Compassion expressed or withheld – Plato and Luke

The question of the relation between compassion and property and the emotional-psychological-spiritual results of expressing or withholding compassion came to the fore several Sundays ago after hearing a reading from The Book of the Acts of the Apostles.

“Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” [Acts 4:32].

The whole group, i.e. the early disciples of Jesus, were putting into practice the political philosophy Plato recommended centuries before to legislators in the Greek republic:

“The form of law which I propose would be as follows: In a state which is desirous of being saved from the greatest of all plagues—not faction, but rather distraction—there should exist among the citizens neither extreme poverty nor, again, excessive wealth, for both are productive of great evil . . . Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth.”

– Plato, Greek philosopher (427-347 B.C.E.)

The idea of a ceiling on the accumulation of wealth is a democratic socialist principle. So is a floor to prevent poverty.

Interestingly, Plato seemed to think distraction was a greater plague than factionalism. Distraction from what? The good, the true, and the beautiful perhaps, the trinity of cardinal virtue, perhaps.

Material security becomes an obsessive distraction. Hoarding becomes a way of life. “More” becomes life’s purpose. More ad infinitum until more is no more  when il morte levels the rich and the poor to their shared destiny of dust and ashes.

The distribution of wealth is a profound spiritual issue, both publicly and psychologically. How wealth is distributed in any society is a measure of its compassion. The New Testament texts have a jarring way of discussing this. They discuss compassion as originating in “the bowels”.

Though the more recent versions translate the First Epistle of John in a sanitized way – “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” – the original Greek text is better translated by the KJV: “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?” [I John 3:17].

The words “of compassion” are added by the King James translator for purposes of giving the English reader the original sense of the Greek text. “Shutting up one’s bowels” toward someone in need is the equivalent of walling one’s self off from the common lot of humankind.

The Hebrew location of the emotions was the bowels, also translated “inner parts”  – stomach and intestines. The instinctive response to human need is a pit in the bottom of the stomach, a visceral response. One has to be carefully taught not to feel it.

The word “bowels” appears also in the Book of Acts description of the tragic death of Judas, whose bowels (compassion) had not gone out to Jesus until it was too late. Luke, the author of The Book of Acts, paints a gruesome picture intended, perhaps, to draw the psychic consequences of withholding compassion. Judas goes out and buys a field with the 30 pieces of silver he received for guiding the authorities to Jesus at the Mount of Olives. The description of Judas’ death leaves a choice of interpretation of a Greek word [prenes] that can be translated “falling headlong” or “swelling up” and splagchnon, the word for bowels, inward parts, entrails. A literal translation and choices are:

“Now indeed [Judas] acquired a field with the wages of unrighteousness. And having become prostrate/prone/flat on his face/ swelling up, he burst-open in the middle and all his bowels/inward-parts/entrails spilled-out.”

The bowels, not the heart, were regarded as the seat of human emotion. Seeing another person starving or injured leaves a pit in the stomach. Unresolved guilt or violation of one’s own moral standards or integrity often produces ulcers and intestinal problems.

Whether one translates prenes as becoming prostrate (the position of a penitent) or swollen, Luke’s picture of Judas’ death is a kind of internal combustion, a psychic explosion with societal implications.  The field that Judas bought became known as Akel’dama, the Field of Blood, so labeled from the Psalm (69:25) which Luke loosely renders, “Let his estate become desolate, and let no one be dwelling in it.”

Plato and Luke were both political philosophers. Plato, the elitist philosopher of the philosopher kings, and Luke, the author of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, seem to agree that we are meant for compassion and that extremes of wealthy and poverty were injurious to personal and societal health.

We are built for community. We are so constructed that buying a field is no substitute for the release of compassion. Compassion will release itself one way or the other. When withheld, it swells up to burst open a person or a society from the inside out. In that spirit, a society that legislates a ceiling on accumulated wealth and a floor of economic well-being is a field worth dwelling in.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 29, 2015.

14 thoughts on “Compassion expressed or withheld – Plato and Luke

  1. Gordon, My gut says you’re right. Need to read it all again including the responder’s comments, much “food for thought”.
    Sorry you won’t make the reunion.
    JoAnne

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  2. I read the about the Twins game this morn. Nothing about Arcia except his HR. Sounds like you’re saying he was part of the problem when 7 runs were given up by the bullpen in 4 innings after Hughes left gm.
    BTW, I didn’t know the early Hebrews didn’t make distinctions between heart, mind & soul. I think we assume that since bio-evolution is true it must also mean the transition from the early Hebrew view of the body to the Greek view & on to Descartes was a part of the evolution to a more sophisticated worldview. Maybe there is a link here to understanding the aversion by the fundamentalists to the idea of evolution. The pro-evolution crew dismisses the religious worldview that opposes evolution. Maybe the truth is someplace between,i.e., the conservative values some of the ancient attitudes that lib types think we have evolved beyond. In fact the mind body split that is institutionalized is assumed by the lib to be the only legit worldview. I’m not saying the conservative mind is any less beholden to the dominant view but at some level it is appreciative of the shortcomings of modernity.

