devotion.7 It follows that the light that shines on us is not the uncreated light but rather the light discussed by Gregory of Nyssa.

Theodoros Metochites
Theodoros Metochites

It would be a mistake to see the Hesychast movement (especially its leader Palamas) as hostile to secular learning as such. Palamas was interested in secular knowledge, notably that which described and explained Creation; he proceeded by deductive reasoning based on sense perception. But we have seen that this method was not sufficient for him because it was likely to lead to erroneous conclusions. In order for knowledge based on experience to be valid, it must follow the interpretation of Creation given by the church fathers, especially Basil. But—and this is particular to the Hesychast movement—the world in which we are living is not composed of physical reality alone. According to Palamas, to limit man to perceiving merely the created world would be to condemn him to spiritual misery. A Christian is open to another world that was not created by the imagination of Hellenic philosophers—namely, the uncreated world of spiritual powers. Man may take part in both worlds, created and uncreated, for he is composed of both corporeal matter and an incorporeal soul. God, creator of corporeal and incorporeal worlds, is inaccessible to man in essence but accessible through his actions. This participation in two worlds is the very essence of the Hesychast movement and explains the fact that, despite its followers finding themselves at loggerheads with the humanists, they tolerated secular learning and sometimes even considered someone who possessed it as privileged. The fervent Hesychast Philotheos Kokkinos cited the great humanist scholar Metochites, who was supposed to have said of his pupil Palamas on the occasion of a discussion of Aristotle’s logic in the presence of the emperor: “And I believe that if Aristotle were present, he would have made an elegy as good as mine. I maintain that this is how the nature and soul of those who avoid chatter should be, just as Aristotle thought and wrote at length.”8

What matters most to Palamas is precisely to show that the ancient philosophers, despite the fact that they described the physical reality of the world, were not able to do so completely and exactly, for they could not accede to the true wisdom that is offered only through the methods of Hesychasm. More than being simply ignorant compared to Christians, Plato, Socrates, Plotinus, Proclus, and Porphyrus were under the influence of the devil. Socrates, although judged to excel in wisdom, was possessed his whole life by a demon who had convinced him. For this reason, he taught things contrary to true wisdom, as with his cosmology or, still worse, his ideas on the soul of the world, at least as presented by his pupil Plato in Timaeus.9 As for Plotinus, according to legend a dragon appeared from under his body at the moment of his death, and so Palamas concluded that hidden behind Plotinus’s wise teaching was the Father of Falsehood, the devil.10 The myth that Proclus had a vision of Light gives Palamas the opportunity to argue that it was the work of the demon—the same one that left his head after his death.11 It is notable that nowhere does Palamas imply that Aristotle was possessed by the demon.

The Wise Plato painted in 1858 by Nikephoros in Vatopaidi Monastery

 

This false wisdom of the ancients is overcome by the spiritual wisdom of Orthodox believers. It is by no means necessary for someone to rise to saintliness for him to be compared to the Hellenic sages: “Not only is the fact of truly knowing God (to the extent permitted us) incomparably superior to the wisdom of the Hellenes, but also knowledge of the place occupied by mankind near to God surpasses all their wisdom.”12 According to Palamas, God has shown us that profane learning is false. But how can any learning conceived by the human mind, a creature of God, be a sin? Ah well, quite simply because this mind is moving away from its real purpose, which is knowledge of God.13

As a result of his education by Metochites, Palamas was adept at Greek cosmology, thanks to which he adopted arguments from Basil’s Hexaemeron. But in certain cases he departed from Basil, developing his own (often contradictory) ideas. Coming to the question (that had been debated since antiquity) of the place of the world and its possible movement, he explained that there is no reason to believe that a space outside heaven cannot exist. On this point, he came into contradiction with Basil, who thought that space was created simultaneously with time and matter, and therefore it involves Creation alone, outside of which nothing exists. Palamas explained that God fills everything and extends to infinity, and within this infinity the world was created. Because nothing prevented the creation of space within the created world, then nothing prevents the creation of space outside of it. So then, why could this world not move, why is it constrained to turn in place around itself? There, Palamas gave two contradictory explanations in the same paragraph. He explained first that “the body of heaven does not extend higher because this higher [the breadth of heaven] is lighter than it; this is why it [heaven’s breadth] is above the sphere of ether, by its nature,” and then just afterward he asserted that “heaven does not advance upward, not because there is no space above it, but because nobody is lighter than it.” Finally, he ended by asserting that there is nothing above heaven, not because no space exists there, but because heaven includes all bodies and there can be no body outside it.14

But since there is no obstacle, why does heaven not ascend but instead moves cyclically? Well, this heavenly body is much lighter than all the others, hence it is located at the surface of other bodies. At the same time, it is more mobile than the other bodies, and since it has a tendency to move but cannot by its nature separate itself from the bodies above which it is located, it moves constantly around them; and this is not because it has a soul, but because of its material nature. Palamas gives the example of winds that move without rising upward, not because there is no space above them but because what is above is lighter. In all these explanations, we perceive the vague influence of Hellenic culture that incorporates Aristotelian ideas of the natural place of heavy and light bodies but, at the same time, cannot conceive of any notion of symmetry and insists on seeing infinite space as having an “above” and a “below.”

If Palamas had been forced to choose among the Hellenic philosophers the one who was closest to the truth, he would no doubt have chosen Aristotle. Our opponent of Greek philosophers cited his ideas countless times as reflecting the reality of Creation. Against the Platonic idea of the soul of the universe, he cited Aristotle in arguing that the soul is the vital force of an organic body that has power in living. For a body to include organs, it has to be composite, and heaven is a simple element.15 The world according to Palamas (explicitly citing Aristotle) is made up of five elements in equal quantities. But the space occupied by these elements is in inverse proportion to their density. This is why water is more extensive than the earth, the air is more extensive than water, and so on for fire and ether. He asserted that the Hellenes neglected this fact, and consequently they overlooked that nine-tenths of the earth is covered by water. But if the spheres of the elements were concentric, then the whole earth would be covered by water. Therefore, the aqueous sphere is excentric, and Palamas proposed to find its center: manifestly it is not above out heads, for we see that the surface of the water is below us. Consequently, it is below the center of the earth. So it is a matter of determining the size of the spheres of the earth and of water (referring to the element earth, which here is confused with the planet Earth). Knowing that the surface of the sphere of the earth is one-tenth the size of water s, Palamas calculated the size of the radius of each sphere. By these geometric demonstrations, he said, a sphere that has double the diameter of the other has a surface eight times greater, which is valid, in effect, since the surface is proportional to the cube of the radius. From this, Palamas deduced that the sphere of water has a diameter double that of the earth. As in all his demonstrations, the scholar-theologian remained approximate; he was content with this solution—although he had previously asserted that the surface of the earth is more or less a tenth that of water.

Gregory Palamas

By developing this theory of earth-water proportionality, Palamas constructed a very interesting world system, which he even illustrated with a drawing.16 Since the sphere of water is almost adjacent to the earths, the latter is inscribed in the aqueous sphere whose center corresponds to the point opposite the adjacent point. As in his argument for the worlds movement of translation, here, too, there is an above and a below, with the lower point of the earthly sphere corresponding to the center of the world, while, on the upper part, the sphere of water is conjoined to a tenth of the sphere of earth, because the inhabitable part of the earth corresponds to a tenth of its circumference. Moreover, because the great part of the earth is included in the sphere of water, it becomes evident why there are so many subterranean waters. Because only the upper part of the earthly sphere is free of water, it follows that the antipodes cannot be inhabited. According to Palamas, on this point the Hellenes were also mistaken: there is only one oikoumene, and it is ours; consequently, there is only a single race of humankind.

Although Palamas firmly condemned Plato, he oscillated between this philosopher and Aristotle, and he was even on occasion labeled by Barlaam as Platoniz- ing. In general, we may detect the influence of Plato on his theory of knowledge and that of Aristotle on his physics. Approaching Plato, Palamas explained that man perceives the world though the senses. But he said that what is perceived is not the objects themselves but their copies, which exist independently of reality, for we can represent these imaginary objects at any moment.17 Approaching Aristotle, he posited a world of five elements, of which the fundamental bodies (heaven, fire, air, earth, and water) are pure.

Palamas came back several times to the power of observation and logic to understand the world: “It is by the intellect that we collect with our senses and our imagination not only what relates to the Moon, but also to the Sun and its eclipses, and the parallaxes of other planets in heaven and their measurements, as well as the constellations, and in general everything that we know of heaven and all the causes of nature, all the methods and the arts.”18 But where does our knowledge of God come from? And of the world itself? It is by the teaching of the Spirit, from which we have learned things about Creation that are inaccessible to the intellect via experience. By the teaching of Moses, hence by the Spirit, we have learned that in the beginning there were heaven and earth. This earth was mixed with water, and these two elements produced air. Heaven was filled with lights and with fires. Contrary to those who claim that matter preexisted Creation, God created the receptacle that carried the potential for all the beings of this Creation.

This insistence on a point that had been resolved long before, the non-pre- existence of matter, shows how the Hesychasts were manifestly worried that the humanists might (out of their love for the Hellenes) defend materialist positions.

This was not in fact the intention of humanists, for in the history of Byzantine science such a position had never been held. The leitmotif of true knowledge recurs: what matters is not secular learning—which is useful, by the way— but instead union with God. The learned theologian wondered “What Euclid, what Marinus, what Ptolemy could have conceived of that? What Empedocles, Socrates, Aristotle, or Plato could have conceived of that with their logical methods and mathematical demonstrations?”19

According to Palamas, Plato’s motto, “Let no-one ignorant of Geometry enter,” ignored the fact that the true mathematician cannot separate the limit from what is limited and hence cannot gain knowledge of Creation. “The [anti-Hesychasts] cannot understand that God is simultaneously uncomprehended and comprehensible: uncomprehended in essence, but comprehensible by his creatures through His divine actions.”20

The Orthodox Church officially awarded the victory to Palamas and supported the Hesychast movement against Barlaam and the humanists by a decision of the synod in 1341. Barlaam saw his anti-Hesychast ideas condemned by the synod, and he returned to Italy. Nikephoros Gregoras (see chapter 6) succeeded him as head of the anti-Hesychast party and found himself in opposition to the head of the Hesychasts, Gregory Palamas; he would even be imprisoned after the ultimate victory of Palamas. At Gregoras’s death in 1360, his body was exposed to public view as if he were a criminal.

The church also succeeded in getting the emperors to choose the patriarch of Constantinople from among the followers of the Hesychast party. But more significant than official recognition was this movement’s success in strongly marking not only Byzantine society but also Orthodoxy as a whole. It lay at the spiritual origin of the complicated relations between science and Russian society and also constituted the ideological basis of Slavic mysticism. Its consequences, right down to our day, are far from fully studied, but they have been well signaled by Russian intellectuals since the nineteenth century.21

This powerful movement that traversed the whole society did not, however, put a brake on the development of Byzantine humanism. This humanism embraced all the knowledge of the antiquity, especially philosophy, which notably included the philosophy of nature. Byzantium would increasingly discuss science in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Nevertheless, it did curtail the eventual impulses toward subversive developments in the sciences; the Pletho phenomenon, named after a Byzantine scholar who returned to Hellenic religion, would remain an isolated exception (see chapter 9). It would make null and void any attempt at the union of churches, despite the keen efforts of several emperors. Byzantium would thus be condemned to Ottoman occupation, but the Orthodox Church would keep control over the Christian population of this region—right up until today.

NOTES

  1. Nicolaos Katsiavrias, “Η κοσμοαντίληψη του Αγίου Γρηγορίου του Παλαμά (1296-1359)” [The perception of the world of Saint Gregory Palamas, 1296-1359] (PhD diss.. University of Athens, 2001), p. 42.
  2. Gregory Palamas, Letter to Philosophers John and Theodore, in Complete Works of Gregory Palamas, 8, ed. P. K. Christou (Thessalonica: Patristic editions Gregory Palamas, 1994), par. 29. For Palamas’s views on science, see also Gregory Palamas, “Science Does Not Save,” in The Triads, ed. John Meyendorff, trans. Nicholas Gendle (New York: Paulist Press, 1983).
  3. Katsiavrias, “Η κοσμοαντίληψη του Αγίου Γρηγορίου του Παλαμά (1296-1359),” pp. 57-58.
  4. , p. 66. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1988), par. 43.
  5. Gregory Palamas, Αντιρρητικός προς Ακίνδυνον [Contra Akindynos], in Complete Works of Gregory Palamas, 6, ed. P. K. Christou, critical text by Leonidas C. Contos (Thessalonica: Patristic editions Gregory Palamas, 1987), theses ΣΤ, 11.
  6. , ΣΤ, 27.
  7. Philotheos Kokkinos, Λόγος, 560.
  8. Gregory Palamas, Αντιρρητικός προς Ακίνδυνον, Z’ 24 (see Katsiavrias, “H KoopoavTiXqu/q,” p. 216).
  9. , Z , 9, 25.
  10. , Z , 26.
  11. Gregory Palamas, One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, 26.
  12. Katsiavrias, “Η κοσμοαντίληψη,” pp. 221-22.
  13. Gregory Palamas, One Hundred and Fifty Chapters, 5 and 6.
  14. , ch. 3.
  15. , 13.
  16. , 16.
  17. , 20.
  18. , 25.
  19. , 81.
  20. See, for example, John Meyendorff, Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality, trans. Adele Fiske (New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1974), pp. 143ff.

Topics of Natural & Theological Science (St. Gregory Palamas, 14thc)

NOTE: Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), based his ideas on the science of Aristotle and the geometry of Euclid in order to cogitate on locating the centers of the spheres of two elements, earth and water.

The relation of the Orthodox Church to secular science (called Hellenic in this era) is more complicated than a division between a caste of monks, which rejected it, and a humanist higher clergy, which accepted it.

Philokalia Vol. 4

The Hesychasts, at least the most eminent among them, did not actually reject secular learning, for they continued to consider it useful for understanding and interpreting Creation. They simply believed that this wisdom was not important, because true wisdom (that which brings humans close to God) is found in Hesychastic practice. Palamas himself was a follower of Saint Basil when it came to Creation; consequently, his conception of the world was based on this oft-denigrated Greek philosopher. Philotheos Kokkinos, although attacking the “sages of the Greeks,” displayed in other texts an admiration for Aristotle as a scholar. Profane learning was completely rejected only by the humblest monks, who had no contact with higher education, as Palamas or Philotheos did. In fact, the absolute rejection of science was determined by social class. The Byzantine dominant class accepted it, either with fervor (in the case of the humanists) or under certain conditions (in the case of the Hesychasts), whereas the poorer social strata rejected it as useless, never having had much contact with it.

Also see: Theology and Natural Sciences in St Gregory Palamas

1 That the world has an origin nature teaches and history confirms, while the discoveries of the arts, the institution of laws and the constitution of states also clearly affirm it. We know who are the founders of nearly all the arts, the lawgivers and those who established states, and indeed we know what has been written about the origin of everything. Yet we see that none of this surpasses the account of the genesis of the world and of time as narrated by Moses. And Moses, who wrote about the genesis of the world, has so irrefutably substantiated the truth of what he writes through such extraordinary actions and words that he has convinced virtually the whole human race and has persuaded them to deride those who sophistically teach the contrary. Since the nature of this world is such that everything in it requires a specific cause in each instance, and since without such a cause nothing can exist at all, the very nature of things demonstrates that there must be a first principle which is self-existent and does not derive from any other principle.

