Hermeneutics

Never heard of it? It’s not one of the big words we hear every day. But ‘hermeneutics’ is a basic activity we’re engaged in every day. It’s like breathing – one of those basic things we don’t notice until someone disagrees with us.

The word’s origins date back to Greek philosophy, long before Peewee Herman, Herman Goehring, or George Herman (“Babe”) Ruth did it. But I digress. Their names were spelled with an ‘a’; there was no ancestor named Hermen.

But Peewee, Herman, and George each engaged in hermeneutics, the theory and practice of interpretation. They interpreted life, respectively, as comedy, tragedy, and sport. They looked at the human experience through their own interpretative lenses.

Every time we read a text, watch a film, listen to a speech, or view a painting, we interpret it. We are doing hermeneutics. We put into practice the largely unconscious principles that shape how we experience the world.

The study of hermeneutics, a Latinized version of the Greek hermeneutice, reaching back to Plato and Aristotle, has been part of the great thinkers of Western civilization down to our own times. Click The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy for the history of the term.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Tampa, FL, January 21, 2016.

Thanks to Wonderfulwordsblog for inviting readers to create a post on a lesser known word.

 

 

 

Distribution of Wealth according to the Sages

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” –Plutarch, ancient Greek biographer [c. 46 – 120 CE].

“The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition is the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.” – Adam Smith, Scottish political economist, author, The Wealth of Nations, father of capitalism [1723-1790].

“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly. The rich have always objected to being governed at all.” –G. K. Chesterton, English essayist (1874-1936)

“So distribution should undo excess, and each man have enough.” William Shakespeare, King Lear, Act 4, Scene 1.

“In the long run men inevitably become the victims of their wealth. They adapt their lives and habits to their money, not their money to their lives. It preoccupies their thoughts, creates artificial needs, and draws a curtain between them and the world.” – Herbert Croly, U.S. political philosopher [1869-1930].

“No person, I think, ever saw a herd of buffalo, of which a few were fat and the great majority lean. No person ever saw a flock of birds, of which two or three were swimming in grease, and the others all skin and bone.”–Henry George American political economist [1839-1897].

“The greatest country, the richest country, is not that which has the most capitalists, monopolists, immense grabbings, vast fortunes, with its sad, sad soil of extreme, degrading, damning poverty, but the land in which there are the most homesteads, freeholds — where wealth does not show such contrasts high and low, where all men have enough — a modest living— and no man is made possessor beyond the sane and beautiful necessities.” –Walt Whitman [1819-1892].

“We can either have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” –Louis Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice [1856-1941]

“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.]

“He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” – Mary, mother of Jesus of Nazareth, Christian Scripture, Gospel of Luke 1:52-53.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 29, 2015.

 

Happiness

What is this searched after state we Americans pursue, one of only three “unalienable rights” specifically named as worthy of praise in the American Declaration of Independence – “the pursuit of happiness”?

Did the writers of the Declaration mean what we mean? Or was it something different? Why was such a subjective term as ‘happiness’ listed with Life, and Liberty?  Was there a reason why the pursuit of Happiness was listed as the last of the three? What it considered least important, of equal importance, or, perhaps, as most important?

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, the principal writers of the Declaration, were well-schools in the Classics – the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, novelists, playrites and poets; Democritus, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, Cicero and Diogenes. They read Plato’s Republic, Cicero’s Disputations, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, Metaphysics, and Politics; Virgil’s The Aeneid, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex in their original Greek or Latin language. They translated the New Testament Gospel of John from its original Greek into Latin and into English.

What did happiness mean to these classical writers? How did it inform Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and the rest?

The word εὐδαιμονία’ (eudaimonia) expressed the Greek philosopher’s understanding of what Jefferson and Adams called happiness.

The term “eudaimonia” is a classical Greek word, commonly translated as “happiness“, but perhaps better described as “well-being” or “human flourishing” or “good life“. More literally it means “having a good guardian spirit”. Eudaimonia as the ultimate goal is an objective, not a subjective, state, and it characterizes the well-lived life, irrespective of the emotional state of the person experiencing it. ….

