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Jewish and Christian Ethics/Part I/Chapter I

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Examination of the Pretensions of Christian Ethics over Philosophy and Paganism—Its Alleged Superiority to Judaism, and the Absurdity of this Assumption—Immutability of Divine Declarations; Man capable of Perfection only when the Word of God is Perfect—A Revelation Repeated is Suspicious and Useless; It Militates against Christianity—Dissimilarity of Judaism; Its Civil and Moral Polity—The Requisites of every Government; Christianity Incapable of Fulfilling them—Patriotism a Jewish Sentiment—Two ways of Interpreting Fraternity and Universal Equality in Christianity—Defects and Weakness of Christian Ethics—The limits of Comparison between both Systems.

Of all the elements that have aided, in ancient or modern times, the triumph of Christianity, the most important, unquestionably, is its Ethics. Christianity entertains so high an idea of its own moral code, that it does not hesitate to assert, that the absolute excellence of this code is the best proof of its own divine origin. If this pretention is just, then must its Ethics be superior, not only to the best products, in this sphere, of the Pagan world, as well as to all that human reason could ever produce, but also to all that divine reason has ever communicated in this respect to the most excellent of mankind. For the divine origin of Christianity cannot be proved, without first showing that neither Paganism, Philosophy, nor even Judaism itself, was ever able to attain a similar height; which implies, as far as the last is concerned, a maturing process, in its manifestations at least, of Divine reason.

Are these assumptions, is this pride of superiority well founded? Is there no exaggeration in the praise Christianity lavishes upon itself?

We do not undertake to examine its relations to Paganism, or even to Philosophy. Were such our aim, it would be easyfor us, book in hand, to show, that, as to Philosophy, little have the pages of Plato, little the maxims of the Stoics—specially of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, the friends of Rabbi Jehudah Hannassi—little the eloquent passages of Cicero, not to mention the noble things Philosophy has produced, and may still produce in ages to come,—to envy in the finest ethical claims put forth by Christianity. As to Paganism, without urging the simplicity, beauty, and elevation of Greco-Roman poetry or theology, we should have to cite only from some sacred book of the East, from Confucius or Menu for instance, to show what man can extract from that rich and inexhaustible soil of divine gift, viz., the religious sentiment.

But what directly concerns us is the superiority that Christianity arrogates to itself over Judaism, and the inferiority in point of Ethics that it ascribes to the latter, inferring therefrom, that it owes this nothing, and that it has reached, by a spontaneous soar alone, so unprecedented an elevation. As long as these assumptions aimed merely to depreciate Pagan morality, they were, we must confess, in a great measure justifiable. If, as we have just said, Pagan religion and philosophy sometimes exaggerated their deserts, their Ethics always lacked that certainty, purity, elevation, and independence, which were the heritage of Judaism, and of which Christianity afterwards partook. The Ethics of Paganism was not certain, because its theology, so far from acquiring influence over minds, missed it rather, by exhibiting its Gods constantly at variance with their own maxims; it was not pure, because the vilest interests were its usual incentives to action; it was not elevated, because its views and aspirations did not transcend the horizon of this life; it was not independent, because, merged at one time in the State, in Politics,—at another, enslaved by or interwoven with these, it was hampered by obstacles that continually stopped its free development. These defects Christianity partly removed, at one time falling short of Hebrew morality, at another, urging the anti-Pagan reaction beyond its proper limits, and injuring itself by such fanaticism and excessive austerity. But finally this religion made morality and humanity take a great spring; it overturned the altars that were still reeking with innocent blood, closed the dens where prostitution was regarded as a sacred duty, proclaimed the common origin and universal brotherhood of mankind, effaced the brands that egotism, pride, brute force and wealth had put on the brow of the poor, the unhappy, the conquered and the slave. These benefits and many others are imperishable claims to the respect and gratitude of mankind: Judaism finds here her true reflection, and glories in such manifestations; she admires those devoted children, who issuing from her fold, filled with her spirit, inflamed with that zeal which made the Pharisees scour "sea and land to make one proselyte,"[1] have—not brought as they boast the era of the Messiah, far from that, but smoothed the way for his advent and heralded his reign. Yes, the Synagogue admires them, and, though crushed by the hand of the Church, has not ceased to declare it, especially by the tongue of Maimonides. These real merits of Christianity have served as a base for enormous pretensions. Without justice, without logic, its Ethics has been declared superior to the Hebrew. Christianity itself, with a wonderful blindness, has given a free rein to prejudice, and permitted the worship of this intoxicating incense; nay! it has formally instituted a comparison between both systems, between the Ethics of Moses and Jesus, and has struggled, as in a medical or legal competition, to show the superiority of its receipts to those of its rival. A singular and instructive spectacle! for if, according to Christian assertion, the excellence of Christian Ethics proves its divine origin, its pretensions lead us back to the lowest earthly regions. For a divine ethical system, a natural sequence to Judaism, would never have parted itself into two orders or degrees; it would never have said: "You have heard what was told to past generations, but I tell you, etc.;" for this one God would have been ever conscious of his own identity, and therefore ever consistent in thought, will, and laws.

