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.
Given the importance and widely acknowledged greatness of this book, I would like here, in lieu of a “review” in the traditional sense of the term, to offer instead a few thoughts and comments toward a possible interpretation.
There is a great deal of Christian religious symbolism that runs throughout the book. There is, for example, the wonderfully succinct statement of the shortest chapter of the book, and perhaps the shortest meaningful chapter in all of English-language literature: “My mother is a fish.” The words of a child; simple, yet poignant and bursting with possibilities. What Faulkner has done in this single simple sentence is to turn the symbol of a fish, the ichthys of Christianity, a traditional symbol of the resurrected Christ, into a symbol of the finality of death, of the eternal absence of return. His mother is a fish because, like a fish, her eyes are lifeless, she has been gutted (metaphorically, in the case of the mother), and, of course, she flops around in the water when her casket falls into the river as they attempt to ford it.
It is in this Christian symbolism, I believe, that we can begin to arrive at a possible interpretation of the ostensible insanity of Darl. Darl is not insane in actuality, but is perceived as insane by the others because of his failure to conform to their expectations. He is different. He sees through things, he knows things, and he understands things. He is the only one of the members of the family that sees into the inner worlds of those around him, that is not entirely preoccupied with his own concerns. Dewey Dell even imagines that she has a conversation with him that takes place entirely in the realm of the mind. He penetrates her thoughts, he surpasses her objectivity.
And because he surpasses subjectivity he is frightening to the others. The rest of the family prefers their private obsessions. They do not want to be known. For this reason they have him taken away. They want to be away from his presence and the insight he has into each of them.
If all of this holds, Darl may be seen as a Christ-figure. He behaves in ways that do not meet other’s expectations and so makes them uncomfortable. He understands them perhaps better than they understand themselves, again making them uncomfortable. And he attempts to save them through a means which they do not understand and will not accept. In the end, they send him away because they want so badly to be out of his presence. There are, however, something (quite modern) fundamental differences between Darl and the usual Christ-figure. He is not killed and there is no resurrection; there is, therefore, no redemption.
Given the geographically, culturally, and chronologically widespread occurrence of mystical experience and the important place it has held in the creation of cultures and civilizations, mystical experience is not something that can be ignored or cast aside as unnecessary or insignificant. On the contrary, the evidence indicates that mystical experience is an innately and universally human phenomenon that has played a significant role in the shaping of historical events. That it is innate and universal does not imply that all persons will have such experiences. Rather, what is meant by innate and universal is that these experiences have occurred to a number of individuals in nearly every culture in the world and these individuals have in large part claimed that these experiences are possible for others given the right conditions and effort toward that end. Mysticism, then, stands in need of an explanation if one is to hold a worldview that is consistent with the facts of actual human experience. There are three possible explanations, though not each is equally plausible.
One possible explanation of mystical experiences, and perhaps the first resort of the strict materialist who wishes to maintain his worldview intact, is that those who claimed to have undergone such experiences are, simply put, lying. It is possible for the atheist to argue that many of these experiences exist only within the realm of legend and hearsay. The experience of the Buddha, for example, was not written down for some years after his lifetime and may reflect legendary accretions to his original account of whatever happened to him under the bodhi tree. It may very well be the case the bodhi tree itself is such a legendary accretion. The biblical accounts of the experiences of Abraham, Moses, and the apostles have been the subject of particularly vehement attacks by modern atheists, given the Western cultural context in which most atheists have been bred. Those cases that fall within the more potentially trustworthy record of history, such as the claimed experiences of Benedict of Nursia, Muhammad, Thomas Aquinas, Guru Nanak, and Blaise Pascal, cannot be dismissed so easily as legendary accretion. If one is to hold that all accounts of mystical experience are fabrications these cases must be deemed cases of intentional fabrication.
The motivation for such a fabrication on the part of many of these figures seems wanting, however. While one might argue that Muhammad, for example, created a story of a vision of an angel and his subsequent revelations from God in order to unite the disparate Arab tribes and forge the new political and military power he did indeed create, others among those who made the claim of a mystical experience seem to have had no such ulterior motive. In Aquinas’s case, the mystical vision he claimed to have experienced led him to abandon his writing, the very act through which he gained fame and honor. Pascal kept his mystical experience a secret throughout his life and never attempted to gain wealth, prestige, or any other goods from it.
