Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill-Levine

Amy-Jill Levine is a New Testament and Jewish Studies Professor. However, she is not your typical New Testament Professor; she is an Orthodox feminist Jew who studies and writes scholarly articles on the New Testament. In this book, she attempts to place the parables of Jesus in their original 1st century Jewish context and offer new interpretations of some of the most important parables with this context in mind. She tries to explain what these stories would have meant to a 1st century Jewish audience hearing them for the first time.

In order to do this, she posits that Jesus was a real historical figure and that many of the parables in the Bible represent mostly accurate versions of the stories he told to the crowds. While the parables found in the New Testament may be the original stories of a teacher named Jesus, the authors of each Gospel frame the parables in terms of Christianity and its developing theology. The narrative frame added by the anonymous authors of the Gospels changes the meaning and purpose of the parable from what it may have originally meant. For example, the Parable of the Lost Sheep is framed by Luke as a response to a hostile group of Pharisees complaining about Jesus welcoming sinners among them.

“But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:2)

Jesus answers the criticism with a series of parables in which the Parable of the Lost Sheep is one of them. Luke then ends this particular parable:

“I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.” (Luke 15:7)

Luke transforms the parable into an allegory in which the sheep are Christians returning to the church and God’s grace. For him and many Christians, the parable is about God’s stewardship over his church and his desire to recover sinners and bring them back into the fold. Jesus is pointing out to the Pharisees that his main audience should be sinners because they are who need him the most. By framing the story in this way, the author of Luke is interpreting the story for us and doing so with a Christian lens.

Matthew also offers a version of this parable (Matthew 18), but with a different narrative frame. In Matthew’s version, Jesus is speaking directly to his disciples, not Pharisees. His ending frame is also a little different.

“In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:14).

There is some overlap in the messages: God wants to redeem the lost. However, there are also differences between the two versions. Luke’s Jesus is responding to the criticisms of the Pharisees about consorting with sinners, while Matthew’s Jesus is answering his disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Although these parables do retain similar messages the general point still stands; by framing parables differently, the same parables potentially take on different meanings. The fact that we have so many of the same parables across different Gospel narratives suggests to Amy Jill-Levine that many of these parables originated with an historical Jesus, but were reinterpreted by later Christian writers in specific ways once Christianity’s belief systems began to develop in ways distinct from Judaism. This is why she believes we should try to understand the parables in the context of 1st century Judaism, separate from the narrative frames that later Christian writers added to them. How would the original non-Christian Jewish audience have understood these stories?

Although Levine cannot cover every single parable, she does cover the most important ones: The Lost Sheep, Lost Coin, Lost Son, The Good Samaritan, The Kingdom of Heaven is Like Yeast, The Pearl of Great Price, The Mustard Seed, The Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Laborers in the Vineyard, The Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.

Parables are supposed to be provocative, they’re supposed to challenge our views of the world, and call us to action, but often traditional interpretations by the church, church fathers, and even modern scholarly commentators transforms these parables into allegories and domesticates them into palatable forms. It softens the message into some symbolic gesture that is easily digestible. Worse, many of the traditional readings are fundamentally anti-Jewish. For example, many traditional readings of the Parable of Prodigal Son see the elder son who complains to the father about the prodigal son returning as a symbol of Judaism complaining about the inclusion of gentiles in a New Covenant. In this reading, the father symbolizes God the father or Jesus, the elder son represents Judaism, and the younger son represents the originally wayward gentile who is being brought back into the fold by divine grace. Notice the allegorical nature of such a reading. Levine shows with evidence from Josephus, the Talmud, the Mishnah, and the Old Testament that these interpretations are misguided and are misrepresentations of Jewish ideas and beliefs. Likewise, using these sources she shows they do not make much sense in the context of 1st century Judaism.

