Christian Love During Christmas Exams (Nietzsche vs Scheler)

It’s that time of year again. Advent? Christmas shopping? Charity fundraising? Sure. All of that and more. But also, exams!

It made me think of a particular situation between two friends, Jack and Bob. Jack used to come up to Bob in the morning, while Bob was repeating his courses for the exam that was about to take place. Jack would ask Bob these questions: “Did you pay special attention to that chapter? How long did you study, yesterday, for that part? At least five hours, no? Did you make sure to repeat the extracurricular material?” It drove Bob nuts! Jack made Bob feel bad about himself. Bob always thought that he was prepared well enough for his exams. After five minutes in the presence of Jack, however, Jack somehow managed to give Bob the eerie feeling that Bob might not be up to the task at hand, time and again!

Years later, I realized that this might have been Jack’s purpose all along, albeit maybe rather unconsciously. Sure, his annoying questions and remarks were always wrapped in a package of so-called “good intentions”. He seemed concerned about Bob. But as it turned out, this concern really was a way of troubling Bob. Jack’s “love” came from a little jealousy and resentment. After all, at the end of the day, Bob’s grades were always much better than Jack’s!

Things got worse when Bob started a relationship with the girl Jack secretly had fallen in love with. Her name was Marilyn. At first, Jack comforted himself with the thought that Marilyn “really was a dumb blonde”, and that “Bob was stupid for wanting a relationship with her”. Other friends of Jack confirmed Jack’s ideas. Jack hated Bob for being “so blind”. In the end, however, Jack’s hatred of Bob transformed to pity, even compassion. He felt sorry for Bob, who was “wasting time” with a girl like Marilyn. Once again, Jack managed to make Bob feel bad about himself!

According to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Christian love is comparable to Jack’s so-called love for his friend Bob.

Nietzsche claims that, in Antiquity, the Jews represented a group of weak people who were secretly jealous of the people in power. However, because they couldn’t possess the same position as the powerful, the Jews started comforting themselves with the delusion that “there is one true God who takes sides with the weak, the oppressed and marginalized victims”. The Jews became convinced that the gods at the side of the powerful were false, and that they wouldn’t want to trade places with “those blind, powerful people”. It is clear, in Nietzsche’s scenario, that this hatred of the powerful people’s position comes from hidden jealousy (hidden, even, from the jealous persons themselves). To get back to the aforementioned situation between Jack and Bob: Jack, who is secretly jealous of Bob, makes himself believe that he wouldn’t want to be in the situation of Bob with Marilyn to comfort himself for not obtaining that situation, like the Jews make themselves believe that they wouldn’t want to be in the situation of the powerful to comfort themselves for not obtaining that situation.

Calvin and Hobbes Resentment

Hatred is the first phase of resentment or, better still, ressentiment. Ressentiment literally is an aversion one develops towards something one secretly desires but cannot obtain. In Dutch a synonym for aversion (Dutch: “afkeer”) is “weerzin”, which goes back to a translation of the Latin prefix “re-” (“weer”) and the Latin noun “sensus” (“zin”). Sometimes ressentiment evolves into a second phase, whereby hatred transforms into a kind of compassion and love. Again according to Nietzsche, Christianity represents the second phase of the ressentiment of the Jews: instead of hating the powerful, Jesus of Nazareth starts pitying them. It’s like the story of Jack: in the end he no longer hates Bob, but he develops a feeling of compassion for Bob.

Still following Nietzsche, the dynamic of ressentiment is complete when the people one is secretly jealous of start feeling bad about themselves. That’s the ultimate revenge. Nietzsche claims that a Judeo-Christian morality based on ressentiment eventually contaminated western culture as a whole: powerful people started feeling bad about themselves. The powerful started developing a bad conscience, just like Bob under the influence of his so-called “worried friend” Jack.

Max Scheler & Friedrich Nietzsche

With all due respect to Nietzsche’s impressive account of ressentiment in the development of the West’s morality, it could be argued that Judeo-Christian love itself is not the result of ressentiment. Max Scheler (1874-1928) has done this. He concedes that ressentiment plays a powerful role in our world, but he firmly disagrees with Nietzsche concerning the true nature of Judeo-Christian morality. According to Scheler, Jesus of Nazareth embodies a love that is born, not from ressentiment or hidden jealousy, but from freedom. The love coming from Jesus of Nazareth is like the love of Johnny, yet another friend of Bob’s. Johnny truly was a happy camper, grateful for a life filled with more than he needed. He had a good relationship with his girlfriend Jacoba, for one thing, and at school he always got good grades. He was happy for Bob when Bob started his relationship with Marilyn. He was also concerned about the way Bob prepared for his exams, but contrary to Jack, Johnny sincerely looked after Bob because of Bob, and not because he needed to satisfy his hidden frustrations. In short, with his love, Johnny empowered Bob. Moreover, Johnny was able to reveal to Bob how Jack really was driven by resentment (or, better again, ressentiment), much in the same way as Jesus of Nazareth unveils the fears, the ressentiment and the ulterior motives of the people he meets. These types of revelations make possible new types of relationships between people: from love of one’s self-image (and its confirmation by others) to love of oneself and others. (For more on all this, especially on the way Jesus unmasks ressentiment, click here.)