This is not the only internal contradiction arising from these pretensions. Here, as elsewhere, we have but to express what will suggest itself to the mind of all,—has Christianity any other base than that of Judaism? Is it that each has a different God, a different will, a different authority? Or would evangelical Christianity adopt the doctrine of Marcion (far more reasonable, as we shall hereafter see, than its own), which has made of the God of the Jews and of the God of the Christians two beings, two wills, two laws, in constant antagonism? No; for evangelical Christianity both gods are identical; it is but one will expressing itself by two different instruments. Now, can God be superior to God? Can the Immutable have now one will, now another? Can he impose laws in different approximations to perfection? And must not any declaration of his will, when once made, be consistent with every other expression? Now, according to the admission of Christianity, God has spoken to the patriarchs, to Moses, and given them a system of Ethics absolutely perfect, because nothing less than that could emanate from God; otherwise he, too, would be subject to time, accident, and change. But we are told that man is not capable of reaching at a bound the heights of perfection, and that he is essentially a creature of progress. Yes, we reply, and it is for that very reason, and in order that man may attain perfection that God's word is perfect. Man strives to realize it step by step. Like the external world, that issues from God, consisting of imperishable elements, so the second creation, the ideal world, his word, issues from him perfect and complete. It falls like the first, amid the accidents of time, the fate and conditions of which it partakes. It hides, like the first, in its inmost depths, unknown power for man's discovery, and permits him to realize only by degrees its beauties and its wealth. But both creations, perfect in themselves, are progressive only as regards their realization. No; the law of God is not progressive, and man, on the other hand, is so only because it is perfect. How, indeed, can we conceive progression without an ideally perfect law, the successive realization of whose traits constitutes progress? What idea can we have of evolution without a starting point and goal,—of a work, without a plan or theory?

Now what has Christianity substituted for the God of the Jews, the First-and- the-Last,[2] the author of the beginning and end of man and of the world? It has ascribed progression to God himself, at least to his external word; asserting that this last bends to circumstances, to custom, even to the weakness of man,—has ascribed to him the flexibility of Paul (who is a Jew to Jews and a Gentile to Gentiles), and the base concessions of Jesuits to idolaters; it has made a god after its own image, like the gods of Homer, instead of making man after the image of God, as Moses teaches. Thus it not only violates common sense (which can ascribe to Deity but one will) but it makes all revelation useless, and by establishing a principle that recoils against itself and imperils each moment its existence, saps its own foundation. With such a theory how could any revelation be necessary? Tell us of a revelation (worthy of the name) that comes to teach man truth he could not otherwise learn, to give him a theory of moral government and virtue which his unassisted reason could not originate,—and this very reason shall bow before it, because the mark of its divine origin will be apparent. But a different revelation,—one that only follows step by step the natural developments of man's powers, and that, instead of uttering at once its final word even at the risk of being misunderstood, doles out eternal truth as the mind and heart are disposed to receive it—such a revelation I say would be at the outset a very suspicious one to a sagacious critic, and above all would be altogether needless as having naught to tell men that they could not tell themselves.

