Abraham and Socrates

In the previous post I suggested the change between the Homeric and Socratic Greeks was not a change from no reflective distance to reflective distance, but from, what I called, communal reflective distance to individual reflective distance. If we focus only on the Greeks, we are liable to see this change as going from religion to philosophy. But this isn’t right, for a similar change is central to what we in the modern world think of quintessentially as religions: Zorastrianism, Judiasm, Hinduism, and so on.

Consider Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Issac in the Old Testament. From our current perspective what jumps out is the fact that Abraham was willing to do such an “immoral” action out of his belief in God. An atheist might claim this is what following God looks like, and so is a prime example of the irrationality of faith.

To Abraham’s contemporaries, it would have looked very different. They could have understand the idea of sacrificing humans, and perhaps even sacrificing one’s own child., though maybe not in community Abraham belonged to. But what they would not have understood is what Abraham was doing as following God, or Gods. This would have been their sticking point. As Abraham’s contemporaries saw it, a religious act was not something you do away from your community, alone, on your own on top of a mountain. For them, following God was something essentially communal, which was experienced in the midst of others as a shared experience, in their accepted social roles.

Abraham had a transcendent experience without the kind of euphoria and trance-like state brought about by his communities’ rituals. He had an experience which pulled him out of his day to day life, gave him a sense of a deeper reality, and brought him back to his everyday world in a transformed state. This doesn’t mean he reflected self-consciously on what he believes. Rather it was the world itself which acted as the mechanism the provided the reflective distance by pulling him out of his normal activities and into a heightened state.

In this regard, Abraham and Socrates are similar. But, of course, there is an obvious dissimilarity between them. It is not that Socrates didn’t try to kill a child. The Abraham story is part of myth making and epic lore, and so it has be taken in that context. The real difference between Abraham and Socrates is in the way the individual reflective distance was instantiated.

To see the difference between Abraham and Socrates we first have to set aside an empty explanation of the difference. It is tempting to say the difference is all too obvious: Abraham is a believer in God, and Socrates is not; that Abraham is religious and Socrates is a philosopher. But what does this characterization actually tell us? It merely substitutes a dichotomy for an explanation, that too without explaining the dichotomy itself.

One might say: “The difference is obvious. Socrates went around asking people questions about the nature of justice, knowledge, the good, and so on, and Abraham didn’t. Abraham didn’t question any of these things, but just acted according to what he claimed God told him.”

This is true enough in one sense. But it misses the deeper connection between Abraham and Socrates. After all, if we take the Abraham story at face value (even as just a story), it is absurd to think that Abraham didn’t question anything. If Abraham didn’t live any differently from his contemporaries, why would he hear a voice telling him to sacrifice his son on the mountain? Would he hear it just out of the blue, even though if he was perfectly content with the community he was a part of? If anything, Abraham’s being willing to sacrifice his son itself counts as questioning the norms of his society.

This is one way in which Kierkegaard’s reading of Abraham’s story, which is otherwise so great, is off. Kierkegaard reads it precisely as if Abraham had a psychotic episode, as something that does not, and cannot, fit into any understandable narrative. As if Abraham’s faith in God is truly faith only if his actions on the mountain go contrary to any possible rational explanation of the event. As if the event itself is altogether opaque to Abraham himself and to everyone else.

In a way, this rings true. It is possible that Abraham himself wasn’t sure why he was doing what he was doing – but that he nonetheless felt that he had to do it and it was the thing to be done. Kierkegaard is surely right that we cannot imagine Abraham understanding in the moment why he was doing what he was doing, for such understanding available to Abraham in the midst of acting renders the action altogether mundane and profane. Abraham wasn’t climbing the mountain the way a mediocre gardener waters the flowers, with perfect perspicuity of how what he is doing fits into a chain of intentional actions and what the outcome is supposed to be. Rather, Abraham was climbing the mountain the way an inspired painter applies the paint on the canvas, with a sense of what has to be done, of what the canvas is calling him to do, but without a clear sense of what the end result might look like. Or we might say: Abraham climbed the mountain the way Socrates asked questions, with a sense for the next question to be asked but without a sense for the end result of the questioning.