It’s that time of year again, when we are challenged to imagine ourselves that a Being of Abundant Life comes to us as a fragile child in a manger, not because that Being of Abundant Life is secretly jealous of us, mere mortals, but to offer us a participation in its Abundant Life. That child in a manger does not want us to feel bad about ourselves, but it wants to empower us to love. And what other love responds more to the reality of that little, vulnerable babe than a love that comes from our fullness, from what we have to give rather than from our needs or what we are lacking? What other love responds more to the reality of that little, vulnerable babe than a love that is not driven by fear, wounded pride or resentment, but by hope and joy?

adoración de los pastores (Murillo)

A shepherd wants us to become shepherds, like a resurrected Abel, so like shepherds we shall adore him.

Philosophy in American Beauty

This post aims at providing some more background information on a previous post regarding the film American Beauty (click to read “Scapegoating in American Beauty”). It explores the philosophical foundations of ressentiment.

In the world of philosophy there are two German names that automatically pop up regarding the discussion on ressentiment, namely Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Max Scheler (1874-1928).

Zur Genealogie der MoralFriedrich Nietzsche discussed ressentiment primarily in his work Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals/Morality – click here for pdf version of this book in English). In Nietzsche’s view, the Jewish-Christian foundation of morality grew out of the weaker men’s pride when these were confronted with a noble and aristocratic ruling group of stronger men. The weaker men, the slaves, reject the morals of the stronger men, the masters. The slave denies being envious of the master and develops a sense of superiority by claiming that the values the master lives by are not desirable at all. According to Nietzsche, Jewish-Christian slave morality triumphs over the master morality of Greco-Roman Antiquity when people start feeling guilty and ashamed about belonging to the group of masters. This is the ultimate revenge of the slaves for not being able to aspire to the same values as the masters. The slaves convince themselves and the masters that the slave morality (the inverse of the master morality) is the desirable model of life, and that the master morality is contemptible.

Das Ressentiment im Aufbau der MoralenMax Scheler critiqued Nietzsche on these issues in his work Ressentiment. According to Scheler, Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment is very convincing, but he is wrong to consider it as the main source of Judeo-Christian tradition.

This is not the moment to discuss Scheler’s critique on Nietzsche. Regarding a further reflection on the film American Beauty and other examples of ressentiment, it is useful to merely focus on the characterization of ressentiment by Nietzsche and Scheler. In an article entitled Ressentiment and Rationality for the online philosophical and anthropological magazine Paideia, Elizabeth Murray Morelli summarizes as follows:

“Drawing on Nietzsche’s and Scheler’s accounts of ressentiment, we can sum up its internal structure. It is a cycle with the following constitutive elements: an original sense of self-worth; the apprehension of and desire for certain values; the frustration of one’s desire for those values; a sense of impotence to achieve those values: a sense of the unfairness or injustice of not being able to attain them; anger, resentment, hatred towards the bearer of those values, and often a desire to seek revenge; the devaluation of the originally sought values; repression of the desire for the devalued values and of negative affects such as hatred, envy, desire for revenge; a feeling of superiority over those who seek and possess the now devalued values; and a confirmed sense of self-worth. Ressentiment is a cycle inasmuch as it recurs. The person of ressentiment relives the desires and feelings which constitute the condition even as these affects are repressed. The cycle of ressentiment, significantly, begins and ends with a sense of self-worth.”

Applied to the character Frank Fitts in the film American Beauty, ressentiment is directed at the life of homosexual couples. The cycle of ressentiment then can be specified as follows: Frank Fitts gains his sense of self-worth by the social recognition he gets from the US Marine Corps (hence he presents himself continuously as “Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps”); he realizes that he actually desires certain relationships, namely homosexual relationships; he gets frustrated because he cannot fulfill this desire out of fear to lose his social recognition; he develops a sense of injustice: it’s not fair that certain people would enjoy a life as homosexuals and he seeks revenge for this injustice; he devaluates the originally desired life as a homosexual; finally he despises homosexuals in general and is convinced that they should feel ashamed; thus Frank Fitts develops a feeling of superiority over those who possess a life as homosexual couple, and this confirms his sense of self-worth.

Frank Fitts sad old man

From the point of view of René Girard’s mimetic theory, two important observations can be made:

  1. Ressentiment, as the result of envy, relies on mimesis and mimetic desire.
  2. When a mimetically ignited desire cannot be fulfilled, the resentful person justifies mental or physical violence towards a model who possesses what the resentful person secretly desires – this is a form of scapegoating. Hence, according to Cuong Nguyen in an article for the online philosophical journal Prometheus (October 19, 2008): 

    Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be ‘blamed’ for one’s own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external ‘evil’. This issuing of ‘blame’ leads one to desire revenge, or at least believe in the possibility of revenge.”