Much more; it is in Jewish revelation that we find the titles, promises, and prophecies upon which Christianity is based. Now, what assurance have we that some social, mental, or moral change in man will not require different methods, different laws,—and that the Messianic promises will not be in their turn obliterated? And even though they should be verified in Christianity (which, let us suppose, fulfilled the prophecies), can it pretend to arrest forever the progress of the world?—to have exhausted the divine wisdom and fertility, and consigned God's word to an eternal silence?—to have closed, for its special benefit, the epochs of revelation?

This Mosaic law, whose permanence seemed foreshadowed by so many miracles, so many resources, has been supplanted you say by another law, another covenant, of which it was but the shadow and forerunner. What tells us that this latter is not likewise a type of and preparation for a purer religion? Is it because God is exhausted? Or because man has changed his nature? Is it because he has no more social, moral, or intellectual changes, through which to pass? Shall the need of a new revelation, manifesting itself a little more than ten centuries after the first, never again show itself in twenty, thirty, or even fifty centuries after the Gospel? To maintain this is impossible. There is a word which Christianity by its assumption of superiority has attached forever to its existence, to its role in the world; there is a name, which, after centuries, has become the mark of the greatest schism, the greatest rupture that the Church has as yet undergone—namely Protestantism. But it was Christianity that introduced this very Protestantism into the world by establishing a principle which, from age to age, has recoiled upon itself, and which shall one day open the door to another Christianity, another Messiah. For in the hands of God, evil works its own cure. In short, the Church has had and will have Protestants, only because she herself first protested against Judaism.

So we see Christianity cannot claim a morality superior to that of Judaism without wounding its own dearest interest, violating logic, and crumbling the very bases upon which are founded all religion and all morality. Let us, however, descend from these high abstractions, where Truth, though more brilliant, is, by reason of this very elevation, less tangible for ordinary minds. Let us institute, if possible, a comparison, fixing its conditions and limits, and let us see in the detail—if it be from its own root that Christianity has drawn its ethics,—its chief claim to the esteem of mankind;—or if it be not rather the natal surroundings, the religion in which it is rooted that supplied it with the principles and elements which were, alas! but too soon forgotten.