Socrates, as represented in Plato‘s early dialogues, held that virtue is a sort of knowledge (the knowledge of good and evil) that is required to reach the ultimate good, or eudaimonia, which is what all human desires and actions aim to achieve.

The Basics of Philosophy

Happiness, as understood in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, is the full human flourishing which is the highest of all good according to Nature.

The Committee of Five that wrote the final draft approved by the Second Continental Congress had something like that in mind.

One researcher claims the following:

“Actually, happiness was defined by the Continental Congress in the original May 1776 declaration of independence as “internal peace, virtue, and good order,” closely following Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations; the definition of happiness was drafted by John Adams, not Jefferson.” [Link inserted by VFTE]

[Unidentified source within longer article on the origins of “the pursuit of happiness in the American Declaration of Independence.] -Other Choices (talk) 00:14, 16 June 2012 (UTC)

Whether we are happy in America is a matter of perspective and definition. Some of us would say we are; others would say not. But a fresh look at the Declaration of Independence’s original meaning of the word as human flourishing might lead us to the discussion of “the full human flourishing which is the highest of all good according to Nature” in a consumer society intoxicated with distraction and superficial definitions of happiness.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 28, 2015

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.

The One who Regained his Sense of Worth

The Gospel of Mark tells the story of the blind beggar who regained his sight. His name in Mark is “‘Bartimaeus’, the Son of Timaeus”. The name is strange because although the word ‘Son’ is in Hebrew (‘Bar’), the name ‘Timaeus’ is  Greek, raising the question of what Mark wants his readers to “see” when the blind Son of Timaeus cries out “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The World through a Poet’s Eyes

Join with Plato Oct. 23: “Poetry is closer to vital truth than history” … or a political campaign.

An evening with Minnesota Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen 

MN Poet Laureat Joyce Sutphen

Joyce Sutphen’s first collection of poems, Straight Out of View, won the Barnard New Women Poets Prize; Coming Back to the Body was a finalist for a Minnesota Book Award, and Naming the Stars won a Minnesota Book Award in Poetry. In 2005, Red Dragonfly Press published Fourteen Sonnets in a letterpress edition. She is one of the co-editors of To Sing Along the Way, an award-winning anthology of Minnesota women poets. She is also a Renaissance scholar and has published essays on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. She grew up on a farm in Stearns County, Minnesota, and she teaches literature and creative writing at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota. Her latest collection, First Words, is a “memoir in poems,” and was published in 2010.  She is the second Minnesota Poet Laureate, succeeding Robert Bly. Joyce will read and discuss her own poetry and works of other poets:

  • Wislawa Syzmborska,
  • W.S. Merwin,
  • Charles Simic,
  • Mary Oliver, and
  • Nazim Hizkmet.

“Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history” – Plato. Take a break from the campaign season to look through the eyes of a poet.

Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012    7:00 – 8:00 p.m.

Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church, 145 Engler Blvd., Chaska, MN 55318.

*First Tuesday Dialogues: examining critical public issues locally and globally” is a community program for the common good, re-creating the public square in the southwest Twin Cities metro area. 

www.shepherdofthehillchurch.com

“A place for the Mind and Heart”

Plato on Wealth and Poverty

“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.”

Sound like Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT)? Karl Marx maybe? Bill Maher?

It’s not. It was , Greek philosopher (427-347 B.C.) and “father of Western philosophy” who said it.
But it could have been Chuck Collins, grandson of Oscar Meyer, co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good. On their website, watch Chuck speaking on wealth inequality. I met Chuck three years ago at the home of a wealthy couple in Minneapolis.
I chimed in on the discussion in December, 2010 with a guest commentary on MPR, “Fear ‘redistribution of wealth’? Don’t look now”, arguing that the redistribution had already taken place – from the middle to the top of the economic ladder in America.
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Let me know what you think? Do you agree/disagree with Plato: “Now the legislator should determine what is to be the limit of poverty or of wealth”? Or with Chuck? Should the distribution of wealth (a ceiling and a floor) be on the table or off the table of a democratic republic? If economics is not on the table, what does democracy mean?