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The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and Why We Shouldn’t Misbehave


In discussions on universalism, the question is sooner or later raised by the non-universalist in the dialogue, “If all are ultimately saved, then why be moral?  Why not live it up and do whatever you want?  After all, you’ll be saved anyway–so why not get the best of both worlds?”  I’m often perplexed as to how to respond.  On the most fundamental level, this argument, as I’ve noted in the past, misses the point altogether.  Whether belief in universalism persuades people to become debauched libertines or not has no bearing on whether it’s actually true.  You might as well say that the tax code is a mess and has all kinds of bad results, and that therefore it must not exist!  Universalism may have negative moral implications, or it may not; but to say that it is invalid because of these purported implications is just as silly as saying the tax code doesn’t exist because I don’t like it.

Another approach would be to question the moral development of of the person who asks this question.  In Kohlberg’s well-known stages of moral development, the higher levels of morality are increasingly less concerned with a fear of punishment or a conniving attempt to get away with whatever one can get away with.  The concern as to the behavior of believers in universalism seems to betray a lower developmental stage on the part of the person making the anit-universalist argument, or an assumption on her part that humans in general are at a lower stage of moral development.  In fairness, though, such a counter-argument smacks of the genetic fallacy, as well.  After all, a person’s stage of moral development is no more relevant to the truth of non-universalism than the supposed behavior of universalists is relevant to the truth of universalism.  Thus, this is probably not the best way to go in responding to this question.

Sometimes, feeling flip, I want to answer the question, “Why be moral if all are saved?” by saying, “Why not?”  Nevertheless, there is a serious intent behind this question, and I will try to deal with it seriously.  I will try to give at least a partial reason why we should be moral even if we all eventually end up in heaven.

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I Ain’t Got No Body, Revisited: Rethinking Angels

Way back here we looked at the question of why humans are created as embodied beings.  In most Abrahamic religions, and in some other Western religious systems, as well (e.g. Platonism and Gnosticism), God is said to have created the bodiless intelligences–what we call “angels”, some of whom later become “demons”–before He made embodied intelligences–that is to say, us.  Since the angels are typically seen as far superior to us, the question arises as to why God bothered in making embodied creatures to begin with.  I came to no definite conclusion on this question, though I have some ideas banging about in my head.  What I want to do here is to put a different spin on the whole question by looking at the angels and speculating as to what, exactly, they are.  This will tie in with some other themes we’ve looked at.

In the Christian tradition*, beginning with Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite and continuing through various Church Fathers and theologians throughout the centuries (not least of whom as St. Thomas Aquinas in the West), angels have always been understood to be bodiless spirits.  In our discussion of the soul a little while back, we described the human soul as the seat of personality and intelligence, which is immaterial and which can survive the death of the body.  An angel has a personality and intelligence, just like a human; but it has no body.  Thus, an angel could be viewed as a pure mind.  Angels, of course, are often described as being humanoid in appearance–and sometimes, spectacularly, non-humanoid (see Ezekiel 1:4-21, Isaiah 6:2, and Revelation 4:6-8, for example).  Despite this, though, they lack physical bodies–such appearances are for the benefit of humans.  The angels either take on a temporary body (to put it in modern terms, they manipulate matter into a body which they use like a puppet) or manipulate the viewer’s mind so that they see an apparition that isn’t physically there (something like this is implied in the Book of Tobit, when Raphael reveals himself to be an angel; see Tobit 12:15-19). Theologians have debated which of these scenarios is likelier; but they have agreed that angels have no bodies of their own.

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Plants, Animals, Humans, and Souls


Last time we talked about the concept of the soul in general, as it’s usually understood in our culture.  Having established that basic foundation, I want to use it to analyze the question of who–or what–actually has a soul.  This is why, by the way, I’m categorizing this post in my polygenism series.  The ideas I intend to develop will figure more prominently in the larger context of polygenism and (possibly) the Fall of Mankind.

So as we said, the soul as generally understood could be defined as follows:

  1. It is the seat of personality and individuality
  2. It is associated with the body, but different from it
  3. It is immaterial, or to put it differently, non-physical
  4. It is separable from and can survive without the physical body

Definition:  To be clear, 3 means not made of matter or energy.  The soul is properly defined as “spirit”, which is not part of the material universe in any way.  We discussed this a bit last time.  We’ll look at the term “spirit” shortly.