A question at the outset presents itself; and, although it may appear at first sight a little strange, we must not neglect it, full sure that its importance will be at once admitted. Are we, in the present comparison, about to compare one system of Ethics with another? Have we here two homogeneous terms that can be weighed in the same balance so that the worth of each can be estimated. This consideration is clearly of great importance. If it were true that, in comparing Judaism with Christianity (as has been the uniform custom), two systems, two principles, of totally different characters, were compared, and that a mere system of Ethics (Christianity), were weighed against a system of Ethics and of Politics combined, or rather against the latter exclusively, no one could maintain that the verdict, whatever it might be, could be just. Now I ask, is it not this precisely that has been hitherto done? Except some few who have made allowance—and that an inadequate one—for this two-fold character of the Mosaic law, all, both friends and foes, have merely taken the book of Moses in one hand and the Gospel in the other, and pronounced to which the palm of superiority should be awarded. Nevertheless, all recognize in Judaism two things very distinct as regards the nature, object and means of each; that it consists of a civil as well as a moral code. Doubtless, there is unity in Judaism; its civil code blends in a thousand ways with its moral one, borrowing sometimes the language of the latter, sometimes adorning itself with its holy splendor. Doubtless too, its Ethics serves not only to purify, enlighten and satisfy the conscience,—to make good citizens for the heavenly Jerusalem,—but also good patriots, good Israelites, good citizens for the earthly Jerusalem. And, in short, there doubtless exists between both systems a continual interchange of service, a reciprocity highly useful to both. But just as it would be indiscreet to separate these in their practical working at Jerusalem, so it would be unjust to confound them in a theoretic examination, especially when face to face with an ethical system, which not only has nothing to do with, but even repudiates politics, and is its most formidable living adversary. It is then, only strict justice, to distinguish well the ethics of Judaism from its politics; the civil code from the religious; the citizen from the Monotheist; or—to express this difference by two names equally dear to God's—people the Jew from the Hebrew, the member of a state government by the Judaic dynasty from the Hebrew, the son of Abraham, the disciple and follower of his faith.[3] Through not understanding this truth, the Christian Ethics has been judged superior to that of the Jews, or rather to their politics. Could it be otherwise? Could a system of civil government, however pure, however just, ever compete with a system of abstract morality? Could the duties of a nation be framed upon those of an individual, or could international law be ever successfully supplanted by the "Imitation of Christ?" I shall cite but one striking example of this self-evident truth, viz., the forgiveness of injuries,—the very one through which Christianity is thought to approach perfection. Now, try to apply this principle to nations; lay before them those precepts of humility, forbearance, patience and long suffering that so abound in the Gospel; tell them, if you dare, to allow their cheeks to be smitten, to be spit upon, to swallow in silence, and even to requite with benefits the most atrocious injuries—deeds the most sanguinary—and see if a nation can maintain itself with such a code, if invasion, conquest, slavery, and annihilation will not be at once the inevitable consequence? No! If a country or state must live, if nationality be not an empty term, the moral code of the Gospel can never be the law of nations. And why? Because a nation has less duties than an individual; because the number of its duties always diminish as the body politic expands; being for a family less than for an individual; for town less than for a family, for a state less than for a single town, and less for all mankind than for any single state. For each of these different centres owes allegiance only to its superior; humanity, for example, has duties only to its God; to naught else should it bend or subordinate itself. Now, if a nation has a right to exist, if its duties consist precisely in disregarding the Ethics of an individual (in its extreme consequences at least), if Israel lay under the same necessities as every other nation and under far greater ones still, (encompassed as it was by ignorance, injustice and barbarism), if it was in this condition by the express will of God, if its existence was inseparably connected with the greatest and most sacred interests, with the religious destiny of the whole world,—can we be surprised that its law-giver imposed on it the rules indispensable to a wise policy, and brought universal charity under the restrictions necessary for the preservation of the nation? And, I dare affirm, that without such measures no earthly power could have saved the people of Israel from speedy destruction.

Christianity itself, has felt this full well. It quickly perceived that, in the Ethics it preached to the world, there was no place for the different nationalities,—these large individualities in the still larger family of man. Accordingly from the outset, with one hand it presents the Jews with their new code of morals, with the other it points to that Temple—which God and the people, religion and the state had made their most august abode—not a memorial stone of which the flames had allowed to remain. Accordingly, beside its ascetic morality it places its ascetic kingdom, its all-spiritual-Messiah, if I may use the expression; and in place of a political liberty it offers its votaries a spiritual one. Strangers to the struggle, the efforts, the sacrifices with which that heroic little band of Jews met the Romans in the last crisis of their national life, the Christians at Pella saw in the fall of Jerusalem and the Temple, the end of the earthly reign of that law whose spiritual overthrow they sought,—and the exile of a great nation was the first homage paid to the morality of the Gospel.

