This month for the Great Books reading project, we plunge head first into the modern before cycling back around to the ancient Greeks once again with the new year. Our first, comparatively short, reading is Henrik Ibsen’s “The Master Builder.” This was my first read of this particular play and, in fact, of anything by Ibsen.
In many ways, “The Master Builder” reminded me a great deal of the works of Kafka. As in many of Kafka’s novels, “The Master Builder” presents us with an allegory of original sin as well as a modern take on the possibility (or not) of salvation from it. The eponymous primary protagonist is in some sense guilty of, yet not directly responsible for, the destruction of his family’s home and the deaths of his two young children. That event, which precedes the events of the play by more than a decade, has entirely shaped the course of his life since its occurrence.
Spurred on by a young lady, Hilda, who plays the dual role of muse and temptress, the Master Builder, Solness, seeks to build a “castle in the air.” The final result of this is his all too preventable death. It seems to me that there are two possible interpretations here. Either he did indeed find his “castle in the air,” and so salvation from the original sin, through an escape from this life or his attempt to gain a “castle in the air” was a great failure.
While the ambiguity is undoubtedly an intentional feature of the play, one could probably easily answer this question by appealing to Ibsen’s biography. I believe it is best, however, to let a text speak for itself and in this case I tend toward the latter interpretation as the more likely of the two. It is not only the more typically modern approach to the subject, but, more importantly, it seems to better fit the nature of the play itself. Solness’s attempts to climb higher than his constitution allows for brings to mind the story of the Tower of Babel. Solness, like the builders of the tower, is attempting to reach the “castle in the sky” through his own effort and on his own impetus; in other words, he wants to climb to heaven without God, as other features of the play make clear. The result in both cases is that Tower, and Builder, must fall.
The compromises that Christian thinkers were willing to make in order to accommodate biblical faith to Greco-Roman philosophy, ultimately, slowed the progress that Christian ideas of personhood had made and prevented these ideas from further transforming the cultures that had adopted the Christian religion. In many instances, these compromises not only prevented further progress but also undid the progress that had already been made. This is the case, for example, with slavery, which largely fell into disuse throughout the Middle Ages, sometimes being abolished outright but generally being replaced with the institution of serfdom. It was, however, revived with renewed vigor and deepened brutality in the early modern period. The early modern revival of slavery both differed from and bore similarity to ancient Greco-Roman slavery in important ways. Its greatest difference was that it was based in the new, supposedly scientific concept of race. This root, though it differed from Greco-Roman ideas, allowed the ideologists of slavery in the early modern era to revive many of the Greco-Roman arguments in favor of slavery, such as the beliefs that slaves were innately inferior and intended by nature for servility and different ontologically from their masters. The new belief that these differences were biologically-based, however, allowed early modern ideologists to ignore and circumvent the biblical tradition’s emphasis on the spiritual equality of all people. In addition, these same ideologists also drew on the beliefs of certain church fathers that slavery was a product of man’s original sin and argued that it was a kind of necessary evil.
The same could also be posited regarding the status of women. Although women were never able to attain full equality with men throughout Western history, there can be little doubt that, as existential philosopher Simone de Beauvoir observed in her landmark book on the status of women, The Second Sex, many women in the medieval world were able to stand on an “equal footing” with their husbands, being viewed as “neither a thing nor a servant” but as “his other half” in possession of “concrete autonomy” and with a meaningful and fulfilling “economic and social role.”76 According to de Beauvoir, the economic and social changes of the early modern era undermined the “equal footing” upon which men and women had stood in much of the medieval world and created a resurgence of misogyny as well as a renewal of the oppression and marginalization of women.77
While the work begun by the early Christians in the light of their new anthropology remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages and was often compromised by some of the brightest and most important medieval minds, it was the ideas of these early Christians which planted the seeds for later developments in Western thought which sought to remedy the injustice of systems which denied the innate equality and essential personhood of all human beings, including movements such as abolitionism, feminism, anti-colonialism, and the civil rights movement in the United States. In the succinct words of Thomas Cahill, the democratic principles of the West emerge from the biblical “vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny.”78 He explains, quoting the American Declaration of Independence, “there is no way that it could ever have been ‘self-evident that all men are created equal’ without” this biblical vision.
Christianity had brought a renewed vigor to and emphasis upon the Jewish ideas that all human beings possessed a special worth and dignity by virtue of having been created in the image of God by coupling this biblical idea with its own unique beliefs that God himself had become a person and thereby united humanity and divinity and made spiritual salvation available to all people. This broad vision of personhood was a shocking idea in the Greco-Roman world of Late Antiquity, in which personhood was generally restricted to an elite group of free adult Greek and Roman men, and explicitly denied to barbarians, women, slaves, and children. These groups were, in turn, attracted by this new idea which granted them a status they had never before been afforded. Through the influence of these groups, Christianity was able, eventually, to penetrate into the upper and governing classes of the Roman Empire. By the end of the fourth century, it had become the Empire’s official religion. From this vantage point, the Church was able to shape Roman law and society in conformity with its ideas. While this process of shaping law and society remained incomplete throughout the Middle Ages, it nonetheless planted the seeds for later change as various movements for legal and social equality of oppressed and marginalized groups around the world drew on the ideas and legacy of the early Christians to formulate their own visions of personhood and responses to injustice.
76 Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (New York: Random House, 2011), 110.
78 Cahill, Gifts of the Jews, 249.
Conservative Christianity is prepared to defend and justify the most iniquitous social system on the ground that original sin has made human nature essentially bad, and that social justice is therefore unattainable. Such an argument against social reform is both hypocritical and sociologically false. In the first place, Christianity teaches not only about original sin but also about seeking the Kingdom of God and striving for perfection similar to the perfection of the Heavenly Father. It does not follow that because human nature is sinful we must talk of nothing else and give up all attempts to realize social justice. The bourgeois capitalistic system certainly is the result of original sin and its projection on the social plane but this is not a reason for justifying it and declaring it to be unchangeable.
Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, p. 221