Category Archives: Ethics

Constitutive ends, transcendent ends, and rules

I don’t care about making money, I just love to sell carpet!

— Buddy Kallick

If you ask what the goal or end of a particular action is, there are a number of actions which admit of two distinct answers — which, after rejecting several even less felicitous terms (trust me, it’s possible!), I have decided to call the constitutive end and the transcendent end.

This distinction was brought to my attention as I was rereading some of the epigrams filed under “Diversion” in Pascal’s Pensées (Krailsheimer’s translation), so I might as well use one of his examples to explain what I mean.

[Those who say] that people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare that they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature. The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but hunting does so.

In this case, catching the hare is the constitutive end of the hunt — so called because such an end is an essential part of what makes a hunt a hunt. Without a hare (or some other quarry), there can be no hunt. Or, to be more precise, it is not the hare itself that is necessary so much as the idea of the hare, as a goal imagined in the hunters’ minds. It is quite possible to hunt even when there are no hares about, so long as the hunters do not know this.

The constitutive end is therefore absolutely necessary, in that the activity in question is by definition the pursuit of that end. Unless a person pursues that end, it is impossible for him to engage in that activity. However, psychologically, it often happens that the constitutive end is not the “real” end — not the thing that would really satisfy those who are ostensibly pursuing it. This is where transcendent ends come into play. (Sorry if that sounds a little too maharishi; again, you’ll just have to trust me when I say that these are the least infelicitous terms I could come up with.) In Pascal’s example, the transcendent end of the hunt is simply to distract the hunter, thus relieving him of the pain of thinking about our miserable human condition. I call it transcendent because it transcends the activity itself. The hunt as a hunt is perfectly intelligible on its own terms even without the knowledge that the hunters are seeking to be distracted from their own mortality — but not without the knowledge that they are pursuing a hare.


Furthermore, although the transcendent end is the “real” end — the one that the hunters actually care about — they must nevertheless focus all their attentions and energies on the constitutive end. In another of his examples, Pascal discusses a man who gambles a small sum every day for entertainment. Like the hare hunters, he doesn’t really want his ostensible goal (money) but rather diversion and distraction. If you offered to just give him some money each day on condition that he give up gambling, he wouldn’t be interested. However —

He must have excitement, he must delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift if it meant giving up gambling. He must create some target for his passions and then arouse his desire, anger, fear, for this object he has created, just like children taking fright at a face they have daubed themselves.

The transcendent end is such that it cannot be pursued directly, but only by means of the pursuit of a wholly different (constitutive) end. And the more you can lose yourself in the pursuit of the CE, forgetting all about the TE if possible, the more likely you will be to attain the TE.


Actively pursuing one end (the CE) in order to attain a quite different end (the TE) is a dicey business, since there will nearly always be actions which, while effective ways of reaching the CE, are actually detrimental to the TE. This is why it is often necessary to pursue the CE within a framework of rules.

Hunting, for example, is subject to standards of sportsmanship, and too-effective methods are deemed unsportsmanlike. This is very strange if you know only that the goal of the hunt is to capture a hare — but once you understand the transcendent end of distraction-from-one’s-mortality (or, in less charged language, “fun”), it becomes clear why hunting must not be permitted to become so easy that it fails to keep the mind occupied.

The same is true for the rules of other sports. If your purpose is to get the ball into the goal, it seems quite counterproductive to refuse to touch it with your hands — but in light of the transcendent end of soccer (distraction again), such rules make sense.


So far my examples — Pascal’s examples — involve only sports and other diversions, where the TE is distraction. However, I think the logic of constitutive ends, transcendent ends, and rules can also be applied to many other kinds of activities. A few examples follow.


St. Augustine, back before he was a saint, used to enjoy stealing for the sake of stealing. As the noted Augustine scholar Sir Michael P. Jagger puts it, “Augustine knew temptation,” loving not only “women, wine, and song,” but also “all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” In the saint’s own words (translated by E. B. Pusey):

I lusted to thieve, and did it, compelled by no hunger, nor poverty, but through a cloyedness of well-doing, and a pamperedness of iniquity. For I stole that, of which I had enough, and much better. Nor cared I to enjoy what I stole, but joyed in the theft and sin itself.

A pear tree there was near our vineyard, laden with fruit, tempting neither for colour nor taste. To shake and rob this, some lewd young fellows of us went, late one night (having according to our pestilent custom prolonged our sports in the streets till then), and took huge loads, not for our eating, but to fling to the very hogs, having only tasted them. And this, but to do what we liked only, because it was misliked.

