Category Archives: Virtues

Tithing as creating non-attachment

“To this end always dispose of a part of your means by giving them heartily to the poor[.]” St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), p. 123

St. Francis de Sales recommends tithing (almsgiving) as a way to guard against avarice, while taking due care of our temporal interests (wealth).

Most people think of tithing as helping the target of the money, but de Sales’ point here is that tithing helps the giver by reducing attachment to wealth.

This is a problem Seneca (one of the wealthiest men in the Roman Empire) also worked on (see here), where he suggested we write things off in our mind, and practice going without whatever things at intervals.

So, in order to reduce one’s attachment to wealth, a) tithing, b) writing things off in our mind, and c) practicing going without whatever things at intervals are all practical, simple strategies. These could be useful for both a Stoic and a Christian.

More on tithing here.

de Sales and Seneca on problems with wealth

“It is the Christian’s privilege to be rich in material things, and poor in attachment to them, thereby having the use of riches in this world and the merit of poverty in the next.” St. Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life (1609), p. 121

This is similar to Seneca’s idea, where it is also to figure out how to create non-attachment (see here).

Whereas a Stoic such as Seneca’s view might be captured as ‘use wealth, don’t let it use you’, the Christian such as de Sales’ view is a little different, more like ‘use wealth for God, don’t let it use you against God’ – don’t let it interfere with aligning oneself with God’s will.

The way to both is similar, however, as de Sales’ quotation suggests. Key aspects of Stoic thought are very much captured in Christian thought.

Regress

A common mistake of contemporaries is to think that there has been progress towards something better across-the-board, because there has been technological progress over the last (say) 100 years.

This is obviously false. Look at painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and so on from then and now. There is a devolution in spirit, cultural depth, and in many cases technical skill.

What is interesting from the point of Christianity is how much of this is tied to the leaving behind of an authentic Christian culture by almost all of Western culture.

Which problems to solve?

An overriding concern used to be too little food, now it is too much food (obesity, diabetes, and so on). It used to be too little access to information, now it’s too much (distraction, manipulation). It used to be too little light available at night, now it’s too much (sleep disruptions, difficult to see stars). And so on.

Christianity is about solving problems, and it’s therefore relevant for Christians to figure out where the new problems are.

Against hedonism

We can define hedonism as the conjunction of two propositions.

  1. One ought to seek out pleasurable experiences.
  2. One ought to avoid painful experiences.

where ‘pleasurable’ and ‘painful’ are understood expansively.

What is problematic with this view? At first blush, it seems unproblematic – almost trivially true. Of course one ought to want more pleasure and less pain. All I want to show here is how this is problematic from a biological perspective. Let’s consider the second proposition first.

What is a painful experience? Biologically speaking, painful experiences exist in order to guide an animal in avoiding a situation where there is damage to that animal. In other words, from a biological perspective, the important part isn’t the experience of pain but what that indicates.

Similarly, consider pleasure. In natural conditions, feeling pleasure would probably indicate that what one was doing was helping the organism to reach its goals, where the goals would typically be designed into the organism, centering around things like getting nutritional food, reproducing, keeping the right temperature, and so on.

Nowadays, we can see how the sensation of pleasure can misfire, biologically speaking, leading us to behaviour that moves us away from the things the sensation was designed to move us towards. Overeating, for example, can be motivated by a pleasure in the foods, yet given various ‘junk food’ available today it can lead to nutritional deficiencies, obesity, diabetes, and so on.

So, it seems obvious that biologically speaking, hedonism doesn’t make sense at least when operating in an environment that is substantially different from that for which the organism is designed.

Masculinism

“Women must be liberated from the modern “emancipation,” which is really slavish compliance to a Calvinistic and masculine ideal[.]” – John Senior, The Restoration of Christian Culture (1983), p.51

Senior is correct, in that many aspects of what is now called ‘feminism’ hold traditionally masculine values as more important than traditionally feminine ones. In this sense, ‘feminism’ is a misnomer, and ‘masculinism’ is more suggestive.

 

Robert Barron and the nature of the world

In a review of a pop. movie, Robert Barron writes that

The Revenant is unremittingly honest in its portrayal of people caught in the awful reality of this fallen world, which is marked through and through by violence, suspicion, hatred, revenge, and the constant struggle to survive in the context of an indifferent nature. For the denizens of this universe, the correct mottos are indeed “kill or be killed” and “love your friends but hate your enemies” and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

If there is no God, as Fitzgerald suggests to one of his underlings, survival at any cost, the law of the jungle, is the supreme law. But if there is a dimension that transcends nature, if there is a God who provides a moral compass and presides over human affairs, then one can let go of vengeance and seek a higher justice. The film ends just as this consciousness of God dawns on Glass.

This characterization of a world without a certain conception of God echoes early naturalists’ descriptions of the natural world ‘red in tooth and claw’, characterized almost completely by zero-sum competition.

Yet, the actual natural world is characterized by both competition and cooperation. Both of these dynamics are engendered by more basic variables in the natural world. Although some have thought aspects of cooperation more difficult to explain than aspects of competition, my guess is that this is a bias, perhaps created by Christian notions of man’s (and the world’s) fallen nature.

