Reflections: The Threshold of Hell and Social Media Discourse

In a time of pandemic and cultural disgust, I find myself returning (repenting) amidst current dialogues by looking to old books for a sense of self, and a sense of God. One of the books that I have returned to is Dante’s Inferno. The reason I have decided to read this particular work is because of Dante’s profound ability to raise a sense of moral consciousness; the images employed cause the reader to look at the ravaging effects of sin upon men, and the beauty that fills the mind when one contemplates the grace of God intensified by its ugliest contrast. Dante gives the reader a sense that the existential implications of people’s conduct far outweighs the situations of their lives. The phrase inscribed on the gate of Hell lays heavily upon the reader as virtue is looked for, but not found, in much of current dialogue. Those who engage in social media discourse would do well to hear these words: “abandon every hope, all you who enter” (Inferno, pg. 14).

The threshold of Hell is a place called “Nowhere.” Virgil takes us on a journey to a place that is full of people who have never made a decision to be faithful to God. These people are people who have lived for entirely for themselves, without being characterized by “no blame and with no praise” (Inferno, pg. 15). They are people who have preserved their lives through indecision. In Hell they are doomed to march around a banner that never stops ever leading them on through eternity while being painfully stung by insects to their eternal hurt.

This is Medieval imagery. It is stark and highly punitive. It can, however, delineate a phenomenological reality that often occurs in social media discussions.

Social media has come to be a place where people are defined by their opinions. It is a discarnate technological medium that unites people through what they write and images they use. It is a platform for individual self-expression. This is an effort at unity which often seems to unavoidably separate folks and polarize the people who engage in any sort of political discussion (paradoxically a collective discourse serves to further polarization among the collective). People are more rash, statements are more impatient, and the atmosphere among those who disagree can be characterized by an intense hatred of anything or anyone who is different. Ideology and political affiliation separate us in reality, and social media discourse furthers that separation because our opinions are held out so unaccountably from our lives. Part of this is because so much of conversation is based on a person’s tone of voice, or facial expression which is never a contributing factor in extremely tense and difficult conversations. In this way, a discarnate social media presence seems to be more susceptible to greater emotion and less charitable thought because charity necessarily involves bodily reality with all of its risks, discomforts, and rewards.

What am I talking about?

I am talking particularly about the constant barrage of dissent regarding racial issues and police violence (I do not want to expound on any particular issue now because it is likely to become forgotten among future outbreaks, and because it is important to reflect on the framing of an issue as well as the issue itself); I am talking about an incendiary conversation where patience and love for those who are different from you is obscured by unaccountable emotions of anger and outrage.

As someone who has been aware of social media since its inception, and subsequently aware of the collective outrage regarding social injustice, I have acutely noticed how social media is used to generate collective feelings of rage. What I have also noticed is how those feelings of rage subside and are cyclically rekindled when another social crisis occurs generating a congealed narrative, often resolving nothing. The movement takes priority over the incident and the wrong. People quickly forget what the past injustice was, and eagerly jump at the new opportunity they have to express their outrage. It is an dialogue that is “momentarily bursting into enthusiasm, and shrewdly relapsing into repose” (The Present Age, pg. 3). Hence, the collective forgetfulness of those who use social media for political discord is just as important to notice as its collective outrage when considering this phenomenon objectively. The crisis serves a movement, and the crisis itself is not resolved, but enables a movement to undo the foundations of society without precise direction, or positive terminus.

Rage is generated, and rage is preserved, but memory is not. This is the degeneration of  social consciousness.

Because of this I am arguing that it is plausible to compare Dante’s threshold of hell to social media dialogues about racial inequality and police brutality. People march on to define themselves not by virtue, but by opinion. Opinion alone is something that is deceptively unable to grip with reality. Decisions must be made. Virtue can never be something displayed apart from actual interaction between physical people, and it is the quality of our lives displayed by what we do. Furthermore, the banner that marches us on and on is every injustice, real or perceived, generated by a soundbite or clip. All that is required of us is to passionately agree with what is being said with no specific bearing on our actual day to day lives. Through our participation in this void we have become a people with many opinions, few values, and even fewer virtues because we have ceased to speak and act in reality. No change is required of us when passionate opinion on social media serves as the dehumanized form of cultural currency.

