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In partibus fidelium

Keeping the faith in philosophy, in religion, even in the regions of the faithful, where it is most difficult. The backgrounds of my writing are my views of Wittgenstein's later "logic of language" (in my jargon), and of Socrates in Plato's Apology and Xenophon.

Outline of this page ...


The neighborhood without borders

In the parable of the good Samaritan the Lord had defined the indefinite neighbor whom men should love as themselves. Vade, et tu fac similiter, the Lord had said. (Bruce Marshall, To Every Man a Penny ( 1949), li)

And here you can say that love is not an emotion. It is not affection; it is responsibility to "go and do the same" as the merciful Samaritan (Luke 10.30-37) did, setting no limits of nationality or religion to one's neighborhood, just as the Lord said the kingdom of God belongs to anyone who keeps the great commandments (Matthew 7.21) regardless of that person's religion or nationality (Luke 4.16-30).

... he prayed for the dead he hoped would get to heaven without his having to meet them there ... (Marshall, Marx the First (1975), xiv)

The abbé felt that he would have made a fine Christian if he could have had one afternoon a week on which to go round ... being rude to people he didn't like. (To Every Man a Penny, li)

But of course it's not that way. The Lord does not assign handicaps to poorer players: Christians are always and everywhere ruled by the ethics of love.

"The inadequacy of every previous religion of ethics"

Jesus' religion of ethics (Albert Schweitzer)

In Mark 12.30-31 [cf. Matthew 22.37-39] is "the passage in which Jesus, questioned as to which is the greatest of the commandments, answers that there are two: first, to love the Lord your God with all your heart ... and second, to love your neighbor as yourself." In February 1919, Schweitzer preached against these commandments as a religious ethics, saying,

It is not easy to present them in a form that makes them applicable in practice.

Let us take, for example, the verses of the first and great commandment. What can it really mean -- to love God with all one's heart and for the love of God never do anything but good? Pressing the idea to its depths, a host of questions arise: have you ever done something good solely for the love of God, and can you say that without this love you would have chosen to do ill? (Sermon preached at St. Nicholas, Strasbourg, in February 1919, quoted in James Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer: a biography, 2nd ed. (2000), xviii, p. 305-306)

Comment: But as I use the word 'God' -- because we may mean various things by that word -- God is all that is good and true, and thus it is for love of God that "we never do anything but good": and we very often go against our natural inclinations not to do what is good -- precisely because we do love the good with our whole heart, for otherwise we would not choose to go against those inclinations.

As to the second commandment [Schweitzer's sermon continues,] "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," it is truly magnificent ... But is it truly applicable? Suppose that from tomorrow you were to decide to abide by it to the letter, where would you find yourself at the end of a few days? (Brabazon, xviii, p. 306)

Comment: As to the second commandment, it says you shall love your neighbor as yourself, not more than yourself. And that is the important part, the 'as': a Christian is not self-destructive in ethics. If you love yourself in the way that is proper -- taking "care" above all of yourself as an ethical being (James 1.27; Plato, Apology 30a-b, Republic 496c-d) -- you will also love your neighbor in the way that is proper. But you must start with yourself (as in Greek philosophy with the precept "Know thyself").

First and foremost be mindful of yourself and your relations with God and your conscience, because on these depend your power of being much use to your neighbor ... Do not forget to make the particular examination of conscience at least once a day, if you cannot make it twice. Let your own conscience be your care and concern much more than anybody else's, for if a man is not solicitous to be good and holy himself, how is he going to make other people such? (Letter of circa 1549, quoted in Brodrick, Saint Francis Xavier (1957), xii, p. 199, 201)

But on the other hand the Lord seems to stress in the Gospels giving practical help to those in need, as of shelter and food (Matthew 25.41-43), rather than spiritual help to become "good and holy" (Brother Zeno tried always to give both, but even when that was not possible he never failed to give the latter). Religious help versus help in being sheltered and no longer hungry.

But if I am not wrong, and maybe I am wrong, you have to live in the world you know. Not everyone has a Lazarus at their gate (Luke 16.19-21), nor does everyone live in the simple world of John the baptizer (ibid. 3.11). And it seems to be that in you world you know, you may be able to offer kindness, honesty (fair play, not taking advantage of the ignorant or weak), humility (asking forgiveness of those you have wronged in thought or deed), and mercy (forgiveness of those who have wronged you) to your neighbor, which is to say: the love that accords your neighbor the same respect you would like accorded to your (Matthew 7.12).

The Lord does not demand the impossible of us; his love is not merciless. He knows that most of us are weak and in constant battle with our selfishness. To amend one's life cannot mean to become perfect, but only to try each day to become, in St Francis' words, "good and holy".

To the great commandments, St. Augustine of Hippo's words stand as watchwords: "Whatever is not done from love is not done as it should be done", or in other words, the only answer to why one has done what one has done should be, "Because that is what love told me to do" -- and this regardless of whether it is an act towards God or towards one's neighbor.

Every ethics is going to be no more than a statement of general principle. Despite Plato's quest for a universal key, the particular case must very often be faced with doubt. (Even the Socratic ethics, which asks: What is the specific excellence unique and proper to man and to oneself as an individual man? and says that the answer to those questions says what the good is for man and therefore how he should live his life -- is not a clear guide in the particular case.)

An ethics "impossible to act on"

Brabazon writes that the danger according to Schweitzer is that because "these commandments are so impossible to act upon" they will be given only mouth honor (xviii, p. 306). But I think (1) that every ethics that demands helping one's neighbor in practical ways is for most of us going to be in practice no more than a "benevolent attitude" towards our neighbor, i.e. mere mouth honor.

And (2) that the impossibility is all in the definition -- i.e. in what meaning one assigns to Jesus' words. If the Lord's teaching is "impossible to act on", that is only because of the meaning Schweitzer assigns to them. There is no way around thinking about Jesus' words for oneself, assigning whatever serviceable meaning one can to them. There is no royal road to understanding in ethics. Or maybe "serviceable" is wrong, because it suggests thinking that you can enter the kingdom of God through the broad rather than the narrow gate (Luke 13.24, Matthew 7.13). "Give ear and try to understand" is the starting point of both religious and philosophical reading.

Brabazon writes about Schweitzer (and this is the difficulty, namely that one's presentation of someone else's ideas may be sympathetic or dismissive, and that one can start out with the intention of dismissing):

...if in his philosophical books he had to show the inadequacy of every previous philosophy of ethics, so [in his sermons] he had to prove the shortcomings of every previous religious statement -- including those of Jesus ... (p. 305)

Comment: As to Schweitzer's "Reverence for Life", an ethics that places one in a state of constant wrong-doing regardless of what one does, because it is impossible to live without harming other life -- wherefore we sin, but are keenly aware that we are sinning -- and which can give no guidance in the particular case (Schweitzer's dilemma of the fish and the pelican) -- is such a statement of ethics "truly applicable"?

Questions: Is not the principle "The good is to do what is beneficial to life" equivalent to the principle "The good is to love one's neighbor as oneself"? Further, what is the place of God (the word 'God' in all its historical "definiteness and indefiniteness"), if any, in Schweitzer's ethics? There seems not to be one.

The use of the word God in the language

The way you use the word 'God' shows what, not whom, you mean by that word [cf. CV p. 50, a remark from 1946. Cf. By what means is the word 'God' defined? (PI § 79))


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