Schopenhauer on Happiness (3c, Ecclesiastes)

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Schopenhauer quite rightly notes that all is impermanent and all will decay. His solution is to reject all hope and expectation and thus avoid disappointment. As we have seen from Shakespeare and Shelley, this is not the only potential response. One could bemoan the tragedy of loss (Macbeth), receive the knowledge with equanimity (Tempest), or realize there will be loss and thus hold more tightly to and cherish what is good knowing that it will all soon be lost (Shakespeare & Shelley).

Another response is the redemption of all that is lost. The book of Ecclesiastes famously declares, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”. Eccl. 1:2 Vanity translates a Hebrew word Hebel, which refers to something which is transient, insubstantial, like a breath or mist. From that, the writer draws the conclusion that nothing is world is sufficient to bring contentment to anyone in this life:

Ecclesiastes 2:10–11 (ESV)

10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

That however does not end the matter:

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

That matter of bringing everything into judgment may sound ominous. However, what it means in the context of the world being temporal is that the world is also meaningful: There will be a date on which all things which be confirmed as having eternal significance.  The solution to the temporality of the world is not renounce the world and all its good; nor is it to love in despair. Rather, knowing that the temporal world will be judged and remade as a permanent matter will make this world and life meaningful.

In the 15th chapter of his first letter to the Corinthian church Paul lays out the Christian doctrine of the resurrection, wherein even the human body will not be lost but will be remade in an unchanging manner:

1 Corinthians 15:42 (ESV)

 42 So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable.

In light of the resurrection, our life and work is not meaningless:

1 Corinthians 15:58 (ESV)

 58 Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

By stating their labor is not in vain, Paul is underscoring the permanence of human existence. The mutability of the world is not the last word. The Christian sees the world as temporal, along with the Buddhist, but rather than seeing the end as dissolution, sees the end as permanence:

2 Corinthians 4:16–18 (ESV)

 16 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. 17 For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, 18 as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

Therefore, happiness is not contingent upon renunciation, nor must one “cross-fingers”, and know that the joy will be destroyed. Rather, the goal is set hope upon permanent joys.

Schopenhauer on Happiness 3b (Mutability, Poem by Shelley)

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Contemporary with Schopenhauer is the English Romantic Poet Percy Shelley.

I.

The flower that smiles to-day

To-morrow dies;

All that we wish to stay

Tempts and then flies.

What is this world’s delight?

Lightning that mocks the night,

Brief even as bright.

 

This first stanza comes closet to Schopenhauer’s pessimism. The flower “dies”. Those things we desire “tempt” and then they “fly”. He speaks of the world as purposefully causing this pain. Delight in this world “mocks” and has as much permanence as lightning at night.

 

But there is a hint here of something else: The flower “smiles”. That temptation is of a “delight”. Lightning may mock, but it is bright.

 

The final line “brief even as bright”.

 

II.

Virtue, how frail it is!

Friendship how rare!

Love, how it sells poor bliss

For proud despair!

But we, though soon they fall,

Survive their joy, and all

Which ours we call.

 

He moves from the physical to the moral world. Virtue is “frail”. Friendship is “rare”. Love turns to “despair”. Again, there is another side to these things: Virtue and friendship are good things, hence, the trouble of their loss. Love entails “bliss”. And these things all pertain to “joy”. They are lost, but they are good.

 

III.

Whilst skies are blue and bright,

Whilst flowers are gay,

Whilst eyes that change ere night

Make glad the day;

Whilst yet the calm hours creep,

Dream thou—and from thy sleep

Then wake to weep.

 

At this point, Shelley offers a very different take than Schopenhauer. The philosopher will caution against any joy or good; he will seek no bliss, no delight. He will protect himself from loss by cutting off the elation and thus avoiding the loss.

 

Shelley offers a different solution: to enjoy these things now. He marks the time in a series of three lines “whilst”:

 

Whilst skies are blue and bright,

Whilst flowers are gay,

Whilst eyes that change ere night

 

While these good things last, do not reject them like (as Schopenhauer counsels), rather:

 

Make glad the day;

 

This is an interesting line, because until now the joys have been received. But here he gives counsel: you actively make the day glad, you drink in this joy.