Behold my heart, O God, behold my heart, which Thou hadst pity upon in the bottom of the bottomless pit. Now, behold, let my heart tell Thee what it sought there, that I should be gratuitously evil, having no temptation to ill, but the ill itself. It was foul, and I loved it; I loved to perish, I loved mine own fault, not that for which I was faulty, but my fault itself. Foul soul, falling from Thy firmament to utter destruction; not seeking aught through the shame, but the shame itself! . . .

So then, not even Catiline himself loved his own villainies, but something else, for whose sake he did them. What then did wretched I so love in thee, thou theft of mine, thou deed of darkness, in that sixteenth year of my age? Lovely thou wert not, because thou wert theft. But art thou any thing, that thus I speak to thee? Fair were the pears we stole, because they were Thy creation, Thou fairest of all, Creator of all, Thou good God; God, the sovereign good and my true good. Fair were those pears, but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had store of better, and those I gathered, only that I might steal. For, when gathered, I flung them away, my only feast therein being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin.

The pears were a constitutive end for young Augustine — no theft without something to steal — but the transcendent end was to taste “all the special pleasures of doing something wrong.” These are seemingly paradoxical pleasures, but everyone knows them; no one reads Augustine but recognizes himself in this passage. (I suppose the root of the pleasure is pride — glorying in the fact that one can do such things and enjoy them, in defiance of God, reason, and society.)

The theft was by definition a means to the end of getting pears — but the pears were valued only as a means to the end of committing theft.


Everyone knows the story of the widow’s mite (as it is always called for some reason; it should be “the widow’s mites“).

And Jesus sat over against the [temple] treasury, and beheld how the people cast money into the treasury: and many that were rich cast in much. And there came a certain poor widow, and she threw in two mites, which make a farthing. And he called unto him his disciples, and saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, That this poor widow hath cast more in, than all they which have cast into the treasury: For all they did cast in of their abundance; but she of her want did cast in all that she had, even all her living (Mark 12:41-44).

This is not generally considered one of Jesus’s “hard sayings”; most people naturally and intuitively understand and agree with the judgment expressed. For me, though, it has always been a major sticking point, something I have brooded over again and again in an attempt to understand Jesus’s message.

From a utilitarian point of view (and we moderns are all utilitarians to some degree), how can the widow’s donation possibly be judged better than those of the rich men? The rich men contributed substantially to the support of the temple at no real inconvenience to themselves — maximum benefit for the temple, minimum harm for the donors — whereas the widow made an enormous sacrifice which scarcely benefited the temple at all. By what criteria is that donation judged better which produces greater harm and less benefit?

One easy, not to say facile, explanation is that Jesus was making a statement about the general goodness of the attitude exemplified by the widow, not of this particular instance of it. What he meant was that it would be good if people in general (particularly rich people) were as proportionally generous as this poor widow had been. This particular widow’s gift was worthless and even actively harmful, but we ought nevertheless to praise it so as to encourage a similar attitude in others — specifically, in others who are not poor widows.

but that’s not what Jesus said. He didn’t say, “If only the rich could be so generous!” He said, “This poor widow hath cast more in.” It’s hard to avoid the (anti-utilitarian) conclusion that, for Jesus, the primary value of the gifts lay not in the good they did to the temple but in the harm they caused to the donors. The temple received more from the rich, but the widow sacrificed more, and thus her gift was superior.

Sacrifice is thus valued qua sacrifice, regardless of whether or not it helps anyone. However, not just any sacrifice will do. It must be a sacrifice motivated by love or piety — which in turn means that its constitutive end must be to help some other person, to further the work of God, etc. Although the widow wasn’t really helping the temple at all, it was nevertheless important that it was into the temple treasury that she cast her mites. Had she just cast them into the sea, it seems unlikely that Jesus would have been as approving. Likewise, when Jesus wanted the rich young man to sacrifice his wealth, he didn’t tell him to scatter his flocks and burn down his house; he told him, “sell whatsoever thou hast, and give to the poor.” Was the point really to help the poor? No, of course not. But helping the poor (or some similar “good cause”) was nevertheless necessary as a constitutive end. The transcendent end was the sacrifice itself, or perhaps the moral effects which sacrifice engenders.


Is all charity similar in kind to that demonstrated by the widow or demanded of the rich young man? There is, after all, something paradoxical about on the one hand scorning worldly goods and comforts (as a virtuous person should), and on the other hand trying to provide those goods and comforts for others as if we were thereby doing them some great service. Just as Pascal’s gambler had to “delude himself into imagining that he would be happy to win what he would not want as a gift,” doesn’t the charitable Christian have to delude himself into imagining that he can contribute to others’ happiness by giving them what he knows cannot bring happiness.

