Principal Western Role Models Known Only Indirectly

When George Bush indicated that Jesus was his favorite philosopher, I wonder whether he or many Christians themselves realize that we only know of Jesus through reports by believers given long after his death and through the interpretive eyes of such as St. Paul who never met him.

These reports themselves, the Gospels and letters, diverge radically in the pictures they offer of the central figure, as they are written from interpretive perspectives. Mark is the simplest Gospel with the least ‘spin’. Matthew was directed to Jewish audiences; John to Hellenic ones. And Luke was constructed to parallel the stages in the life of Moses — it is the only one with the moving Christmas tale. The Pauline letters, particularly his central one to the Romans, look to reverse the message of compassion and forgiveness of Jesus with hates — of gays, of Jews, and disrespect for others (particularly women) which skewed the religion over the centuries into one of the most brutal and warring of the lot. We owe the pogroms to St. Paul as Jew hater. Islam at least gave Jews a secure place in its societies until the recent tensions over the recreation of Israel.

A second role model of the Western tradition was Socrates. We don’t know much of Socrates directly as he was screened through the Platonic dialogues which portrayed him as a truth seeking character — also a gay one. He too, as Jesus, was put to death for speaking out. Jesus’ death was the most cruel consisting of several days of torture which apparently shook his faith in a divine being — of that being’s support of his self chosen mission to the poor. What were his followers to make of such an ignominious death? They made many things of it and, thus, diverged into warring bodies which in turn tortured and murdered their competitors. At least Socrates died relatively peacefully at a ripe old age executed with the equivalent of a lethal injection.

Of Moses in turn we have apparently only memories maintained in an oral tradition over many centuries. As Spinoza pointed out, it is to be taken somewhat with a grain of salt, as it was unlikely that Moses could have written his own epitaph before reaching the chosen land. Again a lovely tale — particularly of him a child rescued.

Of Mohammed we only have the reports taken down by his followers of his sayings — nothing that he wrote himself, as he was apparently illiterate. I know little of Islam in comparison with Judaism, Christianity and ancient Greek philosophy, so I will not try to report Muslim doctrines. One notes that there is no authoritative interpreter of Islam and that it, too, as the other Western religions, has many diverse versions and interpretations. Osama bin Laden looks to be only one of the latest (deviant?) ones.

Most of us who do serious studies of our religious tradition these days try to stress the best elements that we find in them, but recognize that abundant frauds are increasingly exploiting naive followers in their own interests.

And so it goes.

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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