Saturday, September 7, 2013

Should B.A. Baracus hit someone?

The allure and difficulty of aphorisms

     Aphorisms, i.e. short pithy statements, usually of a philosophical bent, appeal to almost everyone (except me; well…).  When a person uses an aphorism he or she can move people to think more deeply.  Somehow it seems that there is an immediate connection to a deeper, more profound truth than the mere words only suggest.

     In my Master’s thesis I compared Lev Shestov (the “Russian Kierkegaard”) to Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, Renaissance man and philosopher.  Because Shestov despaired of “the Wall”, i.e. Reason (read Enlightenment Kantian or Hegelian Reason), he tended to align himself with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and later, after Edmund Husserl pointed him in Kierkegaard’s direction, Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith (Abraham).  Shestov had a brilliance for using aphorisms to make his points, though his technique is not always clear.  Also despite his denial of “Reason”, he does reason, i.e. use arguments, and even the arrangement of aphoristic sayings is in itself a type of argument.  Why would one write at all if there was no point to discursive logic?

     Shestov and Pascal are likely to inspire one to make slips of paper with pithy quotes and stick them on your cork board (or in these electronic days to make banners and headers on your computer screen with them). Shestov, Pascal and Kierkegaard are all in a tradition, which could be called fideistic intuitionalism.  Fideistic intuitionalism means that one would decry “reason” and discursive logic, and emphasize choices of the will over the intellect.  One “feels” the truth of the aphorism.  One cannot argue for it.  Or so it might seem…

     Pascal died relatively young in his thirties.  He wrote much in his lifetime: pamphlets, books, letters, etc..  He had a very dramatic conversion to Christ as a young adult.  His sister, who was a nun in the Port Royal Abbey in France, became involved in a revival movement in which Pascal was taken up.  His short poem, “Fire”, which describes his conversion, was written on a small piece of paper which he sowed into his coat lining.
      "The Memorial":

The year of grace 1654
Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology.
Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others.
From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.

'God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,' not of philosophers and scholars.
Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and your God.
Thy God shall be my God.'
The world forgotten, and everything except God.
He can only be found by the ways taught in the Gospels.
Greatness of the human soul.
'O righteous Father, the world had not known thee, but I have known thee.'
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have cut myself off from him.
They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.
'My God wilt thou forsake me?'
Let me not be cut off from him for ever!
And this is life eternal, that they might know thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent.'
Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ.
I have cut myself off from him, shunned him, denied him, crucified him.
Let me never be cut off from him!
He can only be kept by the ways taught in the Gospel.
Sweet and total renunciation.
Total submission to Jesus Christ and my director.
Everlasting joy in return for one day's effort on earth.
I will not forget thy word.

Accessed Aug 24, 2013

     This poem of Pascal’s is so well know, as you can imagine, that one can find it in second on the internet.  It is probably quoted most often by Evangelical Christians from his larger work, The Thoughts or Pensees. Since The Thoughts is his most well known work it is often referred to by the French title.  One can get the whole text on or

     The Thoughts were written by Pascal over the course of several years.  He was very ill.  He could sometimes only concentrate for short times.  Thus, some of “Thoughts” are very short and aphoristic.  Other of the “Thoughts” are longer, sometimes up to a dozen pages.
Pascal had been involved in a long argument with the Jesuits, who were determined to stamp out the Port Royal revival movement.  The movement was started by a bishop named Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres.  Jansenius revived a sort of Augustinianism (teaching of St. Augustine), which emphasized predestination and other doctrines which the Jesuits didn’t like.  Since the Jansenist or Port Royal movement was Augustinian, it has appealed to Reformed Protestants, and indeed the Jesuits considered the adherents of the Jansenist movement to be closet Protestants.  Jansenius was himself interred in a tower of what is now a part of the Catholic University of Leuven (Louvain) in Leuven, Belgium for two years.

     The Provincial Letters, in which Pascal defended the Port Royal Movement from the Jesuits’ charges, took a lot out of Pascal whose health was frail.  When he was ill or recuperating he would jot down his “thoughts”.  When he died he left behind hundreds of these aphoristic “thoughts” and some longer bits.  He had succeeded in organizing some of them himself and left indications of how the rest might be organized.  There are two editions of The Thoughts. One edition tries to follow Pascal’s ordering or numbering system and arranges those he did with the titles he gave. It then tries to organize the rest according to the editor’s conceptions for titles and content, generally organizing them by type.  The more scholarly edition organizes them by the numerical order in which they were written without titles or headings.  Most editions have both numbers, the number of that edition and the number which the other editor has assigned, at the bottom of the entries as they have arranged them.

