Antitheses

The Antitheses are the six parallel teachings, delivered by Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount, as recounted in Chapter 5 of the Gospel According to St Matthew, starting at verse 21. I summarize:

  1. Do not kill people; do not even get angry with them.
  2. Do not commit adultery; do not even fantasize about it.
  3. In divorce, follow the established procedure; do not even divorce.
  4. Do not forswear yourself; do not even swear.
  5. Keep retribution commensurate with the crime; do not even seek retribution.
  6. Love your neighbor; love even your enemy.

For better or worse, these are part of the cultural heritage of many of us; they are at least a commentary on the cultural heritage (the Mosaic Law) of more of us.

I write now specifically, because I think the Antitheses can illustrate or illuminate some contemporary philosophical concerns, as seen in a few articles that have come to my attention. Topics include

Of particular concern to me is that theorists of punishment would ignore forgiveness, and at least one theorist would think there could be responsibility without freedom.

I shall bring in that work of William Blake whose title names a synthesis of antitheses: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Meanwhile, by way of introduction, I shall consider

  • the origin of the term “Antitheses,”
  • its meaning,
  • Socrates’s dubiety about writing as opposed to talking, and
  • what we need for talking properly.

A friend who read an earlier draft of this essay suggested that it could use some “thematic discipline.” To my mind this would mean breaking the work into pieces, each to be expanded into its own essay. I am loath to think that anything here should simply be deleted, although I might have less interest in some of those separate essays than in others.

Another friend independently alerted me to a poem called “Heart’s Horizon,” by conductor Vladimir Fanshil:

In this world
   Fences and lines
Are couches of society:
To protect, divide & define
My hearts fence
    Is the horizon
& when I reach it
there I’ll draw the line.

Everything is interconnected, and fitting things into fences and lines does violence to them. Nonetheless, in part because another friend said he simply didn’t know what I was talking about, I have divided the essay into sections, which can be reached with the links above, if not by just reading through.

Why antitheses

From Wikipedia I have learned for the teachings above the term “Antitheses,” and that the term originated with the Gnostic heresiarch called Marcion of Sinope. In the New Oxford Annotated Bible (Revised Standard Version, 1973), the heading of the notes for Matthew 5.21–48 is simply, “Illustrations of the true understanding of the Law.”

This “true understanding” is not necessarily a new understanding. In the same edition of the Bible, a note at Proverbs 25.21–22 refers forward to the Sixth Antithesis. A note here could just as well refer back to the verses of Proverbs, which read, in the King James Version,

If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink:

For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.

I thank the blog Adventures in Ankara for reminding me of these verses, which would seem to contain the germ of (at least) the last two of the Antitheses. As is said in the second verse of the same chapter of Proverbs,

It is the glory of God to conceal a thing: but the honour of kings is to search out a matter.

Theses and antitheses

Etymologically speaking, a thesis is something given a position. An antithesis stands in opposition to a thesis. The opposition expressed by the prefix “anti-” may have varying degrees. With respect to a given place on earth, the antipodes are as far away on the planet as can be; but the small island of Antikythêra, which gives its name to a remarkable ancient mechanism found in the sea nearby in 1902, is only 38 kilometers from Kythêra, towards which tended, by the account of Hesiod, the foaming genitals of Uranus, severed by Cronus, before they came ashore at Cyprus and gave birth to Aphrodite.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, an antithesis is (1) “an opposition or contrast of [two] ideas …” or (2) the second of these two ideas (or of the two clauses expressing them). For the six teachings of Jesus in Matthew 5, I shall use the term Antitheses, not necessarily as implying a Manichaean irreconcilable opposition, though this may have been the meaning of Marcion.

We might understand the Antitheses as instances of a more fundamental antithesis: that of the letter and spirit of the law. There is a related antithesis of

  • liberty to do what the law does not forbid and
  • responsibility for what we do, even when the law leaves us free.

Being about retribution, the Fifth Antithesis especially, though not exclusively, suggests the antithesis of punishment and forgiveness. What Jesus says is,

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.

Rules such as “An eye for an eye” mean presumably that retaliation for an injury should be measured. When we try to mete out punishment, we may exceed or fall short of the just amount. At the very least, the Fifth Antithesis is a warning against excessive punishment. A warning against the reverse is probably not needed.

Speaking and writing

A Latin antithesis may clarify what Jesus is trying to do:

Verba volant, scripta manent.
The spoken word flies, the written word remains.

This can have two meanings:

  1. The spoken word flies away and is lost, while the written word stays with us.
  2. The written word stays behind, while the spoken word comes along with us.