The domain of social media is the “Nowhere.” It is a place where people can talk with little to no consequence for their words. It is a place without deeds. The “feed” marches us on with every new bit of information motivating us by a satisfying release of dopamine when we tell someone off, or get approval for what we post. This is truly an exploitation of the human experience. Jean Baudrillard speaks of “hyperreality” as a phenomenon which replaces the real (Disneyland); what I would call hyperunreality replaces not only the real through a substitution of the real with something purely simulative; through a disembodied experience of that simulation. Quality conversations, thoughts, and self-denial are things that have truly ceased to occur regular interaction because they do not regularly happen at dinner tables, or in living rooms with people we love, but on a digital platform with people that we may know, or may have no relation to at all. The platform has become as infinite as the masses using it. Therefore, the truth is lost in a flurry of voices that have no bearing upon life because the conversation is removed from bodily experience with the ironic goal of self-expression. Interactions like these that separate the mind’s voice bodily, interpersonal expression leave us with unfortunate stings of conscience and conflicting opinions within ourselves, or voiced by others. It is a journey without singular vision, and without beatitude.

What is to be done?

Throughout the Inferno Dante is patiently guided by Virgil. In many instances Dante loses his strength before the sights of horror that he witnesses; often he needs the words and prompting of his guide to cause him to see and understand greater and more terrible things. While painfully witnessing the godlessness of society we are called, like Dante, to leave cowardice and distrust aside in order to see the necessity of good through its most immanent opposite. We are called to seek God with all that we are. People today need guides who can speak to them in the stark reality of life encouraging them to be better fathers, neighbors, and friends. I turn to old books for guidance, to works of literature that have the ability to raise my mind above depersonalized mass movements, and social media contempt. I also turn to my friends who have been my instructors and source of life amidst the chaos of what is happening today and the grief that accompanies it. People need to actually develop a sense of virtue through the instruction of those who have actually pursued it in their lives and implement it in their respective spheres of life.

The vision of Dante requires us to pay profound attention to the end of human experience in order to comprehend its value and meaning in pursuit of the truth. I submit to you that this can only be done through what has long been known by human experience as friendship. Something that existed before the term was redefined in 2004 by social media promulgators and tycoons. Before Dante, there was a Roman statesman and philosopher who in many ways had a profound impact on Dante. The man’s name was Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero pointed out in his book, On Friendship, that society is held together by the bonds of friendship — friendship, Cicero noted, is not possible without virtue. A modern follow up to this would be that virtue is not possible in on a platform that stirs people’s passions because the discourse is too shortsighted for sustained conversation, or resolution. Virtue is not discarnate, it is deeply human because it requires bodily experience to enrich all of society. Friendship cannot be a reduction of human experience, or it is not friendship, but something far less. I hope that we can pause, learn, interpret, and decide upon how to live, instead of passively accepting an ever and ongoing sense of the present devoid of both respect for the past, or hope for the future.

 

A Hidden Life and the Coronavirus

As I reflect back on this time of quarantine in preparation for my return to the real world, or as it is now being called, the “new normal”, I remember how it first began. Quietly and unexpected, much like the film A Hidden Life.

Based on a true story, the film is about Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter, who faces execution for refusing to fight for the Nazis during World War II. Before watching Malick’s masterpiece, I read a review that described it as a film about religion, not war. Instead of picturing Jewish persecution of the Nazi period, the film asks ethical questions about good and evil, right and wrong, and how much one would suffer for what they believe to be right. A line that stood out to me in the film, since they are few and far between, echoes this assessment. When asked by the prison captain if he is afraid of death, Franz responds, “A man worth anything has only one thing to consider: whether he is acting rightly or wrongly.”

Many of us these days have had to ask ourselves if we feel fear in the face of possible death by coronavirus in this global pandemic. Yet the power behind fear is often fear itself. Fear of death, but also fear of pain. No one wants to suffer, but especially if it goes against what is considered the “right” thing to do. 

