Philosophy Mondays | Spinoza’s Ethics: A remedy for fear, hate and bitterness?

~ Body and Mind in Spinoza’s Ethics: a challenge to the Cartesian cogito ~

by Vic Briggs

Spinoza vs Descartes

Spinoza (1632-77) vs Descartes (1596-1650)

Part I

Introduction

“Although he lived three hundred years before our time, the spiritual situation with which Spinoza had to cope peculiarly resembles our own. The reason for this is that he was utterly convinced of the causal dependence of all phenomena… In the study of this causal relationship he saw a remedy for fear, hate and bitterness, the only remedy to which a genuinely spiritual man can have recourse.”

— Albert Einstein

Philosophy is generally associated with the search for knowledge of the self and of the world, and Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was faithful to these traditional preoccupations. He dedicated his life’s efforts to framing an epistemological theory of the universe explaining the complex lattice of man and his universe.

Feuerbach regarded Spinoza as the emancipator of reason in a new era, with the Ethics more than any other philosophical work establishing the foundation for the force of reason.

In one of his epigrams on Spinoza, Althusser voiced the philosopher’s belief that the truth of a philosophy exists in its effects. It is certainly difficult to find a modern philosopher other than Spinoza whose system has been contended with more passion and determination by fractions otherwise opposed in thought, but united in their denunciation of his works, often without making the effort of reading them:

“I have not read him, but who would want to read every obscure book written by a madman? But I have it from many who have read him that he was an atheist and pantheist, a teacher of blind necessity, and enemy of revelation, a mocker of religion, and thus a destroyer of the state and of civil society; that he was in short an enemy of the human race and died as such. He therefore deserves the hatred and loathing of all friends of humanity and true philosophers.” (Philolaus, in Herder’s dialogues on Spinoza’s system)

In fact the geometrical form of Spinoza’s Ethics with its apparent rigid definitions and axioms makes the undertaking a difficult one for the uninitiated reader, a frustration clearly expressed by Montag:

“In reading the definitions I could not entirely escape the feeling that each term referred to the others which in turn referred to it in what appeared to be a circle of empty abstractions: substance, modes, attributes, essences.”

For the message of Ethics however, this geometrical form was indispensable. Spinoza wanted the reader to pay little attention to the language used, and concentrate on the ideas that he endeavoured to convey by the means of that language.

Ideas, unlike language, are clear and distinct and based on real definitions, therefore being less prone to confusion in the thinker’s opinion (here Spinozian and Cartesian opinions converge).

This reliance on real definitions cannot be without assumptions and there are obvious difficulties with such an approach, as an interpreter of the text can never be sure of whether they are being mislead by the language of the text to ideas other than those intended.

“the apparent impenetrability of his writing is in some measure the opacity of the present to itself”

— Montag.

Yet it is not this that had caused so many to refute his philosophy.  There were countless accusations of atheism, fatalism and pantheism regarding Spinoza’s Ethics.

Perhaps it is for this reason that philosophers who benefited from the necessary “distance” conferred by time, such as Althusser for example, would be able to regard the work’s supposed atheism or heresy as one of its distinct positive aspects, in being able to express a revolutionary spirit representative of a history repressed and denied.

Other important criticisms included the apparent confusion of God with the world or with nature that Spinoza’s definition of substance infers. Such accusations attempted to perpetrate the idea that Spinoza’s God was a part of a finite, degradable world. In this respect the critics failed to understand Spinoza’s theory of substance, modes and attributes and made the false assumption that the attribution of extension to God would somehow render him corporeal, which was certainly not Spinoza’s intention. Spinoza’s particular emphasis on the distinction between Natura naturans – God – another name for the attributes, and Natura naturata – the totality of finite things – disproved his critics’ claims when observed.

What then determined so many to refute his philosophy? It was his departure from the philosophical mainstream of his time, his radical dissonance with orthodox theology and his challenge to accepted dualist conceptions of minds and bodies, God and substance, activity and passivity.

Leibniz, among many others critics, had deprecated Spinoza’s philosophy as exaggerated Cartesianism. Spinoza’s philosophy has indeed been greatly influenced by Descartes. In many ways, his own philosophy speaks to those issues raised by the Cartesian self, and although many similarities of approach exist, the conclusions the two philosophers reach are radically opposed.