2 That the world not only has an origin but also will have a consummation is affirmed by the fact that all things in it are contingent, and indeed it is partially coming to an end all the time. Moreover, sure and irrefutable assurance of this is furnished by the prophecy both of those inspired by God and of Christ Himself, the God of all; and not only the pious but also the impious must believe that what they say is true, since everyone can see that what they predicted about other things has proved correct. From them we learn that the world will not lapse entirely into nonbeing but, like our bodies and in a manner analogous to what will happen to us, it will be changed by the power of the Holy Spirit, being dissolved and transformed into something more divine.

romanian-orthodox-icon-depicting-philosophers
Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers

3 The ancient Greek sages say that the heavens revolve in accordance with the nature of the world soul, and that they teach justice and reason. What sort of justice? What kind of reason? For if the heavens revolve not by virtue of their own nature but by virtue of the nature of what they call the world soul, and if this world soul belongs to the entire world, how is it that the earth and the water and the air do not also revolve? Yet though in their opinion the soul is ever-moving, none the less the earth is stationary by nature, and so is water, which occupies the lower region, whereas the heavens, which occupy the upper region, are by nature ever in motion and move in a circle. But what is the character of this world soul by virtue of whose nature the heavens revolve? Is it endowed with intelligence? If so, it must be self-determining, and so it would not always move the celestial body in the same way, for what is self-determining moves differently at different times. And what trace of deiform soul do we observe in the lowermost sphere – the sphere of the earth – or in the elements most proximate to it, namely those of water, air, and even fire itself, for the world soul supposedly pertains to them as well? And again, how in their opinion are some things animate and others inanimate? And among inanimate things it turns out that not merely a few examples taken at random but every stone, every piece of metal, all earth, water, air and fire, moves by virtue of its own nature and not by virtue of a soul; for they admit that this is true even of fire. Yet if the soul is common to all, how is it that only the heavens move by virtue of the nature of this soul and not by virtue of their own nature? And how in their view can the soul that moves the celestial body be void of intelligence since according to them it is the source of our souls? But if it is void of intelligence it must be either sentient or vegetative. We observe, however, that no soul moves a body without the assistance of organs, and we cannot observe any such organ that specifically serves the earth, or the heavens, or any of the other element contained within them; for every organ is composed of various natures, while the elements severally, and above all the heavens, are simple and not composite. The soul is the actuality of a body possessing organs and having the potentiality for life; but the heavens, since they have no member or part that can serve as an organ, have no potentiality for life. How, then, can that which is incapable of life possibly have a soul? But those who have become ‘vain in their reasonings’ have invented ‘out of their foolish hearts’ (Rom. 1:21) a world soul that does not exist, never has existed, and never will exist. Yet they claim that this soul is the demiurge and governor and controller of the entire sensible world and, farther, that it is some sort of root and source of our souls or, rather, of every soul. Moreover, they say that it is born from the intellect, and that the intellect is other in substance than the supreme Intellect which they call God. Such doctrines are taught by those among them most proficient in wisdom and theology, but they are no better than men who deify wild beasts and stones. In fact their religiosity is much worse, for beasts, gold, stone and bronze are real things, even though they are among the least of creatures; but the star-bearing world soul neither exists, nor is it anything real, for it is nothing at all but the invention of an evil mind.

4 Since, they say, the celestial body must be in motion, and there is no place to which it can advance, it turns about itself and thus its ‘advancement’ is that of rotation. Well and good. So if there were a place, it would move upwards, like fire, and more so than fire since it is by nature lighter than fire. Yet this movement is due not to the nature of a soul but to that of lightness. Thus if the heavens’ motion is rotational, and this motion exists by virtue of their own nature, and not that of the soul, then the celestial body revolves not by virtue of the nature of the soul but by virtue of its own nature. Hence it does not possess a soul, nor is there any such thing as a celestial or pan-cosmic soul. The only soul that possesses intelligence is the human soul, and this is not celestial, but supra-celestial, not because of its location but because of its very nature, for its essence is noetic.

5 The celestial body does not move forward or upward. The reason for this is not that there is no place beyond it. For adjacent to the heavens and enclosed within them is the sphere of ether, and this too does not advance upward, not because there is no place to which it might proceed – for the breadth of the heavens embraces it – but because what is above is lighter. Hence, the heavens are by their own nature higher than the sphere of ether. It is not because there is no place higher that the heavens do not proceed upward, but because there is no body more subtle and light than they are.

6 Nobody is higher than the celestial body. Yet this is not to say that the region beyond the heavens does not admit a body, but only that the heavens contain everybody and there is no other body beyond. But if a body could pass beyond the heavens, which is our pious belief, then the region beyond the heavens would not be inaccessible. God, who fills all things and extends infinitely beyond the heavens, existed before the world, filling as He now fills the whole region of the world. Yet this did not prevent a body from existing in that region. Thus even outside of the heavens there is nothing to prevent the existence of a region, such as that which surrounds the world or as that which is in the world, in which a body could abide.

7 Since there is no such hindrance, how is it, then, that the celestial body does not move upwards, but turning back upon itself moves in a circular fashion? Because, as it is the lightest of bodies, it rises to the surface of all the others and is the highest of them all, as well .as being the most mobile. Just as what is most compressed and most heavy is the lowest and most stationary, so what is more rarified and lightest is the highest and most mobile. Thus since the celestial body moves by nature above the level of all other bodies, and since by nature it is impossible for it to separate itself from those things on the surface of which it is located, and since those things on which it is located are spherical, it must encircle them unceasingly. And this it does not by virtue of the nature of a soul but by virtue of its own proper nature as a body, since it passes successively from place to place, which is the movement most characteristic of the highest bodies, just as a stationary state most characterizes the lowest bodies.

8 It may be observed that in the regions close about us the winds, whose nature it is to rise upwards, move about these regions without separating themselves from them and without proceeding further in an upward direction. This is not because there is no place for them to rise to, but because what is above the winds is lighter than they are. They remain on the surface of the regions above which they are situated because by nature they are lighter than those regions. And they move around those regions by virtue of their own nature and not that of a soul. I think that Solomon, wise in all things, intended to indicate this partial likeness that the winds bear to the celestial body when he applied the same kind of language to the winds as is used of it; for he wrote, ‘The wind proceeds circle-wise, and returns on its own circuits’ (Eccles. 1:6). But the nature of the winds round about us diners from the nature of higher bodies, in that the winds’ motion is slower and they are more heavy.

Icon-Prophets-King-Solomon-and-Ezekiel
Prophets King Solomon and Ezekiel

9 According to the Greek sages, there are two opposing zones of the earth that are temperate and habitable, and each of these is divided into two inhabited regions, thus making four in all. Therefore they assert that there are also four races of men upon the earth, and that these are unable to have any contact with one another. There are, according to these philosophers, men living in the temperate zone lateral to us, who are separated from us by the torrid zone. And there are people who dwell antipodal to these latter, living from their point of view beneath the temperate zone and its inhabitants. In a similar way there are those who dwell beneath us. The first they say are opposite to us, while the second are antipodal and reversed. What these sages did not realize is that only one tenth of the earth’s sphere is land, while the rest is almost entirely swallowed up by the abyss of the waters.

10 You should realize that, apart from the region of the earth which we inhabit, there is no other habitable land, since it is all inundated by the waters of the abyss. You should also bear in mind that (omitting ether) the four elements out of which the world is fashioned balance one another equally, and that each of the elements has its own sphere, the size of which is proportionate to its density, as Aristotle also thinks. ‘For’, he says, ‘there are five elements located in five spherical regions, and the greater spheres always encompass the lesser: water encompasses earth; air encompasses water; fire, air; and ether, fire. This constitutes the world.’

11 Ether is more translucent than fire, which is also called ‘combustible matter’, and fire is many times greater in volume than air, and air than water, and water than earth which, as it is the most compressed, is the least in volume of all the four elements under the heavens. Since the sphere of water is many times greater in size than that of earth, if the two spheres – that of water and that of earth – had the same centre and the water was poured over the entire surface of the earth, the water would not have left any part of the earth’s surface available for use by terrestrial animals, since it would have covered all the soil and the earth’s surface would have been everywhere at a considerable depth beneath it. But since the waters do not entirely swallow up earth’s surface – for the dry land we inhabit is not covered by them the sphere of the waters must of necessity be eccentric to the earth’s sphere. Thus we must try to discover by how much it is eccentric and where its centre lies, whether above or beneath us. Yet it cannot be above us, since we see a part of the water’s surface below us. Thus from our point of view the centre of the sphere of water is beneath the earth’s centre. We have still to discover how far this centre is from the centre of the earth.

12 You can see how far from our viewpoint the centre of water’s sphere lies beneath the centre of earth’s sphere if you take into consideration that the surface of the water visible to us and beneath us – just as the ground we walk upon is beneath us – coincides almost exactly with the surface of the earth which we inhabit. But the habitable region of the earth is about one tenth of its circumference, for the earth has five Stones, and we inhabit half of one of those five. Hence if you want to fit a sphere that encompasses the earth on to one that encompasses this tenth part of its surface you will find that the diameter of the exterior sphere is nearly twice as great as the diameter of the interior sphere, while its volume is eight times greater; and its centre will be situated at what is from our viewpoint the bottom extremity of the sphere of the earth. This is clear from the following diagram.

13 Let us represent the earth’s sphere with a circle on the inside of which are the letters A, B, C, D; and around this let us draw another circle representing water’s sphere, which touches the first circle at its highest point, and on the outside of this second circle let us write the letters E, F, G, H. It will be found that, from our point of view, the centre of the outer circle will lie on the circumference of the inner circle at its bottom extremity. And since the diameter of the outer circle is twice that of the inner circle, and since it can be demonstrated geometrically that the sphere whose diameter is twice that of another sphere is eight times the size of the latter, it follows that one eighth of the sphere of the element of water is contained by and merged with earth’s sphere. It is for this reason that many springs of water gush forth from the earth and abundant, ever-flowing rivers issue from it, and the gulfs of many seas pour into it, and many lakes spread over it. There is scarcely any place on the earth where, if you dig, you will not find water flowing beneath.

Gregory Palamas

14 As the above diagram and logic itself teach us, no region of the earth other than our own is inhabited. For just as the earth would be totally uninhabitable if both earth and water had the same centre, so, even more truly, if the water has its centre at what is from our point of view the lowest extremity of the earth, all the other parts of the earth, apart from the region where we live which fits into the upper section of the water’s sphere, must be uninhabitable since they are flooded by water. And since it has already been demonstrated that embodied deiform souls dwell only in the inhabited region of the earth, and that there is but one such region on the earth – the one in which we live – it follows that land animals not endowed with intelligence also dwell solely in this region.

15 Sight is formed from the manifold impressions of colors and shapes; smell from odors; taste from flavors; hearing from sounds; and touch from things that are rough or smooth on contact. The impressions that the senses receive come from bodies but, although corporeal, they are not bodies themselves. For they do not arise directly from bodies, but from the forms that are associated with bodies. Yet they are not themselves these forms, since they are but impressions left by the forms; and so, like images, they are inseparably separated from these forms. This is particularly evident in the case of sight, especially when objects are seen in mirrors.

16 These sense impressions are in turn appropriated from the senses by the soul’s imaginative faculty; and this faculty totally separates not the senses themselves but what we have called the images that exist within them from the bodies and their forms. It stores them up like treasures and brings them forward ulteriorly – now one and now another, each in its own time – for its own use even when there is no corresponding body present. In this way it sets before itself all manner of things seen, heard, tasted, smelled and touched.

17 In creatures endowed with intelligence this imaginative faculty of the soul is an intermediary between the intellect and the senses. For the intellect beholds and dwells upon the images received in itself from the senses – images separated from bodies and already bodiless – and it formulates various kinds of thought by means of distinctions, analysis and inference. This happens in various ways – impassionately or dispassionately or in a state between the two, both with and without error. From these thoughts are born most virtues and vices, as well as opinions, whether right or wrong. Yet not every thought that comes into the intellect has its origin in the images of things perceived or is connected with them. There are some thoughts that do not come within the scope of the senses, but are given to the thinking faculty by the intellect itself. As regards our thoughts, then, not every truth or error, virtue or vice has its origin in the imagination.

18 What is remarkable and deserving our attention is how beauty or ugliness, wealth or poverty, glory or ill repute – and, in short, either the noetic light that bestows eternal life or the noetic darkness of chastisement – enter the soul, becoming firmly established within it, from merely transitory and sensible things.

The Wise Aristotle as depicted in the narthex of the church at the Monastery of Philanthropinon in Ioannina.

19 When the intellect enthrones itself on the soul’s imaginative faculty and thereby becomes associated with the senses, it engenders a composite form of knowledge. For suppose you look at the setting sun and then see the moon follow it, illuminated in the small part turned towards the sun, and in the subsequent days you note that the moon gradually recedes and is illuminated more brightly until the opposite process sets in; and suppose you then see the moon draw closer from the other side and its light wane more and more until it disappears altogether at the point at which it first received illumination; suppose you take intellectual note of all this, having in your imagination the images you have previously received and with the moon itself ever present before your eyes, you will in this way understand from sense-perception, imagination and intellection that the moon gets its light from the sun, and that its orbit is much lower than the sun’s and closer to the earth.

20 As in this way we achieve knowledge of things pertaining to the moon, so in a similar way we can achieve knowledge of things pertaining to the sun – the solar eclipses and their nodes – as well as of the parallaxes, intervals and varied configurations involving the planets, and in short of all phenomena concerning the heavens. The same holds true with regard to the laws of nature, and every method and art, and in brief with regard to all knowledge acquired from the perception of particulars. Such knowledge we gather from the senses and the imagination by means of the intellect. Yet no such knowledge can ever be called spiritual, for it is natural, things of the Spirit being beyond its scope (cf. 1 Cor. 2:14).

Creation-Icon

21 Where can we learn anything certain and true about God, about the world as a whole, and about ourselves? Is it not from the teaching of the Holy Spirit? For this teaching has taught us that God is the only Being that truly is – the only eternal and immutable Being – who neither receives being from non-being nor returns to non-being; who is Tri-hypostatic and Almighty, and who through His Logos brought forth all things from non-being in six days or, rather, as Moses states, He created them instantaneously. For we have heard him say, ‘First of all God created heaven and earth’ (Gen. 1:1). And He did not create them totally, empty or without any intermediary bodies at all. For the earth was mixed with water, and each was pregnant with air and with the various species of animals and plants, while the heavens were pregnant with various lights and fires; and so with the heavens and the earth all things received their existence. Thus first of all God created the heavens and the earth as a kind of all-embracing material substance with the potentiality of giving birth to all things. In this way He rightly rebuts those who wrongly think that matter pre-existed on its own as an autonomous entity.

22 After this initial creation. He who brings forth all things from non-being proceeds as it were to embellish and adorn the world. In six days He allotted its own proper and appropriate rank to each of His creatures that together constitute His world. He differentiates each by command alone, as though bringing forth from hidden treasuries the things stored within, giving them form, and disposing and composing them harmoniously, with perfection and aptness, one to the other, each to all and all to each. Establishing the. Immovable earth as the centre He encircled it in the highest vault with the ever-moving heavens and in His great wisdom bound the two together by means of the intermediary regions. Thus the same world is both at rest and moving. For while the heavenly bodies encircle the earth in rapid and perpetual motion, the immovable body of the earth necessarily occupies the central position, its state of rest serving as a counterbalance to the heavens’ mobility. In this way the pan-cosmic sphere does not change its position as it would if it were cylindrical.

23 Thus by assigning such positions to the two bodies that mark the boundaries of the universe – the earth and the heavens – the Master-craftsman both made fast and set in motion what one might call this entire and orderly world; and He farther allotted what was fitting to each thing lying between these two limits. Some He placed on high, enjoining them to move in the upper regions and to revolve for all time round the uttermost boundary of the universe in a wise and ordered manner. Those are the light and active bodies capable of making bodies that lie beneath them fit and serviceable. They are most wisely set above the world’s middle region so that they can sufficiently dispel the excessive coldness there and restrain their own excessive heat to its proper level. In some manner they also restrict the excessive mobility of the world’s outermost, bounds, for they have their own opposing movement and they hold that outermost region in place through their counter-rotation. At the same time they provide us with beneficial yearly changes of season, whereby we can measure temporal extension; and to those with understanding they supply knowledge of the God who has created, ordered and adorned the world. Hence He commanded those bodies in the upper region to dance round it in swift rotation for two reasons: to fill the entire universe with beauty and to furnish a variety of more specific benefits. He set lower down in the middle region other bodies of a heavy and passive nature that come into being and undergo change, that decompose and are re-compounded, and that suffer alteration for a useful purpose. He established these bodies and their relationships to one another in an orderly manner so that all things together could rightly be called ‘cosmos’, that is to say, that which is well-ordered.

