Book Review: The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto

Otto here examines the nature and origins of the feelings of awe, eeriness, exultation — what he calls the Mysterium Tremendum — felt when one steps into the presence of the numinous, the “wholly other,” a thing which is much larger and of a different order from ourselves or those things with which we are familiar. This feeling of standing in the presence of holiness is a feeling which is nearly universal, yet which it is difficult to understand and explain. Otto takes up the task and does a great deal to explicate it.

Where Otto is strongest is in his examinations of primitive religious feeling. His work no doubt has much to offer to any student of the origins of religion. His discussions of the universality and importance of the “religious feeling” are of particular value when read alongside the arguments of William James on the same topic.

Otto goes terribly wrong, however, almost every time that he discusses Christianity. He attempts to reduce Christianity to the level of the other world religions while simultaneously extolling it as the great mystical religion. The tension between these two ideas is particularly evident in the appendices with which the book closes, which find Otto arguing simultaneously that the very heart of Christianity — the Resurrection — is a historical falsehood while claiming for Christianity the position of truest, most complete religion. The two ideas, mutually exclusive, cannot stand together.

I recommend reading this book for Otto’s comments on the origins of religion in the feeling of awe at the transcendent and eternal “Other.” Beyond that, there are bits and pieces that are interesting or insightful, but not much else.

Don Quixote: Eternity and Death

G.K. Chesterton once wrote that “the madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”1 In Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes presents a plethora of madmen of nearly every vocation and class, from priests and dukes to barbers and shepherds. All of these characters live in a world where the ordinary reigns supreme. In this ordinary world of the utterly realistic, time becomes a source of decay and death, an ever-present reminder of impending doom. The one sane man in the novel is Don Quixote, regarded by all of the others as a madman, who, through his embrace of the mystery of the world around him, is able to transform time from a sequence of events and inevitabilities into an eternal present which creates a self-renewing repository of surprise.

Don Quixote is separated from his contemporaries by his epistemology and his historiography, two elements of his worldview which are quite closely connected and which form the foundation for the rest. For Don Quixote, history is no mere reliquary filled with dry, old bones. It is, instead, a living reality. The stories of chivalry, courtly love, and knightly adventure are not records of a distant past, but invitations into a fuller experience of the present.

Before beginning his adventures, Don Quixote takes out his great-great-grandfather’s old suit of armor, which, “being mouldy and rust-eaten, had lain by, many long years, forgotten in a corner.”2 He cleans and restores this, preparing it for use as his own armor. In this action, Don Quixote takes an initial step toward redeeming the past from the decay brought on by ordinary time. In this act of redemption and transcendence, Don Quixote has brought two periods of time into confluence and thereby brought time and eternity closer together. In his Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis explains that “God has no history. He is too completely and utterly real to have one. For, of course, to have a history means losing part of your reality (because it has already slipped away into the past) and not yet having another part (because it is still in the future).”3 God, according to Lewis, experiences time as an eternal now. Don Quixote, in salvaging the armor of his ancestor, has moved closer to a God’s-eye view of the cosmos and therefore closer to reality.

Don Quixote’s choice to adopt this God’s-eye view of time is also exhibited in his choice to become a knight-errant, a knight who travels about searching for adventure. This wandering life is a perfect embodiment of Don Quixote’s perception of time. For him, time is not linear but, in a sense, simultaneous. A pictographic representation of time for Don Quixote would not be a straight line but a scribble in which the line intersects itself at nearly every point.

This historiography leads Don Quixote to adopt an epistemology which refuses to accept the merely directly empirical as the sum total. For Don Quixote, there is always a deeper reality behind that which can be immediately observed. One of Don Quixote’s earliest adventures, for instance, pits him against a troop of giants disguised as windmills. Sancho, Don Quixote’s simpleminded squire, is unable to see past the immediately observable and peer deeper into the secrets hidden behind the apparent. For Sancho, the windmills are simply windmills. Don Quixote, however, is able to see past the apparent and stand in a world where the enormity of an other can still evoke awe. As an exasperated Don Quixote flippantly informs Sancho, “one may easily see … that you are not versed in the business of adventures.”4