Alain de Botton going Girard

One of today’s more popular philosophers, Alain de Botton, could easily have dubbed his TED-talk “A short history of  human self-understanding in the West according to René Girard”, but settled for “A kinder, gentler philosophy of success” instead.

alain-de-botton-on-rene-girardI accidently saw this talk on Belgian television (Canvas) and immediately suspected Girard’s influence. As it turns out, Alain de Botton rates Girard’s Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure five stars out of five on goodreads. No coincidence there…

CLICK TO WATCH:

Of course, both de Botton and Girard are intellectual omnivores, drawing from similar sources (for instance, de Botton mentions Émile Durkheim in his talk; according to Eric Gans, “In particular, Durkheim should be considered the principal theoretical ancestor of René Girard’s notion of the sacred”). Nevertheless, it’s easy to pinpoint the many parts in de Botton’s talk that correspond with Girard’s preoccupations, even on a structural level. Here’s a comparison…

1. GLOBAL SNOBBERY

blog snobberyOne of René Girard’s main concepts is mimetic desire, i.e. desire based on the imitation (or mimesis) of the desire of others. Beyond instinctive needs and appetites, human desire is highly structured by mimetic interactions. We desire and attach importance to certain aspects of our environment because those others whom we experience as meaningful to our lives attach importance to these aspects, and we tend to imitate them. We gain a sense of identity as subjects by comparing ourselves to others who function as models (or mediators) for our desires and ambitions. So, from this angle, objects (or objectives) of desire are not intrinsically important. They gain value because of certain mediators they’re associated with, and because of the sense of being this association promises.

social-media-snobbery-venn-diagramDue to our mimetic tendencies we are able to imagine others’ viewpoints, to mimic others and to pretend we are like them. It also enables us to discover what those others focus on and what they seem to consider important. Imitating and obtaining what others consider important gives us social recognition, which in turn indeed gives us a sense of identity. We often don’t want material goods per se, we only want them insofar as they evoke social recognition – in the shape of admiration or envy by others. Snobbery grows out of the triangular structure of desire (i.e. the mimetic interplay between subject, model and object). Consumed by envious vanity himself, the snob is someone who desires others to admire or envy (even hate) him. He is an imitator who secretly wants to present himself as a model. The snob is someone who desperately seeks social respectability, in whatever context (be it a sports club, a school, a law firm, a factory, a family, an opera house, a newspaper etc.). In a way, we’re all snobs. We do care about what ‘meaningful others’ think of us! René Girard puts it this way (Deceit, Desire and the Novel: Self and Other in Literary Structure – Translated by Yvonne Freccero, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966; 24):

“The triangular structure is no less obvious in social snobbism than it is in love-jealousy. The snob is also an imitator. He slavishly copies the person whose birth, fortune, or stylishness he envies. … The snob does not dare trust his own judgment, he desires only objects desired by others. That is why he is the slave of the fashionable. For the first time, moreover, we come across a term in current usage, ‘snobbism,’ which does not conceal the truth of triangular desire. Just to call a desire snobbish is enough to underscore its imitative character. The mediator is no longer hidden; the object is relegated to the background for the very reason that snobbism is not limited to a particular category of desires. One can be a snob in aesthetic pleasure, in intellectual life, in clothes, food etc.”

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH Alain de Botton’s description of job snobbery and the main reason why we want certain material goods (indeed because we think they’ll reward us with social respectability):

beer snob“Snobbery is a global phenomenon. … What is a snob? A snob is anybody who takes a small part of you and uses that to come to a complete vision of who you are. That is snobbery. The dominant kind of snobbery that exists nowadays is job snobbery. You encounter it within minutes at a party, when you get asked that famous iconic question of the early 21st century, ‘What do you do?’ And according to how you answer that question, people are either incredibly delighted to see you, or look at their watch and make their excuses. … Most people make a strict correlation between how much time, and if you like, love – not romantic love, though that may be something – but love in general, respect, they are willing to accord us, that will be strictly defined by our position in the social hierarchy.

And that’s a lot of the reason why we care so much about our careers and indeed start caring so much about material goods. You know, we’re often told that we live in very materialistic times, that we’re all greedy people. I don’t think we are particularly materialistic. I think we live in a society which has simply pegged certain emotional rewards to the acquisition of material goods. It’s not the material goods we want. It’s the rewards we want. And that’s a new way of looking at luxury goods. The next time you see somebody driving a Ferrari don’t think, ‘This is somebody who is greedy.’ Think, ‘This is somebody who is incredibly vulnerable and in need of love.’ Feel sympathy, rather than contempt.”

Alain de Botton also refers to mimetic mechanisms and mimetic desire:

“The thing about a succesful life is, a lot of the time, our ideas of what it would mean to live successfully are not our own. They are sucked in from other people…

And we also suck in messages from everything from the television, to advertising, to marketing, etc. These are hugely powerful forces that define what we want and how we view ourselves. When we’re told that banking is a very respectable profession a lot of us want to go into banking. When banking is no longer so respectable, we lose interest in banking. We are highly open to suggestion.”

2. MODERN EGALITARIANISM AND THE SPIRIT OF ENVY

Envy between the DeadOne of the main problems in the course of human history has been the potential destructive outcome of mimetic desire. If a mediator is at a great distance, the risks of (violent) rivalry between subject and model are not that big. There will often be a sense of admiration (idolatry) from the part of the subject towards its model. René Girard calls this kind of mimetic interplay external mediation. However, if the mediator is a close neighbor, relative or friend, risks of conflict grow increasingly. This so-called internal mediation makes the model of desire also an obstacle. When two (or more) people mutually enforce each other’s desire for certain objects (by way of imitation the model also becomes the imitator of his imitator, his double), envious rivalry emerges.

