I have been reading M.H. Abrams’s classic study The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition over the last couple of weeks. It is a wonderfully erudite and often surprising intellectual history of Romanticism. One surprising detail I encountered recently was a reference to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium. I knew Shelley was influenced by Platonism, but I didn’t know he translated any of Plato’s works. I was interested to know more about this translation, so I turned to The Shelley-Godwin Archive, which has digitized a number of Shelley’s notebooks and manuscripts. Unfortunately, they have not yet digitized this particular translation.1 They have, however, digitized a partial draft manuscript of Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Ion. It is incomplete and a little messy to read, even with the encoded transcriptions that accompany each page, but it is nonetheless a fine specimen of Shelley’s engagement with Plato’s aesthetic theories.
What follows is an edited transcription of the partial draft manuscript available here. I made some minor editorial interventions for the sake of clarity and consistency, but I tried to allow Shelley’s translation to come through as purely as possible. I did, however, cut the transcript short by about a page, only because Plato draws a firm conclusion with the line, “You are then the interpreters of interpreters,” and I thought it best not to include the opening sentences of his next line of thought. I also added a paragraph break to Socrates’s final long statement.
Socrates— Hail to thee Ion, whence returnest thou amongst us; from thine own native Ephesus?
Ion— From Epidauras, o Socrates, of the Æsculapians.
Socrates— Had the Epidaurians instituted a contest of rhapsodists to the honor of the god — ?
Ion— And not that alone, but contests in every species of musical art.
Socrates— And into what contest did you enter, & what was the event of your efforts?
Ion— I carried the first prize, o Socrates.
Socrates— Well done, you have only to consider how you shall bear away the Panathenea.
Ion— That also may happen if the God should be propitious.
Socrates— I have often envied you rhapsodists, o Ion, on account of your art; for it imposes on you the nicest care of your persons & the most studied elegance of dress so that you must excel the beautiful in beauty; & secondly a familiarity with many & excellent poets & especially with Homer the most godlike & admirable among them, & your emulation is greater, not merely to remember the verses, but to fathom the deepest meaning of this king of melody: for he is no rhapsodist who does not understand the whole scope & intention of the poet, & is not capable of interpreting it to his audience. This he cannot do without a full comprehension of the meaning of his author; worthy indeed of envy are those who can fulfill these conditions!
Ion— You speak truly, o Socrates; and indeed I have expended my principal study upon this circumstance of the art; I flatter myself that no man living excels me in expounding Homer; neither Metrodorus of Lampsacas, nor Stesimbrotus the Thasian, nor Glaucon, nor any other rhapsodist of the present time, can so give so many various & beautiful meanings to the verses of Homer as I can.
Socrates— I am persuaded of your eminent skill, o Ion. You will not grudge me a proof & explanation?
Ion— It is worth while to hear the manner in which I have illustrated Homer: I deserve a gold crown from his descendants.
Socrates— And I will find sure some day or other to request you to give me a specimen; at present I will only trouble you with one question. Are you excellent in explaining Homer alone, or are you conscious of the same power with regard to Hesiod & Archilochus?
Ion— I possess this high degree of skill respecting Homer alone; and I consider that sufficient.
Socrates— Are there any topics concerning which Homer & Hesiod say the same?
Ion— Many, as it seems to me.
Socrates— Whether you illustrate these topics better as treated by Homer or Hesiod?
Ion— In the same manner doubtless inasmuch as they say the same words with respect to the same things.
Socrates— But with regard to those things in which they differ; divination for instance?
Ion— Certainly I feel that I could explain them.
Socrates— But whether or not you or a diviner would make the best exposition respecting all that those poets say of divination, both as they agree & as they differ?
Ion— A diviner certainly.
Socrates— If you were a diviner do you not think that you could explain their discrepancies on the subject of your profession, if you understood their agreements?
Socrates— How then does it happen that you are possessed of skills to illustrate Homer & not Hesiod or the other poets in an equal degree? Are the topics of Homer dissimilar from those of all the other poets? Does he not treat the principle of war and the mutual intercourse of men, and the distinct functions & characters of the brave & the coward, the professional and the private person; the relations borne by men to the gods & the gods to men, and the mode of their communion; of the proceedings of heaven, of hell, of the origin of gods & heroes: are not these the materials from which Homer wrought his poem?