The constitutive end of charitable giving is to alleviate poverty — and that could be most effectively achieved by forcibly taking money from the rich and giving it to the poor. But such means would be detrimental to the transcendent end (namely, the happiness that comes from love, generosity, and gratitude), so a rule is needed (“thou shalt not steal”).


My work as a language teacher is necessarily based on the pursuit of constitutive ends. The transcendent end is to develop proficiency in English, and that goal can be achieved only through practice using the language. Language, however, is such that it cannot really be used without some communicative goal (which is why “Say something in Chinese!” is such an annoying request). In a recent class, for instance, I had my students read an English version of H. C. Andersen’s story “The Swineherd” and discuss whether the characters’ actions were right or wrong. (I knew from experience that women tend to sympathize with the princess, and men with the prince, leading to lively debate.) The real purpose of this whole exercise was to practice a few specific grammatical constructions — perfect modals (“he shouldn’t have deceived her,” “I would have done the same thing,” etc.) and the third conditional (“if she hadn’t kissed him, they wouldn’t have been banished”) — but this was accomplished by focusing almost entirely on the constitutive end of passing moral judgment on fairy-tale characters.

Of course, the most effective way for a group of Taiwanese people to reach any communicative goal would be for them to speak Chinese. Hence the need for rules (English only) to ensure that the transcendent end is served.


One type of error is to disregard rules and focus too exclusively on the constitutive end. Another is to focus directly on the transcendent end, forgetting that the activity cannot maintain its character — and thus cannot lead to the TE — unless the CE is kept in focus.

“We don’t keep score; we just play for fun.” People who say this exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding. Yes, fun is the real point (transcendent end) of playing — but unless you’re trying to win (the constitutive end) you’re not actually playing the game and therefore won’t have as much fun.

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Filed under Ethics, New Testament, Philosophy, Psychology

The insufficiency of mere virtue

But the injunctions “Be virtuous,” “Be courageous,” “Be great-souled,” “Be liberal” do not tell us what to do in the sense of what to aim at; they rather tell us how we should behave in the pursuit of our aim, whatever it is. But what should that aim be?

— Alasdair MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics


I’ve got a good idea for a game. Like all games, it needs rules, so I’ve got several. First, you’ve got to keep the ball within bounds; there’s a line painted around the edge of the playing field, and if the ball goes over the line it’s out of bounds. You can kick the ball, but you can’t touch it with your hands. Also, you’re not allowed to hit, kick, push, or spit on the other players. No steroids are allowed. Oh, and you have to wear a regulation uniform. Jumping is permitted, as long as you don’t jump too much. Excessive jumping is frowned on. That’s about it.

I know you’re thinking I must have forgotten to mention something — like what the goal is, how to win the game. Well, your goal is to score points, and you score points — (here’s the beauty of the game design) — by following the rules. The ref watches you while you play, and for every minute spent following the rules you get a point. Points are deducted for infractions — how many depends on how serious the offense — and in the end if you have a positive number of points, you win! (This is not an inherently competitive game. It’s perfectly possible for everyone to win.) Winning — ending with a positive number of points — is the main point of the game, but of course the more points you can get, the better.

That was the original version of the game, but I found that it had a few problems — the biggest one being that it was possible to win by just standing on the field doing nothing. So I added some more “positive” scoring criteria, to encourage players to actively play well rather than taking the negative path of merely avoiding violations. In the new version of the game, you also get points for helping other players. So, for example, if one of the other players has decided to try to keep the ball in the air for a full five minutes, you can get points by helping him do that. Or if he’s decided to stand perfectly still for the whole game, you can help prop him up — but of course don’t push him! Team spirit counts, too. Enthusiastically helping other players will get you even more points. You also get points for accuracy — for making the ball go precisely wherever it is that you want it to go — and for general grace of movement. In this new, richer version of the game, obeying the rules is the bare minimum expected; most of your effort will be devoted to being accurate and graceful and helping others.


A deeply unsatisfying game, obviously. A pointless one. But notice how much more intelligible it becomes with the addition of an objective goal, however arbitrary. Tell a player that his goal is to see to it that the ball enters net A more times than it enters net B, and suddenly all his grace and accuracy and teamwork become meaningful.

As with sports, so with war. Send an army onto the field with no orders but to be brave, loyal, and self-sacrificing, and nothing will come of it. But tell them that their goal is to capture Jerusalem — or to protect it from being captured, or whatever (just about any goal will do, really) — and you create a situation in which real bravery, loyalty, and self-sacrifice can appear.

The goal itself doesn’t really matter. The real point is not the achievement of the ostensible goal, but rather the virtue and excellence which are manifested in its pursuit. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra says, “a good war hallows every cause.” The cause itself may be completely pointless — as, for example, in soccer or World War I — but it must not be thought of as pointless. Unless the participants really care about the ostensible goal, no “good war” will result.


