Friday, March 17, 2006

Cruelty and Religion


Christianity has always been haunted by fantasies of torture. After all, that is what hell is all about. This elaborate revenge fantasy--infinite punishment for finite offenses--is the inspiration for what is perhaps the only great work of christian literature, Dante's Inferno. Nearly all of the iconic instruments of torture, the rack, the thumbscrew, the iron maiden, are products of the christian imagination put into all too bloody practice. And the cross, the symbolic center of the religion, is itself an instrument of torture.

In a provocative and untimely essay written nearly 25 years ago and republished* this month, political philosopher Judith Shklar argues that putting cruelty first among evils decisively places one outside the sphere of revealed religion. The Enlightenment philosophes, Montaigne and Montesquieu are the exemplars of this world view, self consciously taking a stand against religion on the one hand and Machiavelli on the other.
To hate cruelty with utmost intensity is perfectly compatible with biblical religiosity, but to put it first does place one unalterably outside the sphere of revealed religion. For it is a purely human verdict upon human conduct, and so puts religion at a certain distance. But while this tension is inherent in the decision to put cruelty first, it is not just religious skepticism that prompts this moral choice. It emerges, rather, from the recognition that the habits of the faithful do not differ from those of the faithless in their brutalities, and that Machiavelli had triumphed long before he had ever written a line. To put cruelty first, therefore, is to be at odds with both religion and politics.
Inspired by a revulsion at the recent history of christian cruelty and torture and in particular the cruelty of the then ongoing christian conquest of the Americas, "the supreme example of the failure of christianity," Montaigne turns Machiavelli on his head and takes up the questions of state he raises from the point of view of the victim. Both Montaigne and Montesquieu champion valor, the defiant refusal to live as a victim or a slave, as the appropriate counterpoint to cruelty.

It is a point of view worth considering as the alliance between neo-Machiavellian advocates of necessary cruelty and their religious fellow travelers once again put the genius of the christian imagination into practice.
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* Although the Shklar piece is excellent, the disingenuously named journal in which it is now appears, Democratiya, is for the most part a forum for neoconservative ideologues in support of the war on terror. Their statement of purpose is actually a quite funny attempt to put a veneer of objectivity and liberalism on what is essentially an imperialist agenda. They are sufficiently concerned that readers might notice this that they felt the following disclaimer necessary.
Of course our task is not to sing 'America! America!' As Irving Howe said, 'The banner of critical independence, ragged and torn though it may be, is still the best we have'. But this is 2005 not 1965. It is no longer enough to say 'no' where the US says 'yes'. A more self-confident and constructively critical stance is needed.
A quick scan of their tables of contents shows that they had good reason to be concerned.

To take just a couple of examples, the latest issue also features some reviews by Oliver Kamm, a "philosopher" whose utter lack of intellectual integrity, particularly in his near hysterical attacks on Chomsky, has been nicely dissected by Brian Leiter. And Leiter's post coincidentally also takes to task Marko Attila Hoare, one of the editors of Democratiya, for his intentional misreading of Chomsky.

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