Ion— Assuredly, o Socrates.
Socrates— And the other Poets, do they not treat of the same matters?
Ion— Certainly: but not like Homer.
Socrates— How, worse?
Ion— Oh, far worse!
Socrates— And Homer better than they?
Ion— Oh Jupiter, how much better!
Socrates— Suppose, my dear friend Ion, several persons are solving a problem in arithmetic, and one alone does it correctly: a man might know who had given the true answer.
Socrates— The same as had been aware of those who had given the false one, or not?
Ion— The same clearly.
Socrates— That is, some one who understood arithmetic.
Socrates— Suppose among several people giving their opinions upon the wholesomeness of different foods whether would one person know the rectitude of the opinion of those who judged rightly, and another pass upon the erroneousness of those which were incorrect, or would the same person be competent to decide respecting both?
Ion— The same evidently.
Socrates— What should you call that person?
Ion— A physician.
Socrates— We may then assert universally, that the same person who is competent to judge of the truth is competent also to determine the falsehood of whatever is asserted on the same topic; and it is manifest that he who cannot judge respecting the falsehood or unfitness of what is said on a given subject, is incompetent to determine also on its truth or beauty.
Socrates— The same person then is competent to both.
Socrates— And yet you say that your power of explaining Homer & other poets, among them Hesiod & Archilochus, is unequal; & that you can illustrate this poet better & those worse.
Ion— And I speak truth.
Socrates— Yet if you would determine that which is excellent in one, you must also know that which is inferior in another, inasmuch as it is inferior.
Ion— So it should seem.
Socrates— Then my dear friend we should not err, if we asserted that Ion possessed a like power of illustration respecting Homer & all other poets; especially as he confesses that the same person must be esteemed a competent judge of all who speak of the same subjects, inasmuch as those subjects are understood by him, when spoken of by one; and the subject matter of almost all the poets is the same.
Ion— What then is the reason, Socrates, that when any other poet is the subject of conversation, I cannot compel my attention, and I feel utterly unable to improvise any thing worth speaking of,—& positively go to sleep; but when anyone reminds me of Homer, I awaken instantly as from a trance, I apply my mind without effort to the subject, & feel a throng & profusion of expressions suggest themselves involuntarily?
Socrates— It is not difficult to conjecture the cause. You are evidently unable to speak concerning Homer according to art or knowledge; for if you could speak according to art, you would be equally capable of illustrating any of the other poets; as the materials of their composition no less than the art of criticism which illustrates them, must be the same.
Socrates— Yet of any other art the same mode of consideration must be admitted with respect to all arts; do you desire to hear what I understand by this, o Ion?
Ion— Yes, by Jupiter, o Socrates. I am delighted with listening to you wise men.
Socrates— To confess the truth, it is you who are wise, o Ion. The rhapsodists, the actors, & the authors of these poems which you recite. I, like an unprofessional & private man, can only say that which I know to be true. Observe how vulgar & common and level to the comprehension of any one is the question I now ask, relative to the same consideration belonging to one entire art. Is not the art of painting one whole system in itself?
Socrates— Are there not & have there not been, many painters good and bad?
Socrates— Did you ever know a person competent to determine the merits of the paintings of Polygnotus the son of Aglaophon, and incompetent to judge the production of any other painter; who, on the compositions of other painters being exhibited to him felt wholly at a loss & very much inclined to go to sleep, and lost all faculty of reasoning upon the subject; but who, when his opinion was required of Polygnotus, or any one single painter you please, awoke, paid attention to the subject, & illustrated it with great eloquence?
Ion— Never, by Jupiter.
Socrates— Did you ever know any one very skillful in discussing the merits of Dædalus the son of Metion, one Epeius Panopeus, Theodorus the Samian or any other great sculptor, who immediately went to sleep & became at a loss the moment any other sculptor was mentioned?
Ion— I never met with such a person certainly.
Socrates— Nor do I think you ever saw a man who professing himself a judge of music, song & rhapsody, was competent to criticize Olympus Thamyris, Orpheus, or Phemius of Ithaca, the rhapsodist; but the moment he came to Ion the Ephesian felt himself quite at a loss, & utterly incompetent to determine whether he rhapsodized well or ill.