There is, in addition, the problem of the widespread nature of these claims. These claims have occurred, as has been shown, in a wide variety of locations and are spread out through the whole of recorded history and beyond. In addition, as has been shown through the use of William James’s four criteria of authentic mystical experience, the reported mystical experiences bear a great deal of similarity to each other, an especially surprising fact given the wide divergence in cultural context and idiom between the various claimants to these experiences. For the position that each of these claims are intentional fabrications to be a claim that accurately accounts for all cases, it must be maintained that multiple individuals independently invented nearly identical fabrications. If this were the truth, it would be more miraculous than if the mystical experiences themselves are true!
A second possible explanation for the occurrence of mystical experiences is that the experiences have their source not in contact with a divine and transcendent being but rather as the product of physical processes. It may be that these experiences were hallucinations of one sort or another. One proposed physical explanation that has maintain its popularity since it was first posited is the idea that these mystical experiences may be the product of epileptic seizures. The response of the early 20th century occultist Aleister Crowley to just this assertion regarding claims of mystical experience seems as appropriate today as when he wrote it over a hundred years ago, however: “Even if epilepsy were the cause of these great movements which have caused civilization after civilization to arise from barbarism, it would merely form an argument for cultivating epilepsy.”
Mystical experiences have been the defining moments in the lives of those who have had them. Aquinas stopped writing; Pascal began writing; Paul became the leading advocate for the religion he would eventually die for. Mystical experiences have been the defining and originative moment in nearly all of the world’s great civilizations. The culture of East Asia is in large part the product of the Buddha’s experience under the bodhi tree. Western Civilization is the product of the conglomeration of the movements that resulted from the experiences of Abraham and Moses, the prompting of Socrates’s daemon, and the visions of James, John, Peter, and Paul. Islamic civilization traces its origins to Muhammad’s vision of Gabriel in a cave in Arabia. That the great bulk of mankind lives within a civilization that is the product of a mystical experience and that the greatest achievements of mankind have been the products of these civilizations seems a fine case for cultivating epilepsy or whatever other mental illness is responsible for these visions in the first place, if indeed they are the product of mental illness. Indeed, it seems rather to be the case that the common state of rational thought and ordinary brain functioning is the worse of the two possibilities and is itself the illness if hallucinatory man creates civilizations while rational man merely lives within them and enjoys the benefits of the insanity of the former.
There is a third explanation, however, and this is the most plausible of the three, when the implications of the former two proposed explanations are taken into account. The third possible explanation for mystical experience is that these experiences are, in all truth, authentic experiences of a divine and transcendent order or being. The implications of such an explanation of mystical experience are, no doubt, quite extensive. If mystical experiences are authentic, God does exist and religion, at least one of them, is correct.
One typical example of contemporary debate concerning the existence of God is the 1994 debate between William Lane Craig, a prolific and popular Christian apologist, and philosopher Michael Tooley, held at the University of Colorado Boulder. In that debate, both participants, the theist and the atheist alike, focused upon the various rational proofs for the existence of God. Indeed, in his opening statement Craig listed five rational proofs for the existence of God, including some traditional ones like the cosmological argument as well as a few that are either original or are updated versions of traditional arguments, such as his argument from intelligent design. There is no small irony, however, in the reliance of modern apologists for religious belief upon these logical proofs of God’s existence in their attempts to persuade atheists. While it must be acknowledged that certain of these arguments do hold some persuasive power, all traditional religious systems, including Christianity, disclaim the power of reason to comprehend the divine. Instead, it is the unanimous testimony of all of the world’s great religions that the summum bonum of the religious life is the suprarational mystical experience of the utterly transcendent.
Even Thomas Aquinas, whose famous “Five Ways” are among the rational arguments most commonly used by the proponents of theistic belief systems, found himself forced to disavow, or at least disvalue, his life’s work in the face of his own mystical experience of the transcendent. According to Alban Butler’s 18th century Lives of the Saints,
… while saying Mass one day, he had some sort of visionary experience that caused him to stop work on the Summa theologica and declare that he was done with writing, as “All I have written seems to me like straw compared with what I have seen and what has been revealed to me.”