But even this intentional opaqueness of the action shouldn’t be overstated. This is where Kierkegaard goes wrong. For we have to imagine that even if Abraham doesn’t know how this particular event of taking Issac to the mountain will end, that he has some sense for the kind of action he is performing. In particular, that it is the kind of event Abraham has been part of many times before, like when he left his home country because God commanded him to, or when God made a covenant with him. Abraham isn’t a zombie climbing the mountain. He is sensing that here is God again commanding him to do something, and that though he doesn’t understand it, somehow what is pulling him forward is the best in him. Even if this connection between the events in Abraham’s life is lost to Abraham in the moment of his climbing the mountain, there is a pattern there, something objective and factual which can be discerned by a later generation.

The Abraham story illustrates what I will call a break event. Here is what I mean. Imagine there is a community which is in relative harmony with itself and its environment. Then, for various reasons, the harmony starts to break down: the established structures of the community are not able to keep up with the transformations in the society (be it population growth, or change in cultural norms, or increase in poverty, and so on).

As the grip of the old societal structures break down, there are some people who start to break with the old structures and live into a new ordering of the society. They do this because the old structures have become unlivable for them; they have no option but to move on and live into new structures which give hope and peace to them. As these people live into the new structures, they clash with the old structures, and from the point of the view of the older structures, they are acting simply in a crazy way. Such clashes, where the difference between the old and the new structures become explicit through the person’s choice – that is what I call “a break event”.

For any crumbling society, there are bound to be thousands of break events happening, by hundreds or thousands of different people. The people performing the break events are like explorer ants which go away from the group in order to find food. That one performs a break event might not by itself amount to much, just as most explorer ants don’t succeed. Which break events ultimately end up mattering is only determined after the fact, depending on whether the person or people who performed that break event managed to be part of the causal chain which led to new structures which ended up thriving. Then, from the perspective of the new, established structures, one looks back and draws the connection between the old structures and the series of break events which lead to the new structures.

It is the structure of the break event which explains why Abraham could not explain what he was doing. Because in an important sense, he didn’t know. All he might know is that the old way doesn’t work anymore (even this might not be so clear for him), and that hope lies somewhere over there, where he is headed simply following the path of his growth as he senses it.

This is the similarity between Abraham and Socrates: they both performed break events in their lives, which led in the long run to thriving communities which were able to trace their origins back to them. In this way, the form of Abraham and Socrates’ lives and actions were similar.

Of course, the particular details were different. As noted earlier, Socrates went around asking people questions, and Abraham didn’t. But the cause of this difference isn’t that there was something deeply different between them, in terms of their psychological abilities. The difference was in the societies they were part of, and so what breaking from their societies looked like. Abraham belonged to an agrarian age when breaking meant going off and starting your family and tribe as a community of its own. Socrates belonged to a city-state with aristocratic and democratic structures, and breaking meant questioning the priests and the politicians.

But in the big picture, this difference between Abraham and Socrates is not what matters. If one is inspired by these individuals, then what matters is simply living a life which is open to break events. Going around repeating Socratic questioning now no more recreates break experiences now than going to a mountain with one’s child. Performing the actions by themselves – asking “What is justice?” as Socrates did or being willing to break societal taboos as Abraham did – mimics the way those people back then had break experiences, but it doesn’t create break experiences now.

The only way to create break experiences now, to be like Abraham and Socrates in the deepest sense, is to be willing to break with the current established patterns (even of those structures which trace back to Abraham or Socrates), and to embrace the uncertainty of change and growth. Rather than recreating old break events, live into a new break event, one which calls out to you as the thing to be done, and you will experience something better than obtaining a theoretical understanding of what Abraham or Socrates did. You will experience the joy and thrill of being an equal to them, an explorer ant for the current times.

No one can say which explorer ants now will find the new pastures on which a new society can be founded. But that is besides the point. It is worth it simply to be an explorer ant.

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