All of art, or at least most of it, lay on the same central contradiction of faith. If you read Ezekiel 18:2 (for those from the Jewish religion, forgive me for using the old JPS translation), it says:
What mean ye, that ye use this proverb in the land of Israel, saying: The fathers have eaten sour grapes, And the children’s teeth are set on edge?
It is further stated emphatically that this is not the case afterwards; it is blasphemous to say God’s justice involves the punishment due to one generation will be visited on its’ children. Now forget that there are parts of the Mosaic code that disagree with this. Throughout the prophets there is a revolutionary idea that people are to be judged by their own deeds and not their parents. However, the verses imply that in real life a person never suffers for his parent’s sins but his own. Different Bible Scholars I have read claim this defect creates undo harshness towards sufferers because it claims “those who suffer suffer because they deserve to.” Certainly there are people, I am sad to say, who when a person suffers look first thing for how the sufferer deserves to suffer. It is a way of protecting the self, of saying, “If I am good nothing bad will happen to me.” Yet I hold that this was not the purpose of the rebuke towards those who say that parents and children are judged the same by God.
No, I believe that the real meaning of these verses is to say that it ought not to be that a child suffers because of his parents. There is a fight in the Bible between two impulses, which give the text its richness and life: the way the world is (where people suffer and evil thrives) and the way the world ought to be (where the just are rewarded and the wicked punished). In this world, as in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, the orphan might grow up to be a fine human being, regardless of the road blocks Freud says lie ahead of him. The Bible cannot completely solve the riddle of why a Just God allows Injustice. Yet without its Just God, Injustice–so it insists–cannot be understood. The Bible in the greatness of its Messianic Heights insists someday the Paradox will be understood: the Great Goodness of the Creator, and the Unjust Suffering of so many, even if in today’s world suffering is not as great as in Biblical times.
In fact, the Bible gives a clarion call of hope: it says in the Prophetic Books and Jewish teachings, that our deeds bring about the Messianic Age. It is no impersonal force–ala Marx and to a lesser degree Hegel–that pushes us forward or backward, it is us. In fact, Martin Luther King quoted both his “Old Testament” prophetic books and his hymnal when he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Yet a would-be prophet must listen as much to God as to him or herself. I mean even if he is a secular politician. I do not really know that I believe the Republican tendency to conflate religion and politics, but I do believe that to be in politics a person must be of sterner stuff than the current politicians are. I love the Harry Truman quote, “You can’t get rich in politics unless you are a crook.” Regardless of whether he was devout or not, his character is the kind of thing that matters to God.
In fact, that is one reason I am critical of Utilitarianism. It nearly all says that only the people who run society should be upright and decent, and that their goal is only that the populace be “happy.” I believe, contrarily to this, that a country in which the majority of the people cannot be trusted is a people in decline. The Romans declined because of their moral turpitude. Now, I do accept the Democratic Party’s maxim, “You cannot legislate morality.” However, I believe that parents and educators have a moral imperative not merely to produce happy children but good children. And in politics the character of a politician ought to speak as loudly as his views. It is actually the reverse of what J.S. Mills thinks: it is not a good politician who produces a good society, but a good society which produces a good politician. As much as I deplore Donald J. Trump and am lukewarm about Bill Clinton and his wife Hilary, I do not think the society that elected Lincoln would tolerate them. And for all its flaws, I believe that society was half right. If the man has no character, he does not belong in politics. The good society, if a Tammany Hall crops up, starts up to diligently tear it down. And eventually, God willing, it will fall.
The fight for the Good Society is not merely a fight for just laws but for good people. And in literature, the paradox is what induces thought into the nature of more than just society–it is into the nature of human beings. In Dickens’ Scrooge and Thackery’s Becky Sharp, we see the picture of what each author sees wrong with society. One character is a miser and the other an opportunist. Greed is what motivates both of them. It is by looking this deep into the human heart when it is evil that both men excelled. True, one managed to convert his evil doer while the other supposed there was no changing her, but both came to a remarkably precipitous view.
And greed is not a thing of the past. For all that he would probably eschew the role of the moralist, in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, he portrays the corrupt society of New York through the personality of a businessman. Similarly, when I wrote about Donald Trump, I hoped to encapsulate two evils which are common in our era: greed and lust. Yet I hope as unhopeful as the books ending was, there was a promise of redemption for Faust himself in my book Faust in Love. And, while trying to seduce the Virgin Margaret Kavanagh, college professor Dr. Faust… well, I will let you read the book.
The point is… in fiction as in scripture, there is the fight between how things are and how they ought to be. Nobody likes Leibnitz in Voltaire’s Candide. Voltaire deplores the philosophy that all suffering is deserved. Yet though not realistic, each of us longs for a little Leibnitz, too. We do not want to believe that for all eternity, the vices will flourish while the virtues go unrewarded. The irony is that Voltaire’s logic in Candide–that to live an abstemious life free from the injustices of society–was very far from how he lived his personal life.
Truman (you can tell he was a childhood hero) says pessimists don’t get things done; optimists do. I have a hard time being as optimistic as Truman, but he is right in what way: to succeed you need to believe that success is possible. That fact is the ultimate seal on the Paradox: to achieve the Good Society, we must work towards it, and that is even those of us not in politics. I will speak on some other date “how do I take part in creating the Good Society,” but for now I will simply say that the Bible and the best art do not allow that there are any “necessary evils” in our world. They want us to do something.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was a passionate Civil Rights Advocate who walked alongside the Reverend Martin Luther King. However, he was passionate about the need to remake a Just World out of this World. The only thing he was irrational about was the chance of this project’s success… or the goodness of humankind to achieve it… nonetheless, my favorite of his books that I have read is not God in Search of Man but The Prophets. Heschel is moved by the Prophets and unsparing based on them… He believes not in comforting the comfortable but in calling on it to do more than mitzvoth. This man who was so careful in keeping Kosher and Shabbat knew that those things were not where it ended. I only add to his beliefs that if we cannot believe in humankind despite its moments of error, our belief in God will not be complete. We were made in God’s Image, after all.