Creation of Adam, the son of God
Creation of Adam, the son of God

24 In this manner the first of beings was brought forth into creation and after that another was brought forth, and after that still another, and so on, until last of all man was brought forth. So great was the honor and providential care which God bestowed upon man that He brought the entire sensible world into being before him and for his sake. The kingdom of heaven was prepared for him from the foundation of the world (cf. Matt. 25:34); God first took counsel concerning him, and then he was fashioned by God’s hand and according to the image of God (cf. Gen. 1:26-27). God did not form the whole of man from matter and from the elements of this sensible world, as He did the other animals. He formed only man’s body from these materials; but man’s soul He took from things supra-celestial or, rather, it came from God Himself when mysteriously He breathed life into man (cf. Gen. 2:7). The human soul is something great and wondrous, superior to the entire world; it overlooks the universe and has all things in its care; it is capable of knowing and receiving God, and more than anything else has the capacity of manifesting the sublime magnificence of the Master-Craftsman. Not only capable of receiving God and His grace through ascetic struggle, it is also able to be united in Him in a single hypostasis.

Orthodox icon of Thucidides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)
Orthodox icon of Thucydides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)

25 Here and in such things as these lie the true wisdom and the saving knowledge that procure for us the blessedness of heaven. What Euclid, Marinos or Ptolemy has been able to understand these truths? What Empedocleans, Socratics, Aristotelians and Platonists with their logical methods and mathematical demonstrations? Or, rather, what form of sense-perception has grasped such things, what intellect apprehended them? If the wisdom of the Spirit seemed something lowly to these philosophers of nature and their followers, this fact alone demonstrates its incomparable superiority. In much the same way as animals not endowed with intelligence are related to the wisdom of these men – or, if you wish, as children would consider the pastries they hold in their hands superior to the imperial crown and to all the knowledge of these philosophers – so are these philosophers in relation to the true and sublime wisdom and teaching of the Spirit.

26 To know God truly – in so far as this is possible – is incomparably superior to the philosophy of the Greeks, and simply to know what place man has in relation to God surpasses all their wisdom. For man alone among all terrestrial and celestial beings is created in the image of his Maker, so that he might look to God and love Him and be an initiate and worshipper of God alone, and so that he might preserve his own beauty by his faith in God and his devotion and affection towards Him, and might know that whatever is found on earth and in the heavens is inferior to himself and is completely void of intelligence. This the Greek sages could never conceive of, and they dishonored our nature and were irreverent towards God. ‘They worshipped and served the creature rather than the Creator’ (Rom. 1:25), attributing to the sense-perceptible yet insensate stars an intelligence in each case proportionate in power and dignity to its physical size. They wretchedly worshipped these things, called them greater and lesser gods, and committed the lordship of all things to them. Did they not thus shame their own souls, dishonoring and impoverishing them, and filling them with a truly noetic and chastising darkness by their preoccupation with a philosophy based on sense-objects?

philosophers

27 To know that we have been created in God’s image prevents us from deifying even the noetic world. ‘Image’ here refers not to the body but to the nature of the intellect. Nothing in nature is superior to the intellect, for if there were then it would constitute the divine image. Since, therefore, the intellect is what is best in us and this, even though it is in the divine image, is none the less created by God, why, then, is it difficult to understand or, rather, how is it not self-evident that the Creator of that which is noetic in us is also the Creator of everything noetic? Thus every noetic being, since it is likewise created in the image of God, is our fellow-servant, even if certain noetic beings are more honorable than us in that they possess no body and so more closely resemble the utterly bodiless and uncreated Nature. Or, rather, those noetic beings who have kept their rank and who maintain the purpose for which they were created deserve our homage and are far superior to us, even though they are fellow-servants. On the other hand, the noetic beings who did not keep their rank but rebelled and rejected the purpose for which they were created are totally estranged from those close to God, and they have fallen from honor. And if they attempt to drag us after them and to make us fall, they are not only worthless and disgraced but are also God’s enemies and destructive and inimical to the human race.

28 Yet natural scientists, astronomers and those who boast of possessing universal knowledge are unable to understand anything of what has just been said on the basis of their philosophy. Moreover, they have regarded the ruler of the noetic darkness and all the rebellious powers under him not only as superior to themselves but even as gods, and they have honored them with temples, made sacrifices to them and submitted themselves to their ruinous oracles. In this way they were mocked exceedingly by the demons, through unholy sacred objects, through defiling purifications which only increased their accursed conceit, and through prophets and prophetesses who estranged them totally from the essential truth.

29 For a man to know God, and to know himself and his proper rank – a knowledge now possessed even by Christians who are thought to be quite unlearned – is a knowledge superior to natural science and astronomy and to all philosophy concerning such matters. Moreover, for our intellect to know its own infirmity, and to seek healing for it, is incomparably greater than to know and search out the magnitude of the stars, the principles of nature, the generation of terrestrial things and the circuits of celestial bodies, their solstices and risings, stations and retrogressions, separations and conjunctions and, in short, all the multiform relationships which arise from the many different motions in the heavens. For the intellect that recognizes its own infirmity has discovered where to enter in order to find salvation and how to approach the light of knowledge and receive the true wisdom that does not pass away with this present world.

 

Philosophy Does Not Save (St. Gregory Palamas, 14th c.)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The Triads

Triads

Philosophy and Salvation (from the Translator’s Introduction)

One of the most striking characteristics of Byzantine mediaeval Christianity is its concern with the role of ancient Greek philosophical categories in the formulation of Christian theology and spirituality. 16 In fact, unlike their Latin contemporaries who “discovered” Greek philosophy—in Latin translations from the Arabic—in the twelfth century, the Byzantines had never forgotten Plato or Aristotle, who represented their own Greek cultural past and were always accessible to them in the original Greek text. At the same time, they always recognized that this past was a “pagan” past. Thus, the Ancient Greek heritage could still be useful in such fields as logics, physics or medicine (hence the inclusion of Aristotle in the standard Byzantine educational curriculum followed by Palamas in his youth), but not in religion. Metaphysical and religious truths could validly originate only in the Christian revelation. This is the reason that Plato and the Neoplatonists were always looked at with suspicion in conservative—and particularly monastic—circles of the Byzantine Church: Indeed, in any form of Platonic thought, no understanding of reality was possible without metaphysical, that is, in fact, theological presuppositions foreign to Christianity.

It is not astonishing, therefore, to find out that every year, on the first Sunday of Lent— also known as the “Sunday of Orthodoxy”—all Byzantine Orthodox churches resounded with formal and repeated anathemas against “those who follow the foolish opinions of the Hellenic disciplines” and particularly against those “who considered the ideas of Plato as truly existing” or believe (with Aristotle) in the eternity of matter. 17 These anathemas were first issued in the eleventh century on the occasion of the condemnation of the philosopher John Italos, but their inclusion in the liturgical Synodikon of the Sunday of Orthodoxy gave them permanent significance.  http://www.anastasis.org.uk/synodikon.htm

http://www.hsir.org/Theology_el/3d7027Orthodoxias-06.pdf

Clearly, however, Greek philosophical concepts were inseparable from many aspects and formulations of the patristic tradition, which was the common model and authority for all Byzantines. The repeated clashes between “humanists” who tended to minimize the prohibitions against “Hellenic wisdom” and those theologians, predominantly monastic, who insisted on the incompatibility between “Athens” and “Jerusalem” (to use the old expression of Tertullian) could not solve the issue in a definite way. Similarly, in the controversy between Barlaam and Palamas, both sides acknowledged the authority of the Christian revelation and, on the other hand, admitted that ancient philosophers possessed a certain natural ability to reach not only created, but also divine truths. What then separated them, and made the debate appear essentially a debate on the relation between ancient philosophy and the Christian experience?

Orthodox icon of Thucidides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)
Orthodox icon of Thucydides & Aristotle (Transfiguration Monastery, Meteora)

On the one hand, the different backgrounds and intellectual formation of Palamas and Barlaam led them to assign to Greek philosophy a different degree of authority. Barlaam’s contacts with Western thought and his involvement in the “humanist” milieus in Byzantium were leading him to an enthusiastic endorsement of Aristotle and Neoplatonic authors, as criteria of Christian thought. “I cannot conceive that God has not illuminated them in a certain manner, and feel that they must surpass the multitude of mankind,” he wrote. Palamas, on the contrary, preferred to approach the ancient Greek philosophical tradition as requiring the need for a baptismal rebirth—a death and a resurrection—as a condition for its integration into the Tradition of the Church: This is the meaning of his image of serpents’ being killed and dissected before providing materials used in helpful drugs.

Philosophy Does Not Save: The Text

  1. i. The first question

I 1 have heard it stated by certain people that monks also should pursue secular wisdom, and that if they do not possess this wisdom, it is impossible for them to avoid ignorance and false opinions, even if they have achieved the highest level of impassibility; 2 and that one cannot acquire perfection and sanctity without seeking knowledge from all quarters, above all from Greek culture, 3 which also is a gift of God—just as were those insights granted to the prophets and apostles through revelation. This education confers on the soul the knowledge of [created] beings, 4 and enriches the faculty of knowledge, which is the greatest of all the powers of the soul. For education not only dispels all other evils from the soul—since every passion has its root and foundation in ignorance—but it also leads men to the knowledge of God, for God is knowable only through the mediation of His creatures. 5

St. Justin the Martyr and Philosopher, along with Homer the Historian
St. Justin the Martyr and Philosopher, along with Homer the Historian

I was in no way convinced when I heard such views being put forward, for my small experience of monastic life showed me that just the opposite was the case; but I was unable to make a defence against them. “We not only occupy ourselves with the mysteries of nature,” they proudly claimed, “measuring the celestial cycle, and studying the opposed motions of the stars, their conjunctions, phases and risings, and reckoning the consequences of these things (in all of which matters we take great pride); but in addition, since the inner principles of these phenomena are to be found in the divine and primordial creative Mind, and the images of these principles exist in our soul, we are zealous to understand them, and to cast off every kind of ignorance in their regard by the methods of distinction, syllogistic reasoning and analysis; thus, both in this life and after, we wish to be conformed to the likeness of the Creator.” 6

I felt myself incapable of responding to these arguments, and so maintained silence towards these men; but now I beg you, Father, to instruct me in what should be said in defence of the truth, so that (following the Apostle’s injunction) I may “be ready to give an account of the faith that is in us”. 7

  1. i. 18.

By examining the nature of sensible things, 8 these people 9 have arrived at a certain concept of God, but not at a conception truly worthy of Him and appropriate to His blessed nature. For their “disordered heart was darkened” by the machinations of the wicked demons who were instructing them. For if a worthy conception of God could be attained through the use of intellection, how could these people have taken the demons for gods, and how could they have believed the demons when they taught man unenlightened education, they have calumniated both God and nature. They have deprived God of His sovereignty (at least as far as they are concerned); they have ascribed the Divine Name to demons; and they were so far from finding the knowledge of beings—the object of their desire and zeal—as to claim that inanimate things have a soul and participate in a soul superior to our own. 12 They also allege that things without reason are reasonable, since capable of receiving a human soul; that demons are superior to us and are even our creators (such is their impiety); they have classed among things uncreated and unoriginate and coeternal with God, not only matter, and what they call the World Soul, but also those intelligible beings not clothed in the opacity of the body, 13 and even our souls themselves. 14

The Sybil of Erythrae, and the Greek Philosophers Solon, Pythagoras and Socrates
The Sybil of Erythrae, and the Greek Philosophers Solon, Pythagoras and Socrates

Are we then to say that those who hold such a philosophy possess the wisdom of God, or even a human wisdom in general? I hope that none of us would be so mad as to claim this, for, as the Lord declared, “A good tree does not produce bad fruit” (Mt. 7:18). In my estimation, this “wisdom” is not even worthy of the appellation “human”, since it is so inconsistent as to affirm the same things to be at once animate and inanimate, endowed with and deprived of reason, and it holds that things by nature without sensibility, and having no organs capable of sensation, could contain our souls! 15 It is true that Paul sometimes speaks of this as “human wisdom”, as when he says, “My proclamation does not rest on the persuasive words of human wisdom”, 16 and again, “We do not speak in words which teach human wisdom.” 17 But at the same time, he thinks it right to call those who have acquired it “wise according to the flesh”, 18 or “wise men become feebleminded”, 19 “the disputants of this age”, 20 and their wisdom is qualified by him in similar terms: It is “wisdom become folly”, 21 the “wisdom which has been done away”, 22 “vain trumpery”, 23 the “wisdom of this age”, and belongs to the “princes” of this age—who are “coming to an end”. 24

19

For myself, I listen to the father who 25 says, “Woe to body when it does not consume the nourishment that is from without, and woe to the soul when it does not receive the grace that is from above!” He speaks justly—for the body will perish once it has passed into the world of inanimate things, and the soul will become enmeshed in the demonic life and the thoughts of demons if it turns away from that which is proper to it. 26

But if one says that philosophy, insofar as it is natural, is a gift of God, then one says true, without contradiction, and without incurring the accusation that falls on those who abuse philosophy and pervert it to an unnatural end. 27 Indeed they make their condemnation heavier by using God’s gift in a way unpleasing to Him.

Moreover, the mind of demons, created by God, possesses by nature its faculty of reason. But we do not hold that its activity comes from God, even though its possibility of acting comes from Him; one could with propriety call such reason an unreason. The intellect of pagan philosophers is likewise a divine gift insofar as it naturally possesses a wisdom endowed with reason. But it has been perverted by the wiles of the devil, who has transformed it into a foolish wisdom, wicked and senseless, since it puts forward such doctrines.

Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers
Romanian Orthodox Fresco Depicting Philosophers

But if someone tells us that the demons themselves have a desire and knowledge not absolutely bad, since they desire to exist, live and think, here is the proper reply which I should give: It is not right to take issue with us because we say (with the brother of the Lord) that Greek wisdom is “demonic”, 28 on the grounds that it arouses quarrels and contains almost every kind of false teaching, and is alienated from its proper end, that is, the knowledge of God; but at the same time recognise that it may have some participation in the good in a remote and inchoate manner. 29 It should be remembered that no evil thing is evil insofar as it exists, but insofar as it is turned aside from the activity appropriate to it, and thus from the end assigned to this activity.

20

What then should be the work and the goal of those who seek the wisdom of God in creatures? Is it not the acquisition of the truth, and the glorification of the Creator? This is clear to all. But the knowledge of the pagan philosophers has fallen away from both these aims.

The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.
The Wise Plato is found in the dome at the Monastery of Evangelistria in Zagorohoria and was painted in 1809.

Is there then anything of use to us in this philosophy? Certainly. For just as there is much therapeutic value even in substances obtained from the flesh of serpents, 30 and the doctors consider there is no better and more useful medicine than that derived from this source, so there is something of benefit to be had even from the profane philosophers— but somewhat as in a mixture of honey and hemlock. So it is most needful that those who wish to separate out the honey from the mixture should beware that they do not take the deadly residue by mistake. And if you were to examine the problem, you would see that all or most of the harmful heresies derive their origin from this source.