Power and control through fear and pain are evident in George Orwell’s 1984. Orwell’s novel is a political commentary of totalitarianism in Nazi Germany, but elements of Big Brother are still seen today. In the story, doublethink is the ability to hold two polarizing views at the same time. Love is hate, war is peace, slavery is freedom. We live in a dualistic society that in many ways cannot agree on how to address this crisis. There can be a sense of camaraderie by saying, “Stay safe!” to your neighbor from a distance, but there are also neighbors calling the police on each other if someone coughs or breaks quarantine. We have forgotten how to love one another because of fear. As a dystopia, 1984 may seem over the top and unrealistic, but it still communicates the danger of totalitarian thought and practice in society today. 

Besides the silent suffering of Franz in A Hidden Life, the steadfastness of his wife, Franziska, is most inspiring. When the local priest and villagers can’t persuade Franz to swear allegiance to Hitler, they pressure his wife to try and convince him to change his conviction or ignore his conscience. Unlike Job’s wife who tells her husband to curse God, Fraziska stands by her man and does not try to dissuade him. Despite the struggle and persecution she faces, Franziska never stops loving or supporting her husband, even when she knows his choices will take him away from her loving arms and leave their children fatherless. Franz’s stance for truth is heroic, but Franziska’s loyalty demonstrates how true love casts out fear. 

In 1984, Winston and Julia go against Big Brother by meeting in secret. In contrast to the previous couple, their “love” is selfish and does not pass the test of suffering. When they are captured by the Thought Police and taken to the Ministry of Love to be tortured, they betray each other and their emotions, even to the point of wishing the other would suffer instead of them. To save their own life of simple comforts, they deny that they ever loved, and in fact they never did. In the end, their love for each other is replaced by a love for Big Brother.

When faced with fear and suffering, who are we more like, Franz and Franziska or Winston and Julia? To whom do we swear and in whom do we trust? Would we choose to stay true to love or run away in fear at the first sign of danger? Do we turn away from the sick and poor, or run to them in aid? 

As Christians, we should be citizens most recognizable by our love, not our fear. Let us be an extension of Christ in a scared and suffering world. If we cannot stand for truth and love, we are no better than Judas the betrayer. But like Peter discovered after his denial, there is freedom in Christ. While in prison, Franz’s captors torture and taunt him by saying his actions do not matter, that the war will still go on without him, and that his resistance will soon be forgotten. All he has to do is sign a piece of paper and he will go free. He’s asked, don’t you want to be free, to which he replies, “I am free already.” 

Franz was not just a man of conviction, he was a man of faith. I pray my faith will outshine my fear in the coming days.


PC: IMDB

An Open Letter to My Christian Friends

Dear Reader,

This morning I read a recent article posted by the conservative writer, Rod Dreher. It included some very insightful comments about the nature of certain people’s responses to Coronavirus described in a couple letters he received. His analysis of what was written to him is the most convicting line in the article. It is what I hope you will take away from this open letter to think about as we approach the Lord’s day. He says, “This, my friends, is what apocalypse does: it reveals.”

After I read this, I instinctively asked the question: how is my time of isolation revealing a preparedness for the coming of the Lord, or how is it not? What am I grasping at?

I must confess that my heart has been in desperate search for comfort, security, and a sense of normal routine. I find that the desire for this, and its highly regarded place in my life, often serves as a mask which hides the state of my soul from myself and others. I think this is the case for many Christians in America. We let our work define us. We do it in such a way that the presence of sin and the necessity of faith routinely sit on the back burner of our minds. Because of this, a sad irony persists in our lives. The irony is that too little attention is paid to who we presently are before God, even though our presence before God is what will finally be established when we step past death into eternity, or when Christ comes again. This will be what lasts of us.

In this crisis my sin appears to be more evident, and my resolve against it seems to be in short supply. However, I don’t think this is actually the case. My sin was always evident, and my resolve against it has always been in short supply. The only difference between the recent past, and the ongoing reality of life during Coronavirus, is that I am more aware of it because I have more time to think and less distance to put between me and my thoughts. Stated bluntly, not having what I want shows me what I really want.

Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). This is my heart’s desire that emerges from a cluttered mind: when the end of this pandemic comes (and it will surely come), I want to have passed through it by faith, as I want to pass though the rest of my life and death by faith.

