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Re: hermeneutics of suspicion


Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>


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


Mon, 28 Jan 2002 16:49:10 -0600





text/plain (407 lines)

medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

Pessimism and optimism are not the central categories for Augustine.  Hope and despair are.  Pessimism and optimism are based on looking at the world around us and reacting with optimism despite the evils or with pessimism because of them.  Hope is a theological virtue based on faith in the God who created and redeems through suffering.  Augustine had hope despite everything else.  Did Hobbes?

Am I reading Augustine through rosy-Christian belief spectacles?  Certainly through Christian spectacles, though they are not rose-tinted.   To make the case that Augustine operated merely from pessimism rather than from hope, one has to show evidence that he abandoned the theological virtue of hope.  That's not a large leap for modern folk who do not operate from that theological virtue.  But is it justified when dealing with someone whose self-expression was that of a Christian believer?  What evidence will one adduce to claim that, contrary to his own self-expression, he operated mrely with the categories of pessimism-optimism.  One must beware of letting one's own skeptical-pessimism or naive optimism cloud things.  Augustine didn't.  He was clear-eyed about evil but not pessimistic.  But then this theological virtue of hope is virtually absent in modern thought, including many generically Christian adherents, because it requires belief in an omnipotent and good God.  So reading Augustine as a pessimist readily presents itself as a good move to nonbelievers.   Before making that move, however, I ask, show me where he gave up on hope?  Shouldn't an honest non-believer at least give him the benefit of crediting his own self-professed belief in God's activity in history to redeem even when things seem most hopeless?

I commend Jean Bethke Elshtain, _Augustine and the Limits of Politics_ on this topic.

Dennis Martin

>>> [log in to unmask] 01/25/02 09:15AM >>>
At 09:13 AM 1/23/02 -0600, you wrote:
>medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture
>I do not wish to engage in a long point-by-point debate with Richard
>Landes.  Some of his points I would agree with, in some instance I think
>he has indeed misunderstood my argument, as I undoubtedly at points have
>misunderstood his.  For the sake of clarity, I think the key issue he
>raises occurs in his comments about Augustine and power/love.
> >From a Jewish/Christian perspective, in a _fallen_ world, yes, power,
> lust for power, dishonest, deceit etc. _seem_ to make the world go round.

i wd not put augustine's view in the same category with rabbinic readings
of the garden incident.

>I believe Augustine would say that this is not right and not good and, in
>the end, not as real as justice, truth, honesty and love (including the
>courtesy I argued for) making the world go round.

its not hard to call something really bad, bad (well in most political
climates it is, but not hard intellectually to call a spade a spade), it's
what you think can be done about it in the here and now.  augustine, as far
as i can make out, was a deep pessimist on this, and it permeates not just
his hierarchical religiosity, but also his doctrinal debates.

>But that of course requires faith in an allpowerful God of love, which
>also raises the terrible problem of "whence evil" if such a God exists.

of course when people behave really badly on a regular basis, that problem
is far more pressing than in a society that tries hard to treat as many
people possible as fairly as possible.

>Hobbes, Nietzsche etc. in varying ways are saying that, of course, since
>no such allpowerful and loving God exists, one has to take the brutish,
>power-lusting world as the only world there is.

Hobbes was a brilliant frightened intellectual in a time of millennial
upheaval and apparent chaos.  but i wd take your analysis one step further:
aug and hobbes disagree in their religious attitudes, but that aside, i
think hobbes' view of political man is closest to augustine's, and that the
leviathon plays the same role in his secularized (using it in the sense of
augustine's saeculum which he insisted wd dominate until the end of time)
world as "original sin" played in augustine's -- the terrorizer that keeps
people from realizing their worst potentials).

>Am I wrong to think that Plato would disagree?  Even Aristotle?

with what?  Plato and Aristotle wd surely agree that there is no "all
powerful and loving God".  they'd also agree that democracy is a recipe for
anarchy, and commoners are better seen and not heard.

>For this reason, putting Augustine in the same category as Hobbes and
>Nietzsche is mistaken, in my view.

nietzsche seems like a different kettle of fish altogether.  i think
augustine and hobbes have more in common.  nietzsche goes somewhere in a
universe where he does not meet god, hobbes mostly reiterates augustine's

>So, we are back to the clash of worldviews.  Christian (and Jewish) faith
>in an allpowerful loving God, despite the problems (not insoluble, I
>believe, but very difficult) of theodicy that raises,

okay. altho i do think that it is precisely on the issue of theodicy that
augustine was at his worst.