To understand these distinctions more clearly it is necessary to take a closer look at Spinoza’s system of thought in the Ethics and his development of the theory of bodies and minds united through ideas and their objects.

Divided in five major parts, Spinoza’s Ethics offers more than a philosophy of morals, as the title may entitle one to expect. The work consists in short of a cosmology in the first part establishing the concepts of God, Nature, substance, attributes and modes; the second part could be conceived of as a psychology identifying the relation between human bodies and human minds and addressing the question of the nature of man; the third and fourth parts contain a psychology of the emotions which to some extent appears as a theory of human happiness; and finally the fifth part fully justifies the title of the work as Ethics, although expounding an ethics that would appear unfamiliar to his contemporaries, with no dogmatic good and evil expressed, morality becomes the tenet of individual’s understanding of emotions through reason.

Subsequently, I will attempt to show that, while Spinoza may have adopted a Cartesian approach (that of mathematical method) and language, most concepts appear transformed in his philosophy. The ‘borrowed’ notions were used in new ways and his thought developed more often in opposition to Descartes’ ideas rather than following them.


 

Note to my readers: Originally I intended to make this post available on the Monday following my previous post. Those of you who expressed an interest in the subject deserve an explanation for my renewed absence (I am in two minds regarding how explicit or otherwise I ought to be in this respect), but first I would like to apologise for the delay. 

This introduction is by no means exhaustive. It neither could be, nor did it aim to be so. It assumes a degree of acquaintance with Spinoza’s work and is intended as a mis-en-scene for the discussion of the relationship between body and mind in Spinoza’s Ethics and the challenge presented by Spinoza’s theories to the model of the Cartesian cogito on which I will expand in subsequent Philosophy Mondays posts.

All comments and questions are welcome. I can’t promise that I will be able to answer all to your satisfaction, but I can promise to do my best.

If you are new to Spinoza, the following webpages contains a few biographical details and an overview of his work: http://www.philosophypages.com/ph/spin.htm and http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/spinoza/

 

In Matters of Sloth

Smile and Sloth by Vic Briggs Daily Prompt: The Eighth Sin

Acedia or sloth, was first listed amongst eight evil thoughts (the basis of the modern seven deadly sins) by Evargrius the Solitary, a Christian ascetic monk.

Curiously, acedia does not necessarily have to mean sloth. It appears that in the Philokalia, which translates as “love of the beautiful, the good” and is “a collection of texts written between the 4th and 15th centuries by spiritual masters”,  the term acedia had the meaning of dejection or depression.

While depression may very well dim our ability to be sensible of the beautiful and the good in our lives, I should think that by including it amongst lists of “evil thoughts” and “deadly sins”, we attribute a negative agency to those who suffer from depression that is undeserved. So too goes for the paralysing consequences that depression can have, which prevent those who struggle with it to be as active and productive as they are when they are in a healthy place: being unable to work in such cases can by no means be deemed as slothful.

And while 4th century monks may have been ill-informed as to the causes of depression and its consequences, and could feel themselves justified in denoting it as a sin, I think that it may be time to eliminate it from the list.

So instead of adding another sin to the list, I say it is high time we lobby for the opposite.

As for our name-sake mammals, a few years ago I met one of their number in Peru. They are truly beautiful creatures, with soft, shaggy hair, kind eyes and appear to have a constant smile on their lips.  Certainly, they are very slow in their movements and I suppose that’s where they got the name. Then again, they have no reason to be in a hurry.

I’d like to think that perhaps if we too slowed down every now and then, and took our time to observe and delight in the world around us, we would enjoy life that little bit more.

God @TheTweetOfGod: Everyone makes mistakes.

Let’s Talk Opinion in conversation with  Sifting Reality

duty_calls“Atheism is a belief, and it is a worldview, but I understand that it isn’t a religion even if some Atheists hold to their atheism religiously.  Newly trending is the creation of churches of atheism — pun intended. […] The fact that Atheists discuss, promote, evangelize, congregate over, and erect monuments to atheism leaves little doubt that it is something, and it means very much to them.”

http://siftingreality.com/2013/11/11/atheists-flock-to-churches-of-atheism-because-atheism-is-not-a-religion/#comment-75702

Atheism is not a belief.

It is a position vis-à-vis Theism, and that position is not one of negation, but rather one of excepting oneself from the conversation, since one doesn’t accept the basis for that conversation and therefore – there being no common ground, no common sets of rules and norms – there can be no dialogue on the matter.

