Might vs. Right in the Western Intellectual Tradition

The question of might versus right is one that has received a variety of answers from thinkers of the Western intellectual tradition. There are, on the one hand, those who hold firmly to the idea that a thing is true or good if those with political, military, or other power claim the opposite. This especially seems to be the case among the ancients in the biblical tradition and the great Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. On the other hand, more recent thinkers of the Western tradition have taken different approaches to the question. Niccolo Machiavelli perhaps initiated this movement by introducing the idea that a ruler need not use his might to attain to the right. Friedrich Nietzsche continues this line of thinking in a refined form in what amounts to an assertion that might does indeed make right. Karl Marx presents a more complicated approach to the question that attempts in some ways to cling to the older understanding of right being undetermined by might, yet only maintains this older belief tenuously and in a manner that may not be entirely consistent with his philosophical outlook as a whole. Each of these thinkers provides an inlet to a deeper engagement with the question of what makes something right, whether it is somehow the nature of the thing itself or the ability of the powerful to enforce it.

At the foundations of both of the major strands of Western Civilization, the biblical tradition and the tradition of Greek philosophy, stands the insistence that right stands apart from might. Among both the Jews and the most influential Greek philosophers, a distinction was drawn between those with power and the higher truths of the created order that even these could not violate. In both instances, it seems that this sense of the tension between might and right grew out, at least to some extent, out of the experience of injustice and persecution as the hands of those more powerful.

In the biblical tradition, the insistence on the superiority and independence of right to might almost certainly finds its origins in the experience of persecution by the Jewish people. This is true both in their civilizational origin story of enslavement and exodus from Egypt as well as the experience of conquest and colonization at the hands of more powerful empires, such as the Babylonians and the Persians. As a result of these experiences and perhaps other aspects of their experience and the development of their thought, the ancient Jewish people developed an understanding of the right as superior to all might, including even that of the king.

It is remarkable that in a time when the kings and rulers of the various kingdoms and empires surrounding them in Mesopotamia, Persia, and Egypt claimed to be gods or the emissaries of gods, the Jews placed great emphasis on the subordination of their kings to their God and his law. As evidence of this, the story of David and Bathsheba is of note. Stories of kings running astray of the rules laid down by their gods are hardly something new. The Epic of Gilgamesh may very well be the oldest story in the world and it features just such a plot in Gilgamesh’s continual defiance of the gods and especially in his rejection of the advances of the goddess Ishtar. In these stories, however, the king is often represented as something like an equal or at least justly barely subordinate to the gods. Jewish tradition holds that David penned Psalm 51 with its supplication to “have mercy on me, O God” (Psalm 51:1, ESV) in response to his punishment by God for murder and adultery in his affair with Bathsheba. This is a long way from a prayer that one could reasonably imagine Gilgamesh or another king like him ever reciting and does a great deal to demonstrate the absolute subordination of the king, as a human being, to the supremacy of God and the laws of moral right that he has ordained. While Gilgamesh and Enkidu can kill the Bull of Heaven sent by the gods to wreak havoc in Uruk, there is no might that can overcome the right ordained by the God of the Jews.

With this in mind, the opening of the Book of Proverbs is highly significant. There, the author, ostensibly David’s son Solomon, who has become King of Israel, addresses the work to an unnamed son so that this son can “know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight” and “to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity” (Proverbs 1:1-3, ESV). That this is traditionally believed to have been written by a king addressing a son who will presumably one day be king himself is important to understanding the significance of this address. This future king must learn about wisdom, righteousness, justice, and equity. It is not his decree that makes it so, but, rather, these things exist apart from and above his word and he must not run up against them. Might must become right; it cannot create right.

The origins of a similar insight in the philosophy of Plato bear a noteworthy resemblance to the development of this idea among the Jewish people. Plato’s Apology and Republic can be seen as extended arguments against the notion that might makes right in the various forms in which this idea has appeared. In Plato’s case, this insight derives from the injustice perpetrated by the people of Athens against his teacher Socrates. Having been condemned to death, Socrates reproaches those who have so voted, reminding them that the right is superior to their collective might: “if you suppose that by killing human beings you will prevent someone from reproaching you for not living correctly, you do not think nobly.” While the citizens of the Athenian democracy may be able to vote to take away the life of Socrates, the truth is not determined by popular vote. In short, they are not “correct,” or right, because of their might.