Premodern societies developed systems of taboos and (sacrificial) rituals to guide mimetic interactions and to prevent mimetic rivalry (and everything it’s associated with) from destabilizing communities. Moreover, there was a hierarchy in society as a matter of principle. One could not just aspire to the positon of a king when one was not of noble birth. This type of hierarchy was eventually justified by reference to ‘higher powers’ – fate, fortune, the gods… Myths were basically tales that defended the way societies structured themselves. People were ultimately not responsible for ‘the way of the world’ and for their own and others’ lives. God (or Fate) was to be thanked or to be blamed for whatever happened. God was the convenient scapegoat. People could not imitate the position of their king because God wouldn’t allow it. Respecting the social hierarchy (enforced by divine, ‘natural’ law) was a way to prevent mimetic rivalry and violent conflict. The French and other revolutions basically destroyed premodern hierarchical principles and their justifications in the western world, making way for modern democracy.

Wolfgang Palaver points to the potential dangers of modern equality in his book on René Girard’s mimetic theory (René Girard’s Mimetic Theory – Translated by Gabriel Borrud, Michigan State University Press, 2013; 61-62):

“Girard’s insight into the potential for conflict that accompanies internal mediation can help us better understand our modern, increasingly egalitarian world. As the metaphysical distance between desiring subject and model diminishes – the key component of internal mediation – the potential for rivalry and violence increases. The more negligible this distance becomes, the more probable it is that mimesis will end in rivalry and violence. The ancient proverbial truth found in mythical texts, primitive practices, and even the Bible, that brothers or sisters are much more prone to rivalry and conflict than others, can be easily understood with the help of Girard’s insight.

The development of mimetic desire from Cervantes to Dostoyevsky reflects the emergence of the modern world, one in which the spread of democracy and equality have meant the vanishing of rigid hierarchical differences. The limits on mimesis have essentially disappeared, as internal mediation increasingly takes the place of external mediation. The modern world has in turn seen a surge in competition, envy, and rivalry. In Girard’s eyes, this development is described most precisely by the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville in his work Democracy in America:

‘When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies. But this is an erroneous notion, which is corrected by daily experience. The same equality that allows every citizen to conceive these lofty hopes, renders all the citizens less able to realize them; it circumscribes their powers on every side, which it gives freer scope to their desires. … They have swept away the privilege of some of their fellow-creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition.’

James on EnvyTocqueville is cognizant of the dangers posed by the modern phenomenon of equality. The strength of his analysis lies merely at the political level, however, in that he avoids pursuing the deeper anthropological roots of modern egalitarianism and the dangers it poses to society. Girard’s insight into the effects of mimetic desire allows one to understand why the phenomenon of equality – or the disappearance of social differences – poses these dangers. Reactionary or anti-egalitarian movements, in their attempt to maintain social differences, are aware of the conflictual potential of equality. 

One gains a sense of this from the contemporary struggle between the sexes, and the phenomenon of democracy. On the one hand, the equality of the sexes and political equality enhance moral quality in human relations, but, on the other hand, they also increase the possibility of rivalry, competition, and violence. Antje Vollmer, for one, points out in her book Heisser Frieden [Hot Peace] that modern equality is one of the major factors responsible for this increase in social violence.

The workings of mimetic desire, meanwhile, explain the problematic consequences of equality. We will see in the following sections that Girard’s theory of mimetic desire only offers an initial and preliminary answer to modern social dynamics. In his eyes, social differences are not God-given or a product of nature – as Aristotle and his conservative followers contend – but rather a product of mimesis. Just as Heraclitus saw social differences as a product of war – ‘the father and king of all, … some it makes gods, others men; some slaves, and others free’ – Girard also maintains that these distinctions result from the violence of mimetic rivalry.”

Envy the Sin No One ConfessesGirard also refers to Max Scheler in describing the dominant feelings that arise from the idea that anyone can achieve as much as everybody else, and the confrontation with the reality that this is practically impossible: ressentiment and envy. René Girard in his own words (A Theater of Envy: William Shakespeare, New York: Oxford UP, 1991; 4):

“We often brag that no word can scandalize us anymore, but what about ‘envy’? Our supposedly insatiable appetite for the forbidden stops short of envy. Primitive cultures fear and repress envy so much that they have no word for it; we hardly use the one we have, and this fact must be significant. We no longer prohibit many actions that generate envy, but silently ostracize whatever can remind us of its presence in our midst. Psychic phenomena, we are told, are important in proportion to the resistance they generate toward revelation. If we apply this yardstick to envy as well as to what psychoanalysis designates as repressed, which of the two will make the more plausible candidate for the role of best-defended secret?”

Envy indeed often is a big taboo, and Girard also further explains why we might be ashamed to admit that we are jealous:

“Envy subordinates a desired something to the someone who enjoys a privileged relationship with it. Envy covets the superior being that neither the someone nor the something alone, but the conjunction of the two, seems to possess. Envy involuntarily testifies to a lack of being that puts the envious to shame… That is why envy is the hardest sin to acknowledge.”

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH the way Alain de Botton tackles these issues:

“There are other reasons why it’s perhaps harder now to feel calm than ever before. One of these, and it’s paradoxical because it’s linked to something that’s rather nice, is the hope we all have for our careers. Never before have expectations been so high about what human beings can achieve with their lifespan. We’re told, from many sources, that anyone can achieve anything. We’ve done away with the caste system. We are now in a system where anyone can rise to any position they please. And it’s a beautiful idea. Along with that is a kind of spirit of equality. We’re all basically equal. There are no strictly defined kind of hierarchies.