A/Theism: Where Theism is the belief that at least one deity exists, Atheism is the non-engagement with that belief.

I am an atheist. But I could just as well say I am secular. I adhere to secular humanitarian values.

To an atheist, to posit the question of God equates to posit the question of Harry Potter – please bear with me, no insult intended and I will explain – in so far as both subjects are to an atheist the invention/creation/work of human beings’ imagination. So they do have value, but only as human creations, nothing else.

Man created God to make sense of a world that can be at times difficult to understand, frightening to cope with, and permeated with uncertainty.

Man created God

Several questions, which I hope you will help clarify for me:

1. Are they actually called churches or are they community groups or public houses perhaps?

It seems strange to me that atheists would be “congregating” in “churches.” It is far more likely that they would be meeting in community centres, schools or academies, and the above vocabulary would be used by Christians to try and make sense of what it is that atheists do, and lacking the necessary secular jargon – or perhaps simply choosing not to use it – they call the meetings “congregations” and the meeting halls “churches.”

2. I understand that atheists are still very much a minority in the US (truth be told atheists that actually declare themselves as such are still a minority everywhere in the world).

I also understand that being “out” as an atheist can mean being excluded from many community projects, volunteering opportunities and other group activities which in America tend to be organised by church groups.

Is it possible that what atheists are attempting to do, is to get together and set up alternatives, where they can still do the things they want to do, without being prevented from contributing to society because they happen to be non-believers. Again, I’m using stories that I have been told by American atheists over the years, many of whom have felt ostracised once “out”.

And you are quite right. There is something that means a lot to us atheists: humanity.

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danielwalldammit says:  “It is entirely possible that the ‘something’ which makes atheism meaningful is not an object or even a lack thereof in the belief so much as the social significance of the stance taken amidst so many who opt for its opposite.”

zqtx says: “I think the organizers are illustrating the point that you don’t have to be a faith-based group to do good deeds or inspire others to do good deeds in the community.”

John Barron says: I don’t know if this one calls itself a church, but there are ones, in England at least, that do. But your definition of atheism is not the definition that has been used for centuries.  Yours is rather new and seems to be for the purpose of not having to defend your belief that no gods exist.

Dear John,
I beg to differ. The burden of proof lies with religion. Why would one be required to defend their lack of belief?

I don’t feel the need to defend myself, because I am not under attack. If someone tried to burn me at the stake for being a witch because I’m an infidel or a non-believer – then I’d get worried and build up a defence.

My definition is not new. It is simply a crispier repackaging of what Atheism stands for.

In any case, I did not say that God does not exist, only that to me God is an idea not an entity, and whilst I understand why others believe, for all intents and purposes I’m not part of that flock. I have my own set of truths, norms and values that I shape my life around.

Do Christians believe in a white dude with a beard that sits up in the skies?

I’d say not. If accepted as valid however, then yes, atheists don’t believe that the white guy in the sky with a big beard exists.

Regarding the “white guy with a beard in the sky” – as far as I’m concerned, it is not a Christian belief, but a caricature of it. Unfortunately this is also the case for atheism: what gets most press coverage are caricatures.

For the sake of mutual respect, it would be nice if the equivalent simplistic definitions of atheism would also be disposed of, alongside simplistic definitions of Christian beliefs.

Personally I trust that human beings are intelligent enough, and given the chance, articulate enough, to go beyond two-a-penny caricatures of their beliefs, thoughts, etc. and actually engage in mutually beneficial discussions about the meaning of life and death – because ultimately, each in our own way, those are the answers we are searching for.

Best regards,
-Vic

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Let’sTalk Opinion posts engage with issues that are important to other bloggers, connecting with others on matters close to their heart. If you like a topic and would like to contribute, please feel free to add to the comment box, reblog, share, email or message me on Twitter @shardsofsilence.

Or if you happen to be a fellow Hogwartsian send me a letter by owl. ;)

Brokeback Mountain Whispers

Let’s Talk Opinion: in conversation with Project O

Bradley: www.howisbradley.com

Question 6: If you could share an opinion on a single international incident or topic that you either feel strongly about or that might not be known to the rest of the world what would it be? You have our attention.

