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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  January 2002

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION January 2002

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Subject:

Re: hermeneutics of suspicion

From:

Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 23 Jan 2002 13:15:10 -0600

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Richard Landes wrote:

i'm struck by your constant recourse to "dehumanizing".  i think that
self-deception, disguise, even hypocrisy, are typically human traits, just
as much as trust and openness are.  i don't think i dehumanize someone by
suspecting that they're telling me at best half-truths.  de-humanizing is
when you project pure malice on people, consider them either beasts or
agents of evil.  i think that in seeing people as complex personalities
only part of which gets presented publicly, and even less gets presented in
literary personas, is just seeing them as human beings.

I think this illustrates how our diferent philosophies about the human person cashes out.  The reason I say that suspecting someone of lying without evidence is dehumanizing is because I believe humans are made for trust and love.  I am obligated morally to trust unless I have evidence of untrustworthiness because to do otherwise is to prejudge the person guilty of dishonesty.  If one begins with a different view of human nature (that by nature we are at least sometimes dishonest, tell half-truths etc.--taking as natural what Augustine and Christian theology call fallen nature, i.e., unnatural) then to dehumanize or unnaturalize one has to judge the person guilty of "pure malice."  The challenge would be to show how pure malice is different from part malice.  By the standard of a pure, unfallen, originally good human nature, any malice at all is bad, less than fully human, dehumanizing.  But if no such perfection-starting point exists, if we start from conflicted, confused, half-perfect human nature, . . .

Now, I know well that something _may_ be going on inside the person that is less than fully honest but I cannot move from _may be_ to -is_ without evidence or I will be risking accusing him falsely and that is dehumanizing and disrepectful.  The evidence can be slight and the person's past behavior can be allowed as evidence in a subsequent situation, though with caution.  But the slighter the evidence the more careful I must be not to pre-judge or read into evidence something that is not there.  Very tricky business, this interpersonal relationship--that's why we keep so many therapists and marriage counselors busy.  Human communications are difficult and a large part of the difficulty comes from jumping to conclusions, reading into people's behavior motives without clear evidence, pre-judging their intents without listening and observing their behavior carefully enough.

Is that dehumanizing?  It is if people's nature is to communicate rather than miscommunicate, to love rather than be alienated.  If that's what human nature is intended to be, then anything less than really communicating, really understanding is less than fully human.  It's so difficult that many of us have concluded that human nature is something far less than that.  But Augustine (and the other Church Fathers)  would say that is the fallen situation we are in, not our true nature.

Note that the first step in avoding dehumanizing miscomunication is not to prejudge or jump to conclusions.  If I simply say, "I don't know for sure what you mean or intend, please tell me more," we are more likely both to understand the other person and avoid misjudging him.  And if we succeed in understanding each other (that's called love--though it has various levels of intimacy) we have acted as truly human beings.  And we all really do like to be understood and hate being misunderstood, which is one indicator that human nature is to communicate authentically rather than miscommunicate.  But if that's what human nature is, to fail to understand (either by being dishonest in one's self-expression and foreclosing the other person's chance to understand me or by prejudging, suspecting him without evidence and also thereby foreclosing my chance to understand him) is a less-than-fully human situation.

That's all I meant by dehumanizing.  It seems so very minor an infraction of humanness when it has to do with small things, but Augustine (very attentive to this sort of thing) would have said that all the really big injustices and brutalities grow out of this sort of miscommunication/dehumanizing.  That's why he took that really (to us) odd position on lying always being wrong, even a white lie.  Paul Griffiths has an excellent article on this in _Communio_ about 1999.  I'll try to find the exact citation.

But this way of defining dehumanizing will make no sense at all to a Hobbsean or a Marxist or even most laid back average modern Joe Citizens.    It turns on the Jewish/Christian belief that everything started out absolutely perfect and evil results from a deformation of that, so we live in a generally dehumanized world and perpetuate that dehumanization in all sorts of big and little ways, but also that all is not hopeless: the same God who made it all perfect in the beginning will redeem it and set it right.  Jews and Christians disagree about how that redeeming and re-formation has/will take place, but the basic outlines are common to both.

How does this apply to medieval studies--I hope it should be evident.  One will read Augustine (and with him most medieval theological, social, political actors and thinkers) differently depending on one's premises about human nature and the nature of dehumanization.