Corollaries:  From 2, it is clear that though the soul is not itself material, it can effect physical objects.  It does this every time we move, in fact.  If psychokinesis is a real phenomenon (which I may discuss in detail later, but won’t here), then the soul may be able to affect matter beyond the body with which it is associated.  From 4, it follows that it is at least possible for the soul to survive physical death.  While not a direct corollary, the immortality of the soul–that it is indestructible and can never cease to exist–is typically assumed in the Western tradition since the time of Plato.

What I want to look at now is how, and if, the term “soul” can be applied to life forms besides ourselves–principally animals, but plants, too.

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(Body) and Soul


“Body” is a concept with which few of us have a problem.  We all have bodies after all.  No one doubts this, except perhaps for solipsists and those who’d argue that we are actually brains in vats (or for Wachowski fans, that we’re connected to the Matrix, which is essentially the same thing)*.  For the purposes here, at least, we’ll consider such viewpoints in light of the commonsense perspective–that is, that they’re cracked!  Thus, what I want to look at is the idea of the soul.  I’m doing so in order to develop the groundwork for some ideas I want to explore in my series on polygenism, specifically, and more generally in regard to my series on the Fall.  Since this post itself is a sort of stand-alone, though, I’ll put it in “Religious Miscellany“.

I should preface this discussion by stipulating that I do believe that the soul, as an entity distinct from the body actually does exist.  Obviously, not everyone believes this.  Many of the philosophically materialist persuasion would argue that what is commonly called a “soul” is merely the complex interaction of electrochemical processes in the human brain.  The more radical would argue that the mind itself is no different from the brain, except perhaps in an analytical sense.  Some, such as Daniel Dennett (if I understand him correctly) would even go so far as to deny the existence of sense of self and personal experience.  In this post, I’m not interested in arguing against a materialist view of the comos. For those interested in such a defense, I’d refer you to C. S. Lewis’s book Miracles.  For now, suffice it to say that I’m taking the existence of a discrete, immaterial soul that is distinct from the body for granted.

We use the word “soul” all the time, and we all have a vague agreement on what it means.  In general, “soul” means the center of identity that makes a person who he or she is, and which is distinct from the body.  That is, our memories, thoughts, emotions–that which we consider to be our “self”, our “identity”, including but not limited to the mind, is the soul.  The soul is in some sense “in” the body (though the spatial term “in” is really a metaphor) and interacts with and is affected by the body–for example, if the body becomes tired enough, we become unconscious, and things such as drugs can affect our minds.  Despite this, the soul is distinct from the body, and is usually held to be separable from it, and to survive the body’s death.

Further, as is popularly conceived, though not always clearly articulated, the soul is not only the locus of the true self, it is the self.  We speak of having a soul, like we have a car or a television.  However, as the term is usually understood, it’s more accurate to say that we are souls.  This follows the ideas of Plato, notably in his dialogue Phaedo.  In effect, the true person is the soul, which merely “wears” the body as one would wear clothing.  Thus, while we may identify with our body, there is still a sense in which we do not consider it equivalent to ourselves.  We speak of “my” hand or kidney or hair, as if these things are not actually part of us, any more than “my” book or computer is.  We say of a departed one that “he” went to Heaven (or perhaps Hell), or that “he” was reincarnated.  Since his body remains, it is evident that the “he” to which we refer is the soul.

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Quote for the Week

The heaviest weight. – What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you : ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine. ‘ If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for no thing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?

–Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, translated by Josefine Nauckhoff; courtesy of Wikiquote.

The Alice Books

The two books that are perhaps the most famous children’s books of the Victorian Era were written by an unlikely author.  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (pronounced DOD-son–the “g” is silent) was an Oxford don–a professor of mathematics, specifically–a skilled amateur photographer, and a deacon in the Church of England.  Despite the expectations of his father, Dodgson did not emulate him by going on to the priesthood.  Rather, taking advantage of an exemption made for him by the dean of the college, Dodgson remained at Christ Church College, Oxford, for the rest of his life, lecturing in mathematics and occasionally preaching sermons as a deacon.