It’s very difficult to narrow down to one, but, I feel most strongly about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender rights. In just the past several months a transgender teenager in Jamaica was murdered by an angry mob when he arrived at a party wearing women’s clothing; a Russian man was brutally beaten, had his clothes set on fire, his anus was slashed open and filled with bottles and his attack ended when a 20 kg stone was thrown onto his head; In Washington DC, my nation’s capital, two women attacked a drag performer, who was a gay man, by biting him on the thigh, and yanked him around by his hair while a bystander videoed the crime and encouraged the fight. I wish these were rare instances, but unfortunately as more cities and countries embrace equality rights for those who are LGBT, more acts of violence are occurring. Homosexual acts are illegal in 76 countries and there are still 5 countries in which the penalty is death.

http://aopinionatedman.com/2013/09/27/project-o-article-110-bradley-california-usa-scheduled-for-9-28-0600/

I feel strongly about this, and hope that the efforts of all communities will result ultimately in effective equality. The stories you shared are horrific. I simply can’t believe that this still happens in this day and age. Truly, deeply saddened that this is the case.

There was a somewhat hostile reply to one of my Project O comments in which I challenged a contributor’s use of the phrase “…even though I don’t agree with homosexuality.” Mandy, incidentally was writing this in the context of a church gathering where she spoke out on behalf of someone from the gay community, so I felt very warmed by her actions. But the phrase still irked me, so I decided to write Be happy. Be gay! in the hope that an exchange might ensue.

I didn’t get a reply from Mandy. Instead, another blogger decided to put me in my place. I gather she deemed my comment to be an attack on Christians. Well. I have to say, that even though I am an atheist, I do not make it my business to attack anyone, and – as a former Christian myself – I have sympathy with those who strive to keep their faith in an increasingly secular world. I am curious to know what you think of the exchange, particularly on the issue of homosexuality, if you would be so kind as to read it: God @TheTweetOfGod Sigh… maybe Nietzsche was right.

In support of the gay community – through what I write and through everyday personal interactions with others – I hope to promote healthier attitudes towards those whose sexual inclination differs from what is deemed to be the “norm”. My favourite haunt in London is Soho. There is nothing that I enjoy more than going on a gay-pub/bar/club-crawl with my best friend and his boyfriend. This has given me the opportunity to meet many wonderful people: gay, transgender, lesbian and bisexual. I feel grateful for the warmth with which they accepted me into their fold, and for the stories they have chosen to share with me. It’s opened my eyes to the obstacles they encounter, and gave me a better understanding of what they have to overcome in their everyday lives. Inspiring people.

This motivated me to be more vocal about difficult issues, defend the community and my own stance on gay rights whenever challenged.

Thank you for your post.  Insightful.

P.S.: On a lighter note… #BenedictCumberbatch goes Brokeback Sherlock, one for the boys.

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Let’sTalk Opinion posts engage with issues that are important to other bloggers, connecting with others on matters close to their heart. If you like a topic and would like to contribute, please feel free to add to the comment box, reblog, share, email or message me on Twitter @shardsofsilence.

Or if you happen to be a fellow Hogwartsian send me a letter by owl. ;)