 

He then turns to a resolution:

 

Whilst yet the calm hours creep,

Dream thou

 

Drink in this joy, but know that this is a “dream”. It is a joy which will not last. But even that passion is not to be lost:

 

and from thy sleep

Then wake to weep.

 

This in the Romantic vein of drinking in all passion. In the Prelude, Wordsworth refers to the poet

 

Crazed

By love and feeling, and internal though

Protracted among endless solitudes (V, 145-147)

 

Both Shelley and Shakespeare have looked directly into change and loss. But they provide a model of using the loss as the basis for passionately holding onto what will last.

Arthur Schopenhauer On Happiness 3a (Mutability)

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The rationale for Schopenhauer’s renunciation as the basis for happiness lies in the mutability of the physical world:

The chief obstacle to our arriving at these salutary views is that hypocrisy of the world to which I have already alluded–an hypocrisy which should be early revealed to the young. Most of the glories of the world are mere outward show, like the scenes on a stage: there is nothing real about them. Ships festooned and hung with pennants, firing of cannon, illuminations, beating of drums and blowing of trumpets, shouting and applauding–these are all the outward sign, the pretence and suggestion,–as it were the hieroglyphic,–of joy: but just there, joy is, as a rule, not to be found; it is the only guest who has declined to be present at the festival.

While Schopenhauer derived his concept of renunciation due to mutability based upon a Buddhist (which is consonant with Hindu concepts) understanding of reality. However, in evaluating his reading, we should also compare this language with Western responses to mutability. First, concepts of mutability were being addressed in contemporary Western Romanticism as well as Western thought generally. Second, by considering a different consideration of the same proposition from a different direction, we have a greater perspective to evaluate the matter.

Schopenhauer’s metaphor to life being a play (“Most of the glories of the world are mere outward show, like the scenes on a stage: there is nothing real about them), appears much in Shakespeare. Perhaps the closest analogy is found in Macbeth’s speech upon hearing that his wife has died and now his downfall is in view:

(FTLN 2278) [19]     The Queen, my lord, is dead.

Macbeth

(FTLN 2279) [20]     She should have died hereafter.

(FTLN 2280) [21]     There would have been a time for such a word.

(FTLN 2281) [22]     Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow

(FTLN 2282) [23]     Creeps in this petty pace from day to day

(FTLN 2283) [24]     To the last syllable of recorded time,

(FTLN 2284) [25]     And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

(FTLN 2285) [26]     The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

(FTLN 2286) [27]     Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player

(FTLN 2287) [28]     That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

(FTLN 2288) [29]     And then is heard no more. It is a tale

(FTLN 2289) [30]     Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

(FTLN 2290) [31]     Signifying nothing.

 

Act V, 5, 19-31. Schopenhauer has a similar view to Macbeth when it comes to the matter of the mutability of the world. Seeing that the world is impermanent, life is meaningless and is best not trusted. This is especially poignant in Macbeth, in that he has been destroying a kingdom and committing murder upon murder to obtain something which he hoped would be permanent: a kingdom. But even in that, he was told that the throne would not pass to his son.

There is thus the irony of seeking to obtain something seemingly powerful and permanent: a throne; and to seek it by proving that neither the throne nor life is permanent.

A similar but different view of the matter is found in The Tempest, Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage.

The Magician Prospero has put a play acted by spirits who appear from nowhere and then vanish just as quickly when Prospero needs to attend to other business. The young man who marry is daughter is distraught at the sudden disappearance of the spirits. Prospero then turns to him and uses the doctrine of mutability to explain the matter:

Prospero, ⌜to Ferdinand

(FTLN 1832) [163]   You do look, my son, in a moved sort,

(FTLN 1833) [164]   As if you were dismayed. Be cheerful, sir.

(FTLN 1834) [165]   Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

(FTLN 1835) [166]   As I foretold you, were all spirits and

(FTLN 1836) [167]   Are melted into air, into thin air;

(FTLN 1837) [168]   And like the baseless fabric of this vision,

(FTLN 1838) [169]   The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

(FTLN 1839) [170]   The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

(FTLN 1840) [171]   Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

(FTLN 1841) [172]   And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

(FTLN 1842) [173]   Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

(FTLN 1843) [174]   As dreams are made on, and our little life

(FTLN 1844) [175]   Is rounded with a sleep. Sir, I am vexed.