Levine views the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and Lost son as representing a pair of three parables with similar messages. She has this to say about the Parable of the Lost Son. “Without Luke’s allegory of a repentance and forgiveness and without the easy equating of the elder son with those grumbling Jews, the parable has no easy or comfortable interpretation (68).” She argues that the message of the three parables is not about the recovery of lost sinners, but rather the joy we feel at recovering a precious object lost to us and an exhortation that we shouldn’t stand on ceremony waiting for them to apologize or for them to come back to us. We should go out and find them! The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not a tale about how Jews are bad and gentiles good, but rather it is a parable that emphasizes the importance of taking action when someone is in need of our help. It’s not an argument for mercy, but an argument for compassion. It addresses the question: who is my neighbor? The answer to this question is that everyone is our neighbor, even our enemies, and the parable challenges us to help anyone in need. The Pearl of Great Price is not an allegorical tale about selling all one has (or devaluing one’s material possessions and the material world) in order to achieve the kingdom of heaven in the afterlife, but rather it is a tale about self-discovery and the importance of identifying what truly matters to us. Once we realize what truly matters to us, we should get rid of everything superfluous and meaningless in our lives. This parable is presented as an analogy to the kingdom of heaven. What is the kingdom like? Figure out what is truly important in your life, find your “pearl,” and you will discover what the kingdom of heaven is like. All her interpretations have this in common: the parables are a call to action, if we want the kingdom of heaven on earth, we have to work towards it here and now.


The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got that Way by Amanda Ripley

Many in the United States of America would claim that it is a truism that there are a lot of problems in the American education system. In truth, the American education system is neither bad or good. It is best described as average. Many kids are leaving schools with an education, but not the highest possible education they could have. One of the major problems afflicting our schools is variability. There is too much of it. There is variability in quality of education between each state, variability in quality between districts within the same state, variability in quality between schools within the same district, and variability in quality between teachers in the same school. Amanda Ripley tries to address why we are lagging behind many other developed nations as evidenced by the PISA test (an international critical-thinking test with Reading, Math, and Science sections). It is this test that various critics of our education system turn to highlight the mediocrity of our system. According to the 2015 results, the United States is 40th in math, 25th in science, and 24th in reading (out of 72 nations participating). Is it the massive amounts of inequality causing it? Racial disparities?

After looking at the data, Ripley takes an anecdotal approach in which she follows three kids who enter a high school exchange program: one from Oklahoma who travels to Finland, one from Minnesota who travels to South Korea, and one from Pennsylvania who travels to Poland. She also interviews a handful of Europeans from high-performing PISA countries who spend time in the US education system. This allows Ripley to get a student’s eye view of Finland and South Korea, two of the highest performing education systems, as well Poland, which has some of the highest growth in performance on the PISA. She supplements this with interviews of principals, teachers, and government education officials in many of these countries as well. So what do all these countries have in common?

1) Many foreign countries cover less topics in math, science, reading, but in more depth.

2) Most of them have standardized curriculums that is the same place to place, but leave the methods of teaching these curriculums up to the local schools.

3) These countries have better teacher training programs that have more stringent requirements in order to enter an education program in college. Instead of taking a large portion of the weakest college-capable students like programs in the US, take only the strongest students and only a few elite universities offer teacher education programs rather than the thousands that offer them here in the US.

4) They had less standardized tests overall than the US, but the ones they had mattered more for the student’s future.

5) They delay tracking until after the kids are sixteen.

In Ripley’s view all of this comes down to education systems dedicated to rigor.

“One thing was clear: To give our kids the kind of education they deserved, we had to first agree that rigor mattered most of all; that school existed to help kids learn to think, to work hard, and yes, to fail. That was the core consensus that made everything else possible (193).”

As she interviewed foreign students coming to the US one common theme that emerged was how easy the material studied was in comparison to the material they had to study at home. It wasn’t only the content that was easier. Too much of the assigned work was busy work with the teacher doing the “hard” part for them. One foreign exchange student reflecting on her experience in American schools was shocked how often the teacher assigned a poster project in history class. It wasn’t serious work in her mind; it was arts and crafts. Even worse, the teacher gave them all the actual historical information, the actual work. All the students really had to do was cut and paste the information onto the poster.  Another foreign exchange student was shocked when she received an A on a US history exam, while many of her American classmates barely managed to get a C. When one asked how she did it, she wondered how they failed to do it. The teacher had given them a study guide earlier in the week that gave them the answers to every question.