It is thus with the “iconognosts”, who pretend that man receives the image of God by knowledge, and that this knowledge conforms the soul to God. 31 For, as was said to Cain, “If you make your offering correctly, without dividing correctly…”. 32 But to divide well is the property of very few men. Those alone “divide well”, the senses of whose souls 33 are trained to distinguish good and evil.

philosophers

What need is there to run these dangers without necessity, when it is possible to contemplate the wisdom of God in His creatures not only without peril but with profit? A life which hope in God has liberated from every care naturally impels the soul towards the contemplation of God’s creatures. Then it is struck with admiration, deepens its understanding, persists in the glorification of the Creator, and through this sense of wonder is led forward to what is greater. According to St. Isaac, 34 “It comes upon treasures which cannot be expressed in words”; and using prayer as a key, it penetrates thereby into the mysteries 35 which “eye has not seen, ear has not heard and which have not entered into the heart of man”, 36 mysteries manifested by the Spirit alone to those who are worthy, as St. Paul teaches.

21

Do you see the swiftest way, full of profit and without danger, that leads to these supernatural and heavenly treasures?

In the case of the secular wisdom, you must first kill the serpent, in other words, overcome the pride that arises from this philosophy. How difficult that is! “The arrogance of philosophy has nothing in common with humility”, as the saying goes. Having overcome it, then, you must separate and cast away the head and tail, for these things are evil in the highest degree. By the head, I mean manifestly wrong opinions concerning things intelligible and divine and primordial ; and by the tail, the fabulous stories concerning created things. As to what lies in between the head and tail, that is, discourses on nature, you must separate out useless ideas by means of the faculties of examination and inspection possessed by the soul, just as pharmacists purify the flesh of serpents with fire and water. Even if you do all this, and make good use of what has been properly set aside, how much trouble and circumspection will be required for the task!

Devotional and Philosophical Writings, c. 1330. Prior to the condemnations, many scholars relied heavily on Aristotle.
Devotional and Philosophical Writings, c. 1330. Prior to the condemnations, many scholars relied heavily on Aristotle.

Nonetheless, if you put to good use that part of the profane wisdom which has been well excised, no harm can result, for it will naturally have become an instrument for good. But even so, it cannot in the strict sense be called a gift of God 37 and a spiritual thing, for it pertains to the order of nature and is not sent from on high. This is why Paul, who is so wise in divine matters, calls it “carnal”; 38 for, says he, “Consider that among us who have been chosen, there are not many wise according to the flesh”. 39 For who could make better use of this wisdom than those whom Paul calls “wise from outside”? 40 But having this wisdom in mind, he calls them “wise according to the flesh”, and rightly too.

 

22

Just as in legal marriage, the pleasure derived from procreation cannot exactly be called a gift of God, because it is carnal and constitutes a gift of nature and not of grace (even though that nature has been created by God); even so the knowledge that comes from profane education, even if well used, is a gift of nature, and not of grace—a gift which God accords to all without exception through nature, and which one can develop by exercise. This last point—that no one acquires it without effort and exercise—is an evident proof that it is a question of a natural, not a spiritual, gift.

It is our sacred wisdom that should legitimately be called a gift of God and not a natural gift, since even simple fishermen who receive it from on high become, as Gregory the Theologian says, 41 sons of Thunder, whose word has encompassed the very bounds of the universe. By this grace, even publicans are made merchants of souls; and even the burning zeal of persecutors is transformed, making them Pauls instead of Sauls, 42 turning away from the earth to attain “the third heaven” and “hear ineffable things”. 43 By this true wisdom we too can become conformed to the image of God and continue to be such after death.

As to natural wisdom, it is said that even Adam possessed it in abundance, more so than all his descendents, although he was the first who failed to safeguard conformity to the image. Profane philosophy existed as an aid to this natural wisdom before the advent of Him who came to recall the soul to its ancient beauty: Why then were we not renewed by this philosophy before Christ’s coming? Why did we need, not someone to teach us philosophy—an art which passes away with this age, so that it is said to be “of this age”44 —but One “who takes away the sin of the world”, 45 and who grants us a true and eternal wisdom—even though this appears as “foolishness” 46 to the ephemeral and corrupt wise men of this world, whereas in reality its absence makes truly foolish those not spiritually attached to it? Do you not clearly see that it is not the study of profane sciences which brings salvation, which purifies the cognitive faculty of the soul, and conforms it to the divine Archetype?

Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato and Plutarch
Homer, Thucydides, Aristotle, Plato and Plutarch

This, then, is my conclusion: If a man who seeks to be purified by fulfilling the prescriptions of the Law gains no benefit from Christ—even though the Law had been manifestly promulgated by God—then neither will the acquisition of the profane sciences avail. For how much more will Christ be of no benefit to one who turns to the discredited alien philosophy to gain purification for his soul? It is Paul, the mouthpiece of Christ, who tells us this and gives us his testimony.

 

Self-Deceptive Hypocrisies: The Complacent, the Self-Righteous, and the Cynical (Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer, 2004)

NOTE: This article is the second of three on the aspects and roles of deception. It is taken from the 14th chapter of Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations.

Hypocrisy - Ethical Investigations cover

“The hypocrite will suppose himself to be the one who is acting genuinely and cannot but utterly reject the reproach of hypocrisy.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer1

“One puts oneself into mauvaise foi as one goes to sleep and one is in mauvaise foi as one dreams.” Jean-Paul Sartre2

Introduction

One argument for the claim that no deception or insincerity is necessary for hypocrisy has its source in the observation that some hypocrites are the last persons to know that they are hypocrites. Such people seem surprised, even astonished, when reasonably accused of hypocrisy, and not all of them feign such surprise. Now the argument goes that deception is a matter of having certain intentions, and we do have knowledge of our own intentions. Therefore, people who are engaged in deception must know that they are. Thus if hypocrisy always involved deception, then hypocrites would always know that they were engaging hypocrisy. Since they do not, there must be some hypocrisy that does not require deception.

This picture is misleading in that it assumes an overly narrow conception of deception. We should not accept the claim that deception is necessarily a self-conscious matter, requiring certain intentions. First of all, people can deceive by mistake, simply because they do not know how others will interpret their words or actions. Thus we clearly need the distinction between deceiving in fact and attempting to deceive.3 Suppose though, as may well be the case, that we can adequately distinguish accidental cases from deliberate ones, and maintain that the agent must know when s/he is deliberately deceiving others. It would still be premature to say that unselfconscious hypocrisy cannot be a form of deception. It is possible that such hypocrisy involves, not deception of others, but rather self-deception, which may not similarly involve knowledge that one is engaged in deception.4 Perhaps a culpable failure of self-knowledge could explain cases in which one is genuinely surprised to hear reasonable accusations of hypocrisy. If one is allowed to include the possibility of self-deception, then one can acknowledge the existence of cases in which people are genuinely surprised to learn they have been hypocritical, without thereby conceding that there can be cases of hypocrisy that do not involve deception.

the emperor's new clothes

But should one be allowed to include self-deception as a sort of deception giving rise to hypocrisy? Some writers seem to reject the possibility outright. For example, in his discussion of hypocrisy, Saul Smilansky writes, “We might of course have a case of self-deception, but such matters are not our concern here.”5 But surely one is entitled to a principled reason for excluding self-deception. Judith Shklar is one writer who attempts to provide such a reason. Shklar argues that allowing self-deception to count would result in a regrettable proliferation of accusations of hypocrisy. She incisively asks, “Is every self-deception, insincerity and inauthenticity hypocritical, even when these are states of mind and not acts to deceive others? … Could anyone escape being a hypocrite if we see hypocrisy through such eyes?”6 Part of the point here is that such a conceptual conflation between self-deception and hypocrisy results in seeing it everywhere, in an inflation of hypocritical anti-hypocrisy, in a victimization of people by targeting them for constant moral critique. Such a view unsettles the delicate balance between individuals and society by licensing constant suspicion of others and relentless social critique of individual blemishes. Furthermore, the term becomes useless as a tool of moral criticism if it can be applied to everyone. To prevent these undesirable developments, Shklar thinks we need to distinguish hypocrisy from self-deception and other forms of insincerity by stipulating “acts designed to deceive others” as a necessary feature of hypocrisy. Unless we do this, “hypocrisy” is severed from its moorings and becomes available as ad hoc ideological insult. Hence it can no longer be part of the language of responsible moral criticism.

There is much that is true in what Shklar claims, but she is not careful enough in drawing her conclusions. When looked at carefully, they do not after all provide a compelling reason for thinking that the basis of hypocrisy can never lie in self-deception.

First of all, Shklar’s remarks seem to have been intended against a background view that all self-deception involves hypocrisy. Some writers do indeed seem to have endorsed this view,7 on the basis that people engage in self-deception so as to be able to pretend to themselves that they are morally better than they really are, which smacks of hypocrisy. We do not accept this view, however. For one thing, there are obvious counter-examples. If one deceives oneself about the chances of one’s winning the lottery, for example, that is hardly a compelling case of hypocrisy. So even leaving aside Shklar’s concerns about the moral implications of accepting such a conflation of self-deception with hypocrisy, there are compelling reasons to reject it. This does not affect our claim, however. Our claim that some cases of hypocrisy are also cases of self-deception in no way logically entails the claim that all cases of self-deception are cases of hypocrisy.

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Shklar has a somewhat different reason for rejecting the claim that all self-deception is hypocritical, however, and this reason deserves consideration. She argues that, while hypocrisy is prima facie bad, self-deception, like deception, is neither always bad nor always blameworthy. It is for this reason that calling all self-deception “hypocrisy” would lead to a regrettable expansion of moral criticism to cases which are not in fact blameworthy. Yet Shklar is again being too hasty to suggest from this that hypocrisy must involve “acts designed to deceive others” rather than self-deception. There may be another way to restrict the accusations of hypocrisy. Indeed, we believe that self-deception is sometimes culpable and sometimes not, and that it is only culpable forms of self-deception that can give rise to hypocrisy. By restricting the concept in this way, we can accommodate cases that appear to us compelling instances of hypocrisy grounded in self-deception, while still avoiding the problematic proliferation of accusations of hypocrisy Shklar is worried about, since not everyone who engages in self-deception would qualify as a hypocrite.

In the following sections, we examine a number of cases ranging from Victorian England back through David Hume to the biblical King David. In discussing these cases, we identify separate forms of self-deception that carry with them distinctive types of hypocrisy. Indeed, we argue that what distinguishes cases of hypocrisy from cases where there is no hypocrisy is distinguishes cases of hypocrisy from cases where there is no hypocrisy is often the feature of self-deception. This lends support to our claim that all hypocrisy does indeed involve deception—so long as we allow self-deception to count as a form of deception. Finally, we discuss the bearing self-deception has on the important question of moral culpability in cases of self-deceptive hypocrisy.

Before embarking on these discussions, however, we want to consider a distinction that may be useful to better appreciate how self-deception may aid and abet complacent, self-righteous or cynical attitudes. This is a distinction between pan- and local hypocrites.

PAN- VERSUS LOCAL HYPOCRITES

"So, Heep...have you any excuse for your appalling behaviour?"
“So, Heep…have you any excuse for your appalling behavior?”

Classic literary hypocrites such as Moliere’s Tartuffe or Dicken’s Uriah Heep have a whiff of Platonism about them in that their hypocrisy and deception, like that of Plato’s “perfectly unjust man,” extends to their entire character. Let us call these characters pan-hypocrites. On the other hand, the reach of local hypocritical pretence, unlike that of their exotic pan-cousins, does not extend to a person’s whole life or character, but is confined to some special area or segment of it, say, sex, religion, or political correctness. Such local hypocrites may in general be as moral or altruistic as others, yet when it comes to certain areas or aspects of their lives, they are perhaps more inclined to deny or disavow hypocrisy precisely because they are right to believe that they are generally decent people. Therefore, casting aspersions on their entire character—i.e., accusing them of pan-hypocrisy—deflects them from further self-examination and provides them with material for complacent or self-righteous assessment of themselves. They cannot recognize themselves in such a wholesale condemnation, and dismiss it, perhaps saying, “I am basically a decent person and this vitriolic moralistic critic has no idea what sort of person I am.” Hence, the charge of pan-hypocrisy, where what is at issue is local hypocrisy, may engender complacency about one’s moral standing. Alternatively, such wholesale accusations may in turn fuel cynicism about other people’s motives, as well as lead to further attempts to deceive others to protect oneself from unfair criticism, possible embarrassment or shame.

Before turning to a detailed examination of the role self-deception may play in fostering complacent and self-righteous attitudes, let us look at a case of local hypocrisy involving the deception of others. Consider, for example, the case of a generally moral, and erotically overcharged teacher in a small town. Suppose she believes that if part of her inner core—consisting of her intense, unconventional sexual desires and behaviour—is detected or exposed, then this would make important others think she is unworthy of respect. Motivated by her desire to keep their respect, she sets out to deliberately mislead people about her inner core—by pretending to conventional sexual attitudes and behaviour—when it appears to her that the people whose respect she wants to gain or retain would judge it as out of line. In thus deceitfully seeking their respect, such a self-conscious hypocrite may in general be moral, even altruistic, since she need not do others down by getting that respect—just getting that respect in such and such ways, and wanting to get it through deceit, is enough to make her a plausible candidate for hypocrisy.

Observe, however, that her hypocrisy does not invade her entire life or character, but is confined to the domain of her sexuality where she feels especially vulnerable in light of the conventional sexual mores of the small community she happens to inhabit. If the teacher is now charged with being a pan-hypocrite, she will be rightly indignant and it would be natural for her to deflect the particular criticism, whatever its merit, by indignantly justifying herself in terms of her good character in general and/or probing the character flaws of the accuser. Now if the self-aware local hypocrite is prone to such indignation, then the self-deceived local hypocrite is liable to be even more so, since s/he is not (fully) aware of his or her hypocrisy. The likely result is a further entrenchment of the disposition to complacency or self-righteousness.

Russian Orthodox monk with pistol (left). Japanese Buddhist monk with sword (right).
Russian Orthodox monk with pistol (left). Japanese Buddhist monk with sword (right).

The distinction between pan- and local hypocrites and its importance in moral criticism is implicit in Joseph Butler’s discussion of self-deceit and hypocrisy. The relevant passage is worth quoting in full, since it is psychologically perceptive in its observations, offering insights as to how self-deception may play a role in complacent and self-righteous attitudes, as well as giving good advice for the practice of moral criticism:

“In some there is to be observed a general ignorance of themselves, and wrong way of thinking and judging in everything relating to themselves; their fortune, reputation, everything in which self can come in: and this perhaps attended with the rightest judgment in all other matters. In others this partiality is not so general, has not taken hold of the whole man, but is confined to some particular favourite passion, interest or pursuit; suppose ambition, covetousness or any other. And these persons may probably judge and determine what is perfectly just and proper, even in things in which they themselves are concerned, if these things have no relation to their particular favourite passion or pursuit. Hence arises that amazing incongruity, and seeming inconsistency of character, from whence slight observers take it for granted, that the whole is hypocritical and false; not being able otherwise to reconcile the several parts: whereas in truth there is real honesty, so far as it goes. There is such a thing as men’s being honest to such a degree, and in such respects, but no further. And this, as it is true, so it is absolutely necessary to be taken notice of, and allowed them; such general and undistinguishing censure of their whole character, as designing and false, being one main thing which confirms them in their self-deceit. They know the whole censure is not true; and so take it for granted that no part of it is.”8

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Note then that the moral critic who mistakes local hypocrisy for pan- hypocrisy is not only a shallow observer of human nature, but is guilty of the logical fallacy of composition: s/he infers, perhaps carelessly or maliciously, from what is true of an aspect of an individual’s character to the entire character. On the other hand, if the local hypocrite thus accused complacency infers from the fact that basically s/he is a good person to the claim that there is nothing amiss with the particular aspect of his or her character or conduct in question, s/he is guilty of the fallacy of division.

Keeping these observations in mind, we are now perhaps better prepared to turn to our discussion of cases of complacent, self-righteous, and cynical hypocrisy, and how they may relate to self-deception.

