Sunday, September 07, 2008

Original Sin and Democracy

Here's something about me that you probably didn't know: I consider original sin to be THE philosophical concept most important to my life and to Western thought.

This stems mostly from my love of two great, weird philosophers: Saint Augustine of Hippo and Martin Heidegger.

In Saint Augustine, original sin forms the basis not just for a religious apology for the existence of death, the problem of evil, and the universal need for an intercessor, but also an ontology (evil is not a positive existence but a lack, all creatures are lacking in perfect goodness except God) and a semiology (since no creature or thing but God is self-sufficient, all things but God refer in some way, however hidden, to Him) and even a teleology (at the Resurrection, we will all be made complete and perfect).

In Heidegger, it's a kind of terminal background concept that recalls what modern philosophy has forgotten, at least since Descartes: that the self is not a purely self-sufficient ego, but a flawed, finite, determinate being, split against itself and thrown into a similarly finite fallen world.

So I was a little surprised to read this claim by Alan Jacobs reflected by Jeffrey Russell and quoted by Andrew Sullivan:

Jacobs’s most original and provocative argument is that original sin has strong democratic impli cations. Denial of original sin leads to elitism: Take, for instance, the duchess who simply refuses to believe that she shares a common nature with the unkempt commoners of field and street, or the self- righteous people who believe that they can make themselves good by stacking up a higher pile of good deeds than of bad ones. Their underlying assumption is that some people have exempt status, or higher virtues, or brighter minds, that others lack— plainly speaking, that some people (usually us) are better than other people (them). Original sin, on the other hand, is egalitarian because it means that everyone is alienated from God and has an innate tendency to sin. Equally egalitarian is the belief that Christ died in order to give everyone the liberty to escape sin. No one person can dare to consider himself or herself better than others, and no nation or race should dare to do so either.
I haven't read the book and Russell's review doesn't say a whole lot more, so I don't know whether Jacobs walks this back a little bit. But I would argue that original sin isn't so much democratic as it is a problem that democracy has to either ignore or adopt some peculiar formulations to attempt to overcome.

Part of the problem of the argument of original sin is that it encourages all sorts of other hereditary arguments that are anything but democratic. Just as we all inherit Adam's curse, we may inherit the obligations of the Mosaic law, some of us inherit the divine right of kings, others the priesthood, others the obligation to obey, others the curse of Ham, the guilt for Jesus's crucifixion, and so on. Hence Filmer's arguments for patriarchal authority, which Locke really quite valiantly strove so hard to refute. Original sin may be universal, but considered by itself it establishes only a pro forma identity between human beings; there are plenty of other compatible ways to draw distinctions without stepping out of the economy altogether.

And it has largely been experiments in democracy that precisely for this reason, HAVE attempted to step out of that economy. After all, if everyone has likewise sinned and is doomed to die -- and more to the point, is capable of real acts of evil -- than a good deal of the utopian dimension of democracy has lost its sheen. You see 19th-century socialism struggling with this idea, whether human beings can just slough off their distorting capitalist social relations and live together in harmony. There's one strain of anarchism that really seeks to abolish violence in the form of the state, and another that just wants to break the state's monopoly on violence. This is a rough but I think fair way to describe the gap between Proudhon and Bakunin, for example.

The real question is what mechanisms, religious or secular, you have in place to address the problem of original sin, the universal capacity for evil, the flawed and fragile nature of human beings. You can have a deeply hierarchical mechanism, a deeply traditional one, a deeply totalitarian one, or a profoundly democratic one. As with so many other things, the concept alone does not do our thinking for us. We are left to do that for ourselves.

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