Ion— I cannot refute you Socrates; but of this I am conscious in myself that I excel all men in the profusion & eloquence of my illustrations of Homer; that all who hear me will confess it; & that with respect to other poets, I am deserted by this power; it is for you to consider what may be the cause of this.
Socrates— I can unfold to you, o Ion, my opinion. I will tell you, o Ion, what appears to me to be the cause of this inequality of power. It is not that you are possessed of any science for the illustration of Homer; but a divine influence moves you, a power like that which resides in the stone called magnet by Euripides & Heracleia by the people. For this stone not only attracts iron rings, but communicates to them power like that which itself possesses of attracting other rings, so that some times a long attached chain of rings & irons may be one to the other. To all these the power from that stone is communicated & attaches itself. In like manner the Muse, through those whom she has first inspired, communicating to others the influence of the first enthusiasm creates a chain & a succession; for all the excellent authors of poems not disciplined into excellence by art, but they utter beautiful melodies of verse in a state of inspired & possessed as it were by a spirit. And thus the composers of lyric poetry, like Corybants who dance having lost all control over their mind, compose admired songs of theirs in a state of insanity, & by this supernatural possession are excited to the rhythm & harmony which they invent; like the Bacchants, who when possessed by the God draw honey & milk from the streams in which & when they come to their senses find honey no more; for the souls of poets, as poets tell, have this peculiar ministration in the world; tell us, that flying like bees from flower to flower, & wandering over the gardens & the meadows & the honey flowing fountains of the Muses these souls return to us, laden with the sweetness of melody—arrayed close as they are they speak truth. For indeed a poet is a thing ætherially light winged & sacred, nor is he capable of composing poetry until he becomes inspired & as it were mad, or whilst any reason remains in him. For whilst man yet retain any portion of the thing called reason he is utterly incompetent to produce poetry or to vaticinate.
Thus, those who declaim various & beautiful poetry upon any subject as you upon Homer, are not enabled to do so by art or study: but every rhapsodist or poet, whether be he dythyrambic, encomiastic, choral, epic, or iambic is capable in proportion to his participation in the divine influence, & to the degree in which the Muse itself has descended upon him. In other respects poets may be sufficiently ignorant & incapable. They do not compose according to any art which they have acquired, but from the impulse of the divinity within them; for, did they know any system of criticism according to which they could compose beautiful versus upon one subject, they would be able to exert the same faculty with respect to all and any others. The God has purposely deprived all poets, prophets & soothsayers to adapt them for their employments as his ministers & interpreters, of every particle of reason & understanding; in order that we their auditors may acknowledge, that such absurd persons cannot possibly be the authors of the excellent & admirable things which they communicate; but that he the God himself is he who speaks & they are merely the organs of his voice. A proof of this may be found in Tynnichus the Chalchidean, who composed no other poem which any one thinks worth remembering except the famous pæan which is in every one’s mouth, perhaps without exception the most beautiful of all lyrical compositions and which he himself called ευρηματι μουσαν. I think you will agree with me, that the gods show us clearly by such examples that these beautiful poems are not human nor from men, but divine & from the gods; and that poets are nothing but the inspired interpreters of the gods, each excellent in proportion to the degree of his inspiration; and the examples of the most beautiful song having been composed by the worst poet in other respects, seems to have been purposely afforded as a divine evidence of the truth of this opinion. Do you think with me, o Ion?
Ion— By Jupiter, I do. You touch my soul with your words, o Socrates. The excellent poets appear to me to be divinely commissioned as interpreters between the gods & us.
Socrates— Do not you rhapsodists interpret the creations of the poets?
Ion— That also is true.
Socrates— You are then the interpreters of interpreters.
If you would like to read the unedited transcription, or to see the manuscript pages themselves, visit The Shelley-Godwin Archive. Not only do they have a selection of Percy Shelley’s manuscripts, but they also have strong holdings in Mary Shelley, William Godwin, and Mary Wollstonecraft. It is a wonderful resource.