>permits a hermeneutic of at least conditional empathy.

no question that believing in a single god creator of all, including
creator all people in his own image, male and female, can (tho not always
is) put in the service of having empathy for "the other."  at a basic
interpersonal level civil society depends on turning the dominating
imperative "rule or be ruled" into the empathic imperative "what is hateful
to you don't do to others" (Sagan, Honey and Hemlock).

empathy i don't think shd be conditional.  it seems to me we always need to
empathize, even with bin laden and suicide bombers.  it's sympathy that's
conditional -- when we see enuf evidence, we voice suspicions and look for
evidence of shredded documents.  we shd not be obliged by courtesy to
continue to politely pretend that whatever someone says about their own
motivation is not subject to question, and expend considerable intellectual
energy minimizing and belittling embarrassing evidence as "so fragmentary
and lacunaic (sp?)" that we really can't interpret it.

>Enlightenment faith in Justice and Reason also permits it at least those
>in polite society and affluence managed to live that way for a while.

pockets of civil society among a literate elite.  the city of letters.

>Kant provided a temporary synthesis and Nietzsche blew it to smithereens.

tell that to all the kantians around.

>My own view is that in the long run impersonal Reason and Justice can't
>sustain the faith and hope required to entertain conditional empathy under
>really severe conditions of poverty, injustice etc.

that's why religious groups do better in really bad situations, and where
some of the (better) pressure on bush to fund "faith-based" initiatives
comes from.

>That, I believe would also be Augustine's reasoning in the _City of God_.

his problem, from a modern perspective, is his willingness to accept those
conditions as an immutable norm.  modernity challenges that
pessimism.  that pessimism views modernity as an extremely risky if not mad
gamble.  religious sentiments can be found on both sides of these culture wars.

>Nietzsche, it seems, would agree, except that he could not believe in an
>allpowerful loving personal God, so he felt obligated to sign on with
>Hobbes, making what Augustine would call the _fallen_ world into the only
>real world.

of course, since augustine had defined the saeculum (space and time) as the
fallen world, and promised any coherent answer to theodicy only at the end
of it all, they were not doing anything except formally acknowledging what
the intervening millennium of augustinians ended up doing -- dealing only
with the fallen world.

>In response to the question (perhaps raised by Professor Kline) as to why
>I'm insist that a hermeneutic of suspicion is "dehumanizing"--this is
>based on the premise that humans are made for relationships/love (which
>follows from the Jewish and Christian believe in a personal God of love),
>so failure to entertain trust for others, at least until evidence of
>untrustworthiness appears, is an inhuman act.

i agree entirely.  indeed this is/shd be the default stance of a civil
society.  but this is, as you must know and augustine points out repeatedy,
far from the norm, and hardly a standard that can be applied to many people
without as a result "dehumanizing" their perceptions of their fellow
man.  (you've largely denounced as dehumanizing most people who live in an
"us-them" universe -- ie the majority of mankind for most of human
history.)  i think you set the bar way too high and cheapen the term by
making all but a very high standard the bottom line.  dehumanizing is what
people do before they start slaughtering.  we need that term for far more
pressing matters.

>   (The same understanding of the person as made for love means that
> certain limits are placed on how one may treat even a person who has
> proved untrustworthy.)

agreed again.  in civil society it's called civil rights for even convicted
prisoners.  but you renounce strategic thinking if you think that by
following such standards, others will respond with the same integrity; and
you're uncsly making serious mischief if you advise people to follow this
path when they are surrounded with ruthless enemies.  this doesn't mean
that either we or others shd not engage in such a perilous pilgrimage thru
the vicissitudes of social interactions.  but we shdn't have illusions, and
certainly not build political plans made on illusions about what other
people are like.  the federalist papers are an augustinian document.  the
way you counsel, at least as a public and political endeavor, rather than
an act of faith, is guaranteed a high failure rate (great results when it
works, but people who hit a home run every 20 times at bat and strike out
the rest, don't play ball long.)

>Finally, Professor Kline asks why it has to be either/or.  I was saying it
>has to be either trust or suspicion.    I laid out a continuum, insisting
>one has to start with trust to be fair and humane, unless one has contrary
>evidence.  One has to be fair and just in assessing evidence, not prejudge
>even the evidence etc.  This is not naivete nor simplistic but very complex.

agreed on every count.

>I was, however, protesting against starting from the principle that all
>people are fundamentally self-deceived or dishonest and untrustworthy,
>hence their self-presentations must be handled with suspicion.

the position you must argue aganst is not a hobbesian axiom about human
nature, but the prominence of libido dominandi in political interaction.