But a greater field opened before Christianity; its acts, influence and ethics were now to operate upon countless numbers, upon an empire a thousand times greater than Palestine. We take good care neither to overlook the benefits that this morality heaped upon the wretched of every kind, the comfort and new life that it brought them, nor to re-echo those old Pagan accusations that some modern authors have revived for their own benefit, wherein Christians were looked upon as conspirators, rebels and enemies of the Roman Empire. We shall only examine its relation to the patriotic sentiment, to religion, to love, and to a national existence. Now I say, that neither during the Roman nor any subsequent period had Christianity anything to present to feelings so natural to man j that it only impeded the natural development of these feelings, and that its action was always wavering, always hampered whenever it had to declare itself respecting patriotic duties. Christianity preached a great principle, universal fraternity,—a principle taken indeed from, Judaism, but one in no wise tempered, as in the latter system, by national fraternity. On the contrary, Christianity made, for the benefit of humanitarian brotherhood, that sacrifice, which the ancient legislators had made, sometimes of the individual to the family, by exagerating parental rights, and at others, of the family to the state, by the creation of this last absorbing personality. Christianity, then, skipped a step, and in its turn swept away nationalities from the affection of mankind. Impossible, thenceforth, to regard the political enemy other than a brother; impossible for the heart, the arm, not to tremble, whenever man, wounded man, or brethren smote each other, all men being according to Christianity, equal—that is, in the words of Paul himself, the Barbarian, Scythian, Greek and Jew. Can we in short, express this great truth more eloquently or boldly than an eminent writer has lately done: "Patriotism," says he, "exists under the old law, but theoretically has no place in the new; and the day the Gospel was preached to the Gentiles was in tendency the last day of nationalities." And again: "The feeling of nationality, such as swells in the English breast, is an affection essentially Jewish. One might suppose that English society was a convention Of the circumcised."

It must be said, however, that this equality was successively understood by Christianity in two different ways. At first it was only apathetic and indifferent as to national distinctions, and its Catholicism in this respect was but negative. But it soon changed its spirit; for, becoming triumphant, it sought to realize this equality, this universal brotherhood in a very tangible manner; and lo! the Papacy rose. And so we have, in one way or the other, the destruction of national diversities always arising from an universal apathy or an universal empire. And why? Because Christianity absolutely lacks a side, the social or political side,—either through the extravagance and exclusiveness of its ethics, or through its ultramundane aspirations, ever on the point of realization;—because with its ethics it had no jurisprudence, with an altar no throne, which in truth it merged in the former.

We are now about to glance at one of the main dangers, at one of the weakest spots in the Christian ethics; we are about to see that not only would it be very unjust (as we have shown) to compare a moral system on one side, with a political one on the other—that not only has Christianity this gap, this void which has made its existence embarrassed and embarrassing in the world—but that its beautiful morality, exquisite as it appears, could not, from its very refinement, evade the consequences of this blank, this want of the political element, which constitutes the weakness at once and the glory of Judaism; and that the great principle of charity destroyed itself, not being allowed to play its legitimate part with its kindred justice.

In vain did the new religion know only the spirit; in vain did it trample under foot, all the interests, all the wants of life; in vain did it incessantly fix its gaze upon the Kingdom of God, where it was to reign supreme; in vain did it predict the near advent of this, and plume itself as almost on the verge of the general resurrection, of a universal regeneration,—it could not, withal change the nature of things. The world kept on its way, in spite of all predictions to the contrary, and Christianity found itself involved in that world whose destruction it thought at hand, in that society whose transformation into immortal beings it had hoped soon to see, in those interests for which it had neglected to provide, in those rights and duties that political and social life begets. Persecuted at first, Christianity requited itself for the blood it generously shed—mingled nevertheless with that of the Jews—in all parts of the Empire. But its triumph prepared for it a much severer trial. Once master of that people upon which it had not reckoned, it would have escaped all danger, if it had like Judaism a king to place on the throne, a code to give the courts of justice, a policy with which to guide the chariot of State, and if it had taken care, like Judaism, to distinguish worldly, social and political concerns, from those relating to morals, religion and dogmas. But Christianity had only, and was only, a religion; its law, its state policy, its throne, were respectively, the dogma, the worship of God, and the altar. Master one time, of the world, whom shall it place upon the empty throne? Who is to hold the sword of the law? This is the crisis in the history of Christianity. Christianity, with the best intentions in the world, believed it could do nothing better than occupy the throne itself, than seize, itself, the scepter of justice, that is to say, subject to its dogmas, its religion and its laws, the public authority; in other words to enlist law, state, royalty in the service of its religion, to place its dogmas on an equal footing with political institutions, to substitute religion for national duties, and to give ethics the same rank as public virtues; in a word, to substitute for the citizen, conscience. Is this not what is called, in general terms, a state-religion? Now, what is a state-religion? It is conscience treated as a citizen, the mind subjugated, disciplined like the body, one's creed encompassed with penalties, executioners, pyres; it is violence, injustice, tyranny serving a religion all charity. And just because it had only charity, but no idea to justice, because it advocated only love, and not respect, because it devoted itself to the worship of virtues the most sublime, while it neglected those inferior perhaps, but equally holy and far more useful,—in fine because it aimed at being more than just, it was doomed to be violent.