In the Republic, Plato once again confronts the problem of might versus right as it is introduced by Thrasymachus with the assertion that “the just is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger.” Thrasymachus’s explanation of his position is particularly telling when the comparison with Jewish kingship and the unjust punishment of Socrates is kept in mind; he explains,

Each ruling group sets down laws for its own advantage; a democracy sets down democratic laws; a tyranny, tyrannic laws; and the others do the same. And they declare that what they have set down—their own advantage—is just for the ruled, and the man who departs from it they punish as a breaker of the law and a doer of unjust deeds. This, best of men, is what I mean: in every city the same thing is just, the advantage of the established ruling body. It surely is master; so the man who reasons rightly concludes that everywhere justice is the same thing, the advantage of the stronger.

 

This is clearly the thought of the ancient kings of Babylon, Persia, and Egypt on the nature of justice. What is right is, in short, what might proclaims to be right.

Socrates refutes this idea, in its presentation by Thrasymachus, by pointing out that what is decreed by those with the might may not always be in their own interest; there is, then, the problem of whether what is right is what is decreed by the mighty or what is actually in their interest, making the entire proposition self-refuting. This refutation, in turn, becomes the basis for most of the rest of the argument of the Republic, in which Plato-via-Socrates attempts to demonstrate, in a noteworthy similarity to the attitude of the Book of Proverbs, that the rulers of a state must discover the right rather than attempt to create it. Their might is not the source of the right, but instead must be used to find it and implement it. Its existence and nature are, however, not dependent upon their decrees.

Plato’s student Aristotle, while departing from his teacher in some interesting ways, continues in this line of thought laid out by Socrates. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle advises that “perhaps it might be held to be better, and in fact to be obligatory, at least for the sake of preserving the truth, to do away with even one’s own things, especially for those who are philosophers. For although both are dear, it is a pious thing to honor the truth first.” The separation between “one’s own things” and “the truth” made explicit here places Aristotle in direct continuity with the Socratic/Platonic separation of might from right. For Aristotle as for Plato, truth is a thing to be searched for rather than a thing to be decreed by any authority no matter how powerful.

This line of thinking that dominated Western thought on the relationship of might to right because of its simultaneous and seemingly independent origins in both its biblical and its Greek philosophical foundations came under serious question beginning in the early modern era. In many ways, Machiavelli ushered in early modernity by opening up this relationship between might and right to question in The Prince. There, Machiavelli writes, “It is necessary for a prince, if he wishes to maintain himself, to learn to be able to be not good, and to use it according to necessity.” In this simple statement, Machiavelli undermined the entire Western tradition of separation between might and right.

Implicit in his statement is the belief that what is right morally may not always be what is right practically. Such a pragmatic approach to right by those with might, in turns, calls into question the entire tradition of thinking that places the definition of right outside of the control of the powerful. If the ruler determines that the right thing to do practically speaking is not what is right according to a supposedly transcendent moral law, the importance of this moral law is diminished. There seems to be no reason to continue to affirm that there is such a transcendent moral law if it is no sense a guide for action.

While Machiavelli does not seem willing to entirely follow through on the implications of such thinking, other, later thinkers certainly did. Friedrich Nietzsche is undoubtedly foremost among these. In his Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche declares, in what amounts to a nearly full circle return to the proclamations of Thrasymachus, that the “the will to power” is in fact the very “essence of life.” In this declaration, Nietzsche follows Machiavelli’s thought through to its logical conclusions. While Machiavelli had severed the relationship of might to right that had prevailed in Western thought up to him, which claimed for might a submission to the dictates of right, Nietzsche abandons the idea of right altogether. For Nietzsche, the only eternal and immutable law is the law of the will to power and it is this that leads to determinations of right and wrong by those who are more powerful. What is right is, in essence, what those with the might claim it to be.

Karl Marx represents an interesting and noteworthy deviation from the modern ideas about the relationship between right and might represented by the words of Machiavelli and Nietzsche. According to Marx, it is the prevalent economic forces of a given society that in fact possess the might and therefore determine the right. Marx writes, “since money, as the existing and active concept of value, confounds and exchanges all things, it is the general confounding and compounding of all things—the world upside-down—the confounding and compounding of all natural and human qualities.” Nearly all aspects of a culture, including its arts and religions, are the products of economic forces, according to Marx’s understanding of the world.