Moving from sports and war to life in general, I find that most moral philosophy is as unsatisfactory as the imaginary game described at the beginning of this post:

Be virtuous.

In the service of what goal?


And how is happiness obtained?

By being virtuous.

So what exactly am I supposed to do?

Implied answer: Whatever strikes your fancy, so long as you do it in a virtuous way.


This can be done. A more-or-less arbitrary goal can be chosen and pursued, and the result can be a life of virtue and happiness. (It can be instructive to Google the phrases “the purpose of life is” and “he devoted his life to” — the sentences tend to end in totally different ways.) But it only works if you don’t think about it too much. The soldiers must never stumble upon the disillusioning thought, “This? Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?”


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy

Life, or knowledge of good and evil: choose one

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.

— Proverbs 14:12 (and 16:25)

The upshot of my discussion (qv) of Bruce Charlton’s argument against atheism is that, yes, it is very likely a pathological belief — but that we cannot therefore write it off as a delusion. It is pathological not because it misrepresents reality, but because (like most religions) it fails to provide the artificial motives which are necessary in order to induce human populations to reproduce themselves under modern conditions. Humans, like many zoo animals, don’t breed well “in captivity” (i.e., in an unnatural and evolutionarily novel environment), and most belief systems, including all known atheistic ones, fail to cure that problem.

Only a handful of belief systems (the most prominent being Mormonism) qualify as non-pathological under modern conditions. The problem is that, by ordinary standards of evidence, these belief systems just don’t seem to be true. For Dr. Charlton, Mormonism’s effectiveness as an antidote to the modern pathology of voluntary infertility is evidence for its truth. However, the pathology is not essentially about incorrect beliefs, but about the inadequacy of evolved motives to induce reproduction under evolutionarily novel conditions. If certain forms of theism can cure that pathology, this is not evidence that they are true, but only that they are expedient under modern conditions. (The pathology will correct itself in any case, either by evolutionary changes in human nature or by the collapse of modernity — most likely the latter. However, if we want to continue to be both modern and human — and we do — it would certainly be expedient to convert to Mormonism or something similar.)

So, we find ourselves in the dilemma described in Proverbs: The beliefs that seem right lead to death; the beliefs that will save us seem wrong. If we — not we individuals, but we cultures, we nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples — choose to die for what we believe (or disbelieve), is that heroic or just stupid? The Christian answer is clear: If your eyes cause you to fall, pluck them out; better to enter into life blind than to perish outright.


The writer who addresses this dilemma most explicitly is Friedrich Nietzsche. I hadn’t read Beyond Good and Evil since I was a child, but a couple of days ago I felt a sudden urge to reread it (in Marianne Cowan’s English translation). By “coincidence,” I found that passage after passage tied into the train of thought triggered by Dr. Charlton’s post.

Here is section 4 of Beyond Good and Evil, which states the dilemma in the clearest possible terms:

The falseness of a given judgment does not constitute an objection against it, so far as we are concerned. It is perhaps in this respect that our new language sounds strangest. The real question is how far a judgment furthers and maintains life, preserves a given type, possibly cultivates and trains a given type. We are, in fact, fundamentally inclined to maintain that the falsest judgments (to which belong the synthetic a priori judgments) are the most indispensable to us, that man cannot live without accepting the logical fictions as valid, without measuring reality against the purely invented world of the absolute, the immutable, without constantly falsifying the world by means of numeration. That getting along without false judgments would amount to getting along without life, negating life. To admit untruth as a necessary condition of life: this implies, to be sure, a perilous resistance against customary value-feelings. A philosophy that risks it nonetheless, if it did nothing else, would by this alone have taken its stand beyond good and evil.

People will call this nihilism, but of course it is not. Nietzsche is not saying that nothing matters; he is saying that life matters — that it matters more than truth itself, and that any judgment, be it never so “true,” which stands in the way of life must be sacrificed. I myself have already taken a step down the Nietzschean path by choosing to accept the doctrine of free will — despite the fact that I know it to be logically self-contradictory — because it seems pragmatically necessary for life. Nietzsche forces us to face the uncomfortable fact that to think this way — to accept untrue or probably-untrue beliefs because they “further life” — is to “take a stand beyond good and evil.”

Essentially all modern Christians do this, and will generally admit to doing it if pressed. In the faith even of one who professes to “know beyond a shadow of a doubt” there lurks an element of Pascal’s Wager, of freely choosing beliefs which seem expedient rather than being compelled by adequate evidence. No Christian thinks of this as a Nietzschean move, or as being “beyond good and evil.” (Christians generally dislike Nietzsche, perhaps because he shines too bright a light on them.)