Dennis Martin



>  C. S. Lewis's _The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe_, which I am
> teaching to students right now as a fine epitome of these virtues, shows
> this very clearly with the character Edmund, whose fundamental problem is
> lying to himself.  On the second page of the story he denies that he's
> tired when he is tired, which leads him to be rude and mean to his older
> sister.  He knows the White Witch is dangerous (ignores _evidence_ of her
> untrustworthyness) but enters into an alliance (trusts) her, in the
> process being willing to betray his siblings to death.  From that point
> onward, when his sister tells him what Mr. Tumnus the faun has said about
> the White Witch (that's she's dangerous), Edmund has to use hermeneutic
> of suspicion on that statement in order to salvage his own (misplaced)
> trust of her.  Then he has to lie about having been in Narnia, betraying
> his sister who had thought she now had a cowitness and would be believed
> by Peter and Susan.  This continues: when all four enter Narnia, Lucy
> wants to trust the Robin as a guide; Edmund once more employs hermeneutic
> of suspicion: how do we know we can trust the Robin.  But of course
> Edmund is the real liar here, the untrustworthy one.

nice analysis, and edmund is a good case of a personality well worth
suspecting.  of course one can turn it around.  he systematically trusts
the wrong people.  if we do history in which we trust the major players
(all of whom are in a world where power and its corrupting influence are at
work) and use a hermeneutic of suspicion on those who question their
motivations, then we can end up like edmund.

>It's a children's story, but it illustrates the basic principles I have
>argued for.  Who's right about human nature?  Hobbes, Marx, Nietzsche,
>Kant, Buddha, Jesus?  Depending on how one answers that question, one will
>suspend judgment about motives of people one meets, entertain their
>self-presentations with conditional empathy, conditional trust, be highly
>suspicious, etc.

i wd rather handle the cases as they come than commit myself to [my own
exegesis of] a "teaching".  certainly buddha wd say that every persona we
encounter (a fortiori on paper) is a veil thrown over reality, an
intentional or uncs act of disguise.

>I do believe the world would be a better place if we employed conditional
>empathy until we have clear evidence of untrustworthyiness and deception.

agreed.  it wd also be a better place if people put more energy into being
honest than into disguising themselves.  and i think they are more likely
to do so, the less successful disguises and deceit work out because people
have good cr*p detectors.

>But it's risky, of course.  People have been known to get hurt that
>way.  On the other hand, it also permits the possibility of understanding
>each other, indeed, of loving each other.  But it's very risky.  The
>challenge is to take the decent, human risk of trusting the other while at
>the same time being neither "terminally naive" (being reasonably alert for
>evidence of untrustworthiness) nor terminally hostile and suspicious.

agreed.

>But I would be the first to admit that few of us manage this politeness,
>decency, and courtesy toward the people of the past whose lives we handle
>in our historical work.

somehow politeness and courtesy are not the traits i would have chosen --
empathy, generosity, perhaps.  i heard a good distinction btwn politeness
and civility: politeness is when you say things so that there won't be a
fight; civility is when you can say things and there won't be a fight.  i
think we owe our characters empathy, generosity, civility.  politeness we
can save for the living.

>Perhaps it helps to try to treat them as we would have them treat us if
>they were writing books and articles about our self--presentation and
>hidden motives.

agreed.  altho all that consideration can get pretty boring.

now let me ask you this, since it's been in the back of my mind as i read
your recommendations.  i have what i think is clear evidence that
ecclesiastical leaders (theologians, bishops, computists) engaged in a
systematic effort to "cook the books" on when the year 6000 was coming.
http://www.mille.org/people/rlpages/cchart.html 
this is a multi-generational affair (goes on for over 600 years) and shows
an extraordinary consistency.  as long as 6000 is far away, everyone is
happy to invoke it as a way to tell people to be patient.  when it gets
close, however, an extraordinay consensus arises to switch dating systems
and make no mention of the earlier chronology when it hits its year
6000.  this happens twice (500 CE and 801 CE).  as paul freedman once said,
my devise should be: "6000: coincidence? i think not."

the standard response of my colleagues is to say, "nonsense, such
conspiracies of silence don't exist" and "are you saying that these good
people espoused a chronology because they were trying to manipulate popular
opinion and dampen apocalyptic excitation?"  yes i am.  and i have a
millennium-long pattern of evidence that no one has explained
otherwise.  but for some reason, medievalists seem virtually incapable of
imagining that there might be this kind of broad, self-interested, and
(certainly by the standards of those whom they were misleading) dishonest
consensus.  now i know these good clerics had all sorts of good and
responsible reasons for changing these chronologies as they approached the
year 6000, and that those who espoused them in earlier ages probably
believed them with a whole heart.  but that wholeheartedness was largely
because they wdn't have to deal with the consequences (much like computer
programers in the 1960s who created the y2k problem because it was easier
and they wdn't be around to deal with it when it happened).  i'm not
condemning them or accusing them of being inhuman.  but i'm also not ready
to say (as i've heard from numerous scholars), "they were probably changing
the dating systems out of a concern for accuracy."

is this case relevant to our discussion?

richard

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