While affirming the supremacy of the economic forces over all other aspects of human life, however, Marx also sees the injustice of the unequal distribution of wealth caused by capitalist economics and, while positing an inevitability to the end of the capitalist system, also seeks to lay out the program for an end to capitalism and the transformation into a communist social and economic system. The introduction of the ideas of injustice, inequality, and the possibility that an economic system can be dehumanizing, all things that Marx claims of the capitalist system, however, introduces a degree of incoherence into Marx’s philosophy. If indeed right is determined by the might of the impersonal economic forces of the time, an appeal to a universal moral law of justice and equality as well as an innate human nature implied by Marx’s critique have no place of origin or philosophical foundations that fit within the Marxist paradigm. Marx attempts to appeal to a universal and transcendent right while giving it no place to perch or operate within his system of thought, thereby rendering his philosophy incorrectly inconsistent. In his attempt to reconcile the ancient and modern views on the relationship of might to right, Marx creates the conditions for a refutation of his philosophy.

While Marx’s philosophy is internally incoherent and Plato’s refutation of Thrasymachus stands as a solid rebuttal of the thought of Machiavelli and Nietzsche on the question, there remains what seems to be a lingering problem in the thought of both the biblical and Greek philosophical traditions on the matter of might versus right. This problem is that in attempting to place right in a superior position to might, both traditions found it necessary to appeal to a superior might as the source of right. In the case of the biblical tradition this is the God of Israel and in the case of the Greek philosophical tradition this is more ambiguously pointed to as the realm of the Forms or, in Aristotle’s philosophy, some other vaguely defined realm of transcendent truth and, importantly, superior power. In both traditions, it is posited that right is determined above the level of human might but that this right is also enforced either through the direct activity of God upon the world and through the laws that are written into the nature of the world. Whichever of these two alternatives one looks to, it is the case that right is determined by might, though that might is utterly transcendent to the might of any human ruler. It would seem, then, that might indeed makes right, though this might is not the might of kings or democratic assemblies but rather the might of an Almighty God or a universal truth.

Primary Source: Isaiah 11:1-9 (The Messiah Makes a Better World) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.12)

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Primary Source: Genesis 1 (Creation Story) (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.5)

1 In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.

11 And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. 16 And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.17 And God set them in the expanse of the heavens to give light on the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, “Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the expanse of the heavens.” 21 So God created the great sea creatures and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds—livestock and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. 25 And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the livestock according to their kinds, and everything that creeps on the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” 29 And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. 31 And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

 

Review

According to Genesis 1, God created the earth in six days. On a sheet of paper, number 1 through 6 and list what God created on each day.

God and Man (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.3)

Four thousand years ago, almost everyone everywhere in the world believed that there were many gods and goddesses. The belief in more than one god or goddess is called polytheism, a word which comes from the Greek words poly, meaning “many,” and theoi, which means “gods.” The people of both Egypt and Mesopotamia were polytheists. Almost all the gods and goddesses they worshipped were either forces of nature like thunder and fire or certain objects in nature like rivers and seas.

The people knew they depended on nature for their survival. If rain did not come to water their crops, they would die. If too much rain came and caused a flood, it might destroy their crops and their homes and perhaps even take their lives. Even small changes in weather, a summer that was just a little hotter or a winter that was just a little colder than usual, could cause major problems. To keep the forces of nature on their side, the people of the ancient world offered worship and sacrifices to them.

The people of Mesopotamia built their cities around temples dedicated to certain gods and developed elaborate rituals to worship these gods. They told myths about the things the gods had done. One of those myths, the Enuma Elish, tells the story of the creation of humans by the gods. According to that myth, the god Marduk created human beings to be the slaves of the gods. The gods were tired of doing all of the hard work of planting crops, taking care of them, and harvesting them. So they created people to do all of the work instead of them. This myth tells us a lot about what the Mesopotamians thought of themselves and their gods. They saw human life as very difficult and filled with hard work. Unlike the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians did not believe in immortality, so even after death there was no happiness. The Mesopotamians saw their gods as slave-masters. The gods took care of humans only if humans kept making the gods happy. If humans did not serve the gods or if they annoyed the gods, the gods might destroy them.

In about 1750 BC, however, a man named Abraham was born. Abraham was the first person to believe in a very different set of ideas about God and about humans. Abraham was a monotheist. This means he believed in only one God. According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Abraham was born in Ur, a city-state in Mesopotamia. From there, his family moved to Haran, a village in the northern part of Mesopotamia. It was at Haran that Abraham’s God appeared to him and told him to take his family and everything he owned and leave Mesopotamia.