Dodgson never married nor had children of his own.  However, throughout his life he had many child-friends, mostly young girls.  One in particular, Alice Pleasance Liddell, made him famous.  Alice was the daughter of Henry George Liddell, dean of Christ Church, and a formidable classical scholar (he was co-author of Liddell and Scott’s Greek-English Lexicon, still in use after 175 years).  Dodgson became friends with Alice and her two sisters closest in age to her, Lorina and Edith.  They would often go on excursions, during which the girls would plead with Dodgson to tell them stories.  He was always happy to comply.  On one such excursion in 1862–memorialized by Dodgson as the “golden afternoon“–Dodgson, accompanied by his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth, took the three girls on a boat ride down the Isis River.

As usual, Dodgson, at the girls’ request, told one of his stories.  This time, at the end of the day, Alice implored Dodgson to write it down.  Eventually he did so and presented the result, Alice’s Adventures Underground, to Alice Liddell.  Later, at the suggestion of his friend George MacDonald, he expanded and reworked the book for publication.  The result, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name Lewis Carroll (by which Dodgson is usually known), was a sensation, and has never been out of print since.  In 1871 Dodgson published the equally well-known sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.  In 1876 he published the long comic poem The Hunting of the Snark, which, in modern parlance, takes place in the same universe as the Alice books; and in 1895 he published the two-part children’s novel Sylvie and Bruno.  Sylvie and Bruno is largely forgotten, considered by most to be Dodgson’s weakest work.  The Alice books, along with The Hunting of the Snark, are his masterpieces.

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The Disenchantment of the World, Part 4: The Enlightenment


On this rather elliptical path towards looking at religion as role-playing, we’ve looked at the religious milieu of the ancient Greco-Roman world, the origins of monotheism, and why it replaced paganism.  Many aspects of pagan belief remained, of course, under a (sometimes extremely thin) Christian veneer, and sometimes more or less openly as various types of folk practice and superstition.  Still, Christianity was on the whole dominant for nearly a millennium and a half after it conquered pagan Rome.  What struck a blow from which Christianity has never completely recovered, and which began the disenchantment of the world in earnest, was the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment is the period beginning at about the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th Century in which a new focus on reason and secularism began to be manifested in Western and Central European society, and to a lesser extent in Eastern Europe.  It’s always hard to give a concise definition of a complex phenomenon such as the Enlightenment, but the following points can serve as a beginning.  The Enlightenment was characterized by

  1. An emphasis on human reason, as opposed to Divine revelation.
  2. A focus on science and the scientific method.
  3. A call for political and social equality:  that is, democracy over monarchy, the intrinsic equality of all classes and nationalities, and even the beginnings of equality between the genders.
  4. A call for political and religious liberty:  Established religions were to be opposed, freedom of religion and association were promoted, and people were to be free to change their governments if need be.
  5. A desire to put human reason and science to work in improving human society, especially by rationalistic and technocratic means.
  6. An emphasis on the individual over the collective.
  7. A suspicion of organized religion and a tendency towards Deism and anti-clericalism.
  8. Optimism and (to some extent) utopianism as to the prospects of improving society; and a tendency to view the past as primitive, superstitious, and obscurantist, and the future as the realm of glorious possibility.

I think those points are a fair outline of the Enlightenment worldview.  It’s very clear from points 1 ,2, 5, and 8 why the Enlightenment resulted in so much disenchanting of the world; but before I go on with that, I think we need to look at the context of the Enlightenment, lest we misunderstand what followed.

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Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandria was one of the last pagan philosophers of antiquity.  Daughter of the mathematician Theon, she was active in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th Centuries AD  Her father, though not a major mathematician in his own right, edited and corrected the mathematical works of Euclid, and his edition was so accurate that it supplanted all other editions for centuries.  His daughter was talented in mathematics as well, and also was renowned as an astronomer.  Her main claim to fame, though was as a teacher of Neoplatonism.

A fair amount of background is necessary.  Alexandria, Egypt–founded, shockingly, by Alexander the Great in the 4th Century BC–had become one of the Mediterranean world’s great metropolises, second in size only to Rome itself, and second to none in its cultural influence.  Alexander, conqueror though he was, was also an idealist.  He had a dream of spreading Greek culture worldwide, taking the best of the cultures it encountered and blending it with Greek learning and culture.  Though he died young and his empire dissolved into several states led by his generals, Alexander’s dream lived on.  The various successor states to Alexander’s empire indeed spread Greek–that is, Hellenistic–culture throughout the ancient world.