Throughout the novel, Don Quixote is able to consistently maintain his devotion to his special insights about time and the world in spite of the persistent attempts of the novel’s many characters to drag him back into the ordinary through reason, deception, and mockery. Though Don Quixote is frequently shown to by his enemies and their schemes to be a less than entirely perfect knight, his resistance to their frequent assaults on his worldview is proof of his true heroism. A famous saying attributed to St. Anthony the Great, one of the founders of Christian monasticism, is the claim that “a time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, ‘You are mad; you are not like us.’”5 Grace M. Jantzen’s explanation of this saying is illuminating:

If sanity is defined by the conventions and expectations of a society preoccupied with defeating mortality first by securing their own welfare in food and material possessions and then by procreation and establishing households and families that would continue after they were gone, then those who defied these conventions – despised greed, renounced violence, defied death – were mad.6

In his preface to his English translation of Don Quixote, John Ormsby identifies the vocation of a knight-errant as “to right wrongs, redress injuries, and succour the distressed.”7 To put such a vocation into practice, says Ormsby, the knight-errant must “cast fear aside.” In other words, Don Quixote has chosen to defy conventions, to despise greed, to renounce violence (that is, the use of force against others for one’s own gain), and to defy death. Significantly, Ormsby asserts of Don Quixote that “it is his madness [which] makes him virtuous.”8

It is only when he is finally defeated by the Knight of the White Moon and must renounce the life of a knight-errant that he begins to lose faith in his insight. At first, he attempts to hang on to his view of time as an eternal now. He proposes that he and Sancho adopt the pastoral life, telling his squire, “we will range the mountains, the woods and meadows, singing here, and complaining there.”9 Through their exploits as shepherds, Don Quixote assures Sancho, “we shall make ourselves famous and immortal, not only in the present, but in future ages.”10 This tenuous grasp on eternity, however, inevitably slips away and Don Quixote plunges headlong into the ordinary.

In the ordinary, Don Quixote’s immediate experience is like that of the young Siddhartha Gautama on his famous journey outside of his pleasure-palace. Don Quixote falls sick, experiences the decay of old age, and, finally, dies. The difference between Don Quixote and the Buddha, however, highlights what makes Don Quixote significant. Siddhartha’s timelessness was an attempt to rise above time by hiding from it, a project doomed to failure. Don Quixote’s timelessness, however, was an embrace of time. By gathering all of time into one embrace, Don Quixote had transcended time by entering into all of it simultaneously. He, like God, had no particular location in time because he was present in all of it at once. In other words, the difference between Siddhartha’s timelessness and Don Quixote’s timelessness is synonymous with the difference between the Buddhist idea of eternity as perpetual stagnation and the Christian belief in an eternity that is dynamic in its continual growth, newness, and surprise. To fall from this dynamic eternality into the ordinary is to fall into the inevitability of death as a final end rather than death as the great commencement of a new beginning.

1 G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: John Lane Company, 1908), 32.
2 Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Part 1, Chapter 1.
3 C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2001), 169-170.
4 Cervantes, Part I, Chapter 8.
5 Anthony the Great, quoted in Grace M. Jantzen, “Touching (in) the Desert: Who Goes There?,” in Yvonne Sherwood and Kevin Hart, eds., Derrida and Religion: Other Testaments (New York: Routledge, 2005), 387.
6 Jantzen, 387.
7 John Ormsby, “Don Quixote – Ormsby; English Translation,” http://cervantes.tamu.edu/english/ctxt/DonQ-JohnOrmsby/DonQ-JohnOrmsby.html (accessed 5 November 2013).
8 Ibid.
9 Cervantes, Part II, Chapter 67.
10 Ibid.