American singer, songwriter, poet, and Nobel laureate Bob Dylan celebrates his 80th birthday today. There are a number of festivities to honor the occasion, including a three-day conference at the University of Tulsa’s Institute for Bob Dylan Studies and a special symposium hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Dublin, which will be live-streamed later this afternoon. I look forward to checking that out.
The Allen Ginsberg Project has also gathered a bunch of links to recent books and articles on Dylan, including a number of tributes to the bard on the occasion of his birthday. The amount of scholarly work being done on Dylan is amazing. It is a testament to the significant role his work has played in the development of contemporary American culture.
If you are unable to catch the special events being live-streamed today, you should definitely consider watching Martin Scorsese’s documentary film Rolling Thunder Review, which is available on Netflix. It is a remarkable film. And of course there is always Dylan’s music. I have his 1976 album Desire playing right now, and it is providing a perfect soundtrack to this rainy day in Austin.
It is difficult to overstate how accomplished Dylan is as a songwriter. The scope of his influence and his longevity as an artist are unparalleled, and American popular music and culture simply wouldn’t be the same without him. Hopefully, we haven’t heard the last from his singular voice.
A very happy birthday, Bob! And many more to come.
One of the things I was most excited about when moving back to Austin at the start of 2020 was the opportunity to experience the city’s live music scene. I saw so many great shows when living here in the aughts, and after six years in Dubai, I was eager to take full advantage of what the “live music capital of the world” has to offer. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic put an end to live music in Austin. The pandemic shutdowns have been particularly difficult for local musicians, many of whom depend on gigs as their primary source of income, but it has also been devastating for the city’s cultural life.
There are, however, signs that things are returning to normal in downtown Austin, including the re-opening of Parker Jazz Club. Founded in 2018 by multi-instrumentalist Kris Kimura, the club hosts regular performances by the Parker House Band, along with scattered appearances by touring jazz, blues, and R&B musicians. It is a laid-back basement space, with a small bar, an intimate seating arrangement, and an attractive stage. The ambiance and acoustics are great, and while Parker’s schedule is still light at this point, it is good to see venues like this one opening their doors for live music after nearly a year and a half of silence.
Yesterday afternoon, Parker hosted a record release party for Aubrey Logan’s new album Standard. This is Logan’s third full-length record, and as the titles suggests, it is a collection of jazz standards. But that is not quite right, for while ten of the twelve songs are covers, not all of the songs come from the traditional jazz repertoire. Rather than record a set of jazz standards, Logan selected songs from a range of genres and then translated them into jazz. The result is an interesting mix of songs—from opera to disco—that showcase her range as a vocalist, as well as her skills as a trombonist.
Logan’s performance was recorded for broadcast in Europe, so she played to the camera, which was a little weird, but I found her persona to be delightful. Her stage presence is playful and engaging, and she seemed to be having a really good time. More importantly, she sounded great. Her voice is bold, and her trombone electrified the room. She sounded particularly good on “Here’s that Rainy Day” and “The Way We Were,” which she sung beautifully, and I enjoyed her performance of Standard‘s two original compositions: “Done Pretending” and “Louboutins 2.0.” I do wish she played the trombone more, but she is a talented vocalist, so I hesitate to fault her for centering her vocal performance. And besides, she does an excellent job of balancing her vocals with some outstanding instrumentation.
I also appreciated Logan’s band. I listen to a lot of jazz at home, but hearing the music played live elevates the experience in significant ways. The volume of the rhythm section and the brightness of the horns is too often lost in even the best recordings, and the bodily experience of feeling the music simply can’t be replicated in recorded form. Logan’s band did an excellent job of delivering on that potential. They play with energy, and they play loud. I was particularly impressed by guitarist Chris McQueen, who delivered some wonderfully bluesy guitar leads, and drummer Daniel Dufour has a real knack for creating percussive drama. The band is rounded out by Sam Pankey on bass and Sean Michael Giddings on keys, though Giddings plays low in the mix and only soloed once, which was a shame. I would have liked to have heard more from him. And then there is Logan’s trombone, of course, which does a lot to brighten the compositions.