Abraham’s God made a covenant, or special agreement, with him. If Abraham would move away from Mesopotamia and go to another place, called Canaan, God would give Abraham many children and grandchildren. His God told him that he would give Abraham as many grandchildren as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand in the desert. He would have so many grandchildren he would not be able to count all of them! Abraham was very happy about this. He was old and had no children. This was a problem because he was also very rich. If he died without children, his servants would be the ones to inherit all the things he owned. So, Abraham took his whole family, his servants, his animals, and all of the things he owned and moved to Canaan, a place very far away from his home.

Later, Abraham’s God rewarded Abraham by giving him a son. Abraham named his son Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob and Jacob later had 12 sons. These sons would later have many children of their own. Eventually, the descendants of Abraham numbered in the millions. Today, there are still millions of people who are the descendants of Abraham. He is considered the patriarch, or founder and father, of the Jewish people. His ideas and his special relationship with God are also important to Christians and Muslims. In total, about half of the people in the world belong to a religion that comes from Abraham and his ideas.

The way that Abraham thought about God, about the world, and about humans was unique for his time and had a major effect on the way we think about these things today. One of Abraham’s original ideas has already been mentioned. This is the idea of monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. Whereas other ancient people believed that there were many gods who represented different forces in nature, Abraham believed that there was only one God who had created all of nature.

This different view of God also made Abraham and his descendants view the world in a different way. Because other ancient people believed the world was filled with many different gods, they saw nature as chaotic. They believed, for example, that the sky god might fight against the earth god and cause thunder and lightning to strike the earth or not allow rain to fall to the ground. Maybe the fire god would go to war with the tree gods and burn them all down. If there is only one God who created all of nature and who controls it, however, then nature can be seen as good and orderly. If there is a flood or a forest fire, it is not because the gods are at war with each other but because the one God allowed it to happen for a good reason.

In addition to these different views of God and nature Abraham and his descendants also had a unique view of human beings. You have already read that the Mesopotamians believed that humans had been made by the gods to be slaves. Abraham, on the other hand, believed that God had made human beings to be his children. According to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God created humans “in his image” (Genesis 1:27). This means that all humans, no matter if they are rich or poor, men or women, strong or weak, were created to be like God – to think, to love, and to be creative. The result of this idea is that Abraham and his descendants believed all human beings were special and that each human being is valuable. As we will see later, in the Bible there is a lot of focus on taking care of people that are poor and weak and on the idea that all human beings deserve to be treated well no matter who they are.

Abraham’s unique ideas were shocking at the time. Most ancient people would have laughed at the idea that there is only one God or the idea that this God cares about a poor person as much as he cares about a rich person. The ideas about God, nature, and human beings that began with Abraham took some time to become popular, but when they did they forever changed the world.

 

Review Questions

 1. Where was Abraham from originally?

2. Where did God tell Abraham to move?

3. Why do you think God told Abraham to move away from the place where he was born and go somewhere else? Explain in a paragraph. (Hint: Think about how different Abraham’s beliefs were from other people at his time.)

 

Vocabulary Words

 Covenant – a special agreement between two people in which each person promises to do something for the other

Monotheism – the belief that there is only one God

Patriarch – founder and father of a group

Polytheism – the belief that there is more than one god; from the Greek poly (many) and theoi (gods)

Personhood in Hebrew and Jewish Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part III)

The conception of personhood which developed in the thought of the Ancient Near East and early became a cornerstone of Jewish anthropology stood in stark contrast with these Greco-Roman understandings. Ancient Near Eastern thought had included a concern for social justice as a central feature from a very early date, as is evidenced by, for instance, texts like the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian law code dating to about 1772 BC. In the thought of the Hebrews, this concern for social justice became a near obsession and formed the basis of nearly all of their law. The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, declares in its first chapter (verse 27) that “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him.”8 This idea, generally referred to under its Latin name as Imago Dei, permeated Jewish thought and practice concerning relationships between people. Every person was considered a bearer of the Imago Dei and, as such, entitled to dignity and respect, regardless of social or economic status, age, or gender. As scholar Thomas Cahill has succinctly stated, the “bias toward the underdog” throughout biblical law “is unique not only in ancient law but in the whole history of law.”9