What are some examples of cooperation? It’s all around us.

Multicellular creatures function because they have a bunch of different cells cooperating together. The cooperation dynamic is occurring basically whenever you see a multicellular organism.

Cooperation and altruism, more broadly speaking, are widespread in nature, found most often between kin (prominent examples include many parent-child relationships, or ant or bee colonies).

Yet, symbiotic (and similar kinds of) relationships outside of kin are also quite common.

The point here is that the natural world is not simply ‘kill or be killed’, or what have you. Indeed, even the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ was intended to limit a spiralling cycle of violence. Retribution had to be proportional to the offense.

Two significant points of Jesus’ teaching to let go of anger and hatred are that it improves a) one’s society, but b) one’s own life. The primary person affected by one’s anger (and so on – various negative emotions) is oneself. These dual insights are what make his teaching so powerful – for the individual who adopts it in his own life, and for a society that figures out how to implement it.

Coming together as a group, people can recognize a), and put into place various societal measures (laws, customs, and so on) that lead to an improvement in the mutual society.

Regardless, one can put into action b) in ‘enlightened self-interest’.

The point here is that Jesus’ teaching, at least in significant part, isn’t dependent on ultimate retribution by God, but rather by more basic psychological and sociological insights.

Similarly, cooperation in nature or between men makes sense in many cases – it comes about by the same basic dynamics that can lead to competition.

The Law of Mutuality

There is an ethic of helping others in Christianity.

Yet, because the point of Christianity is to align one’s will with the will of the Good, and since considerations on the good include considerations about oneself, it would not be surprising if God (i.e., the Good) would want solutions to various problems that improve the state of all people involved.

This, in short, is the basic idea behind a Christian view of what can be called ‘the law of mutuality’, or in more common parlance, ‘win-win’ outcomes.

(It is not a coincidence that it was a Mormon Christian, Stephen Covey, who popularized the term ‘win-win’. Covey also coined the terms ‘abundance mentality’ and ‘scarcity mindset’, both of which are related to the considerations on whether win-win outcomes are possible in a given situation.)

The basic impulse in a given situation as far as ethics goes, from a Christian perspective, is to ask the question ‘What would be good for everyone in this situation?’ or ‘What is the will of the good in this situation?’

Although this detaches oneself from egoism, often it will lead to a better result for oneself than a purely egoistic method of reasoning, almost paradoxically. In short, it has a greater chance of leading to ‘virtuous circles’ of action – an upward spiral of cooperative behaviour that is better in the long run than more egoistic alternatives (even if one does not get the best result for oneself in the immediate situation).

Of course – not always! Yet, it seems Christians often talk about their actions as if it will be – long run – self-sacrificing. Most of the time, this isn’t the case. It is not suffering that is the point, rather it is the law of mutuality.

Egoism

Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Matthew 6:19)

Both Stoicism and Buddhism (accurately) see the negation of attachments as a solution to suffering. Therefore, if one removes the attachment, one lessens the suffering when those things are destroyed.

Although Christianity also (accurately) sees this, this isn’t the primary motivation for removing attachment to things in Christianity. Consider that Stoicism tends to go further, rejecting attachment not just to things (i.e., hedonism or materialism) but to people and relationships. Buddhism also has this element.

Differently, in Christianity the primary motivation for rejecting attachment to materialism or hedonism comes not from considerations of suffering but from an alignment of one’s will with the will of the Good, i.e., a rejection of egoism.

Stoicism is the opposite – a rejection of attachment stems from egoistic considerations.

The basic idea in Christianity is that one aligns one’s interests with the interests of the Good. Yet, almost paradoxically, because ‘happiness’ or ‘meaning’ is rarely found by focusing on one’s self, this re-alignment tends to lead to happiness. I.e., happiness or meaning is found by focusing outside oneself (on family, on a cause, on the good, and so on), and valuing these things.

To put the basic idea in more Christian terms, by losing oneself, one gains oneself. Stoicism (and Buddhism, to an extent) misses this dynamic in motivation, and so settles into a kind of nihilism, where any ‘goodness’ is suspect.

What do Christians mean by ‘leave the World’?

As with many things in Christianity, there are words or phrases used which sound familiar coming from a secular perspective, but which have a different sense when used in Christianity. It is easy to misunderstand or get tripped up by these statements.

To ‘leave the World’ is not to leave everything here-and-now behind. Rather, it is to embark on a ‘revaluation of values’, to borrow a phrase.

In particular, to leave behind materialism and hedonism (cf. Stoicism) and instead put value on God (= the Good) and the Christ (= our connection or ‘Way’ to the Good).

Since the Christ has “come that they might have life, and have it more abundantly” according to Christianity (John 10:10 – i.e., it is our connection to the Good that allows for us to live a human life fully), to ‘leave the World’ is to see through those things which detract from a life fully lived, and instead to focus on the most important thing.

It includes, of course, self-discipline – the reigning in of impulses that are good in the short-term but have a net negative effect in the longer-term. More over-archingly, though, it involves a leaving of one’s ‘self’, which is to say, of an ego-centric way of habitually viewing things, and instead a focusing on the Good (which involves focusing more on the good for others).