I look forward to Parker Jazz Club booking more shows as people get vaccinated and the COVID-19 case counts continue to decrease in the Austin area. Hopefully they will be joined by the Elephant Room, Austin’s other jazz club, which remains closed. If you live in Austin or happen to come for a visit, be sure to check out the local jazz scene. And if you enjoy vocal jazz, check out Aubrey Logan’s three albums. She sings beautifully and does some really interesting things blending musical genres. Her technique not only shows off her considerable talents as a musician, but it also illustrates the versatility of jazz.
Finally, if you would like to help Austin musicians during this difficult time, consider donating to the Austin Creative Alliance. They could use your support.
Suddenly I understood that they had murdered me.
I rushed into the streets,
so familiar, seeking answers,
at cafés, at the homes of my friends,
only to be met with:
No, señor, we haven't seen him,
he hasn't been here for some time.
He ran off with my ágatas.
I need to discuss some things with him.
At midnight, at the point of exhaustion,
I swallowed the last of the day's coffee.
Translated from the Spanish of David Turkeltaub.
I was raised to fear death. My parents were devout Evangelicals who practiced a charismatic, joyful version of Christianity, but their faith was also rooted in the hellfire-and-brimstone tradition of the Great Awakening. Sermons in the churches we attended often focused on the consequences of sin, and the looming certainty of Judgment Day—always presented as a fearsome, humiliating taking of accounts rather than a celebration of one’s ultimate unity with God—was used to motivate both religious conversion and righteous behavior. Salvation was a part of this story, of course, but the fear that death may lead to eternal suffering was one of my core childhood experiences. Even in adulthood, having developed convictions that have little to do with salvation or damnation, the thought that hell awaits is something I grapple with when thinking about my own mortality.
That being said, fear of death does not motivate my behavior. I am not sure that it ever has, to be honest, not even when talk of Judgment Day was a regular part of my life. And yet I still find the prospect of death deeply disconcerting. I do not want to lose my life and all of the commitments, struggles, and pleasures that it holds. This is not to say that I welcome the idea of eternal life in the hereafter, or even that I desire immortality in this world. The idea of eternal life is dreadful in its own right. But I do relish a strong connection to my lived experience, and I am unsettled by the knowledge that life will someday come to an absolute end.
Martin Hägglund’s recent book This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom takes up the question of mortality in order to probe what it means to live a moral life.1 He argues that, as finite beings, we live in direct relation to death, and that the knowledge of our own mortality serves as a powerful catalyst for acting on our commitments in this world. Maintaining strong commitments in the face of certain death is, in Hägglund’s thinking, what it means to have secular faith. This is in contrast to religious faith, which encourages people to pursue eternal rewards in whatever comes after this life. He writes, “To have secular faith is to be devoted to a life that will end, to be dedicated to projects that can fail or break down” (5-6). The acceptance of finitude and fragility is central to this devotion, for fidelity to the finite, when valued for its own sake, frees those with secular faith from nihilism and allows them to transform their acceptance of death into a passion for living. At the core of Hägglund’s theory is the idea that existing in relation to death is the ground from which the good life springs.
I am sympathetic to this view. Nobody can know for sure what comes after death, but what we do know is that we have this life now. Anything more is speculation and must be taken on faith. If this is true—as seems obvious to me—then it makes perfect sense to value life as an end in itself, and I don’t see any reason why doing so cannot produce behaviors that are every bit as desirable as the best behaviors that religion promotes. I do not believe that we need religious laws or fear of eternal damnation to live moral lives. Morality can emerge from our commitments to the people, places, communities, and institutions that we value and love. Such faith in the value of finite life is central to Hägglund’s project, and he is right to argue that the certainty of death, and the uncertainty that anything lies beyond our finite lives, should motivate us to commit ourselves to the only world of which we can be assured.