COMPLACENT HYPOCRISIES: PAST AND PRESENT VICTORIANS

The morality and attitudes of Victorian England are often condemned as intrinsically hypocritical. While we have serious reservations9 about the attribution of a collective mindset to an epoch or passing wholesale moral judgment on it, there may nevertheless be several distinct reasons for thinking “the Victorians” to be hypocritical. At least one reason has to do with their failures to live up to their stated ideals of chastity, charity, hard work, and so on. In some cases, no doubt, the Victorians put forward these ideals without sincerely believing them, or while making exceptions of themselves, in a straightforwardly hypocritical manner. We will argue, however, that are least sometimes Victorian hypocrisy is based on pervasive self-deception of a sort we will refer to as “complacent hypocrisy.”10

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Judith Shklar, ever suspicious of accusations of hypocrisy, questions whether the Victorian middle classes really were hypocritical at all. She defends them thus: “They wished to be what they proclaimed everyone ought to be. To fail in one’s own aspirations is not hypocrisy. In fact the Victorians really believed in chastity, monogamy, thrift, charity and work. If many did not achieve these, many others did at considerable psychic cost. Self-repression and emotional silence, however, are self-inflicted wounds, not social crimes or hypocrisy.”11 Shklar goes on to observe that “only their refusal to admit that the endless slums of Mayhews London existed—that is, only their complacency—was hypocritical.”12 The suggestion is that the Victorians were hypocritical in that they chose to ignore, or pretended in public not to know of, the existence of suffering and evil right in front of their eyes—well, a bit further. This is supposed to be very different from their attitude to chastity, monogamy, thrift, work, since these ideals they believed in and worked towards even if they failed to achieve them. With regard to these ideals, the Victorians made no attempt to deceive others. Hence, even if there is self-repression, there is no hypocrisy, no social crime.

If, however, we look more closely at the instance of the Victorian attitude toward the Mayhew slums, which Shklar acknowledges as hypocritical, we may see more parallels than she recognizes between it and the cases where she denies hypocrisy exists. It was in the interests of the Victorians to ignore, been an obstacle to their belief in progress and social redemption through work and thrift. The slum-dwellers and their children worked long hours a day, yet their conditions and prospects were desperate. Acknowledging this fact would have unsettled their cheerful and easy optimism. This hypocritical complacency consisted in the pretence that things were socially better than in fact they were—in the teeth of the existence of the vast slums of Mayhew. They allowed them to think better of themselves than they deserved, for example by thinking that they were helping to maintain a just society, and that they must be entitled to whatever material advantages they had because material advantages accrued justly to whomever earned them through hard work. Thus their complacency involved an element of self-deception, which served the self-interested purpose of allowing them to maintain a positive outlook about themselves and their society.

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But now consider the Victorian attitudes concerning chastity and monogamy. It is possible to trace these attitudes to a belief concerning the relationship between the body and the mind or soul. Victorians appear to have thought that the body, with all its urges and emotions, simply got in the way of the purity and rationality of the mind/soul. Women were thought to be particularly tied up with their bodies in the form of emotions, and thus unable to reason as clearly as men. Men, on the other hand, were prone to sexual desires, but fortunately these could be mastered, to the point where the ideal was not to feel such unpleasant urges at all. In short, Victorians wanted to identify themselves only with the pristine purity of mind and soul, and become almost entirely separate from their bodies. Indeed, physical bodies were considered so shameful by some that even the “legs” of pianos had to be covered up in some “respectable” homes.

In order to convince themselves that they really were these pure rational or spiritual beings, Victorians had to ignore a large amount of evidence to the contrary. They had to refuse to acknowledge things such as their own sexual desires, and the fact that both men and women perspire (and do not merely glisten), and they had to turn a blind eye to transgressions such as their frequent secret peccadilloes.

Dudley street, seven dials: 1872

There is a parallel then between Victorian social complacency in pretending that the Mayhew slums did not even exist, and their spiritual state: the “Mayhew slums” may be seen as analogous to the sexual slums of the Victorian soul. In both cases, acknowledging the evidence would have required them to give up their cherished self-conceptions. It may be argued that if the attitudes toward the Mayhew slums count as hypocritical complacency, so does their apparently sincere pretence to chastity, monogamy, etc., in spite of flourishing of subterranean prostitution and brothels, which they conveniently managed to ignore or be oblivious to. In both cases, self-deception is involved in a culpable way, being used to allow one to maintain a more flattering view of oneself than one deserves. If the objects of self-deception, that is to say, what we deceive ourselves about, connect up with our self-conceptions, then it is not difficult to see that, to protect our self-conception, we would ignore, neglect or suppress evidence that suggests that all is not well with our smug, self-satisfied self-image. Hence a complacent hypocrite is likely to deceive him/herself that “God is in his heaven and all is well with the world and my moral character,” ignoring or not taking sufficiently seriously the demands that moral principles press on us. Such culpable self-deceptions usually have as a collaborative companion the suspension of one’s self-critical faculties.

hYPOCRITE

It is worth noting that, in the cases described here, deliberate deception of others may play no role in the hypocrisy, although of course they may be deceived indirectly if a person projects his/her false but genuinely believed self-image. The techniques/mechanisms of wilful ignorance, biased interpretation, selective focusing, or rationalization, together with a natural inclination to an easy conformism, may be the resources out of which social hypocrisy is generated. If this is so, then to speak of self-deception as isolated from one’s behaviour, as a mere state of mind, while seeing hypocrisy as connected to one’s actions, is misleading. As we have seen, Victorians’ actions and behaviours are revelatory of their self-deceptive hypocrisies and of their complacent self-image—the former serving as a device for protecting such a comforting moral self-image. Their culpable epistemic negligence, their not looking, or refusal to look and acknowledge matters/evidence that had the potential to disconfirm or invalidate their smug moral self-conception, was productive of an attitude of pervasive complacent hypocrisy. Such middle-class Victorian complacency is iconic of their age as well as ours—since our Mayhew slums are the urban and Third World poor, the native reserves next door.

HYPOCRISY QUOTE

What we have argued so far is that there can indeed be forms of hypocrisy that do not involve direct acts of deceiving others, and thus that the attempt to draw a sharp separating line between hypocrisy and self-deception does not work. We also suggested that the attitude of complacency is one fertile ground for self-deceptive hypocrisy. Thirdly, we struck the chord that resonates throughout our piece, and which we develop as we go along, that concepts such as self-deception are not homogenous but have diverse forms which need careful discussion and illustration. We suggested that in complacent hypocrisy, self-deception takes the form of epistemic negligence in seeking out, facing up to, or appreciating, evidence that would undercut or conflict with our comfortable moral self-image.

SELF-RIGHTEOUS HYPOCRISY: HUME’S GRIEVING FRIEND

If self-deception is heterogeneous, and if certain distinctive attitudes are fertile soil for self-deceptive hypocrisy, does self-deception take more active forms when motivated and sustained by more aggressive attitudes? An affirmative answer to these questions can be discerned in cases where a hypocrite supposes him/herself to be the one who is acting genuinely, and cannot but utterly reject the accusation and reproach of hypocrisy. In such cases, hypocrites not only suppose that all is well with their own moral state, but manufacture and believe their own propaganda when confronted with reasonable accusations of hypocrisy.

half truth and white lies

To unboggle the mind then, consider a Humean case. “A man that has lost a friend and a patron, may flatter himself, that all his grief arises from generous sentiments.”13 Suppose now that he proceeds to denounce Smith, to whom the dead man was also a benefactor, saying that Smith’s grief is hypocritical: “It is the loss of money, not the loss of a friend, that really makes you grieve.” We believe that such a morally self-righteous man is a good candidate for a hypocrite who thinks himself to be sincere, and we will call this sort of hypocrisy “self-righteous hypocrisy.”

However, before we can confidently say “Hypocrite,” such a man has to be marked off from someone who is merely thoughtless. To rule this out, let us add the following: His wife wondered aloud how it is that when an even better friend, but poor and thus no patron, had died years earlier, her husband grieved but his grief was not paraded so much as for his patron. He overhears this and the observation disturbs him. There is a dim recognition of its truth. Yet he refuses to entertain the idea. He dismisses thoughts about really makes him parade his grief so much. When doubts recur, he persuades himself that money does not really enter into it, that he is not that sort of person, and so on. And then he goes to the funeral where he denounces someone else, perhaps rightly, as a hypocrite. Such a self-righteous hypocrite feels morally inferior to others, and thus tries to compensate for this by making invidious comparisons between the quality of his own grief and that of others. Hence the hypocrite and the self-righteous anti-hypocrite may have much in common.

These additional features also rule out the idea that our man is merely ambivalent or conflicted about what really explains grief. At one stage, he is not sure whether it is the loss of a friend that entirely explains his feelings. At the next stage come deliberate, perhaps wilful, shift of attention away from a disturbing thought or interpretation unfavourable to oneself, then more or less clever efforts to explain away doubts, to persuade oneself to believe in the construal favourable to one’s moral self-image. All these attempts at moral cosmetics and spin-doctoring are natural enough, for no one who is morally concerned the least bit likes to think of him/herself as the sort of person whose grief at the death of a friend is merely regret at the loss of an income, that is to say, grief for oneself.

quote-self-deception-is-nature-hypocrisy-is-art-mason-cooley-56-61-42

So, to depict a comprehensive picture of the roles that self-deception can play in instances of hypocrisy, we must recover for attention the frequent complexity and dissonance of inner experience and its manifestations. Our man’s state of mind is a complex one. The fact that he thinks himself to be sincere, that he is grieved by the loss of his friend, is to be taken into account when describing his state of mind. On the other hand, the fact that he has intermittent doubts whether that alone accounts for the extreme show of his grief or whether patronage figures in it as well, must also be brought out in an accurate description of his state of mind. His attempts to persuade himself that patronage had nothing to do with his parading his grief, while in the case of the other fellow in the same situation, patronage had everything to do with the show of grief, are two features of self-righteous, self-deceptive hypocrisy: invidious comparisons of oneself with others, and accusations of others, accompanied by self-justification. These facts are reasons for saying he is insincere.  So, he is not entirely insincere, or if you will, his sincerity is insincere. He tries to appear better than he really is by scapegoating the other!

Orthodox Priest in BDSM gear.
Orthodox Priest in BDSM gear.

While an argument has been made for self-deception, it may not yet be clear how hypocrisy comes into it. Just as all cases of hypocrisy are not also cases of self-deception, so not all cases of self-deception are cases of hypocrisy. This point calls for bringing out features that help us mark off the mere self-deceiver from the self-deceptive hypocrite. To begin with, note our grieving man’s self-righteous denunciation of Smith, a man like himself in relevant ways. Recall his accusations of Smith as a hypocrite: “It is the loss of money and not the loss of a friend that makes you grieve so much.” Here we witness our man setting himself up as a paragon of purity of heart, when in fact he is also a blatant offender in this particular instance. The use of double standards, a frequent symptom of hypocrisy,14 suggests that he is culpable for his failure to reflect on his own motivation, and for pretending to himself, and indirectly to others in his audience, that he is a genuine griever for a friend, to be differentiated from those others who merely grieve for themselves. This is a variation on one large theme of hypocrisy: to advocate the acceptance of a moral standard or rule publicly and hold others to it, yet more or less unwittingly break it when it is to one’s  own advantage. When the use of double standards is pointed out to such a hypocrite, s/he engages in special pleading and self-justification, pretending to him/herself and to others that the standard does not apply to him/her since his/her case is different. One who is merely self-deceived about one’s motives for grief does not have this public dimension as a feature—such a person does not morally denigrate the other, to lift him/herself up.

DAVID’S THOUGHTLESS COMPLACENCY

Today, St. David's behavior would earn him the titles of "peeping Tom" & stalker.
Today, St. David’s behavior would earn him the titles of “peeping Tom” & stalker.

The self-deception involved in hypocrisy need not be active i the sense of self-justification and rationalization. Consider the biblical case of King David, who committed adultery with Bathsheba and sent off her husband to battle to be killed.15 Nathan brings this offence to light, and in effect charges David with having done wrong by his own principles. Is the offence here hypocrisy?

The parable told makes it evident that David’s conduct involves the use of a double standard, yet he is unaware of it due to a culpable failure at self-reflection and self-examination. Nathan says to him,

There were two men in one city; the one rich, and the other poor. The rich man had exceeding many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing, save one little ewe lamb, which he had bought and nourished up; and it grew up together with him, and with his children; it did eat of his own meat, and drank of his own cup, and lay in his bosom, and was unto him as a daughter. And there came a traveler unto the rich man, and he spared to take of his own flock and of his own herd, to dress for the wayfaring man that was to come to him; but took the poor man’s lamb, and dressed it for the man that was come unto him.16

The biblical account continues:

And David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, As the Lord liveth, the man that hath done this thing shall surely die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had not pity. And Nathan answered Thou art the man.17

kings-david-and-solomon-by-the-hand-of-nicholas-papas

This example shows how even generally good people can be self-deceptive hypocrites. King David committed an injustice without even taking notice of it, without condemning himself, yet he was morally outraged that someone else had done a similar thing. There is a clear-cut use of a double standard involved in the case. There is both a rigorous moral standard for judging and punishing the other, and a convenient forgetting to apply such a standard to one’s own case. Self-deception of this sort often works in the service of self-regard, of complacency. The assumption of the complacent is that all is well in one’s own moral house, in one’s own spiritual state. This sort of smug moral self-satisfaction deters and deflects the crucial tasks of self-examination and self-criticism, and proceeds to the examination and criticism of others. In the latter task such people display an assiduity to collect all the relevant evidence and bring moral principles to bear upon the case with insight and perspicuity—their grasp of moral standards is thereby evident. What we have here is a culpable failure of self-knowledge. The lack of the relevant self-awareness is motivated by an anxious desire to seem good or better than others. One is too lazy or reluctant to look, anxious that one’s own moral identifications are at risk.

CYNICAL HYPOCRISY AND SELF-DECEPTION

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Thus far we have argued that, in several types of cases where there is no deliberate deception of others, hypocrisy hinges crucially on culpable self-deception, and thus that the claim that hypocrisy always involves deception of some sort is more defensible than has often been thought. In this section, we put forward the additional suggestion that even in some clear case of hypocrisy involving deception of others, self-deception may also play a role.

One pervasive image of the hypocrite is that of what has been called the “cynical hypocrite.” Such people are supposed to plan the inconsistency between preached ideals of conduct or motivation and actual conduct or motivation, and to be fully self-conscious of their aim to gain an undeserved moral reputation. Literature is generously salted with such hypocrites, from Moliere’s Tartuffe, through Shakespeare’s Iago, to Dickens’ Uriah Heep. Such hypocrites present themselves to others as they are not, seeming to work toward benefiting others, while making it explicit to themselves that they are really aiming only to expand their own authority. The lucidity and self-awareness of such people is the very opposite of self-deception,18 since their very success depends on their not ignoring or distorting the evidence about themselves which they observe in other people’s reactions.

However, contrary to such literary depictions of the hypocrite as a larger than life, extremely knowledgeable villain, such “cynical” hypocrites are liable to end up self-deceived, even if they do not in the first instance deceive themselves. Since this is surprising and often missed in discussions of the topic, let us note how it is likely to happen.

Having a reasonable degree of self-knowledge requires that we take the reactions and observations of others about ourselves into account. Self-knowledge in this sense is not tantamount to introspection, but grows out of material also provided by people we interact with. Now if the self-aware hypocrite, fully conscious of what s/he is doing, is reasonably successful, then the evidence potentially provided by the reactions of others will be relevant and bear upon the persona or role s/he presents to them, rather than to his/her genuine commitments and evaluations. Hence the evidential resources for self-knowledge that might be provided by others are not available to such a hypocrite. By isolating themselves thus, these so-called cynical hypocrites are likely to slip unwittingly into self-deception—they are vulnerable in precisely the area where they have been thought strongest.