Written words like “An eye for an eye” come down to us from the Books of Moses. The proper or intended meaning may not have come along with them.

That is pretty much what Socrates tells Phaedrus, in the Platonic dialogue named for him (at 275D, here in the 1914 Loeb translation by Harold North Fowler):

Writing has this strange quality, and is very like painting; for the creatures of painting stand like living beings, but if one asks them a question, they preserve a solemn silence. And so it is with written words; you might think they spoke as if they had intelligence, but if you question them, wishing to know about their sayings, they always say only one and the same thing.

Writing about such subjects as justice may be an amusing pastime; “but,” says Socrates (at 276E),

in my opinion, serious discourse about them is far nobler, when one employs the dialectic method (ὅταν τις τῇ διαλεκτικῇ τέχνῃ χρώμενος) and plants and sows in a fitting soul intelligent words which are able to help themselves and him who planted them …

I propose to consider the Antitheses dialectically. The Fifth Antithesis finds justice in a dialogue between punishment and forgiveness. The dialogue is not really between abstractions; it is between ourselves and within each of us.

The needs of dialectic

To engage in dialogue needs a certain degree of self-control. One has to be patient in listening to one’s misguided opponent. The law imposes external control. The thesis of the Sixth Antithesis refers to this control:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.

Jesus’s apparent source in Leviticus 19:18 is more explicit:

Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of they people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the Lord.

This verse is cited in The Greek New Testament (fourth revised edition, edited by Aland et al., 1993), which sets quotations from Hebrew scripture in bold. What Jesus says about loving neighbors is in bold; hating enemies, not. The antithesis begins:

But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you …

Nothing is bold here, but Aland et al. cite Exodus 23:4–5:

If thou meet thine enemy’s ox or his ass going astray, thou shalt surely bring it back to him again.

If thou see the ass of him that hateth thee lying under his burden, and wouldest forbear to help him, though shalt surely help with him.

Where then has Jesus found the teaching about hating one’s enemy? Perhaps he has been reading Book I of Plato’s Republic, where Polemarchus cites Simonides as saying, “It is just to render to each his due” (331D, in the 1930 Loeb translation by Paul Shorey). Polemarchus interprets this to mean, “friends owe it to friends to do them some good and no evil” (332A), while “there is due and owing from an enemy to an enemy what is also proper for him, some evil” (332B).

Doing evil to enemies is giving in to one’s passions. One should rather think things through. Socrates sets an example by observing that we can be mistaken about our enemies (334C). Plato sets an example by writing dialogues, rather than lectures. Jesus gives lectures, but in speech, not writing. What we have of these lectures lies in four different canonical Gospels, as if to say that no one piece of writing holds the truth, but is only the starting point for dialectic.

Political life

My attention was drawn to the Antitheses by a reference to one of them, late in Collingwood’s New Leviathan of 1942. Several years ago, in January of 2014, I started working through this book, writing a blog post about each chapter as I read it. The parts of the book are Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism. I was first interested mostly in the first part, which is an account of how we mature individually into free rational beings. One part of the process is converting appetites into desires.

As I have read the chapters of the New Leviathan, fitfully over the years, the outside world has seemed to become more barbarous, even with the kind of barbarism that was ravaging Europe as Collingwood wrote in the early 1940s. Collingwood ends with four chapters, reviewing four examples of barbarism. The last of these is Nazism. One of the earlier examples is the so-called Albigensian heresy, understood as a form of Manichaeism.

The Albigensians refused to swear oaths. They might thus seem faithful to the Fourth Antithesis:

Again, ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thine oaths:

But I say unto you, Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne:

Nor by the earth; for it is his footstool: neither by Jerusalem; for it is the city of the great King.

Neither shalt thou swear by thy head, because thou canst not make one hair white or black.

But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.

However, Jesus prefaces the Antitheses by saying,

Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.

Fulfilling the law is not the same as making it more strict.

The law establishes bounds on our freedom. The point is not to encourage license within those bounds. In one of the Abrahamic religions, the law about four wives means a man must not take a fifth wife, not that he ought to take even a second wife. Vegetarian Muslims can show in the Quran how God has instituted animal sacrifice, not for God’s own benefit, but for the benefit of humans. If you are going to make sacrifice, there is a proper procedure; but killing animals is not obligatory.

“Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect”: this is how Jesus sums up the Antitheses. Perfection does not mean adhering to the strict letter of the external law, even when the law itself is understood in the strict sense that Jesus’s words suggest. If you refuse to divorce your spouse, or to say the words “I swear,” this does not make you perfect, or even necessarily more perfect than otherwise.