But this choosing to accept false beliefs is not a uniquely religious phenomenon. As Nietzsche says, everyone does it — because it is literally necessary for life — but some are more honest than others about it. Atheists are generally the least honest, Christians a great deal more so — but they still fall short of the unblinking, spade-calling candor of Nietzsche himself.


But perhaps one of our necessary, life-furthering delusions is the belief that no delusion is necessary or life-furthering. There is an obvious element of paradox in being so honest about our need for self-deception, in insisting on the important truth that truth is not the most important thing. Nietzsche’s paradoxical insistence that, while truth is of secondary importance, honesty is essential, is perhaps best understood in light of the above quotation. ” The real question” is not only “how far a judgment furthers and maintains life,” but also how far it “preserves a given type.” Nietzsche is not — though he seems at first glance to be — advocating a philosophy of “better a live dog than a dead lion.” “Type” — dog or lion — matters just as much as life, and as becomes clear later in Nietzsche’s book, the human type he wishes to preserve is one characterized by courage, and by the candor which comes with courage.

What tempts us to look at all philosophers half suspiciously and half mockingly is not so much that we recognize again and again how innocent they are, how often and how easily they make mistakes and lose their way, in short their childishness and childlike-ness — but rather that they are not sufficiently candid, though they make a great virtuous noisy to-do as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched upon. Every one of them pretends that he has discovered and reached his opinions through the self-development of cold, pure, divinely untroubled dialectic (in distinction to the mystics of every rank who, more honest and fatuous, talk about “inspiration”), whereas, at bottom, . . . a heart’s desire, made abstract and refined, is defended by them with arguments sought after the fact. They are all of them lawyers (though wanting to be called anything but that), and for the most part quite sly defenders of their prejudices, which they christen “truths” — very far removed they are from the courageous conscience which admits precisely this; very remote from the courageous good taste which makes sure that others understand. (from Beyond Good and Evil, Section 5)

The problem is that the stance Nietzsche is advocating — embracing “life-furthering” beliefs rather than true ones, expedience rather than principle — is hardly one that we would normally associate with courage. The courageous stance is the one expressed by Arthur Hugh Clough: “It fortifies my soul to know / That, though I perish, Truth is so” — compared with which Nietzsche’s own position seems more like a craven selling-out.

Truth, however, is not the only principle for which one can courageously take a stand. As becomes clear in the next (i.e., the sixth) section of Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche’s courageous man exhibits fealty not to the impersonal “truth” but to his own personal “moral intentions.”

Gradually I have come to realize what every great philosophy up to now has been: the personal confession of its originator, a type of involuntary and unaware memoirs; also that the moral (or amoral) intentions of each philosophy constitute the protoplasm from which each entire plant has grown. Indeed, one will do well (and wisely), if one wishes to explain to himself how on earth the more remote metaphysical assertions of a philosopher ever arose, to ask each time: What sort of morality is this (is he) aiming at? . . . there is nothing impersonal whatever in a philosopher. And particularly his morality testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is — that is, what order of rank the innermost desires of his nature occupy.

The courageous man, then, is one who wishes to live a particular kind of life and who orders his beliefs so as to further that goal — both in terms of staying alive and in terms of living by that particular morality.


This is ultimately unsatisfying, though. If there is no bedrock of objective truth — or if there is, but we choose to ignore it as irrelevant — then none of these supposedly “heroic” choices people are making really mean anything. A man’s chosen morality “testifies decidedly and decisively as to who he is,” says Nietzsche, making it sound terribly momentous — but without some fixed standard of real morality grounded in actual truth, “who he is” is just a bit of meaningless trivia; preferring morality A to morality B is no more significant than preferring chocolate over strawberry ice cream. There can be no real courage or heroism without something objective in which to ground it.

Even Nietzsche seems to see this at times. Much later in Beyond Good and Evil (section 39) he appears to backtrack from his earlier position and to stress the importance of truth — truth at all costs, even if knowing the truth should result in vice, misery, and death.

No one very easily takes a doctrine as true because it makes one happy or virtuous. . . . Happiness and virtue are not arguments. But we like to forget — even sensible thinkers do — that things making for unhappiness or for evil are not counter-arguments, either. Something might be true, even though it is harmful and dangerous in the greatest degree; it might in fact belong to the basic make-up of things that one should perish from its full recognition. Then the strength of a given thinker would be measured by the amount of “the truth” that he could stand.