Repentance means living a life that corresponds to hope. I know what I hope in, and I hope in a Christ who promises to sustain His Church through all seasons of life. In the slowness of my soul I am “slouching towards Bethlehem” to find a vision of life in the apocalyptic turbulence of these times. I hope that this is your desire and pursuit as well.

I will end this letter with the opening question from the Heidelberg Catechism: “what is your only comfort in life and death?” I leave it to you to look at the catechism for yourself and prayerfully appropriate the answer as we approach the Lord’s day. I will do the same.

May God be with you,

Stephen

 


Here is the complete article by Rod Dreher. I suggest you read it: https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/are-we-christians-the-rich-young-ruler-covid-19/

I think the 3b is an accurate definition of apocalypse: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocalypse

I quoted a line from “The Second Coming” by W.B. Yeats: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming

Here is the Heidelberg Catechism for those who do not own a physical copy: https://students.wts.edu/resources/creeds/heidelberg.html

Wisdom: Comparing Aristotle and Ecclesiastes

Aristotle’s Wisdom-Prudence Distinction and Qoheleth’s Use of Wisdom

I. Introduction

In Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, two virtuous lives are presented, characterized by two distinct virtues: the contemplative and active lives. These two lives are respectively characterized by wisdom and prudence. While wisdom is defined as a virtue of the speculative intellect which allows one to perceive the truth of things, prudence is defined as a virtue of the practical intellect which allows one to act in accordance with right reason in particular situations. Aristotle’s relation between these two lives is heavily debated by contemporary philosophers: some think that the two lives are inherently opposed and that Aristotle gives emphasis to the contemplative life, others the active life. While I think that Aristotle’s account is itself one of reconciling these two virtuous lives, my thesis here is that Ecclesiastes’ (hereafter referred to by its Hebrew title: Qoheleth) understanding of wisdom (Hb. hokmah) presents us with a synthesis of the two intellectual virtues and provides a way forward in understanding how to reconcile the contemplative and active lives. My argument hinges on two points: first, that wisdom has a dual function in Qoheleth—it corresponds, loosely, with Aristotle’s wisdom and prudence distinction—and second, that the synthesis between these two virtues is predicated on the connection between ‘is’ and ‘ought’.

II. Aristotle on Wisdom and Prudence

Previously I stated the distinction in Aristotle between wisdom and prudence, the intellectual virtues which are characteristic of the contemplative and active lives, respectively. The difference between them, however, needs to be made more explicit in order to appreciate Qoheleth’s synthesis. Wisdom (Gk. sophia) in Aristotle is that virtue which is characteristic of seeing or perceiving the truth of things—for this reason it is often seen as the chief of the virtues, as in Plato’s Meno, and often characterizes the ideal of the philosopher. [1] Wisdom, then, is concerned with the universals or generals: things predicated of many or all. Aristotle says, “in contemplative thinking…thinking well or badly consists in the true and the false respectively,” because “wisdom is a science and intellectual grasp of the things most honorable by nature.” [2] Prudence (Gk. phronesis), however, is the virtue which is characteristic of knowing what action is in accordance with right reason and will, therefore, lead to the human telos in the utmost particular, namely, the situation. While prudence involves knowledge of the universals (implied by sight or vision towards the telos of human nature and judging actions accordingly – i.e., by right reason), its distinctive character lies in its capacity to evaluate the absolute particular in view of the end, and no merely any end but the end in accordance with human nature qua human nature. This is what distinguishes prudence from mere cunning. Since, “good deliberation simply is that which guides us toward the end simply,” but prudence “is what guides us correctly towards some particular end.” Thus, “prudence is characterized by the giving of commands: its end is what one ought or ought not to do.” [3]

III. Hokmah in Qoheleth

Hokmah (wisdom) in Qoheleth functions, I argue, in two ways: first, in seeing the truth of things; second, in prescribing both an end to be sought an offering itself (i.e., wisdom) as means to achieve that end. Since these two functions of hokmah loosely correlate to wisdom and prudence, respectively, there is, implicitly, a synthesis of these two. Let’s first look at the two ways hokmah functions.