Invidia (Envy) by Hieronymus BoschThere is one really big problem with this, and that problem is envy. Envy, it’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality. Let me explain. I think it would be very unusual for anyone here, or anyone watching, to be envious of the Queen of England. Even though she is much richer than any of you are. And she’s got a very large house. The reason why we don’t envy her is because she’s too weird. She’s simply too strange. We can’t relate to her. She speaks in a funny way. She comes from an odd place. So we can’t relate to her. And when you can’t relate to somebody, you don’t envy them.

The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy – which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion – because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world into a school. Everybody is wearing jeans, everybody is the same. And yet, they’re not. So there is a spirit of equality, combined with deep inequalities. Which makes for a very – can make for a very stressful situation.

It’s probably as unlikely that you would nowadays become as rich and famous as Bill Gates, as it was unlikely in the 17th century that you would accede to the ranks of the French aristocracy. But the point is, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s made to feel, by magazines and other media outlets, that if you’ve got energy, a few bright ideas about technology, a garage, you too could start a major thing.”

3. WHO’S TO BLAME?

FROM BAD FORTUNE TO FAILURE: THE SCAPEGOAT MECHANISM’S NEW CLOTHES

According to René Girard, but also atheists like French historian Marcel Gauchet, the Judeo-Christian traditions are highly responsible for the process of secularization in the West. Girard claims that the biblical writings gradually reveal the scapegoat mechanism as the cornerstone of archaic religion and culture, thereby potentially destroying faith in the gods who are considered responsible for the way the human world ‘works’ – with its different systems of taboos and rituals, and its periodic justification of certain sacrifices and victimary mechanisms. I’ll repeat what I’ve stated before:

Premodern societies developed systems of taboos and (sacrificial) rituals to guide mimetic interactions and to prevent mimetic rivalry (and everything it’s associated with) from destabilizing communities. Moreover, there was a hierarchy in society as a matter of principle. One could not just aspire to the positon of a king when one was not of noble birth. This type of hierarchy was eventually justified by reference to ‘higher powers’ – fate, fortune, the gods… Myths were basically tales that defended the way societies structured themselves. People were ultimately not responsible for ‘the way of the world’ and for their own and others’ lives. God (or Fate) was to be thanked or to be blamed for whatever happened. God was the convenient scapegoat. People could not imitate the position of their king because God wouldn’t allow it. Respecting the social hierarchy (enforced by divine, ‘natural’ law) was a way to prevent mimetic rivalry and violent conflict.

Due to the Judeo-Christian influence secularized societies no longer have an automatic access to the god(s) of archaic religion. Historically, sometimes this god was identified as the Christian God, although theologically one could argue – together with Girard and others – that Christ’s God fundamentally criticizes the mechanisms which produce the archaic sacred. Although the realm of the traditional sacred seems to have vanished in secularized societies, the mimetic and sacrificial mechanisms that lie behind it are still at work – alive as ever in human life. We simply bow to other idols. Often that’ll be the image that we have learned to desire for ourselves, the image which seems to give us social recognition…

One of the main sources of psychological problems nowadays is the idea that we are masters of our own lives, that we are fully responsible for our lives. So, secularized human beings no longer blame the gods for the bad things they encounter, they tend to blame themselves. They become their own scapegoat, their own sacrifice. People in secularized societies more and more sacrifice themselves (in all sorts of auto-aggressive behavior, from automutilation to suicide) if they’re not able to attain the image of ‘winner’ they secretly desire for themselves.

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH the following part of Alain de Botton’s talk:

“There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious, about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it is, again, linked to something nice, and that nice thing is called meritocracy.

meritocracyEverybody, all politicians on Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words, what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which if you’ve got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top. Nothing should hold you back. It’s a beautiful idea. The problem is if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you’ll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.

You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an ‘unfortunate’ – literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a ‘loser.’ There is a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It’s no longer the gods, it’s us. We’re in the driving seat.

That’s exhilarating if you’re doing well, and very crushing if you’re not. It leads, in the worst cases, in the analysis of a sociologist like Émile Durkheim, it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally. They own their success. But they also own their failure.”

4. THE COMFORT OF TRAGEDY (AND COMEDY)

hero or villainOur heroes, our idols, our ‘gods’ – the ones we have a love-hate relationship with -, function, in the words of René Girard, as model/obstacle. On the one hand, we tend to imitate them and to model our desires and ambitions on their desires and ambitions. However, when we can’t seem to achieve what we’ve learned to hope for our own lives, the comparison with the ‘winners’ in society – the rich, the bright, the famous etc. – might turn ugly. Admiration can be the forerunner of envy, whereby we experience our models simultaneously as obstacles to our own success. You know, “Why should they have all the glory?” That’s why we like to read, hear and see stories of ‘fallen heroes’ from time to time. The little and big scandals that surround the ‘happy few’ comfort the great lot of us with the thought that “they’re not that fabulous after all.”

stand up comedian jesterIf we see that they’re human beings just like ourselves, they might evoke pity, and empathizing with their fate might help us to cope with the trials and tribulations in our own lives. If we perceive them as villains or even ‘monsters’, following the downfall of a former ‘winner’ might be a form of retribution or even ‘revenge’ for the fact that most of us don’t belong to that special caste of ‘high society’. Indeed, we’re part of the masses instead. In short, tragic stories of fallen heroes often comfort us with the idea that we are spared the fate of having to submit to the judgment of ‘public opinion’. Stand-up comedians are the jesters of the day, ventilating this opinion. Their presence is all the more important in a society like ours, in the West, where we need to ridicule all those seemingly important famous people we secretly envy… The more hidden and suppressed envy, the more need for today’s jesters, laughing at our contemporary ‘kings’ and ‘queens’. The comic is but the other side of the coin of comfort to which also the tragic belongs.