(FTLN 1845) [176]   Bear with my weakness. My old brain is troubled.

(FTLN 1846) [177]   Be not disturbed with my infirmity.

(FTLN 1847) [178]   If you be pleased, retire into my cell

(FTLN 1848) [179]   And there repose. A turn or two I’ll walk

(FTLN 1849) [180]   To still my beating mind.

Act IV, Scene 1, lines 163-180. This physical world is insubstantial, so why should a plain realization of this fact trouble you so. Shakespeare does not resolve this tension immediately, but does it work it out through the action of the play.

In Macbeth the usurpation of the king by murder results in the destruction of Macbeth and enormous sorrow for the kingdom. In the Tempest, the usurpation of the Duke (who becomes the magician on the island) is resolved by the restoration of his throne through the marriage of his daughter to the Prince of Naples.

When the play is read against the most common understanding which is Shakespeare giving his leave to the theater, there are various levels of irony. The play within the play is dissolved at the word of the Magician. The play itself is dissolved and the characters are released from their duty to the audience:

(FTLN 2344)          [1]               Now my charms are all o’erthrown,

(FTLN 2345)          [2]               And what strength I have ’s mine own,

(FTLN 2346)          [3]               Which is most faint. Now ’tis true

(FTLN 2347)          [4]               I must be here confined by you,

(FTLN 2348)          [5]               Or sent to Naples. Let me not,

(FTLN 2349)          [6]               Since I have my dukedom got

(FTLN 2350)          [7]               And pardoned the deceiver, dwell

(FTLN 2351)          [8]               In this bare island by your spell,

(FTLN 2352)          [9]               But release me from my bands

(FTLN 2353)        [10]               With the help of your good hands.

(FTLN 2354)        [11]               Gentle breath of yours my sails

(FTLN 2355)        [12]               Must fill, or else my project fails,

(FTLN 2356)        [13]               Which was to please. Now I want

(FTLN 2357)        [14]               Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,

(FTLN 2358)        [15]               And my ending is despair,

(FTLN 2359)        [16]               Unless I be relieved by prayer,

(FTLN 2360)        [17]               Which pierces so that it assaults

(FTLN 2361)        [18]               Mercy itself, and frees all faults.

(FTLN 2362)        [19]                     As you from crimes would pardoned be,

(FTLN 2363)        [20]                     Let your indulgence set me free.

He exits.

It was magic which presented the momentary world of the play, “Now my charms are all o’erthrown”. But within the logic of the play, he would be forced to stay on a “baren” island rather than returned to his dukedom: By the audience letting lose of the illusion of the play, the Magician is permitted to return to his “real” or proper life. When we take a step back and put this into the context of Shakespeare’s life, Shakespeare then would leave the false and magic world for the “real” life at his home.

But notice here that the temporality of the world in this play is not a cause for despair, but rather of release and rest. The play ends with “mercy” and “forgiveness”.

In Sonnet 73, Shakespeare uses the temporality of life as the basis to drive the intensity of the love:

73

[1]       That time of year thou mayst in me behold

[2]       When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

[3]       Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

[4]       Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

[5]       In me thou see’st the twilight of such day

[6]       As after sunset fadeth in the west,

[7]       Which by and by black night doth take away,

[8]       Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.

[9]       In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire

[10]     That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,

[11]     As the death-bed whereon it must expire,

[12]     Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

[13]     This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,

[14]     To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

In short, the mutability of life is seen as a catastrophe and tragedy in Macbeth, whose life is marked by murder and usurping the crown. But in other circumstances, the brevity of life can be seen as a basis to better cherish and love the instant world.

In fact, he points to an even deeper reality, a truer life which stands behind the changeable play of this world.

Arthur Schopenhauer on happiness.2

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Schopenhauer explains the heart of his philosophy is to “disown” life and this renunciation is the ultimate basis for his instruction on happiness:

He who has taken to heart the teaching of my philosophy–who knows, therefore, that our whole existence is something which had better not have been, and that to disown and disclaim it is the highest wisdom–he will have no great expectations from anything or any condition in life: he will spend passion upon nothing in the world, nor lament over-much if he fails in any of his undertakings.