PROJECT R in session #4 Susan Irene Fox

         1. On Failure. What does love mean to you? What constitutes a failed relationship? What about a successful one? Did you ever think of yourself as a failure because a relationship came to an end?
I used to think of ended relationships as a failure on my part. I have a much different perspective now. I may as well state up front that I’m 63 and found Christ seven years ago. That has changed my perspective on a lot of things, including love. I was married and divorced three times by the time I was 45. I called it serial monogamy, but looking back, I can see I had this huge, damaged hole in my heart that no human being could fill.
Looking back, I think most people enter relationships expecting another person to “complete” them. I also think we look at who we hope people can become instead of looking at who people truly are and choosing to love them for the gift they are, or choosing to understand that person isn’t the match for us.  I strongly believe we need to come into relationships as two whole people, willing to give and serve rather than wanting to take from one another. I think that’s what makes the difference between a “failed” and a successful relationship.
         2. On Being Flawed. Are you more comfortable on your own or in a relationship? Do you think there is something wrong with people who cannot or would not sustain long-term relationships?
Now that I have my faith, and know that I am completely and wholly loved by God, I am very comfortable on my own. It took me a long time to get here. I still miss human touch sometimes – the affection, hugging and holding – but the comfort I have in the solitude and time I spend with God can’t be replaced by anything else. I have a peace now that is simply beyond understanding. And, no, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I do think we were created to be in relationships, but I have loving relationships with friends that sustain me.
         3. On Eros. Do you require a romantic relationship to feel fulfilled?
There are many different types of love, and I’ve experienced them all. I supposed if I never had eros love, I would feel a lack or a wanting. If I have it again someday, I would be delighted, but I’m not searching for it. As I said, I have the love of God that fills my heart, and I have the love of dear friends. Those kinds of love satisfy me, fill me with joy, and give me peace.
         4. On Soul-mates. Do you believe that there is a soul-mate for everyone out there? Do you ever feel that you are only half of the equation, and will be ‘lacking’ something until you find someone to share your everyday life with?
I’m convinced that our only Soul-mate is the Lord. He is the One who makes me whole. No other human can do that. When I look to someone to fill me, I expect a human being with flaws just like me to be perfect. They can’t. I can’t. We all lack. The myth is that we will, at some point in our lives ever get our s*** together without God.
         5. On Self-Love. Do you think that to be loved by others you have to love yourself? What does self-love mean to you? To love, can it sometimes mean letting go?
I don’t need to be anything other than a child of God in order to be loved. There is nothing I can do to have Him love me more. There is nothing we can do to have Him love me less. He gives me grace and mercy and invites me into His family. I may still have issues of self-doubt, self-worth, etc…, but if I don’t love myself, I am insulting my Father. He has done so much to bring me back to Him, my own issues regarding self-love are meaningless compared to His love for me.
Yes, love can mean letting go: it means letting go of control, of anxiety, of grief, of anger. It means letting go of a painful situation and giving it to God to handle. It can mean walking away from abuse even if it is scary; it can mean surrendering fears about lack and having faith that God will provide. For me above all, it means letting go of circumstances and staying steadfast in my love for Him, knowing that He will walk me through it.
         6. On Fulfilment. Can we only find fulfilment in others, or is it possible to be happy and find contentment in our other accomplishments, whatever our relationship status?
 As I tried to state above, my only complete fulfillment is in my relationship with the Lord. My relationship status has nothing to do with that. My hope is that, if I am ever in a committed relationship with someone again, I would bring that fulfillment to the relationship.
         7. On Interpersonal Skills. Are people in relationships simply better at ‘people skills’ than those who are not?
No. I interact with lots of people. I am in different relationships with different friends. You learn different skills along the way. With practice, I would hope I get better at all life skills.
         8. On Project R. Do you think this a worthwhile project? In what way, if at all, did this project help you think through the question of “relationships”? Feel free to add here any other thoughts you may have on the subject that was not covered by the above questions.
I think this is worthwhile if it helps others understand that fulfillment isn’t acquired from another person. In my point of view as a Christian, we can’t fill our hearts by sucking love, understanding, forgiveness and compassion from another human being. We must be willing to give in our relationships with people. And the only one who gives everlastingly and fills us to overflowing is God.
“Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit,” says the Lord Almighty. Zechariah 4:6

PROJECT R: Relationship Interrupted on Religion

I’m a philosopher-in-training. To question and to doubt comes easily to me. Certainty was once mine, but I love the fluidity of reality and the relativity of truth. They sparkle alive and enlivening, with humour and love.  

Name: vicbriggs / Website: www.shardsofsilence.wordpress.com/ Twitter: @shardsofsilence / Email: viki.briggs@gmail.com

          1. On Failure. What does love mean to you? Did you ever think of yourself as a failure because a relationship came to an end?

For some time I thought of it as a failed relationship: my relationship with God that is. It took me many years to come to terms with my loss of faith. I entered adulthood, however, entirely at peace.

On the subject of love, I am tempted to say that I feel very much the same way now as I did back when. “Love your neighbour as you love thyself,” is something that I still strive towards, even if the endeavour has lost its religious imprint.

As for feeling like a
failure because it ended… No. Like any worthwhile relationship, it was one that I’ve learnt from, and when there was nothing more to learn, for me at least, I chose to move on.

          2. On Being Flawed. Are you more comfortable on your own or in a relationship?

To be human is to be flawed. Our flaws are also a part of what makes us unique, beautiful. I’ve heard mortality referred to as a human flaw. I’m not sure I agree with that. Our mortality is a limitation that is very difficult to accept, yes, but a flaw? Once acknowledged, it can be empowering; it can drive us to great things, or simply ordinary things that are great in their simplicity and persistence. There is Art in leading an ordinary life.