So, basically, there are two types of tragic stories: the scandalous or ‘mythical’ one that tends to present former heroes as ‘monsters’ (or vice versa!), and the actual tragedy which aims more at telling the story of the fallen hero in such a way that it enables the compassion of an audience.

Anyway, the periodic sacrifice of our (monstrous) idols, told and retold in our myths and tragedies, saves and restores our sense of identity and self-worth. It’s no surprise then that former villains can become heroes again after they’ve died, as they are experienced as saviours. They often generate a cult following, which reminds us of the cleansing and structuring effect mythologized heroes/villains like Billy the Kid bestow on ever new generations.

Tragedy and Comedy MasksRobert Hamerton-Kelly very succinctly points to the origin of Greek tragedy in a presentation of René Girard’s mimetic theory. It explains how tragic stories function and help take away conflictual tensions and frustrations in our human society, to this day:

“Greek tragedy originated as a religious ritual that facilitated self-cleansing and emotional renewal…”

COMPARE ALL THIS WITH Alain de Botton’s words on tragedy:

“There is another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.

tabloid heroYou know, the number one organ of ridicule nowadays, is the newspaper. And if you open the newspaper any day of the week, it’s full of people who’ve messed up their lives. They’ve slept with the wrong person. They’ve taken the wrong substance. They’ve passed the wrong piece of legislation. Whatever it is. And then are fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed. And they are described as ‘losers.’ Now is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, and that is tragedy.

Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. I remember a few years ago, I was thinking about all this, and I went to see ‘The Sunday Sport’, a tabloid newspaper that I don’t recommend you to start reading if you’re not familiar with it already. I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.

So I told them about Othello. They had not heard of it but were fascinated by it. And I asked them to write the headline for the story of Othello. They came up with ‘Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator’s Daughter’ splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote ‘Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud.’ And then my favorite. They really do have a kind of genius all of their own, these guys. My favorite is Sophocles’ Oedipus the King: ‘Sex With Mum Was Blinding.’

In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you’ve got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum you’ve got tragedy and tragic art, and I suppose I’m arguing that we should learn a little bit about what’s happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us, and why it’s so very, very important, I think.”

5. A GLIMPSE OF JUDEO-CHRISTIAN REVELATION

The Envious (quote by Baltasar Gracian SJ)I’d like to end this post with a final quote from Alain de Botton, when he refers to Saint Augustine. It comes from the core of Judeo-Christian revelation, and it’s no coincidence – and this becomes even clearer if you’re familiar with René Girard’s rephrasing of the Christian tradition:

“I’m drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in ‘The City of God,’ where he says, ‘It’s a sin to judge any man by his post.’ In modern English that would mean it’s a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to dependent on their business card. It’s not the post that should count. According to St. Augustine, it’s only God who can really put everybody in their place. … In other words, hold your horses when you’re coming to judge people. You don’t necessarily know what someone’s true value is. That is an unknown part of them. And we shouldn’t behave as though it is known.”

In still other words: it’s a sin to waste your life merely as a snob…

Theologically speaking, we’re not just children or ‘products’ of our social surroundings. We’re also ‘children of God’…

There is no saint without a past (Augustine of Hippo)

Religulous in Barcelona

I’ve put the word ‘religulous’ in this post’s title after a documentary, or should I say ‘mockumentary’ of the same name by director Larry Charles. In it, Bill Maher goes around the US primarily to investigate certain people’s religious beliefs and comes to the conclusion these beliefs are ‘ridiculous’ – hence the title: Religulous.

Bill Maher is right to point out some absurdities in certain people’s convictions, although stylistically spoken he could have done it a little less ad hominem. It’s a pity, however, that he limits his investigation to people who say they believe in ‘God’. I think it would have been much more interesting if he had shown how the psychological and sociological mechanisms that produce certain convictions are also hugely conditioning people who claim they don’t believe in ‘God’. Maybe he would have called his documentary Anthropologulous then. Whether we do or do not believe in God, we’re susceptible, as human beings, to some very strange convictions and behavior.

In fact, what I’ve learned from René Girard (among others) is that ‘belief in God’ is not ‘the real problem’. Atheists are no less capable of the kind of ‘religious’ behavior Bill Maher calls ‘ridiculous’. Similar to the rituals surrounding the deities of traditional religion are, for example, pop festivals or the ceremonies honoring dictatorial leaders of atheistic regimes (such as some of the annual festivities held in North Korea). So the question should not be ‘do you believe in God’? Maybe we should rather reflect on the social and psychological mechanisms, the desires and deeper motivations which shape our life.