Happiness according to Aristotle and Christ

Aristotle identified the highest end and aim of man as happiness. According to Aristotle, happiness is both what men naturally aim to attain and is their greatest attainment. It was this idea that shaped his ethical theories as he formulated his idea of values as the means by which to attain happiness. According to Aristotle, attaining perfect virtue is the means by which to attain perfect happiness. In addition, Aristotle’s theory of virtues sees virtue as a mean between two vices, one of defect, the other of excess. For Aristotle, then, happiness is seen primarily as a state of equanimity rather than one of passionate pursuit of pleasure as, for instance, the hedonist might claim. Most of the specific content of these values that Aristotle claims as leading to the greatest happiness are, much like his assertions about happiness as man’s highest end which begin his ethical theories, little more than attempts to articulate and provide a justification for the conventional values of his time. This is the greatest point of weakness in his ethics, and in his philosophy as a whole, and the point from which he has been criticized by feminists and can be seen as fundamentally flawed in the light of a multicultural perspective.

Aristotle, like most Greek men of his time, was possessed of a prejudice which saw the values, beliefs, and ways of his own time and place as the best and the norm by which all others were to be judged. It is this prejudice that in large part inspired and informed the Greek disdain for non-Greeks as “barbarians” who, according to Aristotle in his Politics, lack the capacity for reason and are intended by nature to be slaves ruled by the Greeks. This presupposition on the part of Aristotle exposes him to an attack for which he seems to offer no good answer, in spite of some rather haphazard attempts, namely the question of why we should prefer the Greek values of Classical Antiquity over any other set of values from any other time or place.

Although the two were certainly unfamiliar with each other, Aristotle’s Chinese contemporary or near-contemporary, Chuang Tzu, offers just such a critique of a similar set of ideas to Aristotle’s, as found in Confucianism, in his writings. Just as Aristotle assumed the values and norms of contemporary Greece were the standard and perfect values and norms, Confucius made the same assumption about the values and norms of China, even identifying them with the Way of Heaven, the eternal order of things. The Taoists, including perhaps most notably Chuang Tzu, opposed this Confucian idea with the belief in and practice of a radical renunciation of social expectations and cultural mores. For the Taoist, it was in fact a rejection of conventional values that allowed one to discover and faithfully follow the Tao, or eternal order of things. In other words, in contrast to the Confucian and Aristotelian identification of a certain set of cultural values as eternal values, for the Taoists renouncing the values of one’s culture was among the first steps toward discovering and following the eternal values.

Many thinkers, especially among feminists, have also seen much that is lacking in Aristotle’s ideas and offered criticism of them on similar grounds. Eve Browning Cole, for example, sees Aristotle’s ideas regarding a perfect society as resting essentially on the exploitation of women and other marginalized groups as laborers while freeing a minority of aristocratic men for a life of the mind, which Aristotle views as the only fully human life. She concludes that although Aristotle’s belief that slaves and women lack reason and therefore lack the ability to function in a fully human way contradict other elements in his philosophy and reveal an inconsistency in his thought, it was necessary to the social order that he sought to justify to continue the subjection and exploitation of women and slaves. In essence, Aristotle’s thoughts on women and slaves are question-begging at its worst: women and slaves are seen as ignorant and lacking in reason, which assessment is, in turn, used to justify the status quo practice of denying them the very education and leisure time to apply that education that would correct their deficits in knowledge and reasoning.

I think perhaps the greatest counterargument to and undermining of the thought of Aristotle, and in fact of the Greco-Roman world in general, is the thought of the early Christians. Although they adopted the word and idea eudemonia, the state of happy equanimity which Aristotle had set as the aim of his ethics, the early Christians found this state in a very different set of values. Using the word makarios, a word Aristotle also uses occasionally in his Nicomachean Ethics, rather than eudemonia, for instance, the Gospel of Matthew (5:3-12) records Jesus exclaiming the happiness of those who are “poor in spirit” (verse 3), “meek” (verse 5), and “persecuted” (verse 10), a very different set of values from those found in Aristotle’s ideal of a magnanimous Greek aristocratic as the possessor of the greatest virtue. These values are, I believe, a set of values that have proven superior to those of Aristotle and the other Greeks of a similar mind both in their effect on human history and in embracing a significantly wider swathe of humanity and the human experience in their applicability.