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    • Have to think about this one. Although Fundamentalism began as a 19th-20th century reaction in defense of the Bible as inerrant divine revelation (interesting side not – my spell just just saw fit to correct ‘inerrant’ with ‘ignorant’ LOL), it is a product of Western Cartesian rationalism. There can be no chinks in the chain of reason. It rejects evolution on its own rational grounds, the logic of which is prescribed and proscribed by the assumption that the Bible is true in every respect and that, therefore, we could not have evolved from “lower” forms of life. Adam and Eve either showed up fully developed or the Fundamentalist house of cards collapses. I would suggest that the latest findings of science such as neurons in the intestines resurrect a more holistic view that pre-dates mind/body dualism, an ancient, more earthy, more Hebraic mindset.

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      • Agreed. I guess I’m trying to say that maybe that in spite of Fundamentalist Cartesian origins the species may preserve an innate intuition about origins that, as you say, predate mind/body dualism. To try communicate that to the Fundamentalist is an uphill battle to say the least.

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  3. Thanks for this Gordon, I find it interesting that the intestines were considered the seat of emotions. I read a couple mths ago that we now know that the intestines actually are lined with neurons, i.e., brain cells. “Gut feeling” is more than a metaphor. This, IMHO, is more evidence there is no mind/body split via Spinoza’s views. Not sure how to think any further about this but it seems worth trying to get a handle on. Could it be that we are as Cartesian/Euros suppressing our emotions, emotions based in our gut. When we function this way we are allowing the kinds of behaviors that are a result of our lack of desire to distribute resources the way Plato suggests. IOW, capitalism is a creature of an only rational vs emotional/rational way of living. Real rationalism is actually “emotional rationalism”. This would be a holistic approach to life. Western rationality is a diminished definition of thinking. Real “thinking/rationality” should be “whole body thinking”. How could the New Testament have been so adamant about the bowels being the seat of compassion? Maybe the NT is still in touch with a form of rationality that is still in touch with the body/gut. It seems the answer would include the idea that after Descartes’ 17th century victory over Spinoza with the institution of “I Think Therefore I Am” vs Spinoza’s “I Am Therefore I Think” we were then on our way to eliminating our innate, NT, full bodily awareness of thinking that included the neurons in our bowels.

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    • Gary, your reflection takes the discussion to another level. I love it! The Hebraic world knew no such split between mind and matter, or spirit and flesh. Whereas in Greek dualism there is the soul and the body, in Hebraic thought the person was a nephesh (translated as ‘soul’). There was no heart, mind, and soul. It was all nephesh. Only in later Judaism did the idea of life after death enter the picture. It was about full reverential presence in this life.

      I think you’re onto something important as you have been before with respect to Spinoza and Decartes and rationality divorced from the bowels, the emotive center of compassion and love. Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully.

      We just got home from the Twins game. Maybe I’ll send a copy of this blog and your response to Oswaldo Arcia so he behaves in the outfield like someone who knows he has to run and catch!

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      • Here is a section of a desc of the brain/gut interface. “The size and complexity of the Enteric Nervous System (ENS) is not surprising when considering the challenges posed by the interface of the organism with its luminal environment: it interfaces closely with our largest body surface (the intestinal surface area, which is approximately 100 times larger than the surface area of the skin), with the largest population of commensal microorganisms of all body surfaces (100 trillion microorganisms from 40,000 species with 100 times the number of genes in the human genome43), with the gut-associated immune system (containing two-thirds of the body’s immune cells) and with thousands of enteroendocrine cells (containing more than 20 identified hormones). These unparalleled relationships between the gastrointestinal tract and the brain, with multiple bidirectional and often interacting interoceptive communication systems, emphasize the importance of this system in the maintenance of homeostasis. There are three basic mechanisms by which sensory information is encoded in the gut: by primary afferent neurons, by immune cells and by enteroendocrine cells”.

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      • After publishing yesterday’s piece, I had a phone conversation with Robert Brawley, McCormick Professor Emeritus, about what I was arguing. Robert discussed property in the period of the Old Testament compared with property as defined by the Roman Empire. There were no property lines. Property (land) was presumed to ‘belong’ to whomever worked the land, until they worked it no more. The land belonged to the community as a whole. There were no surveyed boundaries, no lots or any of that. Property belonged to the whole people. There were no maps. As long as one or one’s heirs worked the property, it was theirs to work for the community. Interesting! Notice that today, Bernie announced he’s running!

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      • The other point to make is that Northwestern U’s Stephen Toulmin’s book “Cosmopolis” details the creation by Descartes of rational Western science under the duress of the 30 Yrs War. Descartes finds a way to stop the wars by making cartography possible which then makes it possible to settle disputes more diplomatically vs a feudal process of unending wars over control of turf. With cartography boundaries are known & fixed, thus the modern nation state’s borders come into being.
        So if “modernity, to some extent”, is the result of a desperate attempt at creating order, then we must question much of “Modernity’s” structure that we take for granted.

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      • The OT property lines are no less civilized as a way to run a country then the way we do it now. Obviously a “common community” is superior to ownership by a few. Another reason to believe the evolution of Western culture is a diminution from a more civilized time.

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