To me, German philosopher Max Scheler (1874-1928) seems to summarize the ‘real’ dilemma when he claims “Man has either a God or an idol”. Or, to put it differently, the question isn’t so much ‘do you believe in God’ as it is ‘what (kind of) God do you believe in?’ So it’s not only a pity that Bill Maher doesn’t reveal the parallels between potentially ridiculous behavior of both ‘theists’ and ‘atheists’, it’s also a shame he doesn’t interview more people who try to develop their faith in a constant and frank dialogue with the natural and social sciences. Too bad he doesn’t get into the rich philosophical and theological traditions of Christianity. Actually, the way he reads the Bible is none other than the way his adversaries read it – he just comes to a different conclusion. In this sense he imitates his adversaries and becomes somewhat of a ‘mimetic rival’. Bill Maher is oblivious to the basic hermeneutical principles that were used by educated theologians throughout the ages (and from the get-go, meaning these principles were also used by the biblical writers themselves!).

Nevertheless, all these remarks on content and style aside, it must be said I did enjoy quite a few hilarious moments in this documentary. I thought about it when I recently visited Barcelona together with my wife to celebrate her birthday [Was she happy? Yes, she was!]. We were there when Barca, the unmatched and world-famous soccer team that is, had to play the Champions League final at Wembley against Manchester United. So we were confronted with exuberant Barcelona soccer fans the night their team won this important match. At the same time we witnessed a leftist manifestation that went on for a few days at the Plaça de Catalunya. Mostly young people were gathered there to demand governmental and economic reform that should result, among other things, in job creation, since unemployment is on the rise in Spain. In both instances we witnessed what Bill Maher would call ‘religulous’ behavior.

I don’t want to imply that supporting a soccer team is ridiculous as such. It is, however, a social phenomenon that is susceptible to extreme and bizarre behavior, as it tends to produce processes of idolatry. The picture on the left indeed shows that Lionel Messi is treated like a god by some of his fans. I neither want to imply that the unemployment claims made by the Spanish youth at the large square in central Barcelona should not be taken seriously. I just wanted to record how people sometimes ‘strangely’ behave when they’re united against a ‘common enemy’ (in this case ‘the system’).

Amidst all of this social upheaval and turmoil both my wife and I were driven by yet another herd of people towards the work of famous architect Antoni Gaudí (1852-1926), especially his Basilica Church La Sagrada Família. Never to be completed during the architect’s lifetime, this amazing monument is now finished on the inside and, perhaps needless to say, visiting it opened my senses and heart to another kind of religious, even ‘spiritual’ experience. It was like walking into the spatial mind of a genius who devoted his life to the creation of a sphere where people could ‘reconnect’ with themselves, each other, nature and, ultimately ‘God’. As is known, Gaudí was a devoted Catholic who put all of his talents as a scientist, mathematician and artist at the service of ‘The Holy Family’. His work displays a deep awareness of the interconnectedness, indeed ‘familiarity’ of all that is. Moreover, Gaudí was convinced people could only ‘find’ them‘selves’ if they discovered there was no ‘self’ apart from a ‘being’ that ‘is’ always already ‘in relationships’. What and who we are is first and foremost ‘given’ – it is not something we autonomously create. To deny this, is to surrender to what René Girard would call a ‘romantic deception’.

The following quotes of Gaudí show how he considered any artist’s creativity as something that doesn’t spring from a purely ‘original’ mind. Rather, his view on ‘originality’ is closely connected to the discovery of a creation that always precedes the work of the artist:

“Originality consists in returning to the origin.”

“Man does not create… he discovers.”

Artists like Gaudí consider themselves ‘co-creators’ or ‘collaborators’, only relatively ‘free’ as ‘imitators’ of Nature:

“The creation continues incessantly through the media of man.”

“Those who look for the laws of Nature as a support for their new works collaborate with the creator.”

Gaudí seems to distinguish between two kinds of imitation, ‘blindly copying’ and ‘creatively mimicking’:

“Copiers do not collaborate.”

From the point of view of Girard’s theory on imitation (his ‘mimetic’ theory) blindly copying exactly occurs when people feel they are not imitating at all. On the other hand, people who realize they are dependent on others will develop a creative kind of imitation, allowing ‘originality’. By consciously imitating something or someone other you’re indeed saying two things: that there is a likeness between yourself and that other and that there’s also a ‘distance’ (otherwise imitation would not be possible). One could even say that imitation somehow creates this distance, a kind of ‘space’ where men each become ‘others’ towards… others.

As said, the Sagrada Família, as a building that so closely resembles the ‘mathematical’ mystique of natural forms, precisely produces a realm wherein people are not swallowed by the unifying yet destructive powers of ‘wild’ crowd mechanisms, but a ‘breathing’ sphere where people really become aware of each other in the ‘space’ surrounding them. To Christians like Gaudí and Girard this kind of awareness allows for the experience of a divine Love which creates us. From the contrasting situations in Barcelona I start to see what they’re getting at…

Lorenzi Marcella Giulia and Francaviglia Mauro wrote a very interesting article on Gaudí’s La Sagrada Família in the Journal of Applied Mathematics (click on the title to read it): Art & Mathematics in Antoni Gaudí’s architecture: “La Sagrada Família”. I especially recommend it to those mathematicians who want to taste something of Gaudí’s peculiar spiritual take on science.

Of course there are other ways to enjoy the swarming life in God’s grace – “His ways are manifold”.

Try for example the Hard Rock Cafe in Barcelona, and discover “God is my Co-Pilot”, celebrating that good old rock ‘n’ roll music!

Cheers!

