Thursday, January 12, 2012
Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: From The Great Philosophers (Karl Jaspers)
I was really hoping this book would be paradigm-shattering, as the rest of Jaspers stuff is for me. He is so good with analyzing the history of philosophy and placing the modern era on the grid, but this book was kind-of a letdown honestly. I liked some of it, especially his summary and interpretation of the essence of each major figure of religious history, but as short as the book is, I feel he could have probably cut out a few chapters and still have gotten his point across.
The premise of the book is really Jaspers’ appreciation of world religions, despite his own preference for Christianity. He believes all religions, every idea in fact, whether it be ordered by the intellect or painted by the passions, to be a springboard for one’s personal journey, and as such contains truths and practical tools for one’s future progress. “Every idea, every ethos, every faith, even those of the most primitive religions, was a possible preliminary stage, a jumping-off place, indispensable as such, but not a goal.” No one is born without some truth; nor is anyone born into absolute Truth, but must journey towards it and be continually transformed by it. Jasper’s intention in this book is to discover those starting points, and possibly to reveal their ultimate shortcomings. Jesus himself expressed the shortcomings of his own culture’s doctrines, even the shortcomings of doctrine itself. Life and truth in the great teachings were always more than creeds, they were suggestions for one’s personal experience, through which alone one can access truth, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” One author reminds us of this same truth, “[Action] is truth of the will, and therefore truth of the whole being.” Truth cannot be fully expressed doctrinally in any system.
The section on Jesus portrayed him as a prophet of the coming universal Kingdom of God, which Jaspers believes Jesus expected would arrive in his own lifetime. Jesus believed the Kingdom to be so close at hand, he could almost taste it. He had no qualms in urging everyone to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom, and to dash aside all barriers and temptations of the world that would inhibit their participation in it. The societal outcasts and physically/morally ill were foremost in Christ’s focus because “their souls [were already] shaken and ready for the new faith.” Jaspers believes that, though the Kingdom was never manifested physically, the church became the carrier of the dream and the representation of God’s presence and rule.
I cringe to admit that I think some parts of this book felt a little far-fetched. Jaspers makes a point of saying that we can’t trust all traditional accounts of these persons’ lives, but he’s too precise and narrow in what he deems to be authentic, historical accounts. Higher criticism and form criticism certainly have their place in literary evaluation as far as I’m concerned, but we need to be careful not to think we can completely demythologize documents that were written before our lifetime. History, in my estimation, is a discipline that includes drinking some of the bath water to save the baby. We ought to be careful not to be overly dogmatic in our avoidance of dogmatism.
A lot of it was repetitive. The section on Confucius and Buddha dragged like a towed corpse. The author seemed to wrestle to understand, or to get the reader to understand, eastern religious roots. I think he was at least clear in saying that the western mind can hardly come to understand, or appreciate, eastern belief because it does not easily lend itself to rationale dissection. “To participate in the essence of [another religion’s] truth, we should have to cease to be what we are. The difference lies not in rational positions, but in the whole view of life and manner of thinking.” However, there is some value in trying to glean some principles from other religions that may help to explain our own values and/or deficiencies: “The remoteness of [other religions] need not make us forget that we are all men, all facing the same questions of human existence.”
I think the final chapter in which Jaspers synthesized the major teachings of the ‘big four’ was most enlightening. He believed that these key religious figures all had something in common: the attempt to express and demonstrate the unexplainable. “In order to understand them, one must experience some sort of transformation, a rebirth, a new awareness of reality, an illumination.” And their manner in dealing with death inspired confidence in their followers. “[They] looked death so straight in the eye that it lost its significance.” And maybe most importantly, they all had in common “Originality and a life at their own risk.”