There are various ways to understand Schopenhauer at this point. He admittedly derived a great deal of this his thinking on this point from Eastern religion, particularly Buddhism.  I wish to be careful here, because my knowledge of Buddhism and Hinduism is limited. However, a few citations may help explicate some of the background on his instruction in happiness at this point. For those who would like to take a dive into his relationship to Buddhism, here is an essay from  Peter Abelsen, Philosophy East&West Volume 43, Number 2, April 1993.  255-278, entitled, “Schopenhauer and Buddhism” http://www.ahandfulofleaves.org/documents/Articles/Schopenhauer%20and%20Buddhism_PEW_Abelsen_1993.pdf

Here are some quick citations which provide a quick background to the topic:

With the self unattached to the external contacts he discovers happiness in the Self; with the self engaged in the meditation of Brahman he attains to the endless happiness. Bhagavad-Gita 5.21

Kesava Kasmiri’s Commentary on this verse states:

If a person is inclined to attachment to sensual pleasures they will never have the opportunity to experience the transcendental bliss of the realisation of the  Brahman or the spiritual substratum pervading all existence. But a question may be raised what happiness can a person derive from life if they have introverted their senses and are averted to sense objects. Lord Krishna states the compound words  sukham-aksayam meaning unlimited happiness is what such persons attains for with disconnection to the senses and objects of the senses a natural detachment arises which frees one from worldly desires allowing one to focus within on the eternal atma or eternal soul where one tastes boundless joy and experiences unlimited bliss. In the moksadharma section of the Mahabharata it states that: The pleasures of the senses in this world and the joys of heavenly pleasures cannot be compared to even 1/16th part of the pleasure one derives from renouncing the desire for material sense gratification. This is the essential component that paves the way for perceiving the Brahman or spiritual substratum pervading all existence, atma tattva or realisation of the soul and moksa or liberation from the material existence and cognition of the ultimate truth of the Supreme Being.

The concept of renunciation is central to Buddhism. Schopenhauer’s connection between happiness and renunciation is articulated within Buddhism as for instance in this essay, “Renunciation and Happiness”:

When we understand this, we can start to glimpse that renunciation is not a matter of doing something or having to create something, or getting rid of some­thing or exterminating something in life. Rather it is moving towards non-conten­tion, a sense of rest and relaxation—not having constantly to try and manipulate and control and evade and maneuver any more. We are able to open in a fear­less way and relax into the experience of the moment, whatever its quality may be. In opening to receive life, we still engage in the conventional level of reality—the social level of moral values, indentities, mother and father, livelihood and mort­gages. If we grasp these things and ex­pect complete fulfillment from them, we will always be disappointed. But if we see our life as an opportunity to under­stand Dhamma—the way things are—that is renunciation. This letting go is very freeing. Whatever comes to us is Dhamma, and there is a joy in being in contact with Truth, whatever its particu­lar flavor.

Renunciation can sound like passiv­ity, a “door mat” philosophy, but actu­ally it is the opposite. True response-abil­ity—the ability to respond wisely and compassionately to life—naturally arises in the non-attached mind. There can be both activity and letting go.

https://www.buddhistinquiry.org/article/renunciation-the-high-happiness/ I would be curious to know whether the precise concept of “happiness” was connected to the concept of renunciation prior to extensive Western contacts. Schopenhauer obviously is drawing a connection between renunciation and happiness. What I do not know is whether Schopenhauer is first in tying the two concepts together. Certainly there is a connection between tranquility and renunciation which pre-exists Western interaction; but whether this tranquility and “happiness” was drawn I simply do not know.

Arthur Schopenhauer on happiness.1

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If we are to be happy, we must first know what happiness means, in what does consistence? Schopenhauer begins with Aristotle’s definition happiness consistency in the avoidance of pain rather than in some pleasure, “The first and foremost rule for the wise conduct of life seems to me to be contained in a view to which Aristotle …. not pleasure, but freedom from pain, is what the wise man will aim at.”

Aristotle works through a number of options concerning the nature of happiness becomes to his consideration of happiness as the avoidance of pain. Schopenhauer comes about the matter in a fundamentally different manner than Aristotle. Rather than reason to a conclusion, he begins with the conclusion and justifies that conclusion.