Ultimately, the only humanly acceptable state of affairs is one in which we don’t need to make such trade-offs — one in which truth, life, virtue, and happiness are all mutually compatible. The only acceptable way in which to live is in the faith that that is indeed true: that the Good is a unitary thing which can be pursued in its entirety, without the need to permanently sacrifice one aspect of it to another.

Even that faith cannot obviate the need to make tough choices between truth and life, though, since they often seem to be incompatible. Do we embrace beliefs that seem true, in the faith that they will ultimately turn out to be life-sustaining as well; or do we choose beliefs that seem expedient, in the faith that they will turn out to be true?


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy

For Dante, hope is the one thing needful.

On the lowest terrace of Ante-Purgatory — that is, the lowest possible level for a soul whose ultimate destiny is salvation — Dante and Virgil meet Manfred of Sicily. According to the (perhaps unjust) accounts by which the poet Dante knew him, Manfred had been a moral monster, excommunicated by the Church and denied Christian burial. Among other enormities, he had allegedly murdered his own father, brother, and two nephews, and attempted the murder of a third nephew. In other words, he would ordinarily have been condemned to the very lowest Circle of Hell, to the realm of Caïna, as one guilty of treachery against his own kin.

Manfred, however, repented at the moment of death — or perhaps it was not even repentance in the usual sense of confession and contrition. He says simply “I gave myself back” (io mi rendei) to God.

After my body had been shattered by
two fatal blows, in tears, I then consigned
myself to Him who willingly forgives.

My sins were ghastly, but the Infinite
Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts
who ever would return, imploring It.

. . .

Despite the Church’s curse, there is no one
so lost that the eternal love cannot
return — as long as hope shows something green.

— Purgatorio iii. 118-23, 133-35 (Mandelbaum trans.)

The choice of words is highly significant: not “as long as he repents” or “as long as he dies with the name of Jesus on his lips” or anything like that, but “as long as hope shows something green” (mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde)Manfred died in the hope of salvation, and it was that — rather than repentance per se — which saved him.

(Contrast Dante’s Manfred with Byron’s character of the same name. The abbot implores the dying Manfred to “Give thy prayers to heaven —  / Pray — albeit in thought, — but die not thus,” but Manfred, having spurned the fiends, spurns God as well. His last words, as the abbot begs him again to make “but yet one prayer,” are “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die.”)

Manfred, the lowest of the saved, makes an interesting contrast with Virgil and the other virtuous pagans, the highest of the damned. The latter are “punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — and, as discussed in my previous post, one possible interpretation is that the “sin” for which the virtuous pagans are punished is also a lack of hope. Lacking the Christian revelation, they hoped for nothing higher than the Elysian Fields, and so that is all they receive. “I am Virgil,” the poet says later, in purgatory, “and I am deprived of Heaven for no fault other than my lack of faith.” Dante certainly seems to be portraying hope as the one deciding factor in the soul’s destiny. With it, even Manfred is salvable; without it, even Virgil is damned. That hope is the key distinction between purgatory and hell — between the suffering which saves and the suffering which does not — is reinforced by the inscription over the gates of hell, ending in the famous line “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

Having noticed this, I now find an emphasis on hope jumping out at me from many different parts of the Comedy. It is mentioned again and again in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante confronts the three beasts. The leopard “gave me good cause for hopefulness,” but “hope was hardly able to prevent the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.” Then, when the she-wolf appears, “I abandoned hope of ever climbing up that mountain slope.” And of course every cantica ends in the word “stars” — a traditional symbol of hope.


I am not yet ready to comment on Dante’s ideas regarding hope — I want to go through the whole Comedy again and spend some time digesting it — but I just wanted to point out an aspect of Dante that I had never noticed before.


Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature

Dorothy L. Sayers on the first few Circles of Hell

I’ve been making my way through Dante’s Comedy for my third time — this time in Dorothy L. Sayers’s version. The translation, which pulls off the incredible feat of reproducing the original terza rima rhyme scheme in English, certainly has its charms, but in many places it strikes me more as an interpretation of Dante than a faithful rendering, and I would recommend it only to those who have already read a more literal version. However, Sayers’s introduction to each cantica and brief commentary at the end of each canto are often very insightful.

The following is from Sayers’s commentary on Canto IV of the Inferno, which deals with the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo, to which Virgil and the other virtuous pagans are consigned.

After those who refused choice [described in Canto III] come those without opportunity of choice. They could not, that is, choose Christ; they could, and did, choose human virtue, and for that they have their reward. . . . Here again, the souls “have what they chose”; they enjoy that kind of after-life which they themselves imagined for the virtuous dead; their failure lay in not imagining better. They are lost . . . because they “had not faith” — primarily the Christian Faith, but also, more generally, faith in the nature of things.