A. Twofold Function of Hokmah

First, wisdom functions as perceiving the truth of things. This is clear in Qoheleth’s hebel insight, that is, the incongruity-inequity of human existence under the sun. He describes all as hebel (1:2) and demonstrates the absurdity which penetrates through human wisdom (1:12-18; 2:12-17), human activity and agency (2:18-26), human experience of justice and injustice among the righteous and the wicked (3:16-22; 4:1-3; 8:14-15), and seemingly every other aspect of human existence. In this, Qoheleth perceives the underlying quality of things whose acknowledgement is painful. This is why he says, “he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:18) Hokmah in this function, loosely, corresponds to Aristotle’s wisdom, since it involves a proper perception of reality according to its general and/or universal truths—in this case, hebel. The hebel insight of Qoheleth is an insight of wisdom, the perception of the cosmic effects of fallenness: “See, this alone I have found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.” (7:29)

Second, wisdom functions as perceiving proper actions towards the proper end of human nature: this is clear in his persistence insistence on the enjoyment of temporal goods and the fear of the Lord, despite the hebel of life under the sun. He repeatedly says, “I perceived that there is nothing better than for [mankind] to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (3:12; cf. 3:22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 12:13-14). Here the upmost particulars are considered and evaluated in light of the end (both in terms of final causality and final judgement) as either conducive towards or detracting from it. This is why Qoheleth speaks of doing good and fearing the Lord and keeping His commandments with virtual synonymy (cf. 3:16-17; 12:13-14). It is also important to note that this second function of wisdom depends on the first function: the proper knowledge of the truth of things contextualizes the particular considerations. The pervasiveness of incongruity-inequity, designated by the term hebel, properly contextualizes the worth of things and various activities.

B. The Is-Ought Connection

In this twofold function of hokmah, we see Qoheleth arriving at prescription from description—even, in spite of it. The description of hebel contextualizes the prescription of enjoyment and doing good; even so the empirical observation that everything has its season or time grounds the later assertion of divine judgement against evil (see 3:16-17). Contra Hume, Qoheleth understands that any predication of ‘ought’ necessarily derives from ‘is’ since it is only intelligible on the assumption of a connection with and contextualization by ‘is’. This is-ought connection is predicated on the two functions of hokmah, since it seems proper to the one to describe the truth of things and proper to the other to prescribe actions conducive to the end in the context of the real. As Aristotle says, “prudence is not concerned with the universals alone but must also be acquainted with the particulars: it is bound up with action, and action concerns the particulars.” [4]

IV. Reconciling the Contemplative and Active Lives

From this I think we can begin to see how the contemplative and active lives may be understood in such a way as tends towards a synthesis. In Qoheleth, wisdom is one thing; while I argue it functions in two different ways, it remains a singular. Aristotle makes the distinction between these two functions and calls each by a name: wisdom and prudence, respectively. However, these two go hand in hand, as even Aristotle admits. Now, if these two virtues go hand in hand, it is reasonable to assume there is some congruity between the lives that these virtues characterize. The contemplative life of continually seeking to know the true is still a form of activity. The active life of seeking the good corresponding to action and choice is only possible if the individual possesses both knowledge and moral virtue: both contextualize the end in view of choice and action. The difficulty to this is the presence of hebel: the incongruity and inequity experienced under the sun. However, the synthesis of the active and contemplative lives, ironically, results from the uniting of human experience: connecting ‘is’ with ‘ought’ and thereby bringing coherence despite the absurdity of life under the sun. This gives us as Christians and as human beings a way forward in properly understanding the relation between orthodoxy and orthopraxy: ‘is’ leads to ‘ought’; there is no naturalist fallacy. What we are, when we find ourselves (i.e., factual statements) are what contextualize our pursuit of the good. We must never assume the reality of our being does not bear hold on our telos or morality. We must attempt to live coherent lives: ones where in our being imago Dei is united with natural virtue, where our being en Christou is united with theological virtue.

Endnotes:

[1] The task of the wise man is to order, this ordering is according to wisdom as per Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles I, c. 1; Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I, lectio. 1-3

[2] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 1139a27-29, 1141b3-5.

[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1142b30-33, 1143a8-10.

[4] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. Bartlett and Collins, 1141b15-17.


PC: Photo by Tbel Abuseridze on Unsplash