The early modern French philosopher Blaise Pascal seems to have experienced something similar to Aquinas one night in 1654, prompting him to write an ecstatic poem which he sewed into the lining of his coat, where it was discovered only after his death. The description he provides of his experience begins,
From about half past ten at night until about half past midnight,
GOD of Abraham, GOD of Isaac, GOD of Jacob
not of the philosophers and of the learned.
Aquinas and Pascal each seem to find themselves incapable of describing their respective experiences without resorting to cryptic, metaphorical language. While Aquinas, Butler writes, never described his experience to anyone, Pascal, describing it only to himself, can find only the word “fire” to explain what he has experienced. Each of them had discovered that, as the Christian bishop and mystic Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his fourth century mystical treatise on The Life of Moses, “the divine is by nature something above all knowledge and comprehension.” Aquinas was inspired by his experience to cease his writing while Pascal was inspired to begin his; both men were prompted by their new awareness of the insufficiency of human reason to understand God.
The abundance of accounts such as those of Aquinas and Pascal both lead the Christian apologist away from an over-reliance on the rational arguments for God’s existence and themselves act as an alternative to these rational arguments. The ubiquity of accounts of mystical experiences from within each of the world’s great religious systems provides a compelling argument in favor of the existence of a divine transcendent order or entity, the simplest English term for which is God.
Though it has never, by its very nature, possessed the ability to thrive and create new systems of thought, atheism was once a radical and fascinating philosophical position with some interesting potential as a portal to exploration of the innate human tendencies to doubt and despair. This 18th century project took on its most energetic and interesting forms near the close of the 19th century as thinkers like Nietzsche sought to envision a world that was truly devoid of God, a world that Shakespeare already imagined in the 17th century in his tragedy of King Lear but which Nietzsche and Dostoyevsky brought into even finer detail when such a world really seemed, if only for a brief moment, intellectually feasible.
Alas, the golden age of atheism did not last long. Perhaps it was fated so by the nature of atheism itself. When doubt becomes the new certainty it takes on all the staleness of the old and ostensibly outworn orthodoxies. When something as radical as atheism trickles down and is taken up by those who don’t understand it and, whether through ignorance or cowardice or, more likely, a pitiful combination of both, don’t wish to live out their supposed intellectual convictions in any meaningful way, the inevitable result is the vapid and utterly unconvincing — not to mention uninteresting — wasteland of atheism at the dawn of the 21st century.
While atheism was certainly never a viable philosophy, logically speaking, it was a worthy exercise in absurdity that could have, had it been able to maintain its vigor, plumbed the depths of doubt. It could have been an opportunity to delve into the abyss, even if for just a brief moment. It could have been a worthy project. But, it seems, the gods fated for it to become another bourgeois puritanism under the auspices of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et al. — a cabal not even good enough to be evil.
What David Bentley Hart provides in this book is a final beautifully ornate, hand-sculpted nail in the coffin of a philosophical position that committed suicide with an overdose of tranquilizers quite some time ago. Hart takes up an argument that, in just over 300 pages, comes down to this: Plato already demolished atheism — didn’t you hear?
Now, I must immediately add: that last statement is not to say that this book is not worth reading. On the contrary, it is essential reading for anyone interested in the question of the viability of authentic doubt in the modern age as well as anyone so insipid that he can’t conjure the modesty to avert his gaze from the horrible collision of clown cars we call atheism. I hope, for your sake, that you are over the former sort, though it must be admitted that almost all of us are of one of those two sorts — or, perhaps, both at once.
What makes this book an essential contribution to the discussion of God are two aspects of it especially. First, there is Hart’s delightful ability to uncover the great similarities at the heart of the world’s spiritual traditions, to discover beneath the dross of accumulated cultural artifacts the shared human experience which underlies the search for the Divine by anyone in any culture. As the title of the book has it, he is writing about the experience of God — not just in the great visions of mystics and saints but in the everyday experiences of goodness, truth, and beauty — which are (or, should I say, which is) God. Second, and as important, is Hart’s ability to make the ancient relevant. We have developed the unfortunate belief that old and irrelevant are synonymous. Hart’s look at ancient ideas through contemporary experiences is a precious reminder that they are not.