But why have such hypocrites been called “cynical”? Where is the “cynical” in this description of hypocrisy? It seems to be missing altogether, since there is no reference to central features of a cynical attitude, namely, the distrust or denial of the apparent goodness of human motives, especially those of others, and the display of this attitude by sneers, sarcasm, and the appraisal of others’ actions in the worst possible light. Such an attitude again is fertile ground for self-deceptive hypocrisy, since it leads to a one-sided, narrow view of human motivation that results in blind spots and a refusal to appreciate the rich complexity of human action and motivation. The cynical hypocrite may be reading his/her own suspicions about his/her own motives into those of others, covering up his/her own particular faults by spreading those faults to human beings at large. Such hypocrites are, of course, as likely to be mistaken about their own motivation by taking this pervasively negative view, as they are about others’. This form of hypocrisy is best distinguished from the lucid, self-aware hypocrite, since a cynical attitude is not something that we are necessarily aware of.

MORAL CULPABILITY AND SELF-DECEPTIVE HYPOCRISY

The idea of self-deceptive hypocrisy, while intrinsically interesting, raises important questions concerning the assignment of blame and responsibility. In general, we seem to be confronted with a moral quandary. If hypocrisy involves self-deception, then to some extent hypocrites do not really know what they are doing. It might be thought that, to the extent that they are ignorant of what they are doing, they are not really culpable, since we tend to assign culpability on the basis of the agent’s degree of knowledge of what s/he is doing. On the other hand, it might be thought that the self-deceived hypocrite, far from being a candidate for exculpation, is even more deeply inculpated. Since s/he is a hypocrite and self-deceived about it, s/he is committing multiple wrongs, and therefore twice condemned, once for each vice.

But these general considerations fly too high over the moral landscape. Perhaps the only general relevant moral consideration here is that if the self-deception is culpable, and it may not be, then the moral blameworthiness is greater. But assigning blame is a case-by-case affair, requiring looking at and seeing the particular details of each moral situation. If, for example, the complacent Victorian, aware of the plight of the hardworking poor, refuses to discuss or implement urban renewal, s/he is culpable when s/he hypocritically preaches social progress through sheer work and thrift. Such a person knows better, yet pretends to the contrary. Concerning the self-righteous we might say that they are culpable for the motivated deflection of evidence that counts against their rosy self-appraisal and their hurting of others through accusations. And the more evidence the cynical hypocrite has for the damage his/her perspective causes to his/her personal relationships, the more s/he is culpable for causing it.

CONCLUSION

Elder Ephraim Arizonaa

In this chapter, we have been exploring the complex relation between hypocrisy and self-deception. We identified three attitudes that constitute fertile soil for self-deceptive hypocrisy. After briefly discussing the conceptual problem inherent in the idea of self-deception hypocrisy, we argued that such hypocrisy is not only possible, but also a common fact of life that makes the moral life even more difficult. We claimed that the idea of self-deceptive hypocrisy is not the idea of some one thing, but is heterogeneous and takes diverse forms. Then we proceeded after making a distinction between pan- and local hypocrites, by way of description and example, to discuss the roles that self-deception plays in complacent, self-righteous and cynical hypocrisy. These roles range from culpable ignorance or thoughtlessness, through wilful ignorance and biased interpretation, to rationalization. We pointed out the risk of ending up self-deceived, even in the cases of self-aware, deceitful hypocrisy. Finally, we argued that self-deception can be culpable and it is only cases of culpable deception that contribute to and enhance the blameworthiness of self-deceptive hypocrisy.

NOTES

1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, translated by N.H. Smith, 1955, p. 164.
2. Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, translated by Hazel Barnes, 1956, p. 68.
3. Note that the intention to deceive may not result in any actual deception. People might “see through” the attempted deception, and it may be that nobody is actually fooled.
4. For some work on the problem of self-deception, see Herbet Fingarette’s Self-Deception; Bela Szabados, “Self-Deception,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy (1974); the essays in Mike Martin, ed., Self-Deception and Self-Understanding, 1985; Annette Barnes, Seeing through Self-Deception, 1997; and Alfred Mele, Self-Deception Unmasked, 2001.
5. Smilansky, “On Practicing What We Preach?” p. 78, footnote 2.
6. Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices, p. 47.
7. Joseph Butler, J.J. Rousseau and I. Kant seem to subscribe to such a view. See Butler’s Sermon, “Upon Self-Deceit,” from Fifteen Sermons Upon Human Nature; see Rousseau’s Letter to D’Alembert; also see I. Kant, The Doctrine of Virtue, pp. 94-95.
8. Butler, pp. 153-4.
9. For a refreshing recent view of “the Victorian” as post-modernists whose “hypocrisy” is really nothing but the ability to cope and live with often incompatible social and moral demands, see A.N. Wilson, The Victorians, 2002.
10. This terminology follows Crisp and Cowton. See “Hypocrisy and Moral Seriousness,” p. 345.
11. Shklar, pp. 54-55.
12. Ibid.
13. David Hume, “Of Self-Love,” Appendix 2 to An Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, in Philosophical Works, Vol. 4, ed. T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, 1882, pp. 269-70.
14. We discussed the relationship between double standards and hypocrisy in more detail in Chapter 11 of this book.
15. We discussed this case in Chapter 1 of this book.
16. Nathan’s parable to David. Samuel 2:11-12.
17. Ibid.
18. Herbert Fingarette seems to draw a rather sharp distinction between hypocrisy and self-deception. He exclusively disjoins the two claiming that the former has explicit spelling out or full consciousness as a feature, while there is no spelling out or full consciousness at all in the latter. See Fingarette, pp. 56-57 for a sketch of what he takes to be cynical hypocrisy.

Passias Crust

Hypocrisy and Deception (Béla Szabados and Eldon Soifer, 2004)

NOTE: This article is the first of three on the aspects and roles of deception. It is taken from the 14th chapter of Hypocrisy: Ethical Investigations.

Hypocrisy - Ethical Investigations cover

“We often do good to be able to accomplish evil with greater immunity.” La Rochefoucald1

“When we and the hypocrite have learned how hypocrisy is exposed, we might have to cope with the second order hypocrite, the double-bluffer who has learned how not to act like a hypocrite.” Gilbert Ryle2

INTRODUCTION

That hypocrisy necessarily involves deception has struck some writers as so obvious that it has been put forward without argument as a shared basic intuition.3 Indeed, hypocrites are commonly characterized as falsely professing to be virtuously inclined; as assuming a false appearance of virtue or goodness while dissimulating their real character or inclinations; as feigning virtue that they do not have, or pretending to be more virtuous than they really are. So there is good reason to think that deception is essential to hypocrisy.4

Nevertheless, it is possible to have doubts about this conventional picture. Perhaps it is shaped and nourished by an overly narrow diet of examples, which are ultimately unrepresentative of the broad range of hypocrisies. Perhaps deception is characteristic of only a small, albeit striking, range of cases. It is in this spirit that some philosophers have lately denied the necessity of any sort of deception or insincerity for hypocrisy, arguing for example that persons who openly admit to not practising what they preach are still correctly called hypocrites.5 In this chapter we examine such arguments and claim that, even though they point to neglected  or unnoticed parts of the conceptual landscape, they sabotage their very goal by oversimplifying the nature of deception and the various roles it can play in hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy and Gluttony confront a wandering monk.
Hypocrisy and Gluttony confront a wandering monk.

HYPOCRISY AS INCONSISTENCY

Those who deny that deception is essential to hypocrisy generally offer an account of hypocrisy that centres on inconsistency—on a failure to live up to one’s own principles. The etymological history of this usage, as we have seen, goes at least as far back as the accusation of Jesus against the Pharisees that they are hypocrites because “they do not practice what they preach.”6

Several philosophers have followed this usage and, since inconsistency does not imply deception, these philosophers need not take deception to be essential to hypocrisy…

Pharisees

Dan Turner offers an account of hypocrisy that focuses on “disparity pairs,” such as words versus deeds, pretended beliefs versus genuine beliefs, or beliefs versus desires.7 Turner claims that this model of properly restricted disparity pairs captures shared basic intuitions about hypocrisy, without legislating away conflicting ones, and “is enough to generate most, if not all, of the central structure of the notion.”8 Turner sees it as a virtue of his account that it does not presuppose or entail any sort of deception or insincerity, nor that hypocrisy is always a bad thing.9

Although there are noteworthy differences in the details of these accounts of hypocrisy, our primary focus is the negative claim they have in common: that hypocrisy need not involve deception or insincerity of any sort. We will argue that this claim is mistaken. For one thing, we will argue10 that philosophers who focus on an account of hypocrisy as inconsistency have difficulty explaining how hypocrisy differs from what appear to be distinct forms of inconsistency, such as weakness of will, change of mind, or mere forgetfulness. It is instructive in this context to note how readily such accounts blend hypocrisy with weakness of will. Consider, for instance, what Thomas Hurka asserts in the following passage: “In a common form of hypocrisy, you believe the moral principles you state and wish you could live up to them. But you can’t—you’re weak willed.”11 First, however, let us consider some of the examples defenders of the inconsistency accounts of hypocrisy put forward in support of their conception. We will argue that, when cases are treated with sufficient depth, it emerges that only the cases that involve deception at some level are clear candidates for hypocrisy.

OUT-OF-THE-CLOSET HYPOCRITES & OTHER CASES THAT APPEAR NOT TO INVOLVE DECEPTION—BUT DO

Dan Turner offers an argument in the form logicians call modus tollens for the conclusion that hypocrisy need not involve deception. First, he states that “if hypocrisy is a form of deception, then there can be no ‘out-of-the-closet’ hypocrites.”12 He goes on to say that there are, however, “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites. Therefore, hypocrisy is not a form of deception. Clearly, the force of this argument depends on the claim that there are “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites. The expression is used by Turner to describe people who openly and “freely acknowledge that they do not always practice what they preach.”13 Such alleged hypocrites are intended to provide a contrast to hypocrites who conceal their failure to practise what they preach, who are still in-the-closet.

The expression “out-of-the-closet hypocrite” is provocative, for it resonates with the figure of speech now used to describe homosexuals who are open about their sexual orientation and publicly identify them as gay. Since they no longer conceal their sexual identity, they no longer pretend to be what they are not—hence, they no longer hide in-the-closet.

The analogy only needs to be explicit to see that it is misleading. A gay person, whether s/he is in- or out-of-the-closet, is still gay. It is far from clear, however, whether a person who openly and freely declares that s/he does not practise what s/he preaches is still a hypocrite. This is a crucial dissimilarity, and Turner owes us a much more compelling case for the existence of “out-of-the-closet hypocrites” before helping himself to this analogy.

Modus Tollens

Turner provides two examples which he thinks are appropriately described as “out-of-the-closet” hypocrisies, as hypocrisies without any sort of deception or insincerity. One of these, which concerns a vegetarian who sometimes eats meat, we will consider in a later section.14 For now, consider Turner’s case of a cigarette smoker, who says, “I admit I am a hypocrite because I smoke, but I also want to urge you not to smoke; it is a terrible thing that no one should do.”15

The first interpretation of this case that comes to mind might be that the person involved is a nicotine addict. As such, the case can be generalized to include addictions to alcohol, drugs, gambling, or whatever. An addict who desperately needs a fix may say, in the middle of getting that fix, “Whatever you do, don’t get yourself into this mess by becoming addicted,” thereby apparently satisfying the requirement for “out-of-the-closet” hypocrisy.

rehablitation-addiction-recovery-

Yet we would argue such cases are not plausible as hypocrisy. There are relevant differences between addiction and hypocrisy. One is that calling someone a “hypocrite,” laden as that term is with moral overtones, suggests that the person could have behaved differently, and could have practised what s/he preaches. An addict, on the other hand, can preach but cannot practise. As Crisp and Cowton observe, “it may be that the smoker is addicted to nicotine to the point that she really cannot do anything about it. In this case, she would be misusing the term ‘hypocrisy’ … If the smoker is unable to give up, then she cannot be required to give up, then she cannot be required to give up, since ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ to use Austin’s phrase.”16

If this is correct, then the defender of the inconsistency view needs a case where a person says, “I’m a hypocrite because I do what I’m telling you not to do,” but the reason for doing it is not that one is unable to do otherwise. But then what is the reason the person does what s/he advises others not to do?

One other sort of case worth considering here involves people who are not strictly addicted, and could do otherwise, but are in the habit of acting in a particular way. A useful example along these lines is that of “a teacher who tells his pupils not to put their hands in their pockets because it looks slovenly and ruins one’s clothes and yet always has his own hands in his pockets.”17

Presumably we would not say such a teacher is “addicted” to putting his hands in his pockets. But it is not obvious whether the teacher “could have done otherwise.” Bad habits are hard to break, although presumably not impossible. Perhaps this case is not different in essence from the case of the addict after all. If that is right, then the critics have again failed to provide a case in which a person could have lived up to his/her stated principles but does not. Of course, establishing the conditions under which people could have acted differently than they did would require us to address the issue of free will in a way that lies beyond the scope of this project, but if we are right that hypocrisy must involve the ability to have done otherwise, then we do not yet have here a compelling case of hypocrisy without deception.

Even if we ignore the “could have done otherwise” argument, there are other reasons for thinking that people who do not practise what they preach are not necessarily hypocrites. For one thing, hypocrites are typically after social approval, cultivating the appearance of being principled persons by their preaching. The admitted miserable condition of the addict or habit-bound person is, by contrast, an object lesson as to why people should not smoke (or perhaps more convincingly, should not do crack-cocaine).

ClassicalDrugUse1109WEB

Finally, the inconsistency between the addict’s statements and behaviour may be more apparent than real. If the statement “Don’t smoke” is taken to be an elliptical way of saying “Don’t start smoking” then the addict’s ongoing behaviour is not after all contrary to the universal prescription. The addict may believe that it is acceptable for those who are already addicted to cigarettes to continue to smoke, but not acceptable for those who are not to start. But if this is the general proposition, then the addict’s behaviour in continuing to smoke does not after all contradict his/her stated principles, (the addict is not, after all, starting to smoke), and thus there need be no inconsistency.18 Although such people might commonly be referred to as hypocrites, we argue that this description may be inaccurate even if we count mere inconsistency as sufficient for hypocrisy, let alone if, as we maintain, use of the term should be reserved for cases in which there is deception of some sort involved.

Of course, to say that hypocrisy and addiction are distinct is not to say that it is impossible to be both a hypocrite and an addict. We are not referring here to con artists who pretend to be addicts to embezzle funds, say, from the Addict’s Aid Society. Indeed, such a person is not really an addict at all, and may not be a hypocrite either.

The Smoking Monk (Mount Athos)

Rather, the hypocritical addict is a person who uses his/her public confessions of failure and apparent concern for others, to establish his/her reputation as a crusader against smoking or to deflect blame or criticism from his/her own conduct. The simple addict engages in self-disclosure when s/he openly admits to not practising what s/he preaches. The hypocritical addict uses such openness to conceal motives s/he thinks others would find unworthy of respect or unacceptable. Such people come out-of-the-closet only to hide in another, perhaps more difficult to detect, closet. This is indeed a compelling case of hypocrisy, but notice that it also involves some sort of deception or insincerity. While in standard cases of hypocrisy, the deception often consists of concealing the gap between the preaching and practice, the “out-of-the-closet” sort of hypocrite, we suggest, has learned how such standard hypocrisy is detected or exposed, and how not to act like a standard hypocrite. S/he openly acknowledges the gap, yet continues to deceive or be insincere about his or her motives or inner core. Hence, these addict/hypocrites, when properly described, direct attention to a neglected range of hypocrisy and help us to better understand the concept, but do not provide an example of hypocrites who are not deceivers.