     That was probably more than you wanted to know about The Thoughts. However, all this is to say that when one has a pile of wood it’s possible to build almost any sort of house (except maybe brick).  The Thoughts are often fodder for someone to spin off into outer space attributing all sorts of things to Pascal that he likely didn’t think.  When a “thought” is one line with no context, it’s almost impossible without a deeper knowledge of Pascal’s overall thought to understand just what he meant.

     Let’s take an extremely well known “thought”:

     The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.

     The quote has been used to say that Pascal is a fideistic intuitionalist. That might be true.  The statement seems to pit “reason” against “the heart”.  Those of an intuitive or emotional bent (they aren’t the same) like this sort of idea.

     But what does Pascal mean by “heart” and what does he mean by “reason”?  We are not free to decide for ourselves without context.

     “A Text without a Context is a Pretext for a Proof Text.”, says an old adage we learned when we took New Testament Exegesis, i.e. the science of interpreting the New Testament.  This adage, though, applies in general to any literary interpretation.

     But how do we get a context for an aphorism?  I finally come to the point! ;-) If there is no obvious context, e.g. surrounding paragraphs or the context of a letter or chapter, we must look at the overall arguments of the book and compare and contrast places where the words are used.
Pascal uses the word “reason” frequently in The Thoughts. He always seems to use it in contrast to “the heart”.  However, Pascal’s Thoughts reveal that he was anything but an irrationalist.  He was a mathematician and a scientist.  He developed a calculator and a city public transport system.  He was not an anti-rationalist.

     What he was was opposed to Rene Descartes.  Pascal felt that Descartes “rationalism” would result in atheism.  Pascal said,

To write against those who made too profound a study of science: Descartes.
I cannot forgive Descartes. In all his philosophy he would have been quite willing to dispense with God. But he had to make Him give a fillip to set the world in motion; beyond this, he has no further need of God.

     Pascal wasn’t against science.  He was against the hubris, the pride of the new science that felt (even if it hid it) that it could proceed without God.  The context shows that Pascal was not opposed to reason per se, but pride in human ability to succeed without God.

     So what are the “reasons of the heart”? They are not irrational.  Rather they are those which modern science (I’m use “modern” to mean the strict sense of Descartes’ era) rejected.  Pascal isn’t so much against reason as its misuse.

     But what about Pascal’s famous argument against the metaphysical proofs for God’s existence? Does Pascal mean any rational demonstration of God’s existence is impossible or worse detrimental?
He writes of “proofs”

But at least learn your inability to believe, since reason brings you to this, and yet you cannot believe. Endeavour then to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions.

    Reason apparently has its place.  It is a heuristic.  It shows you what your problem is, though it can’t cure you of it.  It shows us that our problem is not reason, but passion, i.e. lust.

     People in Pascal’s time where involved in one of two pursuits, i.e. wealthy people: either “science” like Descartes (very few) or self-indulgence (most).  Everyone in France was a “Christian”.  Everyone had been baptized, etc.. However, few knew Christ personally.  They thought that by some simple observances of religious rules they could attain salvation.  They weren’t interested in change of heart, but only “fire insurance”, assurance of eternal salvation without effort. Pascal goaded them to true religion, i.e. faith in Christ.

     All of this has been a digression from what sparked this epistle.  A week or so ago I watched for the second time the recent movie “The A-Team”, which stars Liam Neeson among others.

     While incarcerated B.A. Baracus has seen the light and become non-violent. If you don’t value non-violence, it is a humorous scene.  B.A. Baracus is a huge man who can easily pick up an opponent and lift him over his head and break the enemy’s back, which he does later in the movie.

     Baracus says when questioned by Col. Smith whether he will join their effort,

    "Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary."

    This is a quote by Gandhi, which Smith recognizes.

     Smith then goes on to quote Gandhi to Baracus,

     It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent. 

     It would seem then that Gandhi allowed for violence.  How one is to reconcile these two quotes is not explored in the movie.  It seems that the film writer wants us to see that Gandhi recognized a right time to use violence, which is of course the film’s point (and seems almost always to be Hollywood’s point, unless it’s an art film or a documentary).