In direct contradiction to Aristotle’s belief that foreigners should be subdued and ruled by his own nation, the biblical injunction regarding treatment of foreigners orders that “you shall neither mistreat a stranger nor oppress him,” adding a justification from the Israelites’ own history and an appeal to empathy: “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”10 In the following chapter of Exodus, the Hebrews are ordered to leave their fields uncultivated every seventh year so “that the poor of your people may eat” from what is left in it.11 The Book of Exodus also presents a view of slavery that is nearly opposite that of the Greco-Roman world. The text explicitly denies a master the right to kill his servant, commanding “if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished.”12 The text even goes as far as ordering that a slave who loses his or her eye or tooth because of violence by his or her master must be freed.13 The phrase “male or female” in verses like these is also indicative of the treatment of women in the legal code outlined in the Bible. The law, including both the privileges it confers and the responsibilities it demands, is made to apply equally to men and women, as in the verses cited concerning slavery. Certain special privileges are even afforded to women in order to prevent their oppression or marginalization in Israelite society; for instance, it is ordered that if a man takes a woman’s virginity outside of marriage, a state which thereby rendered her almost entirely unmarriageable in the Ancient Near East, he must take her as his wife and support her for the rest of his life.14 In addition, the Jews regarded infanticide as abhorrent. The Torah offers unequivocal condemnation of infanticide, referring to it as an “abomination,” and, again in contrast to Greco-Roman thought which commended the practice and even explicitly ordered it in certain instances, demands that it should never be performed. Although the Torah is ambiguous on its treatment of abortion and may even endorse it at several points,15 by the first century AD Jews generally understood the condemnations of infanticide in their law as encompassing abortion as well; the prolific first century Jewish author and historian Josephus, for instance, reports as the common Jewish belief and practice that “the law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring, and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind.”16 These Jewish tendencies toward a broad view of personhood and a consuming desire for social justice were part of the legacy of biblical thought inherited by early Christians. Especially significant is the early Christian development of the idea of Imago Dei, a concept which, in spite of its centrality in Jewish thought, had remained largely underdeveloped. It was in early Christianity, and in a synthesis of Hellenic and Hebrew thought, that followers of the biblical tradition would most fully explore what the Imago Dei consisted of and what were the implications of that idea.

Notes


8 Genesis 1:27 (New King James Version).

9 Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews: How a Tribe of Desert Nomads Changed the Way Everyone Thinks and Feels (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 152.

10 Exodus 22:21 (NKJV).

11 Exodus 23:11 (NKJV).

12 Exodus 21:20 (NKJV).

13 Exodus 21:26-7 (NKJV).

14 Deuteronomy 22:28-9 (NKJV).

15 Prescriptions of capital punishment for adulterous wives in such verses as Deuteronomy 22:22-4, for instance, seem to have been intended to be carried out immediately upon discovery of the act with no delay to observe for signs of pregnancy to prevent the loss of the life of a fetus the woman may be carrying. In fact, these laws seem to have been formulated specifically for the purpose of preventing illegitimate heirs who might usurp the property of the woman’s husband. Numbers 5:11-31 even seems to prescribe some kind of abortion ritual for unfaithful wives in which the woman drinks “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 19, NKJV) which “makes [her] thigh rot and [her] belly swell” (verse 21, NKJV) if she is indeed unfaithful. Significantly, this ritual is presented as a punishment for adulterous wives, not something to be desired, and, following this apparent abortion, “the woman will become a curse among her people” (verse 27), indicating an overwhelmingly negative attitude to abortion. Verses such as Exodus 21:22-25, which commands the execution of a man who causes a woman to miscarry through violence against her, seem, on the other hand, to assign the fetus a moral value equal to that of other human beings. Although the Hebrew Bible is ambiguous on this point, the logical development of its thought is captured by its actual subsequent development: a condemnation of abortion.

16 Flavius Josephus, Against Apion, par. 25 in William Whiston, tr., The Works of Josephus (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 1987).

"I have to find Zaabalawi"

Naguib Mahfouz’s short story “Zaabalawi” exhibits the qualities of both the traditional allegorical stories often told in the mystical traditions of many religions as well as the dreamlike tales of twentieth century existentialists such as Franz Kafka. In bringing together these two streams of thought, Mahfouz establishes himself directly in the line of religious existentialists such as Soren Kierkegaard and especially the storytellers of that tradition, the most remarkable of whom is probably Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Mahfouz also brings a unique element to this synthesis of mysticism and existentialism in drawing upon the contents of his Islamic heritage to present a story that is both universal in its meaning and yet unique Islamic in its content.