>Even in world full of obvious injustice and untrustworthiness, a response
>of complete suspicion is  dehumanizing because prejudging--unless, indeed,
>no such thing as Love truly exists and life is _merely_ survival of the
>fittest or and nasty, brutish and short.

prejudice happens dozens of times a day, maybe even an hour.  it's the
hateful, suspicious, imposition of hatred on others that's dehumanizing.

>More polite variations of this exist--rational choice theory etc.--which
>argue that all human interactions are essentially contacts/bargains and
>caveat emptor.  I think this is really Hobbes warmed over, but I could be

who, as i've argued, is augustine warmed over a secular (scientific)
stove.  my point here is that when medievalists approach their
documentation, they shd have a developed, flexible, and open hermeneutic of
suspicion about what their texts are telling them.  if our default notion
is that the text is being relatively honest and straightforward, more or
less giving us a fair look at what's going on in the oral world of
discourse which produced these texts (what i was tacitly taught in grad
school), then i think we are being seriously misled.

i guess i'd say (not as a matter of historiographical principle, altho
almost) that as historians, we start with a hermeneutic of suspicion --
every text, esp those on motivation, deserves the "methinks the lady doth
protest too much" test.  otherwise you're doing what bush has the airline
security folk doing -- not profiling.  that's crazy.  principled, but stupid.

>It all turns on whether Hobbes or the rational choice folks or Nietzsche
>are correct about human nature.

wow. that's a strange cluster.  is it that they're all "atheists"?

>If they are, then it would not be dehumanizing to prejudge suspiciously or
>to jump to conclusions and railroad evidence out of preexisting suspicion.

what about railroading evidence out of a preexisting trust -- a conspiracy
of silence cdn't happen.  why not?

dehumanizing is really important in your rhetoric.  i really object.  it in
fact carrries weight in a hermeneutic of suspicion that attacks too
vigorously the voices of suspicion and accusation.  i agree that if you
encounter every expression of the "other" with hostility, scanning for
evidence that affirms your own desire to wipe them out, then you're
dehumanizing the other.  and there's plenty of that that has and continues
to go on around the world.  we need the term for that kind of clearly
objectionable behavior.

but that's not what i understand by a hermeneutic of suspicion.  it seems
like (un)common sense to me to take into account that almost all our
medieval texts were written by members of a highly polemical organization,
hv diverse, better disciplined and organized than any other group/culture
in european society (jews excepted), whose primary identity came wrapped in
their near monopolistic control of writing and document preservation.  to
think that the products of this literate culture are not going to give us a
fair and accurate view of the world they describe, indeed often an
intentionally skewed view of what was going on, is hardly worthy of the
label dehumanizing.  come on, the guys were human, all too human.

>It would merely be intelligent self-interest and self-defense.

in a world where all the main players and power holders play by the rules
of the dominating imperative, you have to be crazy (certainly irrational)
to follow the empathic as a public or political imperative.

>If Augustine (and John Paul II, perhaps the leading exponent of
>persons-made-for-love philosophy today) is right about human nature, then
>throwing in the towel to a fallen world's libido dominandi would betray
>the best and finest of human nature and settle for a mess of pottage.

well i'd agree.  but i think that's an rather generous reading of
augustine, and i can think of far more inspiring figures in this tradition
where augustine -- given both his psychology and his actions -- cd be
considered a serious interloper.

>But it does require religious faith in a loving allpowerful God to do that.

cd we put it slightly differently?  that faith in such a One is one of the
paths to such a generous nature, but not the only.  and that people who do
not take that path shd not be subject to a hermeneutic of suspicion?  (ie
considering all atheists as either shallow liberals or hobbesian pessimists).

>(Whether faith in Justice along Enlightenment lines is still credible to
>anyone, I don't know.

not the only alternative.

>Some people probably do operate with something of that philosophical system.

one cd argue that it's innate, indeed that fairness is a kind of human
common sense that is systematically mystified by the testosterocracy and
their intellectual apologists.

>It has become very difficult, though to many it might seem an easier
>choice than the soft and degenerate and irrational, counter-intuitive
>[Nietzsche] Christian-Jewish belief in a loving omnipotent God.

it's again not a question of one or the other, but of the intelligence with
which one applies one's efforts.  hermeneutics of suspicion should only
arise where systematic reason to suspect exists (as i think it does in
abundance for the medieval church and most "traditional/restricted
literacy" cultures).  the point, hv, is to have some good sense about whom
we (choose to) trust and whom and how we mistrust those we do.