To be more perfect, understand the commitment involved in marriage, and do not speak so carelessly that somebody might not trust you when you are being serious. If you think your marriage is failing anyway, or if you are asked to swear an oath, it is an historical fact that churches have worked out accommodations for divorce and swearing. These are not necessarily abuses of the Gospel.

The quest for perfection is dialectical. This is the theme of the New Leviathan, where Collingwood observes that the perfect state is neither a democracy nor an aristocracy. These are abstractions, and neither can be understood in isolation from the other. They are antitheses, we might say, though Collingwood does not use this term for them. In democracy, everybody rules; but who is everybody? Should the ruling class include children, or animals? In aristocracy, the best rule; but who are the best? They are not necessarily the progeny of those who are already considered the best.

Everybody should be best. Everybody should be perfect. This is the teaching of Jesus. If they keep this in mind, the democrat and the aristocrat can work together, dialectically. That is Collingwood’s liberal dream, which I can share, even as we live in a world where some persons refuse to engage in dialogue. They may still want to debate you, formally; but this can be a trap. I pause to note words of Laurie Penny, from “No, I Will Not Debate You” (Longreads, September 18, 2018):

The far right does not respect the free and liberal exchange of ideas. It is not open to compromise, and it does not want a debate. It wants power …

Steve Bannon, like the howling monster from the id he ushered into the White House, exploits the values of the liberal establishment by offering an impossible choice: betray their stated principles (free, open debate) or dignify fascism and white supremacy … Either way, what matters to them is not debate, but airtime and attention. They have no interest in winning on the issues. Their image of a better world is one with their face on every television screen.

Formal rules granting freedom of speech are good; but once they are written down, somebody can figure out how to abuse them.

For real dialectic, members of a deliberative body need not belong to a particular sect, or read a particular book. There are conflicting interpretations anyway of what are supposedly holy scriptures. There is even conflict over whether the scriptures need be interpreted.

Science

Formal adherence to external rules is not enough for the good life. This is my interpretation of the Gospel; but I think it is true independently. I see an instance of the idea in an article by Brian Earp called “The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit” (Quillette, February 15, 2016).

Natural science has a system whereby we conduct experiments, write them up, and submit the results for peer review. As a mathematician, I can say that we conduct experiments, if these are understood to include attempts to prove theorems.

The system of science is intended to bring us a more perfect understanding of the world. The system can fail. Thus I once wrote up a proof that I thought was correct. An anonymous referee did not disagree, and the proof was published. Then somebody discovered a counterexample. I found my error, and with more work, I found the correct theorem and proof. However, I already had a record of fallibility. Still, a referee accepted my new result. This was published, and other researchers have used the theorem. We might all still be wrong. The only proof that we are all correct is go back over the published proof, to make sure that there was indeed no mistake.

The system of science assumes good faith on the part of scientists. We may not have it. I think this is Earp’s main point. In medicine, for example, though even in physics, somebody with an agenda can abuse the system to promote an ill-founded idea that can somehow profit that person. For a recent example, see in the New York Times,He Promised to Restore Damaged Hearts. Harvard Says His Lab Fabricated Research” (October 29, 2018).

I connect all of this to the Antitheses of the Gospel. Righteousness is not just following the letter of the law, be this law the Torah or the scientific method.

I learned of Earp’s article through his retweet of a tweet by an entity called neuro.social.self. Thinking I might learn of other interesting papers through this entity, I started following it; I also replied to its original tweet, suggesting the connection between Earp’s paper and the Gospel. Then the entity blocked me (as I pointed out in another tweet). I can only imagine that the entity is directed by a doctrinaire Atheist, offended by my allusion to religion. However, nothing I have said about the Gospel, or shall say, asserts or assumes the existence of supernatural powers, unless perhaps those powers be understood as ourselves. As Blake says, at the end of a passage quoted below, “All deities reside in the human breast.”

Stoicism

The Antitheses can clarify Stoicism. Brian Earp has written about this doctrine too, in “Against Mourning” (Aeon, August 21, 2018). I would summarize his explication in Biblical language: Ye have heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt not mourn your dead: But I say unto you, That ye train your emotions, to know that what ye love can ever be taken from you.

Stoicism does not ask you to affect indifference. If you have not prepared yourself for the worst, then there is something wrong with not mourning, when the worst happens.

If a street sign says, “No Parking 9 AM to 5 PM,” this means you will not get a ticket at other times. It does not mean you ought to park then, or even have a car at all, much less feel self-righteous about it. Likewise should you not feel self-righteous about never breaking your word, or not swearing at all. Just do not give anybody reason to doubt your word, and do not be offended if they ask you to swear anyway.