The First Circle is uniquely troubling because its inmates seem to be there through no fault of their own. It is true that they are not actively tortured as those in the lower circles are — their only punishment is that “we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — but they seem not to have deserved even that. Virgil’s explanation in Canto IV is that these souls are damned for no other “fault” than that, living before Christ, they lacked baptism and did not profess the Christian religion. To damn them for failing to do what they could not possibly have done seems manifestly unjust.

However, that is not the whole story. Even in Canto IV we learn of how Christ descended to Limbo and rescued the unbaptized souls of Adam, Abraham, David, and other pre-Christian biblical figures. And once one has read the entire Comedy and found Cato in purgatory and Trajan in paradise, the situation appears even more complicated. It is not true that all non-Christians are summarily damned. It is not even true that all non-Hebrew non-Christians are summarily damned. Therefore, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and the other denizens of the First Circle must be there for some actual moral failing — a comparatively minor failing, but still one which precludes all possibility of salvation — a failing which, without the benefit of the Christian revelation, is almost (but not quite) inevitable. Sayers’s interpretation of that failing seems a plausible one.

“Dream other dreams, and better!” — the admonition of the angel at the end of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger. This, in Sayers’s interpretation, is what Virgil and the others failed to do. It is characteristic of Dante’s logic that each punishment in hell simply is the sin being punished, seen for what it truly is. If Virgil’s only punishment is that he has no hope, it stands to reason that that was also his only sin. (As a great admirer of Virgil and a somewhat obsessive re-reader of the Aeneid, I would have to say I agree with that assessment.) Where there is no vision, the people perish. By way of contrast, consider Goethe’s Faust — whose only virtue is that he lacks Virgil’s only vice. And Faust is saved.


In her commentary on Canto VII of the Inferno, Sayers comments on Dante’s passage through the first few Circles of Hell. Dante blacks out at the gate of Hell and enters the First Circle (Limbo) unconsciously. The passage from the First to the Second (where lust is punished) is made consciously but is not described in any detail. Dante then again loses consciousness and awakes in the Third Circle (where the gluttons are). The passage to the Fourth Circle (misers and spendthrifts) is described in a little more detail, and thereafter the passage from each Circle to the next is very clearly described. Sayers writes:

From Limbo to the Second Circle — from the lack of imagination that inhibits the will to the false imagination that saps it — the passage is easy and, as it were, unnoticed. From the Second Circle to the Third — from mutuality to separateness — the soul is carried as though in a dream. From the Third to the Fourth  Circle the way is a little plainer — for as one continues in sin one becomes uneasily aware of inner antagonisms and resentments, though without any clear notion how they arise. But as antagonism turns to hatred, the steps of the downward path begin to be fearfully apparent. From this point on the descent is mapped out with inexorable clarity.

For Sayers, what distinguishes the sins of the Second, Third, and Fourth Circles is not so much their differing objects (sex, food, and money, respectively) as the differing attitudes towards other people which they represent. Lust involves love and mutuality and is “not wholly selfish”; gluttony, in contrast represents “solitary self-indulgence,” indifferent to others. In the Fourth Circle, “indifference becomes mutual antagonism, imaged here by the antagonism of hoarding and squandering.”

This is not the most obvious interpretation of these three categories of sin, but I think it is a promising one. (If the sins are taken at face value, it is rather difficult to see how indulgence in food could be considered more serious than sexual sin!) Here, then, is Sayers’s interpretation of the first four Circles, with the succeeding five Circles noted as well:

  1. Virtuous living, limited only by a lack of hope or imagination
  2. Mutual and quasi-“loving” pursuit of pleasure together with other people (typified by sexual lust)
  3. The solitary pursuit of pleasure without regard to other people (typified by gluttony)
  4. Antagonism towards others because their chosen pleasures are incompatible with one’s own (typified by the antagonism between misers and spendthrifts)
  5. Wrath
  6. Heresy
  7. Violence
  8. Fraud
  9. Treachery

If this is indeed the primary significance of the first four Circles, Sayers is right that the passage from each to the next is smooth and natural and many be made almost unconsciously.  Certainly the transition from “imagine there’s no heaven” to “imagine all the people living for today” is an easy one — though not, as shown by the virtuous pagans, an inevitable one. And once mere pleasure has been accepted as a goal, the transition to selfishness — first indifferent and then resentful — is equally natural.

A passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, showing a very similar progression, comes to mind:

The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness [Circles 2-3: lust and gluttony] thus becomes indignation [Circles 4-5: avarice and wrath] and then transforms itself into morality [Circle 6: heresy]. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness [Circle 7: violence]. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture.