I am more comfortable being without God, than I ever was being with. Faith is a very straightforward affair: you either have it, or you don’t. There’s little else to it.

          3. On Eros. Do you require a romantic relationship to feel fulfilled?

There is something very powerful about the magic number of TWO. Adam and Eve: one famous couple amongst many others. Perhaps unconsciously we are forever trying to recreate it. But then… Aphrodite was only ONE, and she did rather well for herself.

          4. On Soul-mates. Do you believe that there is a soul-mate for everyone out there? Do you ever feel that you are only half of the equation, and will be ‘lacking’ something until you find someone to share your everyday life with?

Working from within the paradigm… I always struggled with the idea of Eve being fashioned out of Adam’s rib. He lacks a rib, and she is one? Of course, the metaphor is not lost on me, but still.

Another question of physiology that has similarly troubled me in this respect is that of “the navel”. Did the original couple have navels or not. If yes, what purpose did they serve? If not, how did the rest of humanity get landed with one?

          5. On Self-Love. Do you think that to be loved by others you have to love yourself? What does self-love mean to you? To love, can it sometimes mean letting go?

To be at ease in your own skin, I suppose, is very much what self-love is all about. It makes it easier when you interact with others. It makes it easier not to see endings as catastrophes. They usually aren’t; in life very few things are.

“Because I love you so

I have to let you go.”

Thinking back at my childhood and its Christian setting, the most important type of love was loving one’s deity, which equalled loving one’s parents. Of course, one would always have to be careful not to covet the neighbour’s wife. There are some types of love which are socially as well as theologically unacceptable. Even now, I avoid getting too friendly with my neighbour’s wife. I suppose some norms will linger, try as I might to renounce them.

          6. On Fulfilment. Can we only find fulfilment in others, or is it possible to be happy and find contentment in our other accomplishments, whatever our relationship status?

It’s Babel out there. We all speak, perhaps more today with social media at our fingertips than ever before. We speak more than we listen. Oftentimes, we think we understand, but the form doesn’t always fit the content. I still believe that relationships bring us the greatest fulfilment (all relationships, of which the romantic ones are only a small part).

          7. On Interpersonal Skills. Are people in relationships simply better at ‘people skills’ than those who are not?

The communitarian aspect of religion promotes interaction. This however does not mean that if you go to church you are somehow automatically better at people skills than if you don’t. As with every group, there will always be those who mingle more, and those who will keep themselves to themselves.

          8. On Project R. In what way, if at all, did this project help you think through the question of “relationships”?

If someone told my child-self that at the age of thirteen I would no longer be a believer, I would’ve laughed in their face. If someone told me now that there may come a time when I would be a believer again, I’d still chuckle (internally). Oh, irony might find its arrow’s mark.

I am ready to accept that the agnostic position is a wiser, more mature one to take. Nonetheless, I am not an agnostic. I can argue along the accepted lines and defend my position if challenged, but I have the certainty of the atheist that: with death comes the end and there is nothing after.  The only ground that I can give on this, to both Christians and agnostics alike, is Larkin’s verse:

“Our almost-instinct almost true:

What will survive of us is love.”

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This is PROJECT R: Relationship Interrupted.

Photographers, writers, artists, poets: Let’s talk Relationships!

Why? A friend needs my help to get over a tough breakup. And I need you.

How? Just follow the link below and answer eight questions about relationships or lack thereof, love and fulfilment, failure and success, flaws and accomplishments, and soul-mates.

https://shardsofsilence.wordpress.com/2013/10/07/project-r-i-think-best-when-i-think-with-others/

Please send your contribution for PROJECT R to:  viki.briggs@gmail.com.

To be screened on vicbriggs’s blog from the 14th to the 31st of October

The deadline for submissions is Sunday, the 13th of October.

All for a good cause.

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Acknowledgments

I did not plan on writing this post, until I came across AOpinionatedMan’s latest musings on religion, and decided to reconsider a subject that is usually only of intermittent importance for me nowadays. So, thank you OM, for inspiring this. There are two related OM articles on religion and the definition of shame:  http://aopinionatedman.com/2013/10/11/the-definition-of-shame/ http://aopinionatedman.com/2013/10/10/om-on-religion-part-4-christian-shame/

And here is a link to my original reblog and definition of the same:  https://shardsofsilence.wordpress.com/2013/10/11/the-definition-of-shame/

The Definition of Shame

Icarus

Shame… One word, so many possibilities. It’s been a long while since I’ve taken the time to reflect on the meaning(s) of this term.