The character from whose perspective the story is told is never explicitly identified by name. As with other stories which stand in the existentialist strain, the identity of the main character as an individual person is unnecessary and perhaps evens a dangerous distraction. Rather, the story itself is a means by which the reader can enter into the subjectivity of another. The main character has no individual identity; the reader is expected to identify himself or herself with that character. In this story, the character is suffering from “that illness for which no one possesses a remedy.” Although ailment remains unexplained and undefined throughout the story, it is clear that the reader is expected to identify with it; it is the universal human condition identified by Kierkegaard as “the sickness unto death,” a state of despair at the meaninglessness and ennui that permeate human life.

The main character of the story, and the reader through him, sets out on a desperate search to find Zaabalawi, the only one who can heal his affliction. Although Zaabalawi is identified as a holy man and sheikh, it is clear from what is said about him that he stands as a symbol of God. The first sentences of the story, in which the character explains why he decided to search for Zaabalawi, make this connection clear. He explains that “the first time I had heard of his name had been in a song.” The connection with Islamic worship practices, in which prayers are generally recited in song and chant, makes the identification of Zaabalawi with God obvious.

The ensuing search for Zaabalawi consists of a number of short scenes in which the main character questions various characters concerning the nature and whereabouts of Zaabalawi. Each of these characters represents a group in Islamic society and their stereotyped reactions to and thoughts on God. A businessman, for instance, exhibits little interest in Zaabalawi and even seems to imply he may be dead, a parallel with Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous exclamation on the death of God, that is, the irrelevance and unsustainability of the idea of God in the modern mind. Similarly, a theologian who is questioned about Zaabalawi responds to the main character by drawing a complex map the character is unable to understand, a scene which conjures the famous words of Thomas Aquinas, a Medieval monk who is one of Christianity’s most prolific and influential theologians. Late in his life, he experienced a mystical vision which caused him to state to his companions that “all that I have written seems like straw compared to what has now been revealed to me,” after which statement he never wrote again. In other words, the both Aquinas and Mahfouz reject the complicated conjecture and theory of the academic theologians in favor of a direct approach to God through mysticism. Interestingly, all of the characters who is featured in this series of scenes exhibit a felt absence of someone who is very important to their lives. Although not all of them are willing to acknowledge the importance of this person to their lives, each clearly feels that something is lacking because of this person’s absence.

After a series of such encounters, the main character finally has a direct mystical experience of Zaabalawi/God. In line with many mystical traditions from around the world, including the Sufi tradition of Islam, this experience is presented as a state of intoxication and a kind of stupor. The main character experiences a “deep contentedness” and “ecstatic serenity” as well as ontological unity with the cosmos. The disorientating imagery used by Mahfouz to describe the experience, including phrases such as “the world turned round about me and I forgot why I had gone there,” is reminiscent of the practice of whirling famously associated with certain groups of Sufis.

Following his experience, the main character is unaware that he has had a direct experience of Zaabalawi. He becomes more determined in his search. Mahfouz’s conclusion once again brings together the mystical and existential in his thought. The main character confides that he sometimes doubts Zaabalawi’s very existence and yet he asserts that he is unable to go on without him. His search for Zaabalawi, he concludes, must continue.

The Tao in Cross-Cultural Comparison

The idea of an objective, transcendent, and eternal force, law, or “way of things” is one that is found in nearly every culture of the world. In schools of Chinese philosophy such as Taoism and Confucianism, this idea has been called the Tao, or Way; in ancient Greek thought as well as in later Jewish and Christian philosophy and theology, this concept was labeled as Logos, or Word; and, in Indian thought including both Hinduism and Buddhism as well as other varieties of Indian religion, the idea was first referred to as Dharma and later identified as Brahman. The content of these ideas as they were developed within their respective cultural, religious, and philosophical homes reflects both the diversity of cultural expression as well as a remarkable fundamental unity in thought across civilizations, geography, and time.

According to Alan Chan, a professor of philosophy, “a key term in the philosophical vocabulary, it [the Tao] informs early Chinese philosophy as a whole” (“Laozi”). The idea, however, “is interpreted differently” throughout the thought of the various philosophical schools of ancient China.