Tartuffe

A classic example along these lines arises in Moliere’s play Tartuffe (the alternate name of which is The Hypocrite). The title character is a man who pretends to extreme religious piety so as to work his way into the home of a man named Orgon, where he is not only fed and sheltered, but generally fawned upon and treated as an honoured guest. Tartuffe takes advantage of his host’s hospitality, and even goes so far as to make advances on Orgon’s wife, Elmire. Orgon’s son, Damis, reports this scandalous behaviour to his father, in Tartuffe’s presence. The key passage for our present purpose is Tartuffe’s reaction, speaking to Orgon, when thus accused:

Yes, brother, I am wicked, I am guilty, A miserable sinner, steeped in evil, The greatest criminal that ever lived Each moment of my life is stained with soilures; And all is but a mass of crime and filth; Heaven, for my punishment, I see it plainly, Would mortify me now. Whatever wrong They find to charge me with, I’ll not deny it But guard against the pride of self-defence. Believe their stories, arm your wrath against me And drive me like a villain from your house; I cannot have so great a share of shame But what I have deserved a greater still. Ah! Let him speak; you chide him wrongfully; You’d do far better to believe his tales. Why favour me so much in such a matter? How can you know of what I’m capable? And should you trust my outward semblance, brother, Or judge therefrom that I’m the better man? No, no; you let appearances deceive you; I’m anything but what I’m thought to be, Alas! And though all men believe me godly, The simple truth is, I’m a worthless creature.19

Is Tartuffe being hypocritical in this passage? If deception is crucial for hypocrisy, then it might seem the answer has to be no, since what he says is true. He tells Orgon that he is a scoundrel—which we know to be true—and further warns Orgon not to be taken in by appearances, because he is anything but the godly man he is thought to be. Now if all this is intended as a genuine confession, then it seems there cannot be any hypocrisy involved on Tartuffe’s part. However, there is reason to think this is not after all a genuine confession. First of all, the very fact that Tartuffe does seem to be a thoroughgoing scoundrel makes us suspicious of any sudden transformation, and his later behaviour in the play (e.g., by again trying to seduce Orgon’s wife) confirms these suspicions. Even more telling, however, is Orgon’s reaction to Tartuffe’s speech. Orgon takes this confession as yet one more indication of Tartuffe’s piety. He not only gets angry at Damis for accusing such a saintly man of wrongdoing, but tries to earn Tartuffe’s forgiveness for the slur of his character by offering him the deed to his home, and his daughter’s hand in marriage. Since Tartuffe’s entire success is based on playing upon the sensibilities of his gullible host, it seems most likely that Tartuffe intended his speech to bring about exactly the sort of reaction it did. In that case, he says things that are true, in the confidence that they will not be believed, and will be viewed instead as a poignant demonstration of the virtue of humility.20

tarttuffe-28-1024

If this reading is correct, does the resulting situation amount to hypocrisy? It certainly has the element of trying to obtain a better reputation than one deserves, and thus we are surely tempted to consider this speech hypocritical. But again, what Tartuffe says in this passage is true. Accordingly, this might seem like exactly the sort of test case we were looking for. This appears to be a case of hypocrisy without deception, unless one merely stipulates it away, claiming it is not hypocrisy solely because it does not have this feature taken to be essential.

On more careful consideration, however, it can be seen there is deception here after all. It is true that the words are literally true.21 Nevertheless, part of what is communicated through the speech is not true at all. Tartuffe is deliberately conveying the idea of someone who scrutinizes himself carefully for fault, and chastises himself soundly when he finds it, with genuine remorse. Yet he is none of this. He is indeed full of what the world considers fault, but even when he becomes aware of this, he has no interest in changing. He apparently believes that being a scoundrel is exactly the right way to be, especially if one can take advantage of others’ gullibility, to one’s own selfish advantage. Thus the appearance of remorse and humility that Tartuffe conveys in this speech is indeed deceptive, even though the words are literally true. And it is exactly this deception that provides an advantage for Tartuffe, gaining for him benefits that he could not obtain if people knew the truth. This does indeed seem to be a case of hypocrisy, then, but it is a case that turns out to support rather than undermine the account of hypocrisy as deception aimed at getting a better reputation than one deserves.22

Fr. George Passias
Fr. George Passias

So far, those who want to maintain that there can be hypocrisy without deception have failed to provide a compelling case. Some of the proposed cases, such as those involving addicts (or people with bad habits) who advise others to avoid the same predicament do not amount to hypocrisy. Other cases, such as that of Tartuffe, turn out to involve deception, though at a more subtle level than is immediately obvious. There are still other cases to consider, however.

Another group of people who do not practise what they preach consists of those who believe that rules that apply to most people do not apply to them. Although this seems to meet exactly the definition of hypocrisy as inconsistency, we will argue that such cases often cannot plausibly be considered hypocrisy at all. Consider, for example, a person who has special skills or abilities that make it unlikely that s/he will be hurt by actions that would be very risky for others. This is the point behind examples where people on TV say things such as “Don’t try this at home, kids,” or “Remember, I’m a trained professional.” But surely there is no reason to think such people are hypocrites. If the general rule is that “only individuals with characteristic x can or should do action a,” then a person who has characteristic x is not being hypocritical in saying to those who do not, “I am going to do this, but you should not.” Similarly, society may authorize some individuals to do some things that are prohibited to the general public. For example, emergency workers are entitled to drive through red lights when the rest of us cannot. If such emergency workers say as they drive by “I’m doing this, but you shouldn’t,” they are displaying the kind of inconsistency Turner and others identify, but surely nobody would think they were being hypocritical. Even if people are mistaken about their beliefs—even if they do not really have the skills that will shield them from injury, for example, or are simply deluded as to whether they are emergency workers, their failing to practise what they preach would not amount to hypocrisy. People who genuinely believe they are exempted from a rule in light of some specific characteristic are not being hypocritical if they act contrary to the rule while still recommending it to others.

What would make such an individual a plausible candidate for hypocrisy would be if that person’s reason for being exempted boiled down to nothing more than “I don’t have to do that, and you do, because I’m me and you’re not.”23 Besides failing any plausible version of a universalizability test of morality, a person taking such a stance is likely to be doing exactly what we are arguing is crucial for hypocrisy—engaging in deception. People who simply assert that they are special, and that ordinary moral rules do not apply to them, are not likely to have much credibility. Accordingly, people who think this way are not likely to make their views explicit. They will publicly endorse the rule, urging others to follow it as if they think it applies to everyone, and keep secret their belief that it does not apply to them. Such people are indeed strong candidates for hypocrisy, and their failure to practise what they preach is crucial for identifying them as such, but notice that they are also deceivers. They deceptively suggest that they think the rule applies to everyone including them, when they really think it applies to everyone except them.

Geronda Ephraim

We have argued that cases of “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites”24 are candidates for hypocrisy only if there is some sort of deception or insincerity also involved. Deception in hypocrisy often takes the form of concealing from others a breach between one’s preaching and practice. However deception may take other forms too. The modified versions of “out-of-the-closet” hypocrites we elaborated show that a person may acknowledge or confess a failure to practise what s/he preaches, and deceptively use this apparent “openness” to evade moral censure or blame. The deception here is about inner motive or intention and this suggests that people may be hypocrites, even though they practise what they preach—if they pretend to be motivated by certain considerations while in fact being motivated only by a desire to appear to be motivated by those considerations. Here again, however, it seems that situations can only properly be described as involving hypocrisy when there is deception present.

RIGGING ONE’S PRINCIPLES: “COUNTERFACTUAL HYPOCRISY”

There is another adaptive variation of hypocrisy that needs to be considered when searching for “hypocrisy of inconsistency” without deception. This variation involves people who make the actions of others a condition for practising, saying, “I’ll follow this principle only if others join in.” An example, provided by Saul Smilansky, is that of a person who says: “I am an egalitarian. If egalitarianism triumphs I would be willing to give up two-thirds of my salary in taxation. But until then, as long as the present social order persists, it is perfectly legitimate for me to pay only a quarter of my salary in taxes … I am all for changing the rules, but why should I now be the only one to pay?”25 Smilansky claims that, although such an individual readily admits she does not practise what she preaches, she “is no less a hypocrite than her more immediately recognizable partner”26 who conceals her actions so that the failure to practise what she preaches is not noticed. If Smilansky is right, perhaps we have here an example of a person who is hypocritical in light of inconsistency alone, without appeal to deception.

There are two reasons Smilansky cites to support his claim that this amounts to hypocrisy. The first is that “(with certain limited exceptions) one is obliged to practise what one preaches irrespective of the degree of acceptance of this preaching by others.27 This reason has a kind of Kantian resonance in that it suggests that principles are categorical imperatives, and anyone who qualifies them with “ifs and buts,” or compromises them by conditions, is already well on the way to the hypocrisy allegedly inherent in consequentialism. This reason, let us note, is only as sound as the Kantian theory it presupposes, and there are reasons for serious misgivings about the latter. Indeed, the difficulty of maintaining this approach is indicated by Smilansky’s need to qualify the assertion by allowing “certain limited exceptions.” He would, for example, allow deviating from the path one advocates when “doing one’s bit in the direction of one’s preaching, without the support or parallel action of others, would be more or less suicidal,”26 such as might be true of an advocate of gun control in “the Wild West or Beirut.”28 Similarly, he allows deviation from one’s preaching when “the achievement of the social aim depends on mass conformity, since one individual’s contribution, when it is quite certain that others will not join in, is insignificant or nonexistent.”29 After such qualifications, which we agree are necessary, the Kantian claim no longer seems as striking or powerful.

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The second, and more powerful, reason Smilansky gives for believing that the person who says “I’ll do so if others join in” is a hypocrite will not in fact help the persons looking for an example of hypocrisy without deception. Smilansky claims that, contrary to appearances, there is deceit going on in such cases: “The deceit follows from the fact that there is a pretence of principle being declared, together with the knowledge that it is highly unlikely that the principle will be put to the test. Making the actions of others a condition for one’s actions pretty much guarantees that.”30 In other words, the person is in a sense stating a conditional of the form, “If others do x, then I’ll do x, too.” If one knows the antecedent is false, however, then it seems the only reason to make such a statement is that one hopes to gain a reputation for being willing to do x, without the cost of actually having to do it. We agree that in such cases there is a plausible, even compelling, case of hypocrisy, of a sort that might be called “counterfactual hypocrisy.” Note that, if the antecedent condition were miraculously to be met, such people might or might not carry through on their commitment to x. Although the one who does not do x when others have x’d is the clearer hypocrite, having made a blatantly false counterfactual statement, arguably even one who does do x when the circumstances call for it—perhaps to avoid further damage to one’s reputation—may be considered a hypocrite. This might be true, for example, if the person would never have made the statement in the first place, if s/he had realized there was a chance of actually having to carry through on it.

So we agree with Smilansky that people who make insincere counterfactual claims about what they would do if others behaved as we know they won’t are engaged in a form of deception and thereby qualify as hypocrites. But Smilansky seems to have described the case too broadly. Although he has identified an important and neglected area in which hypocrisy might arise, we believe that not all cases fitting his basic mould are in fact hypocritical in this way.

Consider again the case of the egalitarian who does not conceal his or her present practice, acknowledging that s/he pays only as much tax as presently required by law.  Suppose that s/he formulates the egalitarian principle clearly, and preaches in a manner that explicitly spells out the conditions for practice, as well as giving, so Smilansky himself says, “a principled set of reasons for not practicing what s/he preaches.”31 Consider then the above egalitarian, plus the following relevant new information. S/he knows that it is very unlikely that the preaching will be put to the test of practice in his or her lifetime, and says so. However, s/he works hard toward the realization of those conditions, investing considerable time, effort and money in the process. The “principled reasons” for not practising what s/he preaches are fairly applied and s/he does not demonize others who disagree. This person’s arguments suggest a genuine interest in a better society; s/he is not privileging his or her own role, but sees him or herself as one in a group of like-minded people. This person satisfies all of Smilansky’s requirements for hypocrisy, yet s/he seems like a genuine and realistic social reformer. We believe that it is the total lack of pretension in this case that makes us reluctant to label the egalitarian in question a hypocrite.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus' body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem May 25, 2014.
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew kneel to kiss the Stone of Unction, traditionally claimed as the stone where Jesus’ body was prepared for burial, in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem May 25, 2014.

Smilansky’s basic sketch of the egalitarian-as-hypocrite is that of someone who not only conditionalizes his or her practice on the cooperation of others, but rigs those conditions in such a way that they in fact sabotage the goals of the principle itself. Furthermore, suppose that s/he flaunts the ideals, yet makes invidious judgments about those who live conventional lives—like him/herself—but do not avow egalitarianism. It is natural to see such a person a hypocrite, since in this case there is no pretension to principle and deceit going on.

To sum up our point then: To preach, not practise, openly admitting the breach, and conditionalizing one’s practice on the cooperation of others, does not necessarily involve deception, and does not as such amount to hypocrisy. Whether such a scenario adds up to hypocrisy depends on what these conditions are and how they are specified. If the latter are deceptive, we have good reason to suspect hypocrisy. In any event, there are diverse cases, requiring different treatment. For example, the successful practice of chastity does not generally require the cooperation of others, while bringing about an egalitarian society does. Accordingly, it is almost certainly hypocritical to say “I would be chaste if other people were, but they’re not, so I won’t be either,” but the comparable case of the egalitarian we have described need not be hypocritical at all. In any event, we have argued the cases of the “I will only if others do” sort are hypocritical only when the principles are “rigged,” and there is thus deception involved.

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We have argued that the defenders of the “hypocrisy as inconsistency” theory have not yet provided a compelling case of hypocrisy, in which one could have acted on one’s stated principles and did not, that does not involve deception of some sort. We have yet to provide a positive argument to the effect that deception is required to distinguish hypocrisy from other forms of inconsistency, such as weakness of will, forgetfulness, or changes of mind. Before proceeding to this positive argument, however, we need to consider one more range of cases of potential counter-examples to our claim that hypocrisy does require deception. We will argue that these cases also involve deception, but that the deception involved is of a particular sort. In the next chapter, we consider the relationship between hypocrisy and self-deception.

NOTES

1. La Rochefoucauld, Maxims, 1931.
2. Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, 1949, p. 174.
3. See e.g., Eva Feder Kittay, “Hypocrisy,” 277-89.
4. On this view, all that remains to be done is to explain how hypocrisy is to be distinguished from other forms of deception.
5. People who argue in this fashion include: Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices; Dan Turner, “Hypocrisy”; Roger Crisp and Christopher Cowton, “Hypocrisy and Moral Seriousness,” 343-49.
6. Matthew 23:3.
7. Turner, p. 265.
8. Ibid., 266.
9. Ibid., 266 and 286.
10. In Chapter 14 of this book.
11. Hurka 266.
12. Turner 265.
13. Ibid. 264.
14. See Chapter 14, Sections D and E of this book.
15. Turner 265.
16. Crisp and Cowton, 345.
17. Ibid.
18. We owe this insight to Leanne Kent, a former student.
19. Jean Baptiste Poquelin Moliere, Tartuffe; Or, The Hypocrite, Act III, Scene 6 (Harvard Classics, Vol. 26, Part 4, on-line edition).
20. This technique was first laid out by the Apostle Paul who reproaches himself as “the first among sinners.” Orthodox Christian texts have continued this tradition for the last 2000 years. Geronda Ephraim is a continuer of this tradition: he reproaches and accuses himself in every letter and homily he writes. His devoted disciples, who are under blind obedience to him, believe that these accusations he makes against himself are a testimony to his humility and saintliness.
21. It is interesting to compare this case with cases of irony. In standard cases of irony, the speaker says something that is false, expecting the listener to take it in the opposite way, understanding that what is meant is not what is literally said, but the reverse. In the present case, the speaker again expects the listener to take what is said in the opposite way, but in this case the words are literally true, and the expectation is that the reader will invert it and come to a false belief on that basis.
22. Monasteries have received countless large donations by utilizing such techniques of feigning humility and self-reproach. This technique leaves such a deep impression on gullible lay people that it reinforces their belief that the abbots or abbesses are holy (especially if they’ve already been prepped by other pilgrims with miracle stories about these individuals). A common phrase heard is, “S/he’s so holy and yet so humble, what a saint!”
23. In not so many words, this is a very common statement in Geronda Ephraim’s monasteries. “Because I’m the Geronda (or Gerondissa),” is often heard by monastic disciples who confess logismoi or are scandalized by the un-monastic behaviors they witness in the abbots/abbesses. It is common for new novices who have not yet been completely broken by the elder to get scandalized easily by various behaviours that occur in the monastery; especially of the superiors and older monastics. This is natural because the young novices are continually reading monastic texts which censure different behaviours as unmonastic and many times these behaviours are quite commonplace in the monasteries from the head down. After a strict indoctrination process of being continually humbled (either verbally or other methods), long work hours, sleep and food deprivation, etc., the novice is either completely subjugated to the superior, or after a series of mini breaks, realizes the monastic life is not for them.
24. We discuss Turner’s other case, that of the meat-eating vegetarian in Chapter 14 of this book.
25. Smilansky, “On Practicing What We Preach,” American Philosophical Quarterly, (1994) 75.
26. Ibid., 77.
27. Ibid.
28. Ibid., 75.
29. Ibid.
30. Ibid., 74-75.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suppressive_Person
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suppressive_Person

Causes, Wagers, and Morals (A.C. Grayling, 2013)

NOTE: The following article is taken from The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, pp. 95-106.