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Simone Weil

This entry in my series “Your Own Personal Altar” is about Simone Weil.

Simone Weil was a French philosopher and writer of the mid-20th Century. A child prodigy, she learned classical Greek by the age of twelve, and Sanskrit later on.  She obtained a certificate in general philosophy and logic from the prestigious École Normale Supérieure, and worked intermittently as a teacher.  From early in her life, she was drawn to left-wing politics (she even had an argument with Leon Trotsky to his face when he visited her parents in 1933, when she was twenty-four years old).  She wrote political pamphlets and was involved in activism and strikes on behalf of workers’ rights.  In her personal life, she was extremely–some might say quixotically–dedicated to solidarity with the oppressed.  Even as a child, during World War I, she refused to use sugar in her food because it was not available to the troops at the front. Later, she worked briefly in a Renault auto factory to experience what the workers experienced, donating her salary to various causes.  Though originally a pacifist, she tried to participate in the Spanish Civil War.  Being naturally clumsy and having very poor vision, though, she displayed no military competency at all, and no commander would actually assign her to an combat position.  Her brief stint in Spain ended ignominiously when she accidentally scalded herself after tripping over a pot of boiling liquid, and was burned so severely that she had to return to her parents’ home for recuperation.  Ironically, this was a blessing in disguise for Weil–not long after she left Spain, her unit was attacked and suffered massive casualties.  Every single woman in the unit died.

During World War II, she fled with her family to New York.  She wished to be active for the French cause, though, so she left America for England in 1943.  There she hoped to be able to train so that she could return to France as an allied agent.  She had contracted tuberculosis by this time, though.  In line with her idiosyncratic notions of solidarity, she not only refused special treatment, but she refused to eat more food than was available to her compatriots in the war zone.  Thus, while she didn’t cease eating altogether, her food intake was not nearly adequate for her fragile condition.  Despite the best attempts of  her frustrated doctors, she died that year at the age of 34.

Relatively unknown outside of left-wing political circles during her life, her writings have been posthumously collected and printed in the years since then.  Gradually, Weil has come to be considered a significant thinker, and there is increasing study of her thought.  Recently a biographical documentary about her has been made.  Given all this new prominence, it is interesting that much of the renewed interest in Simone Weil is not an interest in her politics–the thing for which she was most known during her life–but her religious views.  It is for these, in fact, that I am including her on my personal altar.

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Omar Khayyám


Appropriately, I begin this series with the patron of this blog, ‏‏غیاث الدین ابوالفتح عمر بن ابراهیم خیام نیشابورﻯ, in proper Persian transcription, Ghiyāth ad-Din Abu’l-Fatḥ ‘Umar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī.  In the West, though, he’s most commonly known as Omar Khayyám (in the Victorian era, when Edward FitzGerald’s famous translation of Omar’s poetry became wildly popular, the custom for indicating long vowels in Persian transcription was to use the acute accent; nowadays, the macron is preferred; hence, “Khayyám” vs “Khayyām”).

Omar is best known in the west as the author of the Rubáʿiyát.  This is the plural of rubáʿi, which simply means “quatrain” (a verse of four lines).  The rubáʿi was a very popular genre of verse in Persia, and hundreds of rubáʿiyát are attributed to Omar.  Beginning in 1859, the English poet Edward FitzGerald translated a number of the rubáʿiyát attributed to Omar, publishing them under the title The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (for keen-sighted readers, I’m not being inconsistent.  The apostrophe, representing the glottal stop, should properly be between the first “a” and the “i” in rubáʿiyát–thus, it’s pronounced “roo-BAH-ee-yaht”, not “roo-BYE-yaht”.  However, FitzGerald left it out, for whatever reason.  Thus, when I print the title as he gave it, I’m following suit; but when discussing the genre as such, I’m leaving the glottal stop in).  Over the remainder of his life, FitzGerald produced five editions of the Rubáiyát.  This book became immensely popular in the Victorian age, and while less well-known now, it is still moderately popular, and has never been out of print.

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