“You should be ashamed of yourself.”

We’ve all heard it, addressed to us or others at least once. Ashamed of what?

In the Christian context shame mingles with sin.

I was six years old (or thereabouts) when I went to my first confession.

There was a long queue, and I was somewhere in the middle of it. For most people it took a couple of minutes. I had not been told that the customary approach was to go under the priest’s robe (no chuckles here please, it wasn’t under the full garment, just a little over extension with which he covered your head) and say “Forgive me, father, for I have sinned,” then add a couple of minor misdemeanours to be forgiven.

No. I was not aware of that, and having been frightened into believing that I’d make a good pot roast for Satan unless I confessed all, I came fully prepared (even then I had a penchant for research), long list in hand with every little thing I had ever done that may have displeased God… or St Peter, since I understood him to hold the keys to heaven, and was keen not to fall into the trap – often stated – of being eaten by the saints before I made it into the antechamber of the Almighty.

I wish I still had that list. My aunt laughed for weeks after reading it, but alas! it got lost in the annals of time.

Here are a few I can recall:

1. I didn’t say my prayer every evening. Some evenings I was tired and fell asleep half way though “thank you for the bread…”

2. I didn’t always share. There was a tasty melon in grandpa’s garden which my brother and I had stolen and eaten, only including one of our cousins in the fruit-adventure to the exclusion of three others.

3. We often stole cherries from the nearby orchard, but on this one I hoped God would be on my side, since he made all fruit and trees for everyone to enjoy, and I protested against the cooperative for wanting to keep it all for the Soviets.

4. I felt I should say sorry on behalf of Eve. I mean, apples are good for you, how was she supposed to know that God was serious about the whole ban on the tree thing. I mean, if he really didn’t want anyone to eat the apples, surely he wouldn’t have planted the tree in the first place.

5. I didn’t always treat my elders with respect. I knew I should, but there is this lady who is constantly drunk, and falls asleep in ditches … It makes it a little tough on the respect your elders side of things.

6. I kill Mosquitos. I’m not sure if God really minds this, but he did say not to kill. Is it ok to kill them only after they’ve sucked your blood or are pre-emptive strikes also acceptable?

7. There are these Jehovah witness kids who have some strange ideas about Jesus and baptism. Are they ok to play with or is it a sin? If so, could I please be forgiven for playing with them in the past.

8. I am not sure where to stand on the whole kissing the icon thing. I mean… On the one hand God says do not make false idols, on the other, Orthodox churches are all full of them. Also, is it wrong that I feel kinda gross kissing an icon after someone else slobbered all over it? Where does God stand on hygiene?

9. Forgot to fast. I’m not very good at not eating in the morning before coming to church for the sacred bread. A couple of times I’d eaten and still came after and ate the bread dunked in wine. Could God please forgive me, and also, maybe loosen up on the whole not eating thing and let me do maybe a good deed instead, like helping an old lady bring her cow back from pasture, or feed the chickens for grandma.

10. Women troubles. I am told that when I grow up, there will be a time of the month when God would consider me unclean and I would not be allowed to come to church because it’s shameful. Since God made us all in his image, could He please make a do-over to change that. I’m apologising in advance if this upsets him, but since he is all-powerful it seems silly to allow boys free reign and get girls stuck in the naughty corner, through no fault of their own.

Well… These are the ones I remember.

I was with the priest for nearly an hour, going over each point, explaining with examples and negotiating my forgiveness.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that faith deserted me when I exited my pre-teens. I was too analytical about it. I questioned too much. And perhaps that is the wrong way to go about it.

I used to know guilt and shame back then to an extent and of a depth that has never quite translated into my adult life.

Shame is a powerful blocker. It stultified, it curtailed action. “For shame!”

In its secular incarnation, the most powerfully felt has been a shame of being weak.

Once I acknowledged that there is strength in admitting it, shame deserted me.

This old friend, I am sure, will revisit again sometime. But it has taken a leave of absence at present, and I am grateful for it.

The nightmares that persisted in my childhood years, all related to a shame of somehow having failed to please the Almighty and subsequently being dragged screaming into the fires of the fallen Angel, stopped the moment I no longer believed.

If nothing else, at least now I can get a good night’s sleep. Unashamed.