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The cosmological argument, in its various forms, infers the existence of deity from observations about the contingency of the world. It is similar to the teleological argument in being empirically based, but it differs in that, instead of focusing on the appearance of design in the world, it concentrates on the facts that the world came into existence, that it could have been different (this is what is meant by the world being ‘contingent’), and that everything is governed by causation – everything is the effect or outcome of preceding conditions and circumstances that caused it.

The standard form of the cosmological argument says that because the world came into existence, it must have been created, and it must have been created for the following reasons: it is contingent, so it must be grounded on something that is non-contingent, which is to say, necessary. Everything is the effect of a preceding cause, which means that the causal chain runs backwards in time to earlier and earlier causes. Now, either there is a first uncaused or self-caused cause, or there is a regress of causes going back infinitely. But this latter supposition makes no sense, so there must be a first cause which is itself uncaused or self-caused.

And then the usual big jump is made from ‘a first cause’ or ‘a necessary ground for contingent being’ to a god – indeed, to the god of traditional religion.

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One immediate comment that the cosmological argument invites is to say that it is an expression of a psychological need to have explanations about why there is a world, how it began, and where it is going. It is a feature of human beings that they are eager for accounts that give explanatory closure. The scientific mindset, which welcomes the open-endedness of uncertainty because it is an invitation to enquiry and discovery, is the opposite of this. Notably, a religious explanation of how the world began, why it exists, and where we are all going to end, can be given in twenty minutes or less. It takes years to master the rudiments of physics.

Arguments of a cosmological type are found in Plato and Aristotle, but a clear modern statement of the argument’s basic idea is given by Leibniz in his assertion that ‘nothing can exist without a sufficient reason why it is so and not otherwise’.12 In the physical world revealed by empirical observation, this principle – known as the ‘principle of sufficient reason’ – takes the form of a causal claim stating that every contingently existing thing has a cause of its existence. And then the rest of the argument falls into place: the chain of causes cannot run back infinitely, so there has to be a first cause, and since this first cause is itself not contingent upon or caused by anything else, it must be non-contingent, that is, necessary.

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There are a number of obvious responses, each equally definitive. One is to question the necessity of a non-contingent first cause. Why cannot the universe be its own reason for existing? Science has a very good account of how the universe we occupy – whether or not it is one of many, perhaps infinitely many – has evolved from a beginning whose nature can be carefully reconstructed, to within a minuscule fraction of time after the initial singularity (the ‘Big Bang’), by tracing back the evolution of physical phenomena as they now are.

The logic that underlies this did not have to wait for contemporary physics to be clear. Hume argued in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion (1779) that if you explain each individual contingent thing in the universe, you thereby explain the universe, and that it is a fallacy of logic to suppose that once you have done this you still have to explain the existence of the universe as a whole. This is cognate to what in logic is called the ‘fallacy of composition’, which we commit if we say that because each member of a school of whales is a whale, the school of whales is a whale – in other words, that a collection has the properties of its individual members. By reasoning in an analogous way, we see that to explain each thing in the universe does not leave the universe as a whole to be explained; the sum of individual explanations does the work already.

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Hume also called into question the principle of causation that underlies the argument. Why accept a priori that everything has a cause, given that we can conceive of effects independently of causes? Defenders of the cosmological argument say that without strict adherence to the causal principle we cannot make the universe intelligible. But this might be because of the psychological need noted above, to reduce everything to a neat explanatory framework – the universe might in fact work in ways that do not comply with our intellectual preferences.

Kant approached the cosmological argument differently in his Critique of Pure Reason. He argued that it is not really an empirical argument, but a concealed version of the ontological argument, for it invokes the concept of a necessary being to serve as a ground for the contingent universe. But the concept of a necessary being is shown by discussion of the ontological argument to be empty.

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Some of Kant’s critics use a technical philosophical distinction to answer him. They claim that he has mistaken the idea of a logically necessary being with the cosmological argument’s requirement for a metaphysically necessary being. The distinction works in rather the way that equivocation over the term ‘necessary’ worked in relation to Dr Pangloss’s nose, as explained above. A logically necessary being is one that must exist. A metaphysically necessary being is one that must exist in order for the universe to have a stopping-point for the regress of causes, that is, as a ground on which contingent existence can rest. Thus, metaphysical necessity is relative, logical necessity is absolute.

But Kant can reply that this attempt to restrict attention to the ‘necessary condition’ sense of ‘necessity’ is spurious, because what is being proposed is a being that has to exist, whether our ground for asserting this is the definition of the being (as the ontological argument has it) or the contingency and causal dependency of the world upon such a being (as the cosmological argument asserts). Any counter to the claim that the idea of a necessary being makes sense is therefore a counter to both arguments.

Some defenders of the cosmological argument position it as a version of the ‘inference to the best explanation’. This move has it that because of our ignorance about the why and how of the world, nominating a deity as both its source and the reason for its existence is ‘the best available explanation’.

This is a very feeble argument; it clutches arbitrarily at something to fill the explanatory gaps in our knowledge, and has no better claim than if we just as arbitrarily invoked the existence of fairies for the same purpose. Moreover, to summon so undefined and implausible a thing as a deity to perform this role is to explain the universe in terms of something more mysterious and arbitrary than the universe itself. That takes us nowhere.

Thomas-Aquinas-Picture-Quote-e1394104417378The arguments so far discussed all aim to establish the proposition ‘that God exists’. They are arguments that date from the long era before natural science began to give us a far better grip on the nature of natural phenomena and their operations and sources. They are arguments spun out of semantics and armchair philosophising based on very little real knowledge of the world. They wear their inadequacies on their sleeves, and such interest as they have belongs to the history of ideas – a great archive of surpassed speculations.

A quite different tactic is to argue that it is prudent to believe that there is a deity, whether or not one can otherwise provide reasons for thinking so. In fact, this move is specifically aimed at supporting belief in a deity of the traditionally conceived type, that is, one that is interested in human beings on this planet to the point of promising rewards for obedience and worship, or punishments otherwise.

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The most celebrated such argument is Pascal’s wager.13 Pascal said that because the existence of a deity can be neither proved nor disproved (here he was mistaken; see above) by rational argument, one has to take the different course of considering the advantages and disadvantages of believing that there is a deity. If there is a deity, the advantage of believing in its existence is huge; it is a benefit that pays off for all eternity. If there is no deity, then one has not lost much by believing in its existence anyway. Therefore, it is prudent to believe.

In contemporary theory this argument is stated in terms of ‘expected utility’. Pascal’s point is that no matter how small the probability that a deity exists, as long as it is non-zero the utility of believing it far outweighs the disutility of believing it; therefore it is not just prudent but rational to believe.

Some theistic critics put the interesting argument that this very pragmatic reason for believing is too cold and calculating to be the kind of belief that an interested god would want from its creatures, and this might count against the utility of believing in this way; if such a god exists but is offended by the calculating nature of the belief, the sought-for benefits will not be forthcoming. So Pascal’s prudential argument is self-defeating.

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Voltaire’s response to Pascal’s wager was characteristically acute: ‘the interest I have in believing in something is not a proof that the something exists’.14 This is of course right. But the two chief criticisms of Pascal’s argument are that its starting-point does not do what is required of it, and that it is not the case that the existence of a deity cannot be disproved.

First, Pascal says that as long as the probability of a god’s existence is non-zero, then the utility of believing in it outweighs the utility of disbelieving in it. Note that this is only so if, in addition, you believe that there is life after death, heaven, reward and punishment, indeed a whole raft of additional things that Pascal simply assumes accompany belief in the existence of a god. If the probability that there is a god is vanishingly small, what is the probability of the truth of all this additional matter?

Pascal Quote

Grant for a moment that Pascal’s prudential calculation applies to these things too. Now consider that by parity of reasoning the same amount of sense can be made of the claim that there is a non-zero probability that fairies exist, however vanishingly small that probability is; or that the gods of Olympus exist, or even that there is green cheese beneath the surface of the moon. Admittedly the utility of believing some of these things will be very low or even negative, but there could be utility in believing some of the others: belief in fairies, for example, might yield a great deal of charm and pleasure, and it might even add explanatory value. (It used to be believed that fairies were responsible for curdling milk, and for stealing small household objects such as pins and shoelaces.) In no such case could the usefulness of believing these things by itself make it rational to believe them.

This point applies to other forms of a prudential or, slightly differently, pragmatic argument. It is sometimes claimed that theistic belief should be encouraged because it makes people behave better, or because it comforts them in time of trouble, and that it can discipline whole populations by making them believe that they are being watched always and everywhere, and that they will inevitably, no escape possible, be rewarded or punished for what they do. The utility or the prudential value of this is offered as making (the inculcation of ) belief rational. This is where it is relevant to revisit the points about proof made earlier, and fully worth repeating.

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It was noted that in formal systems of logic and mathematics, proof is demonstrative and conclusive. In deductive logic all inferences are actually instances of petitio principii because the conclusion is always contained in the premises, and deductions are merely (even though often not obviously) rearrangements of the information in the premises (consider: ‘all men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal’). As noted earlier, there can indeed be psychological novelty in the outcome of a deduction, but never logical novelty; this latter only happens in inductive inference, where the informational content of conclusions goes beyond the informational content of their premises. For this reason inductive inferences are known as ‘ampliative’

But inductions are not proofs in the sense of formal proof. Their success or otherwise turns on how probable the premises make the conclusions, or – differently and better viewed – how rational the premises make acceptance of the conclusions. And this relates them to the non-demonstrative sense of ‘proof’ which is at issue here.

In non-demonstrative contexts ‘proof’ is to be understood in its proper meaning of ‘test’. Steel and other materials are tested or ‘proved’ – loaded until they crack or break, heated until they warp or melt, frozen until they shatter, or whatever is appropriate – and this is the sense in which we talk of the ‘proof of the pudding’ or ‘the exception that proves (tests) the rule’. Claims to the existence of anything are subject to proof or test in this sense. This is where Carl Sagan’s ‘dragon in the garage’ example demonstrates its worth.

Again remember Clifford’s strictures on belief. When the evidence is not merely insufficient but absent or contrary, how much more wrong to do as Doubting Thomas was criticised for not doing, and as Søren Kierkegaard encouraged: to believe nevertheless.

This point weighs particularly against those who, in similar vein to Plantinga but with less disguise in theological or philosophical clothing, claim that one can choose to believe because it is comforting or satisfying to do so, or because it gives hope even if one knows that it is the very slimmest of hopes. These are psychological motivations which are no doubt very common among adult believers (children, as we saw, believe because they are evolutionarily primed to be credulous, and therefore believe everything the adults in their circle insist that they believe). But Clifford’s point about the ethics of belief demands that we make mature and responsible use of our cognitive capacities, and nothing that Pascal or anyone else (William James had a similar view15) says in the way of prudence, caution, hope against hope, or the benefits of believing even on poor grounds, can stand against that.

 William_Kingdon_Clifford_by_John_CollierWhat of the moral argument for the existence of deity? We need only the briefest discussion of it. Stated at its simplest, it is that there can be no morality unless there is a deity. Put a little more fully, the argument in effect says that there can be no moral code unless it is laid down, policed, punished and rewarded by a deity. Religious apologists would prefer to state the case differently: that morality is the response of a loving creation to its loving creator. Or, alternatively put again: because god is so nice, we should be nice to each other. The existence of moral evil (the tsunamis and childhood cancers) raises questions about the love and niceness of the deity if there is one, but the positively spun versions of the moral argument do not hide the fact that it consists in saying that morality is groundless unless ordained, and its breaches sanctioned, by a deity. This view is consistent with the assumption made, in the case of Judaeo-Christian religion, that humans are ‘fallen’ or innately sinful beings who need salvation.

The argument that there can be no morality unless policed by a deity is refuted by the existence of good atheists. Arguably, non-theists count among themselves the most careful moral thinkers, because in the absence of an externally imposed morality they recognise the duty to examine their views, choices and actions, and how they should behave towards others.

Consider the thinkers of classical antiquity – Aristotle, the Stoics and others – and one will see that their examination of ethics was not premised on the belief that morals were a matter of divine command, or that they were responding to the requirements of a deity, still less that they were seeking reward in an afterlife, or the avoidance of punishment. Their example illustrates the falsity of the claim that moral principles can only come from an external agency.

Nor were these thinkers persuaded that supposed analogies between moral and natural law suggest that both require to have been laid down by a deity; nor again that the only ground for the actual or even apparent objectivity of ethical principles is that they are the product of a divine will.

Kant, this time in his Critique of Practical Reason (1788), demonstrated one way to underwrite the objectivity of moral law; he argued that reason identifies the categorical (unconditional) imperatives that specify our moral duties, and that this would be so whether or not a deity exists.

There is an important point implicit in this view. The fact that anyone commands us to do something is not by itself a reason why we should do it, other than prudentially (as when we are threatened with punishment for not obeying). The action in question has itself to be independently worthy of doing, or there has to be a reason other than someone’s merely wishing or commanding that we do it, to serve as a genuine reason for it.

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A related consideration, called the ‘Euthyphro Problem’ after a discussion of it in Plato’s dialogue of that name, is this: is an act wrong because a god says it is, or is it forbidden by god because it is wrong? If the latter, then there is a reason independently of the will of a god that makes the act wrong. But then there is morality without god and the moral argument for the existence of god fails. If the former, then anything god commands (murder and rape, for example) would be morally good, just because he commands it; and then, as Leibniz puts it, ‘In saying that things are not good by any rule of goodness, but merely by the will of God, it seems to me that one destroys, without realising it, all the love of God and all his glory. For why praise him for what he has done if he would be equally praiseworthy in doing exactly the contrary?’16

Behind the thought that there needs to be a god to give and enforce moral principles is the further thought that such principles require the backing of authority, for otherwise there is no answer to the moral sceptic who asks, ‘Why should I be moral? Why should I not lie or kill or steal?’ because there is no ultimate sanction for his failure to live morally. To thinkers of this persuasion, morality is empty unless it can be enforced.

The examples of the good atheist and the classical philosopher also rebut this view. There are many sound reasons why we should seek to live responsibly, with generosity and sympathy towards others, with care and affection for them, and with continence, sound judgement and decency in our own lives. We can see the value of these things in themselves, and from the point of the benefits they bring society and its individual members, including ourselves. A thoughtful person could decide not to be the sort of person who steals even if he would never be found out or punished, precisely because he does not want to be such a person, and because at least one person knows what he would be doing if he did such things – namely, himself; and if he has standards, he might well choose to live up to them.

In short, there is no need for an external enforcer to make us the kind of people who take such thoughts seriously; and we might all prefer to live in a world where people seek to be morally worthy because they see the point of it, not because they are being watched and will be rewarded or punished according to the degree to which they abide by the rules. In the latter sort of world one cannot tell the difference between those who are acting out of principle and those who are acting out of prudence, and perhaps wishing they could do otherwise – doing it inauthentically, as the point is sometimes put. How much better is a world for being a world of volunteers, not slaves!