One of the earliest and fullest treatments of the Tao in Chinese thought is found in the philosophy of Kongzi (551-479 BCE), better known in the English-speaking world as Confucius (Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 1). For Kongzi, the Tao, as the Way of heaven, is largely a concept that reflects ancient Chinese morals and mores. He urged his students to “set your heart upon the Way, rely upon Virtue, lean upon Goodness, and explore widely in your cultivation of the arts” (Kongzi, The Analects, 7.1, in Ivanhoe, Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy, p. 21). In the thought of Kongzi, there was a golden age which had preceded the current age of decline. In that golden age, people observed all of the customs and conventions associated with propriety and virtue in ancient China. Since then, however, people had fallen away from observing the proper rituals and, as a result, Chinese society had entered a period of decline. While viewing the Tao in spiritual terms, as the Way of Heaven, Kongzi’s concern is largely social and political, rather than religious or otherwise metaphysical.

For Laozi (a legendary figure held by popular mythology to be a contemporary of Kongzi), the only other Chinese thinker whose ideas can be said to have had an influence equivalent to or greater than that of Kongzi, the Tao was something similar but simultaneously quite different (Ivanhoe, p. 161). Laozi maintained the earlier view, reflected in Kongzi’s thought, that the Tao is the Way of Heaven, the all-pervading and governing principle of the universe. He also maintained Kongzi’s view that there had once been a golden age during which people had been at harmony with the Tao, and therefore with themselves, with each other, with the world around them, and with heaven itself. They had lost their original harmony with it through too much ambition, striving, strain, and stress; they had thereby injured themselves by separating themselves from their nature and from the Tao. This is the point at which Laozi separates from Kongzi in his analysis and prescription. Rather than viewing the problem as fundamentally social and turning to traditionalism and social conservatism for salvation, Laozi viewed the problem as, at heart, a spiritual problem, a problem in the soul of man, and one whose only solution was in man’s soul and, according to Laozi, this solution often entailed a retreat from the social world altogether. According to Jacob Needleman, a professor of philosophy, in the view of Laozi, “man is built to be an individual incarnation of this whole [the Tao]. His good, his happiness – the very meaning of his life – is to live in correspondence and relationship to the whole, to be and act precisely as the universe itself is and moves” (Feng and English, Tao Te Ching, p. xiv).

In viewing the Tao in terms of nature, spirit, and the individual, Laozi’s thought departs widely from that of Kongzi, which viewed the Tao in terms of society, ritual, and organization. The two thinkers are agreed, however, in the fundamental assertion that there is a Tao, a Way of Heaven, a law, guiding force, and governing principle in the cosmos. In this harmony, they also find agreement with thinkers from a wide variety of other cultures; fascinatingly, many of these thinkers with similar ideas were their contemporaries and near-contemporaries.

In Greece, at the nearly the same moment that Kongzi and Laozi were developing and teaching their ideas of the Tao, the philosopher Heraclitus (535-475 BCE) introduced the concept of the Logos, a word meaning both “Word” and “Reason,” into Greek thought. According to Richard Tarnas, a professor of philosophy and psychology, in Heraclitus’s thought, the Logos was “the rational principle governing the cosmos” (The Passion of the Western Mind, p. 45). Frederick Coplestone, a historian of philosophy, describes Heraclitus’s logos as “the universal law immanent in all things, binding all things into a unity and determining the constant change in the universe according to universal law” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43). This is an idea, developed nearly simultaneously with the views of Kongzi and Laozi but thousands of miles away and in a very different cultural context, that bears a remarkable resemblance to the concept of the Tao in Chinese thought, especially in the thought of Laozi. The views of Heraclitus in regards to man’s relationship with the Logos are also remarkably similar to the views of Laozi. According to Coplestone, Heraclitus urged that “man should … strive to attain to the viewpoint of reason [that is, of the Logos] and to live by reason [the Logos]” (A History of Philosophy, p. 43), a view nearly synonymous with those of Laozi.

The concept of the Logos would later be taken up by both Jewish and Christian philosophers in the Greek-speaking world. It would be identified in those religious traditions with the Word of God. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, Christian missionaries in China recognized the notable similarity between the Greek concept of the Logos and the Chinese concept of the Tao, and took up using the word “Tao” as a Chinese translation for the word “Logos.” For example, a 1911 translation of the Bible into Cantonese by the American Bible Society opens the Gospel of John with the proclamation:

In the beginning was the Tao,
And the Tao was with God,
And the Tao was God.
The same was in the beginning with God. (Damascene, Christ the Eternal Tao, p. 8)

The word “Tao,” of course, is here being used to translate the word “Logos” in the original Greek of the biblical text.