>Richard Landes agrees in principle that it's not either/or and rejects an
>total hermeneutic of suspicion, but believes, if I understand him
>correctly, that _evidence_ shows that a very far-reaching hermeneutic of
>suspicion is warranted.   He reads the evidence differently, and along
>Hobbeseian rather than Augustinian lines, though he assimilates Augustine
>to Hobbes.

come on, unless you have evidence that augustine did not believe that the
vast mass of mankind was damnata, and that only a very few (undeserving)
souls wd make it into heaven, it seems to me that socially/politically,
augustine had a near-total hermeneutic of suspicion.

>He may be right about human nature, he may be right to insist that what
>Augustine and Christianity

i wd not characterize all xnty (and certainly not, as far as i understand
him, jesus) as augustinian.

>calls a _fallen_ world is the only world we have and that lust for power
>simply has to be accepted as a fact of live, that it would be naive and
>very dangerous to explain things now as having fallen away from a good
>origin and that Justice/Love/God can and is engaged in restoring justice,
>love, truth to a fallen world.

where does augustine argue that j/l/g is engaged in restoring justice love
and truth to a fallen world?  i was under the impression that that had to
wait until judgment day, and until then the saeculum, as the soul, was a
corpus permixtum essentially opaque to our human sight.

there are a number of ways out of augustine's saeculum, now that the
concluding theodicy has not appeared for over 1500 years (far more than
even the owl augustine wd have believed).  and i think that the modern west
has taken a number of those steps.  perilous, as augustine warned it was,
but worth the risk (which augustine thought it was not).  and i think that
there are other alternatives than either a homogenous secular pessimism on
the one hand, or a particular religious myth of redemption on the other.

>I hope it is clear that I respect those who hold other worldviews even
>though I think they are wrong to hold them, just as they think me wrong to
>hold the one I hold.

i do not think you are wrong to hold your ideas at all.  my objection is
not to your understanding, merely to your (apparent -- am i wrong?) belief
that your path somehow invalidates those who hold others.

>I do try to entertain conditional empathy.  I do not assume they are
>self-deceived and that their self-explanations must be second-guessed.

if we're talking about the people who write our documents, and the major
players they describe, i have to disagree. worse, i think that
self-deception is probably rarer than straight out lies and both are far
more common that real honesty.  what's the last estimate on the forgery rate?

>My purpose in this thread and in the earlier one on canonization is to
>point out the way our worldviews do influence how we read the
>past--certainly in complex ways.  I believe that Professor Landes's
>response actually illustrates that basic point, even as my posts also do.

you can call me richard.  this is, after all, an egalitarian medium, no?

>Finally, I hope it is clear that I from the start have acknowledged my
>worldview commitments and how they influence the way I read history.  Too
>often, even in this thread, perhaps, people assume that while I point out
>how others (e.g., those who attacked  the canonization causes of Pius IX
>or Pius XII) are influenced in their reading of history by their
>commitments, I am somehow free of such commitments and more
>"objective."  I do believe the religious worldview I hold to be the Truth,
>otherwise I would not hold it (and, if I believed truth were ultimately
>unknowable, then I'd hold that religious/philosophical worldview).

what if there is more than one truth about these matters?

>My effort here is to debunk those who casually take as self-evident the
>superiority of their worldviews, whether Hobbesean or Nietzschean or
>Enlightenment Rational.

you shd be careful in assuming that those who disagree with you are so
shallow.  but i agree, there is a huge inertial force to enlightenment

>I happen to believe that it helps to be more, not less, explicit about
>one's commitments, whether Hobbesean or Christian, Platonic or Buddhist,
>not because they're all more or less the same in the end, but because only
>by being clear about oneself can one overcome self-confusion,
>self-deception and express oneself more clearly to the other guy so that
>he stands a ghost of a chance of understanding me.

agreed.  and very "po-mo".  :-)

>Of course, only if he has clarified to himself his commitments and how
>they might affect his hearing and interpretation of me, will he have a
>remote chance to understand me.
>Thus, it is in the interest of increasing communication and clarity of
>conversation that I raise these issues.  If I have done so in an
>excessively either/or way, I apologize.  My philosophical commitments push
>me to start with the big picture, the basic priniciples and achieve
>clarification and nuancing based on the basic principles rather than
>starting with nuances.  But that may be the result of my
>religious/philosophical commitments to the existence and knowability of
>Truth.  In conditional empathy I could see how someone who believes
>otherwise about the knowability of Truth would want to start and stay with
>the nuances, since the Principles are, in the end, unknowable, for sure.

that's probably a good point.  there is, of course, a difference btwn Truth
and our ability to reduce it to verbal formulas.  as a deeply committed
iconoclast, i am generally made very uncomfortable by efforts to
formulate/chrystalize in words any Truth.

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