First, he takes over the observation of Aristotle, “It is clear, therefore, that Moral Goodness has to do with pleasures and pains.” Thus, the only axis upon which to measure happiness is a matter of relative pleasure or pain. Having laid out the axis, he then proceeds to make his justification: “Happiness is but a dream and sorrow is real, would be as false as it is, in fact, true.”

It is a curious argument concerning happiness to begin by rejecting even the potential for happiness, but this is where Schopenhauer begins:

A man who desires to make up the book of his life and determine where the balance of happiness lies, must put down in his accounts, not the pleasures which he has enjoyed, but the evils which he has escaped. That is the true method of eudaemonology [the study of happiness]; for all eudaemonology must begin by recognizing that its very name is a euphemism, and that to live happily only means to live less unhappily–to live a tolerable life. There is no doubt that life is given us, not to be enjoyed, but to be overcome–to be got over.…The happiest lot is not to have experienced the keenest delights or the greatest pleasures, but to have brought life to a close without any very great pain, bodily or mental.

He does not make an actual argument on this point, rather he makes the assertion as an axiom and rejects all other positions as “chimerical”:

To measure the happiness of a life by its delights or pleasures, is to apply a false standard. For pleasures are and remain something negative; that they produce happiness is a delusion, cherished by envy to its own punishment. Pain is felt to be something positive, and hence its absence is the true standard of happiness. And if, over and above freedom from pain, there is also an absence of boredom, the essential conditions of earthly happiness are attained; for all else is chimerical.

His argument is grounded in the understanding that the world is cursed and cannot be redeemed. There is and can be no escape from sorrow. I was told once that all the winners in Las Vegas have their names in lights: the casinos. The house has unbeatable odds; no matter how well you may bet in the short term, in the long term, probability will win. The downward curve is built into the nature of the world:

While it is a complete inversion of the natural order to try and turn this scene of misery into a garden of pleasure, to aim at joy and pleasure rather than at the greatest possible freedom from pain–and yet how many do it!–there is some wisdom in taking a gloomy view, in looking upon the world as a kind of Hell, and in confining one’s efforts to securing a little room that shall not be exposed to the fire. The fool rushes after the pleasures of life and finds himself their dupe; the wise man avoids its evils; and even if, notwithstanding his precautions, he falls into misfortunes, that is the fault of fate, not of his own folly. As far as he is successful in his endeavors, he cannot be said to have lived a life of illusion; for the evils which he shuns are very real. …The failure to recognize this truth–a failure promoted by optimistic ideas–is the source of much unhappiness. … To desire to get rid of an evil is a definite object, but to desire a better fortune than one has is blind folly.

If the greatest unhappiness comes from loss of expectation, then, “[T]he safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy.”

Arthur Schopenhauer on happiness.1

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If we are to be happy, we must first know what happiness means, in what does consistence? Schopenhauer begins with Aristotle’s definition happiness consistency in the avoidance of pain rather than in some pleasure, “The first and foremost rule for the wise conduct of life seems to me to be contained in a view to which Aristotle …. not pleasure, but freedom from pain, is what the wise man will aim at.”

Aristotle works through a number of options concerning the nature of happiness becomes to his consideration of happiness as the avoidance of pain. Schopenhauer comes about the matter in a fundamentally different manner than Aristotle. Rather than reason to a conclusion, he begins with the conclusion and justifies that conclusion.

First, he takes over the observation of Aristotle, “It is clear, therefore, that Moral Goodness has to do with pleasures and pains.” Thus, the only axis upon which to measure happiness is a matter of relative pleasure or pain. Having laid out the axis, he then proceeds to make his justification: “Happiness is but a dream and sorrow is real, would be as false as it is, in fact, true.”

It is a curious argument concerning happiness to begin by rejecting even the potential for happiness, but this is where Schopenhauer begins:

A man who desires to make up the book of his life and determine where the balance of happiness lies, must put down in his accounts, not the pleasures which he has enjoyed, but the evils which he has escaped. That is the true method of eudaemonology [the study of happiness]; for all eudaemonology must begin by recognizing that its very name is a euphemism, and that to live happily only means to live less unhappily–to live a tolerable life. There is no doubt that life is given us, not to be enjoyed, but to be overcome–to be got over.…The happiest lot is not to have experienced the keenest delights or the greatest pleasures, but to have brought life to a close without any very great pain, bodily or mental.