Paasboodschap in tijden van schaamte

De afgelopen dagen ben ik bezig geweest met de herformulering en herordening van een aantal ideeën uit mijn boek Vrouwen, Jezus en rock-‘n-roll – Met René Girard naar een dialoog tussen het christelijk verhaal en de populaire cultuur. Ik wou mij, in de aanloop naar Pasen, opnieuw bezinnen over het zogenaamde ‘verrijzenisgebeuren’. Uiteindelijk heb ik volgend artikel gebrouwen – wie geïnteresseerd is, kan het hier lezen:

KLIK OM TE LEZEN: HET VERRIJZENISGEBEUREN, VANUIT DE MIMETISCHE THEORIE (PDF)

Ik heb geen voetnoten toegevoegd, maar geoefende lezers zullen echo’s vinden van filosofen als Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) en Max Scheler (1874-1928) – beiden voor wat betreft hun inzichten over het ‘ressentiment’ –, en van taalfilosofen als Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) – zijn ‘meaning is use’ – en Ian Ramsey (1915-1972) – meer bepaald zijn bevindingen over wat hij ‘disclosures’ noemt. Daarnaast is natuurlijk het denken van René Girard aanwezig, en vooral ook dat van James Alison – die de mimetische theorie, in navolging van iemand als de Zwitserse Jezuïet Raymund Schwager (1935-2004), in de theologische tradities van het christelijk verhaal heeft geïntegreerd.

Naar aanleiding van de zeer recente gebeurtenissen in verband met seksueel misbruik in de kerk, heb ik op het einde, ook als gelovige, vanuit een confrontatie met het leed van de slachtoffers en omdat ik, zoals velen, verontwaardigd en beschaamd ben door wat hen blijft overkomen, een ‘machteloze oproep’ willen doen naar de daders. Noch onze liefde voor de slachtoffers, noch onze morele verontwaardiging kan, blijkbaar, een dader van seksueel misbruik tot meer medemenselijkheid en liefde ‘dwingen’:

Het leven van Jezus wijst tegelijk op de machteloosheid en de macht van de Barmhartigheid – de Agapè. Deze Liefde is ten eerste machteloos. De mens die er uit probeert te leven heeft geen garanties dat de kwetsbare houding waarmee hij zich opstelt, zal geïmiteerd worden door zijn medemensen. Als je de geldingsdrang van een ander niet beantwoordt met geldingsdrang, als je ‘het geslagen worden op de wang’ niet met ‘slaan’ beantwoordt maar ‘de andere wang aanbiedt’, geef je inderdaad aan je belager de kans om jou niet nog eens te kwetsen, maar tegelijk loop je het risico dat je geen tedere barmhartigheid ondervindt en opnieuw gekwetst of ‘gekruisigd’ wordt – dat je een zoveelste ‘kaakslag’ krijgt te verduren. Ondanks alles blijft de Liefde waarvan Jezus getuigenis aflegt, wachten op de ‘bekering van de zondaar (in ieder van ons!). Jezus veroordeelt in zijn optreden radicaal de zonde (‘de daad’), maar geeft tegelijk zijn geloof in (de goedheid van) mensen niet op.

Hieruit blijkt ten tweede, en paradoxaal genoeg misschien, toch ook de macht van de Agapè. De Barmhartigheid is niet afhankelijk van de houding van een ‘misdadiger’ of ‘vervolger’. Zelfs als een dader geen berouw toont voor zijn misdrijven, kan een slachtoffer zijn zelfrespect bewaren. De houding van een dader hoeft niet per se de houding van het slachtoffer te bepalen. Slachtoffers kunnen vrij worden in een hernieuwde Liefde voor het ‘leven’ die voor koppige, hardleerse of zelfs ‘zieke’ en ‘verdorde’ daders verborgen blijft. In ieder geval ontsnapt de steun en de Liefde die de naasten van het slachtoffer aan het slachtoffer willen bieden totaal aan de greep van de dader. Hopelijk laten slachtoffers zich uiteindelijk door deze Liefde dragen, en krijgen zij die ‘slaan’, ‘vervolgen’ en ‘verkrachten’, niet het laatste, heerszuchtige woord over het leven van hun slachtoffers. Dat is de hoopvolle realiteit waarnaar de nieuwtestamentische Paasboodschap, ondanks alles, tracht te verwijzen.

In een wereld waarin daders van seksuele misdrijven in de kerk zich, op een jaloerse wijze, onheus behandeld voelen omdat daders ‘uit andere sectoren’ niet ‘even streng’ zouden worden aangepakt, klinken de woorden die de vaderfiguur uit Jezus’ ‘parabel van de verloren zoon’ spreekt tot zijn verongelijkte oudste zoon op een nieuwe wijze. Ze klinken namelijk als een blijvende oproep naar de daders om oog te hebben voor de genade die ze onverdiend al mochten genieten van de samenleving. En bovenal klinken ze als een oproep om het slachtoffer van hun misdrijven te erkennen. In navolging van het oudtestamentische verhaal waarop Jezus met zijn parabel alludeert – het verhaal over Kaïn die uit begeerte naar een bepaalde vorm van erkenning zijn broer Abel vermoordt –, kunnen we mét de Bijbelse God de ‘Kaïns’ van het seksueel misbruik toeroepen:

“Hoor, het bloed van uw broer roept uit de grond naar Mij!” (Gen.4,10b).