Punishment

I interpreted the Fifth Antithesis as punishment versus forgiveness. Collingwood analyzes these two concepts in the penultimate chapter, called “God’s Redemption of Man,” in his first book, Religion and Philosophy of 1916. Punishment is suffering, undergone by the wrong-doer. Ideally it is moral suffering, brought on merely by verbal condemnation of the wrong-doing, with no incidental bodily pains or restrictions. Forgiveness is restoring the wrong-doer to society, without inflicting those incidental pains. For the young Collingwood,

[Punishment and forgiveness] refer to the same attitude of mind, but they serve to distinguish it from different ways of erring. When we describe an attitude as one of forgiveness, we mean to distinguish it, as right, from that brutality or unintelligent severity (punishment falsely so called) which inflicts pain either in mere wantonness or without considering the possibility of a milder expression. When we call it punishment, we distinguish it as right from that weakness or sentimentality (forgiveness falsely so called) which by shrinking from the infliction of pain amounts to condonation of the original offence.

Collingwood would later disavow the strict identification of such antitheses as punishment and forgiveness. They are rather “overlapping classes,” a notion he would develop in An Essay on Philosophical Method of 1933. Meanwhile, he said in the same chapter of Religion and Philosophy:

Granted, then, that in any given situation there can be only one duty, it follows necessarily that if of two actions each is really obligatory the two actions must be the same. We are therefore compelled to hold that punishment and forgiveness, so far from being incompatible duties, are really when properly understood identical.

They are not identical. We have already seen the distinction between them in the earlier quotation from Religion and Philosophy. What is the same, if anything, is what punishment and forgiveness seek, as it were, when they are in dialogue with one other.

Free will

I make bold to suggest that another Aeon article might have benefitted from considering forgiveness as an antithesis to punishment. In a dialogue with Gregg D. Caruso called “Just Deserts” (October 4, 2018), Daniel C. Dennett first says roughly what I say (or at least think) when people deny the existence of free will. When we grow from birth through adolescence and beyond, something happens to us. We gradually acquire or develop something, which is commonly called freedom of will. At least most of us acquire it, more or less. The process, again, is described in the first part of the New Leviathan. Some of us, in various ways, never grow up, and thus never become free. Here is how Dennett puts it:

A key word in understanding our differences is ‘control’. [Gregg,] you say ‘the way we are is ultimately the result of factors beyond our control’ and that is true of only those unfortunates who have not been able to become autonomous agents during their childhood upbringing. There really are people, with mental disabilities, who are not able to control themselves, but normal people can manage under all but the most extreme circumstances, and this difference is both morally important and obvious …

Caruso agrees that people have different levels of “rational control.” Still, he says,

As a freewill skeptic, I maintain that the kind of control and reasons-responsiveness you point to, though important, is not enough to ground basic-desert moral responsibility—the kind of responsibility that would make us truly deserving of blame and praise, punishment and reward in a purely backward-looking sense.

Caruso goes on to talk about retributive justice. Dennett agrees that it is “a hopeless muddle.” By Caruso’s account, of “the various justifications one could give for punishing wrongdoers,”

One justification, the one that dominates our legal system, is to say that they deserve it. This retributive justification for punishment maintains that punishment of a wrongdoer is justified for the reason that he/she deserves something bad to happen to them just because they have knowingly done wrong. Such a justification is purely backward-looking.

This is a crude understanding of retribution. It is the understanding expressed in the formula, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” The response of Jesus is, “resist not evil.” This is the Fifth Antithesis. Forgiveness is the other side of punishment, needed to fill out its meaning. Again, by his own account, Jesus has come not to destroy the law, but to fulfill it. The Greek for fulfill here is πληρῶσαι, which would seem to be cognate with each part of our verb ful-fill.

What the wrong-doer deserves is not “something bad,” but punishment. It remains to be seen whether punishment is something bad. Collingwood spells out the problem in Religion and Philosophy:

Punishment consists in the infliction of deserved suffering on an offender. But it is not yet clear what suffering is inflicted, and how it is fixed, beyond the bare fact that it must be deserved … Punishment is fixed not by a self-evident and inexplicable intuition, but by some motive or process of thought which we must try to analyse.

In the Republic again, Socrates gets Polemarchus to agree that “when [men] are harmed it is in respect of the distinctive excellence or virtue of man that they become worse” (335C) and, this virtue being justice, “It is not then the function of the just man, Polemarchus, to harm either friend or anyone else” (335D).

As was said above, punishment is properly effected, merely by condemnation of the crime. Here is Collingwood again: “The pain of punishment is simply the pain of self-condemnation or moral repentance.”