He does not make an actual argument on this point, rather he makes the assertion as an axiom and rejects all other positions as “chimerical”:

To measure the happiness of a life by its delights or pleasures, is to apply a false standard. For pleasures are and remain something negative; that they produce happiness is a delusion, cherished by envy to its own punishment. Pain is felt to be something positive, and hence its absence is the true standard of happiness. And if, over and above freedom from pain, there is also an absence of boredom, the essential conditions of earthly happiness are attained; for all else is chimerical.

His argument is grounded in the understanding that the world is cursed and cannot be redeemed. There is and can be no escape from sorrow. I was told once that all the winners in Las Vegas have their names in lights: the casinos. The house has unbeatable odds; no matter how well you may bet in the short term, in the long term, probability will win. The downward curve is built into the nature of the world:

While it is a complete inversion of the natural order to try and turn this scene of misery into a garden of pleasure, to aim at joy and pleasure rather than at the greatest possible freedom from pain–and yet how many do it!–there is some wisdom in taking a gloomy view, in looking upon the world as a kind of Hell, and in confining one’s efforts to securing a little room that shall not be exposed to the fire. The fool rushes after the pleasures of life and finds himself their dupe; the wise man avoids its evils; and even if, notwithstanding his precautions, he falls into misfortunes, that is the fault of fate, not of his own folly. As far as he is successful in his endeavors, he cannot be said to have lived a life of illusion; for the evils which he shuns are very real. …The failure to recognize this truth–a failure promoted by optimistic ideas–is the source of much unhappiness. … To desire to get rid of an evil is a definite object, but to desire a better fortune than one has is blind folly.

If the greatest unhappiness comes from loss of expectation, then, “[T]he safest way of not being very miserable is not to expect to be very happy.”

“The Church of Christ is the greatest and finest product of human history”

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We believe in the Holy Catholic Church. My contention would be that, apart from such a position as I desire to bring to your notice–some real apostolic belief in the real work of Jesus Christ–apart from that no Church can continue to exist. That is the point of view which I take at the outset. The Church is precious, not in itself, but because of God’s purpose with it. It is there because of what God has done for it. It is there, more particularly, because of what Christ has done, and done in history. It is there solely to serve the Gospel.

It is impossible not to observe at the present day that the Church is under a cloud. You cannot take any division of it, in any country of the world, without feeling that that
is so. Therefore I will begin by making quite a bold statement; and I should be quite prepared, given time and opportunity, to devote a whole week to making it good. The statement is that the Church of Christ is the greatest and finest product of human history. It is the greatest thing in the universe. That is in complete defiance of the general view and tendency of society at the present moment. I say the Church is the greatest and finest product of human history; because it is not really a product of human history, but the product of the Holy Spirit within history. It stands for the new creation, the New Humanity, and it has that in trust.

P.T. Forsyth, The Work of Christ

Chapter one

A Brief Observation on Herod: Irrationality, Sin, Suppression and God

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Anonymous-Artist_The-Magi-Before-Herod-from-the-altar-frontal-of-The-Virgin-with-Roses-c.1350

Something which I had not sufficiently considered about Herod is that he believes. He is not merely responding to a political threat; he is a panic over God. At some point, I may wish to develop this idea: there are two interesting themes here: (1) the irrationality of sin and suppression; (2) the effect of God intruding into human conscious such knowledge has been previously suppressed.

A good parallel here would be Judas & Peter. Anyway, to Herod:

Matthew 2:1–2 (ESV)

 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

The Magi approach Herod and speak of the one born the King of Israel.  Herod knows about this child. He has heard about the Messiah & he believes this to be true:

Matthew 2:3–6 (ESV)

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

                      “ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

                        for from you shall come a ruler

who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ”

Despite this knowledge, Herod has apparently put the thought out of his head. Herod is not a decedent of David. To the extent he has taken thought concerning the Messiah, he has realized that the Messiah will replace him.

He goes to the religious authorities and asks them for more information on this child: specifically where will this child be born.

Consider this for a moment: Herod has successfully kept God at a distance from his conscious thought. He knows these things are true, but they are not Herod’s concern.

When God does intrude into Herod’s thought, Herod becomes “troubled.” He has been successfully suppressing the knowledge of God. But when God forces his way into Herod’s conscious life, Herod can only be troubled.