Where I take issue with Hägglund is in his insistence that secular faith is the only authentic means of committing oneself to this life. While it may be true that religion subordinates material life to spiritual ideals, including the ideal of eternal life, Hägglund’s argument strikes me as overly rigid in excluding religious faith as an authentic means of valuing the material world as such. This is true even when he acknowledges that religious people are often deeply invested in caring for this life. For example, he writes:
Of course, even if you identify as religious you can still care intensely for the fate of our life on Earth. My point, however, is that if you care for our form of life as an end in itself, you are acting on the basis of secular faith, even if you claim to be religious. Religious faith can entail obedience to moral norms, but it cannot recognize that the ultimate purpose of what we do—the ultimate reason it matters how we treat one another and the Earth—is our fragile life together. (9)
I am at a loss to explain why religious faith cannot encompass an authentic commitment to our fragile life together. Are religious faith and a commitment to material existence really mutually exclusive? Hägglund maintains that they are, and this leads him to draw conclusions that participate in a form of fundamentalist thinking that cuts against his vision for a cooperative, mutually-sustaining life together.
Hägglund’s fundamentalism is most apparent in the absolute terms with which he discusses the limits of religious faith. For example, his argument rests on the premise that the “ultimate goal” of religious faith is “to be absolved from vulnerability,” and that this absolution “requires that we renounce our commitment to finite life. To achieve absolution we cannot love any mortal beings as ends in themselves but only as means toward the end of suffering” (47). This assumes that the desire to transcend suffering is the sine qua non of religious faith, and it elides the many other principled reasons that people embrace religion, including love of God, commitment to family and cultural traditions, submission to moral laws, the near-universal sense that there exists something beyond material reality, and indeed the obligation to nurture life on this Earth. By ignoring these factors, Hägglund limits the meaning of religious faith, which is precisely what he must do in order to reserve secular faith as the only means of cultivating an authentic concern for the finite, fragile lives we share together.
A more complex critique of religious faith would acknowledge its relationship to social justice. There are many examples for Hägglund to drawn on, both historical and contemporary. Two that spring immediately to mind are Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil rights activism and Pope Francis’s advocacy for an environmentally-conscious faith. Hägglund would likely say that these are actually examples of religious people practicing secular faith, but careful attention to how King and Francis frame their Christian activism yields a more nuanced understanding of how religious faith can encompass the sort of care and concern for finite life that Hägglund wants to see flourish in the world.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King explicitly rejects the distinction between secular justice and the divine justice of eternity. Expressing his disappointment that more White clergymen had not joined the struggle for civil rights, King writes:
In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely otherworldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.
King even goes so far as to assert that “the sacred heritage of our nation and the eternal will of God are embodied in our echoing demands” [emphasis added]. This is a far cry from Hägglund’s claim that the ultimate goal of religion is to transcend the limits of material existence. King’s argument is that the divine will can be found in the struggle for justice in this world, that the finite embodies the eternal, and that those who seek to draw a distinction between the sacred and the secular misunderstand—or intentionally disregard—the scriptures that structure their faith.
King’s belief that the “eternal will of God” is embodied in the struggle for social justice expresses a very different understanding of the relationship between religious faith and temporality than Hägglund develops in This Life.2 Whereas Hägglund argues that the religious belief in eternity renders time irrelevant, King develops some of his most forceful arguments in direct relation to temporality—arguments that are both secular and religious. He argues that the limited nature of temporal experience creates a moral imperative to act on behalf of justice before time deprives another soul of their God-given human dignity. In his famous rebuttal to the status quo argument that segregation would ease in due time, King writes:
I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
The central thrust of King’s argument is that it is immoral to defer justice precisely because the experience of human dignity is bound by time, and when people are denied that dignity, even for a moment, they suffer a grievous spiritual wound. His example earlier in the letter of being forced to explain to his “six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people” is a poignant illustration of how deferring justice corrupts the inner purity that is such an important aspect of religious faith. For King, racial injustice is both a secular and a spiritual crisis. Not only does it debase people’s material conditions, but it also deprives them of the human dignity that is part of God’s eternal will. This is why King considers those who work for justice in this temporally bounded, finite life to be “co workers with God,” for achieving justice in this life is a spiritual calling, a religious obligation, and a divine end in itself.
A similar concern is evident in Pope Francis’s encyclical letter on the environment, Laudato si’, a document that repeatedly calls attention to the fusion of material existence and divine will. Arguing that human beings are “spirit and will, but also nature,” Francis writes, “The destruction of the human environment is extremely serious, not only because God has entrusted the world to us men and women, but because human life is itself a gift which must be defended from various forms of debasement.” In opposition to Hägglund’s emphasis on the religious concept of eternity, Francis emphasizes the material dimension of human experience—the gift of life itself—as being every bit as worthy of care as the soul. And like King, who called on people to be “co workers with God” in achieving racial justice, Frances urges his readers to “cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation.” Nowhere in Laudato si’ does Frances appeal to eternity as a justification for nurturing material life. On the contrary, his encyclical is very much about understanding “how faith brings new incentives and requirements with regard to the world of which we are a part.”