The teachings of science

Forgiveness is the other side of punishment. Responsibility is the other side of freedom. In a crude sense, we can inflict merciless punishment. Also crudely, we can have freedom from responsibility. Children especially have this kind of freedom. In a stricter sense, freedom is precisely a responsibility for one’s actions. Freedom is vague and ambiguous; or it is an abstract ideal, which, to be properly understood, must be paired with an antithesis, called responsibility or obligation.

Nonetheless, Sabine Hossenfelder grants the existence of responsibility, even while saying, “Free will is dead, let’s bury it.” This is the title of a post on her blog, Backreaction. The essay proper begins,

I wish people would stop insisting they have free will. It’s terribly annoying. Insisting that free will exists is bad science, like insisting that horoscopes tell you something about the future—it’s not compatible with our knowledge about nature.

According to our best present understanding of the fundamental laws of nature, everything that happens in our universe is due to only four different forces: gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear force. These forces have been extremely well studied, and they don’t leave any room for free will.

Those forces may “leave no room” for free will; and yet they somehow leave room for responsibility:

Even if you don’t have free will, you are of course responsible for your actions because “you”—that mass of neurons—are making, possibly bad, decisions. If the outcome of your thinking is socially undesirable because it puts other people at risk, those other people will try to prevent you from more wrongdoing. They will either try to fix you or lock you up. In other words, you will be held responsible. Nothing of this has anything to do with free will. It’s merely a matter of finding a solution to a problem.

On the contrary, if others are trying to do something to you, they are exercising their free will. Hossenfelder’s notion of responsibility makes no more sense than what I would call the freedom to incur responsibility. This freedom does make sense to me, although Hossenfelder rejects it as “bad science.”

Natural science has found a miraculously successful method of understanding the natural world. The method starts by assuming that there is no such thing as responsibility or freedom. Nothing in nature is trying to do anything; nothing is trying to accomplish anything; nothing is to be blamed for what does happen. At least, this is the modern hypothesis; we have not always made it. Things just happen now; and the way they happen can be described by mathematical laws.

I come not to destroy those laws, but to fulfill them. We have chosen, in our freedom, to adorn the world with these laws. Here I have used a word from Plate 11 of William Blake’s great work of antithesis, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

The ancient Poets animated all sensible objects with Gods or Geniuses, calling them by the names and adorning them with the properties of woods, rivers, mountains, lakes, cities, nations, and whatever their enlarged & numerous senses could perceive.

And particularly they studied the genius of each city & country, placing it under its mental deity.

Till a system was formed, which some took advantage of & enslav’d the vulgar by attempting to realize or abstract the mental deities from their objects; thus began Priesthood.

Choosing forms of worship from poetic tales.

And at length they pronounced that the gods had orderd such things.

Thus men forgot that All deities reside in the human breast.

For “ancient Poets,” read Galileo and Newton. Deities reside in the human breast; so does physics. It is only enslaving the vulgar to insist that, by divine command as it were, everything shall conform to the hypothesis on which natural science is founded: the hypothesis that there is no freedom or responsibility.

Consciousness

In Blake’s terms, David Chalmers seems to have been taken advantage of, or to be taking advantage, in his 1995 paper called “Facing Up to the Problem of Consciousness.” Here he lays out the “hard problem of consciousness”:

It is widely agreed that experience arises from a physical basis, but we have no good explanation of why and how it so arises. Why should physical processing give rise to a rich inner life at all? It seems objectively unreasonable that it should, and yet it does.

If “arising from a physical basis” means being explicable by physics, as founded on the hypothesis above, then our experience does not arise from a physical basis. Here though I assume our experience includes trying to do things, even things like physics, with varying degrees of success. Trying is an exercise of freedom.

My perusal of Chalmers’s article suggests that exertion of will is not part of his conscious experience. His experiences are visual sensations, along with:

the sound of a clarinet, the smell of mothballs. Then there are bodily sensations, from pains to orgasms; mental images that are conjured up internally; the felt quality of emotion, and the experience of a stream of conscious thought.

Perhaps Chalmers will find a “physical basis” for these things, if they really are merely things undergone or received. But are there not experiences that we actively create?

There is an experience of struggling to prove a theorem, but making no progress; then suspecting that the theorem is false, but finding no counterexample; then wondering what to do next. We can be struck on one cheek, be inclined to strike back, but then offer the other cheek to be struck. Is all of this to be understood, merely as part of a “stream of conscious thought”? If so, then what the stream flows with is like the water that, even in infancy, we learn to make and thus control.

One Comment

  1. Alexandre Borovik
    Posted December 13, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Very impressive. I have never noticed the thesis – antithesis structure of the Sermon on the Mount.

    Sasha

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