He seeks to figure out how to manage God, by managing the situation. Thus, he needs some information upon which to act: Where is this Messiah. The religious leaders can give him a city, but not a house. For that information, he turns to the Magi:

Matthew 2:7–8 (ESV)

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

Before we go on, consider the irrationality of Herod. Yes, he was a famously dangerous and vicious man. But this even portrays a peculiar kind of irrationality. He knows God is doing something right here, right now. God has intruded into his world. God has so controlled history that a child is being born at a particular moment in history and this known even by Magi from the Parthian Empire.

But he thinks he has a play. If he gets to the right house, he will be to kill the child.

This is the bizarre calculation of sin: Paul begins his argument in Romans with the proposition that God in fact knows, and we humans know that God knows and yet delude ourselves into thinking that God won’t know this time.

More consciously this stunt is attempted, the more bizarre it becomes in practice. Herod knowingly wants to kill the promised Messiah. Why does he believe that he’ll be able to outsmart God? How does he think God will let him get away with this?

Notes, Shakespeare Sonnet 12

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1]         When I do count the clock that tells the time

[2]       And see the brave day sunk in hideous night,

[3]       When I behold the violet past prime

[4]       And sable curls  all silvered o’er with white;

[5]       When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,

[6]       Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,

[7]       And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves

[8]       Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;

[9]       Then of thy beauty do I question make

[10]     That thou among the wastes of time must go,

[11]     Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake

[12]     And die as fast as they see others grow;

[13]     And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defense

[14]     Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

 

First Stanza

[1]       When I do count the clock that tells the time

[2]       And see the brave day sunk in hideous night,

[3]       When I behold the violet past prime

[4]       And sable curls all silvered o’er with white;

The matter of change, of mutability has been a theme of poets: although it is not a theme I see taken up much of late. The issue is one of change: how do we account for change? What does change mean? What can we do about change?

I don’t believe this theme has the same resonance of late, because we do not believe in any permanence. We are nominalist: there are no universals, no nature. Things are what they call them.

This has a cost: nothing can change, because nothing is something truly. This or that is only as much as I call it by name.

The matter of mutability is a question of why the particular fades from the essence, from the permanent form. That does not trouble us as it would have troubled a careful observer of Shakespeare’s time.

And so when he sees change: the clock face move, the night comes on, black hair turn white, he forces him to contemplate death (stanza three).

The phrase “hideous night” is a striking phrase: why hideous? It is only hideous as the best fades off to danger and death.

 

Second Stanza

[5]       When lofty trees I see barren of leaves,

[6]       Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,

[7]       And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves

[8]       Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard;

This is not quite a move to “nature”, but rather to living things. The first stanza concerns time, this concerns most particularly plants. It’s the end of Eden.

Trees become bare of leaves; and summer fields turn to a “white and bristly beard”.

It is an interesting image: summer is being borne out on a bier. This bearing summer out on a bier, no longer green by now with a “white and bristly beard” would have struck Shakespeare’s first readers more directly. The Golden Bough, by Frazer, provides numerous examples of folk festivals involving bringing in summer and taking out summer by means of some vegetation for the purpose of maintaining fertility.

These images become the basis for an encouragement of the object of the poem to himself be fertile.

Shakespeare takes the inherent purpose of the ancient rituals and uses them as a basis for encouraging the fertility of one.

 

Third Stanza

[9]       Then of thy beauty do I question make

[10]     That thou among the wastes of time must go,

[11]     Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake

[12]     And die as fast as they see others grow;

Death comes around constantly in this world. There is no manner of surviving return of winter but some new fertility.

I know that you will not last the winter: nothing does. There is only one answer to the winter, spring.

You, my friend will “among the wastes of time [] go”. Everything which is sweet and beautiful will be lost: that which is beautiful today will “die”. There is only one solution, new life (since the current life will not persist).

Couplet

 

[13]     And nothing ’gainst Time’s scythe can make defense

[14]     Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence.

 

The only thing which survives the winter is a new birth in Spring. There is nothing which survives the death of a man except a child.

 

Time comes like the “scythe” of harvest in autumn, to be followed by winter. Only the spring crop will survive the harvest and winter.