Even in those sections of Laudato si’ that are explicitly theological, Frances makes clear that a key purpose of human existence is to care for one another within the material context of the Earth, and he frames this duty as an essential part of religious faith. Focusing on the Christian understanding of creation, he argues that everything in existence is an expression of God’s love, and that all beings contain a God-given dignity that must be protected. This dignity even extends to non-human beings, which Francis insists “have a value of their own in God’s eyes.” The presence of such inalienable dignity throughout nature compels Christians to treat finite creation as an absolute value in itself. Indeed, just after claiming that “creation is the order of love,” Francis draws the reader’s attention to the most finite of living things: “Even the fleeting life of the least of beings is the object of his love, and in its few seconds of existence, God enfolds it with his affection.” Whereas Hägglund posits that “we cannot love any mortal beings as ends in themselves but only as means toward the end of suffering,” Francis would say that the material universe itself is an expression of love, and to participate in that love by caring for finite things is what it means to keep faith with the divine plan of creation.
None of this is to say that Hägglund is wrong when he identifies the tendency within religion to treat secular life as a means to religious ends. Even in Francis’s progressive theology, which is very much concerned with the material conditions of the poor and the oppressed, as well as with the ecological health of our planet, care for this world is understood as a means of glorifying God. Secular faith, on the contrary, doesn’t compel people to care for this world for any other reason than that sharing a good life together is a worthy end in itself. I appreciate this aspect of secular faith, but I struggle to understand why it matters if the religious faithful care for this world because they believe doing so fulfills a divine plan or brings glory to God. Does it really matter what motivates people to fight for justice and equality, so long as they do it? And what exactly is at stake in denying and/or mischaracterizing that aspect of religious faith that has long been concerned with human dignity? If the point is to promote the virtues of secular faith, that effort gets lost in the narrowness and inaccuracies that always attend fundamentalist thinking.
I share much in common with Hägglund’s argument, particularly when it comes to his critiques of Saint Augustine, Søren Kierkegaard, and C.S. Lewis, which are the most astute and persuasive sections of the first half of his book. And the way he frames issues of mortality is an important contribution to how we think about life. However, I see his fundamentalism as a flaw, for the absolutism with which he excludes religious faith from any authentic concern for finite life doesn’t hold up when considered alongside Christian thinkers such as King and Frances. Hägglund would benefit from a more nuanced understanding of how different faiths are invested in shaping this life we share together. There is no one single way of developing authentic love for mortal beings as ends in themselves, and to dismiss the ancient traditions that billions of people practice as a means of achieving this end strikes me as needlessly divisive and self-defeating, especially when there are so many opportunities for cooperation between the world’s religious communities and those who live by secular faith. Such cooperation may prove vital in facilitating the culture of care that This Life so passionately promotes.
My downstairs neighbors have taken to playing video games, a move no doubt motivated by a desire to drown out the sound of their crying children and yapping dog—stunted creatures, yes, they spend their time running and bouncing and yelping out needs and pleasures and warnings to passers-by—though the effort does little but mask the wellspring of child’s play with the sounds of the middle dominating each other in Mario Cart and Donkey Kong, a domineering that makes its way through the floorboards and into my kitchen, where I stand chopping onions and blinking my eyes against the burning tears.
My tears, they burn as I stand chopping onions, the sounds of the middle dominating each other in Mario Cart and Donkey Kong rising from my floorboards. Positively domineering, but not enough to mask the wellspring of child’s play—stunted creatures, yes, they spend their time running and bouncing and yelping out needs and pleasures and warnings to passers-by. . . it never ends. Amazing what the sound of crying children and yapping dogs can motivate. My downstairs neighbors, soft in middle age and responsibilities of office jobs and church groups and the travails of parenthood, have taken to playing video games.