And Judaism? It had a political system; it did not disdain to mix in the affairs of this world; it offered to the million, daily bread, air, sunlight, protection, good laws, justice to respect, a country to love, interests to care for, public virtues to practice, which, though not absolutely spiritual, were far more necessary—were (I may affirm) heaven brought to earth, because they are eternal truth—eternal beauty and eternal love ever applied to and intermingled with the concerns of life, the Glory (Schechina) which spans the earth. And—what is a thousand times more admirable and the proof of its divine origin—at the core of this Judaism, so homogeneous and compact, is ever a broad line of demarcation between religion and the state, the citizen and the monotheist, belief and justice, dogmas and the Law! In it, conscience, the sphere of faith, and the forum, the sphere of politics, never exchanged parts or powers. Never was remorse supplanted by the scaffold, or hell by death. No-civil penalty for impiety, and no spiritual burden for the citizen. It had a code, solely politic, the law of Moses; and a code, solely religious, tradition. Not that the first has not the same origin and design as the second; not that the latter does not presuppose and supplement the former; but the one is rather the guide for the body, and prefers to speak to the citizen, to the people, to their interests, their remembrances, their hopes; the other is the guide rather of morals and of mind, and appeals more willingly to the conscience and the soul, to their past, their future, their eternal interests. To compare Christian ethics with the first is not only an injustice but an impropriety; for it exposes the nakedness of Christianity—exposes that void which has led charity to be less than just, in not reserving a suitable place for the duties and concerns of life.

But we must compare the ethics of Christianity with the simple unmixed ethics of Judaism. The former, as it is already suspected has doubtless its source chiefly in the sacred writings, but above all in tradition; it is this last principally that we are about to confront with the ethics of the Gospel. We shall not then be accused of choosing a ground favorable for the victory of Jewish ethics, so much and so long decried. The Pharisees have been so great a butt for the derision of the Church, and the latter seemed to stand in so little fear of a competition with them, that we hope these same poor Pharisees will be allowed to place before the judgment-seat of the nineteenth century the articles of their indictment, and the grounds of their secular condemnation. Besides, it is Judaism as it is that we contrast with Christian ethics. And far from imitating those who, fearing a flood, take refuge in the mountains, we shall not shield ourselves behind the Bible, (an object of veneration to both), to resist the pretensions of the Christian ethics. We shall take the rabbinical, traditional Judaism that centuries have made, and we think besides that we shall better serve the cause of criticism by thus studying Christianity in all its birth-surroundings, in the teachings and moral philosophy of that time, than by restricting ourselves to an antiquity, whose workings, though unquestionable, could not have been as precise, as evident or as consecutive, as those of Pharisaical Judaism.

Notes[edit]

  1. Matt. xxiii. 15.
  2. Isaiah xliv. 6.
  3. Genises xivi 13.