     But what was Gandhi actually saying?  Was he self-contradictory?  Does Gandhi mean to pit intuition or heart against reason?

    Another commentator quotes Gandhi

     Non-violence, which is a quality of the heart, cannot come by an appeal to the brain.

     And he expounds on the quote as follows:

     Quite so. One can only thank Gandhi for being so frank as to admit that the doctrine of non-violence can not be arrived at and successfully defended through rational argument.

Scott H.
Accessed Aug 24, 2013

     Personally I sincerely doubt that Gandhi meant to be irrational. I think this is a case of someone taking an aphorism (as the movie did) from a book of famous quotes which did not provide context and interpreting it with free license. 

     I went looking for the movie’s quotes of Gandhi and I found a source which made it clear to me that it would take me at least a week to find the source I wanted (Gandhi wrote many, many, many letters, books, pamphlets and addresses).  I also realized that there probably was plenty of context if I could find it.

     Still I thought I don’t who (Gandhi or Scott H) means that there is no way to argue for non-violence rationally.  But, whoever says such a thing is being disingenuous. We do argue.  It’s not merely an intuition. Gandhi wrote his many, many, many pieces to convince us that non-violence is rational.

     Doesn’t Gandhi mean that non-violence is a matter of character and not rationalizing of war and its goals? We can always rationalize what we want.  However, reasoning is not rationalizing.

     So, let’s return to Col. “Hannibal” John Smith and B.A. Baracus.  Smith seemingly provides Baracus a statement from Gandhi himself which will justify Baracus’ use of violence.

     It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of non-violence to cover impotence. Violence is any day preferable to impotence. There is hope for a violent man to become non-violent. There is no such hope for the impotent. 

     What does Gandhi mean to say?

     Using what little I know of Gandhi as context and generally what I know of non-violence I would interpret this statement to mean that what Gandhi is trying to say is that someone who is “non-violent”, because he is “impotent”, i.e. has no means to succeed militarily, is worse than the violent, since at least the violent is not deceiving himself into thinking he is something that he is not, i.e. non-violent.  That is, the impotent says he is non-violent when in fact he is only powerless.  A violent man who thinks violence would achieve his goal, however, may be converted to non-violence when he realizes the foolishness of thinking that violence will change hearts and minds.

     I think my interpretation is consistent with many, many other times when Gandhi emphasized non-violence over violence.  Gandhi realized that violence only bred violence and did not change hearts, did not drive out hatred, did not free people from greed or pride.
So, aphorisms can be a useful tool (a heuristic) to point us to a deeper truth, but by themselves they can be easily abused to prove a point.  

     Almost any quote from any book, article, etc. can be taken out of context to prove a point.  A correct interpretation depends on context whether the obvious context of paragraph, chapter or book, or the context of a broader body of literature and life as it is lived by the author.

     When I was in college I studied Russian and Soviet History.  During the Soviet era any scholar who wanted to publish a book or article had to quote Marx or Lenin and show how Marx or Lenin agreed with him.  If one couldn’t show that Marx or Lenin thought the same way, he could end up a refusnik, i.e. someone who was rejected and persecuted by the Communist world.

     I remember reading an article about Soviet historiography.  I think the author’s name was Barg.  He spent several pages quoting Marx and Lenin to show that his thesis was correct.

    When he got to the end of those several pages his real argument started.  I remember thinking that most of what he’d quoted by Marx and Lenin had nothing to do with what he wanted to say.  However, he had to do it.  Otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to publish his article.

     The practice of having to please the censor has been with mankind a long time.  Descartes had to please his Jesuit censors.  While Pascal perceived Descartes as a false Christian, Descartes at the beginning of his work, the Meditations, gives two proofs for the existence of God, which satisfied the censors.  One scholar of Descartes noted that any student of formal logic can see that these arguments are fallacious.  However, somehow they fooled the censors (or the censors could point to them to fool those above them).

     Sometimes we behave like this Soviet historiographer or Descartes, we quote a Bible verse either to prove our point or to “gain admission” when in fact it’s ripped from its content. Probably the worst thing we can do with the Bible or Jesus’ teaching is to quote short sayings out of context.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t quote the Bible or Jesus, but it means that we better be very sure that we are quoting these briefer bits in a way that is consistent with other things God or Jesus or Paul wanted to say.

“A Text without a Context is a Pretext for a Proof Text”

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