Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Do not pray in public as the hypocrites do

Two years ago today I was in a really bad mood about something, and I'm pretty sure it started with reading an essay about baseball by Stephen Jay Gould in which he lamented about how baseball was so much more fun when he was a kid and the game had just been going down hill ever since. Gould of all people should have known better, I thought. Besides, when he was a kid, he was a Yankee fan living in New York City in the 1950s. Of course baseball was more fun for him.

If I'd had a blog back then I'd have posted this. But all I had was a notebook and this is what I wrote in it:

Almost certainly everything we think about how people have changed for the worse since whenever is a result not of a degeneration of human nature but of our own growing up. Takes a long time to get over the illusions of youth. The hardest illusion to give up is that people are any good. When we are young, everybody’s nice to us. Strangers help to take care of us. As soon as we stop being cute and adorable all we are to most other people is trouble. We represent competition or an obstacle or a tool to get around an obstacle or beat the competition with or escape trouble. People only care about others to the extent they are useful. If this wasn’t so Jesus wouldn’t have bothered with the Sermon on the Mount, the Golden Rule would never have needed to be spelled out. “Love one another as you love yourself,” acknowledges that our first concern is always number one. And it admits a degree of self-interest into virtue.

It’s the animal in us. Herds, packs, hives, pods, colonies, and flocks are mechanisms for survival. Driven by self-interest, animals only care about other animals to the degree that they help the individual survive and procreate.

Spock’s “The Needs of the Many” must be balanced by Star Trek III, in which the many sacrifice their careers and put their lives on the line to save the one. The altruistic sacrifice will be easily seen as not outstanding but expected. The callousness of the neo-cons towards the deaths of our soldiers in Iraq. Cliches about patriotism barely conceal their contempt for cannon fodder thinking it might have its own interest in living and the things it chooses to die for.

The fundamental assumption of capitalism is that the needs of the few—the fewer; it's still a lot of us—for safer working conditions, decent pay, health care benefits, time off to take care of sick children—may be disregarded to get the many a cheaper price on their DVD players. But then this serves to make the very, very few rich and fat. And the rich and fat find it very easy to think that life is ordered by Nature and God so that the poor and starving will gladly sacrifice themselves to keep the rich and fat rich and fat. And they have no trouble convincing themselves that their being rich and fat makes life better for the poor and starving. Always thus.

The animal need to survive drives individuals to be selfish and greedy. And heartless. When you wake up to this fact, usually around the age of 40, it can seem that it’s not you who has wised up but society that has changed.

People were greedy during the Depression; cowardly in WWII.

Different times warp in different ways. People always were vain, prone to anger, lust, and sloth. Greedy, gluttonous. What looks like superior virtue is self-interest demanding the exercise of a superior virtue. Virtue is only virtuous when the pressure of self-interest is pushing you towards vice—which is my theme for this sermon. Because it seems to me that we live in a time when people have to an extraordinary degree confused their self-interest with virtue. Even more egregious, they have confused a vice with a virtue. That vice is vanity.

It seems to me that people are more sanctimonious and hypocritical than ever. What do I know of EVER, having lived through only a minuscule percentage of human history and been a certifiable adult—which is to say by my own definition a disillusioned and disappointed oversized child—for even less. Jesus' parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the temple tells me that hypocrites have been parading their supposed virtue for at least 2 millenia and to drive the point home Jesus went out of his way to warn about it. Do not pray in public. But I don’t know how pervasive it was then. I do know that the halls of academia are filled with pharisees and that there is one in the White House.

If anybody can tell me what I was talking about, I'd appreciate it.


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