This is, for me, a new way of looking at the Circles of Hell. Instead of seeing each succeeding Circle as simply another sin, “worse” than the ones that preceded it, it can be quite fruitful to try to interpret it as the next logical step in the soul’s downward journey.

I am about to begin Sayers’s translation of the Purgatorio, which is explicitly about the soul’s step-by-step progress from sin to absolution — though, oddly, I have never really kept that sufficiently in mind in past readings. Finding pride near the bottom of the mountain and lust near the top, I have been content with the explanation that pride is “worse” than lust — when in fact the explicit message of the Purgatorio is that one must overcome pride first, then envy, and so on, and lust last of all. (This contrasts strongly with my own feeble efforts at self-improvement, which have always focused first on “obvious” sins of lust and gluttony rather than abstractions like envy and pride.) This time through Purgatory, I intend to focus on the sequential, step-by-step aspect of it and see what kinds of insights reveal themselves.


Filed under Christianity, Ethics, Literature

Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!

The anonymous author of the Middle English mystical work The Cloud of Unknowing advises his reader that the best prayer is a single word, and that a one-syllable word is best of all. After all, “Fire!” and “Help!” are undeniably our most sincere “prayers” to our fellow human beings, and the ones most likely to get a response. We instinctively rush to help a man who shouts “Help!”, the author of the Cloud explains, even if he should be our worst enemy — while a longer, more discursive request for assistance may well be turned down. And if even enemies are moved by monosyllabic calls for help, he reasons, how much more so must God be; we should therefore never cease to pray, “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!”


I do not feel qualified to comment on this appropriateness of this form of prayer, except to note that it sounds an awful lot like the “vain repetitions” warned against by Christ. However, I have found it to be surprisingly effective  psychologically.

I never consciously decided to try following the advice in the Cloud. However, once I had read the passage summarized above, the machinery of association saw to it that whenever I found myself thinking or doing something that I ought not to think or do, it would pop up automatically in my mind: “Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!” — and then I would find it quite impossible to go on with whatever it was I had been thinking or doing which had prompted the association.

In a previous post (qv) I discussed the inadvisability of trying to reason with oneself in the heat of temptation. Reasoning is an invitation to argue back and rationalize. Commanding oneself, while more effective than reasoning, is also suboptimal because it triggers instincts of independence and rebelliousness. If, on the other hand, some part of your soul is shouting “Help! Help! Help!” — well, what can you do but rush to help the poor guy?


I should make it clear that the author of the Cloud did not intend for his prayer to be used in this way. His purpose was not to help people control their behavior or to sin less often, but to make them constantly aware of their sinful nature and thus motivate them to draw closer to God. He did not intend it as a prayer for deliverance from some specific sin one was committing or being tempted to commit; on the contrary, he instructs his reader to think of sin “as a lump” and to avoid analyzing it or thinking of any specific sin. Nevertheless, despite the author’s intentions, I have found it to be useful for quite another purpose, and I post this in the hope that others may find the same thing.

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Filed under Ethics, Psychology

Why is choosing beliefs more problematic than choosing actions?

There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow: Yet it was the schoolboy who said “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.”

Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“Believing what you know ain’t so” — if it is true that we choose our beliefs and are morally responsible for them, then it ought to be possible to do just that.

We are certainly morally responsible for our actions because, knowing (or thinking that we know) what is right, we are nevertheless capable of choosing to do otherwise. We are able to do what we know is wrong — to judge a particular course of action to be wrong and to do it anyway. This is possible because judging a deed to be right is one thing, and actually doing it is another. Without this distinction, the idea of sin would be incoherent.

When it comes to belief, though, no such distinction is possible. To judge a belief to be right just is to believe it. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is, pace the schoolboy, meaningless. To believe something just is to think it is so; if you don’t think it’s so, you don’t believe it. Thus, the idea of sin is incoherent when applied to beliefs. We cannot be held morally responsible for our beliefs because there is no internal standard against which to judge them. Of course, there is the external standard of what is objectively true, but that’s not good enough. A man may do something which, as a matter of fact, is wrong — but if he doesn’t know it’s wrong, he is still innocent. Likewise, a man who believes something false is innocent unless he knows it’s false — but if he knew it was false, he would eo ipso not believe it.


And yet, and yet — that can’t be the whole story. At some level, everyone understands exactly what Twain’s schoolboy is talking about, which is why his definition of faith makes us smile knowingly rather than scratching out heads. “Believing what you know ain’t so” is not simply meaningless, or it would not even register as a witticism. Somehow, despite the contradictions it seems to involve, it is possible to willfully — culpably — believe something you know is false. As for what exactly that means, though, I confess that I’m still at a loss. Further research is, as they say, indicated.


Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Psychology