God, man, and beauty in eternity

It is foolish, good people, for you to fret and complain of the chain of this fixed sequence of life’s realities; you do not know the goal towards which each single dispensation of the universe is moving. You do not know that all things have to be assimilated to the Divine Nature in accordance with the artistic plan of their author, in a certain regularity and order. Indeed, it was for this that intelligent beings came into existence; namely, that the riches of the Divine blessings should not lie idle. The All-creating Wisdom fashioned these souls, these receptacles with free wills, as vessels as it were, for this very purpose, that there should be some capacities able to receive His blessings and become continually larger with the inpouring of the stream. Such are the wonders that the participation in the Divine blessings works: it makes him into whom they come larger and more capacious; from his capacity to receive it gets for the receiver an actual increase in bulk as well, and he never stops enlarging. The fountain of blessings wells up unceasingly, and the partaker’s nature, finding nothing superfluous and without a use in that which it receives, makes the whole influx an enlargement of its own proportions, and becomes at once more wishful to imbibe the nobler nourishment and more capable of containing it; each grows along with each, both the capacity which is nursed in such abundance of blessings and so grows greater, and the nurturing supply which comes on in a flood answering to the growth of those increasing powers. It is likely, therefore, that this bulk will mount to such a magnitude as there is no limit to check, so that we should not grow into it. With such a prospect before us, are you angry that our nature is advancing to its goal along the path appointed for us? Why, our career cannot be run thither-ward, except that which weighs us down, I mean this encumbering load of earthiness, be shaken off the soul; nor can we be domiciled in Purity with the corresponding part of our nature, unless we have cleansed ourselves by a better training from the habit of affection which we have contracted in life towards this earthiness. But if there be in you any clinging to this body, and the being unlocked from this darling thing give you pain, let not this, either, make you despair. You will behold this bodily envelopment, which is now dissolved in death, woven again out of the same atoms, not indeed into this organization with its gross and heavy texture, but with its threads worked up into something more subtle and ethereal, so that you will not only have near you that which you love, but it will be restored to you with a brighter and more entrancing beauty.

St. Macrina the Younger, in St. Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Soul and Resurrection”

Meaninglessness of man’s moment

In some remote corner … of the universe there was once a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and mendacious moment of ‘universal history’: but only a moment. Nature took but a few breaths and the star grew cold; and the clever animals had to die. — Someone might invent such a fable as this and yet still not have illustrated well enough how pitiful, how shadowy and fleeting, how aimless and capricious the human intellectual appears within nature. There were eternities in which it did not exist; when it has gone again nothing will have happened. For there exists for that intellect no mission extending beyond the life of man.

Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Falsehood in an Extra-Moral Sense” (unpublished), quoted in R.J. Hollingdale, “Theories and Innovations in Nietzsche,” in Peter R. Sedgwick, Nietzsche: A Critical Reader, p. 114

The way and the goal

Buddha, the “Perfected” and perfecter, asserts not. He refuses to claim that unity exists or does not exist; that he who has passed through all the trials of immersion will persist in unity after death or that he will not persist in it. This refusal, this “noble silence,” has been explained in two ways. Theoretically: because perfection is said to elude the categories of thought and assertion. Practically: because the unveiling of such truths would not aid salvation. In truth both explanations belong together: whoever treats being as the object of an assertion, pulls it down into division, into the antitheses of the It-world — in which there is no salvation. “When, O monk, the view prevails that soul and body are identical, there is no salvation; when, O monk, the view prevails that the soul is one and the body another, then also there is no salvation.” In the envisaged mystery, even as in lived actuality, neither “thus it is” nor “thus it is not” prevails, neither being nor not-being, but rather thus-and-otherwise, being and not-being, the indissoluble. To confront the undivided mystery undivided, that is the primal condition of salvation. That the Buddha belongs to those who recognized this, is certain. Like all true teachers, he wishes to teach not a view but the way. He contests only one assertion, that of the “fools” who say there is no acting, no deed, no strength: we can go the way. He risks only one assertion, the decisive one: “There is, O monks, what is Unborn, Unbecome, Uncreated, Unformed”; if that were not, there would be no goal; that is, the way has a goal.

Martin Buber, I and Thou, pp. 138-9