In addition to this similar idea from Western thought, Indian thought also provides examples of concepts very similar to the concept of the Tao in its ideas of Dharma and Brahman. According to James C. Livingstone, a professor of religion, “in the Vedas,” which texts represent some of the earliest developments in Indian religion and philosophy, “the word dharma stood for an eternally fixed moral law that underlies the universe” (Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362). So central to ancient Hindu thought was the concern for coming into concord with this law that, “in the later law books,” such as the Law of Manu, “dharma came to refer specifically to the duties and obligations of social life” (Livingstone, Anatomy of the Sacred, p. 362).

Whereas from its inception the Logos of Heraclitus bore a similarity to the Tao as it was developed in the thought of Laozi, the Dharma in its inception bears a much closer resemblance to the Tao as enunciated in the thought of Kongzi. As in Kongzi’s philosophy, the earliest Indian thought on Dharma viewed it largely as a matter of social important, a set of laws, rituals, customs, and conventions to be followed in order for people to attain social harmony and person prosperity. In later Indian thought, however, the Dharma would come to resemble something much more similar to Laozi’s more spiritual and personal version of the Tao.

In Hinduism, for example, the Dharma would be associated closely with the idea of Brahman, the “God [who] is being, awareness, and bliss” (Smith, The World’s Religions, p. 60). Just as meditation on the self-identification of the God of Judaism and Christianity as “I AM,” or the root source, underlying principle, and governing force of existence, in Exodus 3:14 would lead later Jewish and Christian thinkers to an identification of God with the Logos of Greek thought, this very similar description of the Supreme Being in Hinduism demonstrates the similarities of Brahman, Dharma, and Tao.

Also remarkably similar is the Hindu treatment of the relationship between man and Brahman. According to Hindu thought as developed in the Upanishads, a set of mystical, theological, mythological, and philosophical texts, the most important of which were written between 1000 and 600 BCE, Brahman is also identical with the atman, the personal soul of each individual human being. This identification of the atman with Brahman sounds very much like the identification of the Logos, as universal Reason, with the reason inherent in each person, as well as with Laozi’s concept of each man as intended to be an embodiment and reflection of the Tao. There is also a further similarity with Jewish and Christian thought here in the biblical assertion that human beings were created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27).

Although the Buddha (563-483), a contemporary of Kongzi, Laozi, and Heraclitus, rejected the Hindu concept of Brahman, in splitting with the Hinduism developing during the period of the composition of the Upanishads, his ideas concerning Dharma also present a noteworthy comparison here. According to professor and spiritual leader Eknath Easwaran, in the thought of the Buddha, “dharma expresses the central law of life, that all things and events are part of an indivisible whole” (The Dhammapada, p. 12). Here again there is emphasis on an underlying principle which in some sense unites and governs the cosmos. And, in the Buddha’s thought, yet again emphasis is placed on the need for each individual to come into harmony with that principle and thereby attain peace for one’s self and for the world.

Across cultural boundaries and, in the ancient world, nearly insurmountable geographic expanses, at a point in time nearly simultaneous, several of the great civilizations of the world, China, Greece, the Middle East, and India, saw thinkers introduce and develop concepts that bore a remarkable similarity to each other. As Kongzi and Laozi developed their ideas of the Tao in China, Heraclitus expounded upon the Logos in Greece, Jewish thinkers developed their first ideas about a God who is Being Itself, and the authors of the Upanishads and the Buddha taught about Dharma in India. In these ideas, there is a display of cultural uniqueness and of divergence in thought, but also, and far more noteworthy, a fascinating similarity in their assertion that there is a uniting and governing underlying source which transcends and yet remains imminent within it and that man, for his own salvation both as a species and as individuals, must come into harmony with this principle.

ReferencesChan, Alan, “Laozi”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = .

Coplestone, Frederick. (1946). A History of Philosophy, Vol. 1: Greece and Rome. Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1946.

Damascene, Hiermonk. (2004). Christ the Eternal Tao. Platina: Valaam Books.

Easwaran, Eknath. (1999). The Dhammapada. Tomales: Nilgiri Press.

Feng, Gia-Fu and Jane English. Translators. (1989). Tao Te Ching. New York: Vintage Books.

Ivanhoe, Philip J. and Bryan W. Van Norden. (2005). Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy: Second Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.

Livingstone, James C. (1998). Anatomy of the Sacred: An Introduction to Religion, Third Edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Smith, Huston. (1991). The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions. San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers.

Tarnas, Richard. (1991). The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas that Have Shaped Our World View. New York: Ballantine Books.

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