If the students aren’t made to work hard then they don’t take school seriously. Now this can go overboard. There are plenty of criticisms of South Korean education system, which has students studying over twelve hours a day due to a Senior test that decides what college and by extension what future they will have. After normal school, where many of the kids sleep from overexhaustion, most South Korean kids then attend hagwons (private study companies) where their “real” studying happens. Although the South Koreans do well on International Tests, everyone from the kids to the parents to the head of education in the country to some of the private teachers profiting in these hagwons loathe “the pressure cooker” system of education. Everyone seems to agree that Finland is the model to emulate.

Selected Poems by Alexander Pope

Alexander Pope was the great poet and satirist of the Augustan period of literature, which roughly covers the first half of the 18th century during the reigns of Queen Anne, King George I, and King George II. He was a member of the Scriblerus Club along with the prose writer and other great satirist of the age, Johnathan Swift. He made his fortune and fame through his celebrated translations of Homeric epic into English.

One of his first major poems was “The Essay on Criticism.” This poem is a poetic essay poking fun at the pretensions of the literary critics of his day who developed all sorts of erroneous rules about art. In the poem, Pope suggests the best art finds inspiration in nature and looks to the great works of the classical age as its model.

“The Rape of Lock” was a poem influenced by a real event. Robert Petyre, a lord, belonging to a Catholic family cut off the lock of a famed beauty, Miss Arabella Fermor, who came from another prominent Catholic family. Pope wrote the poem as a humorous take in order to diffuse the situation. In the poem a baron who is enamored with a young fashionable lady attempts to steal a beautiful lock of hair from her head. The girl is protected by invisible fairy-like spirits called slyphs. At the opening of the poem, they even give her a premonition of the impending disaster. Towards the end of the poem, the baron’s action precipitates a verbal battle between lords and ladies who accuse each other of all sorts of vices, which ends when the young woman shoots snuff up the baron’s nose.

“The Dunciad” is a mock epic in which the goddess dullness claims her dominion over Britain, especially its contemporary literary scene. It is complete with a history of dullness and a competition between the worshippers of dullness who are various literati (publishers, literary critics, booksellers, and writers) of the age whom Pope disliked. The work seems like an excuse to get revenge on those Pope felt wronged him. Many of the figures Pope lampoons are obscure in our own day. So to truly appreciate the work one should probably get a footnoted edition that explains who each person is.

The Best Short Stories by Guy de Maupassant

“And the two began placidly discussing political problems with the sound common sense of peaceful, matter-of-fact citizens — agreeing on one point: that they would never be free. And Mont-Valerien thundered ceaselessly, demolishing the house of the French with its cannon balls, grinding lives of men to powder, destroying many a dream, many a cherished hope, many a prospective happiness, ruthlessly causing endless woe and suffering in the hearts of wives, of daughters, of mothers, in other regions.” – from “Two Friends.”

I suppose one should expect a best of collection to be good–leaving the possibility that some duds from Maupassant larger oeuvre might be absent–but since this is my first experience with Maupassant, the consistent quality of these stories proves to me that Guy De Maupassant is a master of the form. I liked every story in this collection. Maupassant likes to write about the Franco-Prussian war (especially what it is like to live under Prussian occupation), the noble-nature of prostitutes and respectable society’s hypocrisy towards them, the french countryside (particularly the Normandy region), and impossible love affairs. Not only does Maupassant exhibit a talent for quality story-telling, but he also displays a mastery of descriptions, particularly of nature, employing an elegant prose style overflowing with beauty. I didn’t know whether to be more impressed with his skill at telling a fulfilling and entertaining story or the overwhelming beauty of his prose.

“Boule de Suif” (translated: Ball of Fat) is a story about an unlikely group of travel companions who gain permission after the Prussians occupy their town during the war to leave in the hopes of getting to an unoccupied town still controlled by the French. The travel companions include a nobleman and his wife, a rich wine merchant and his wife, a rich cotton merchant and his wife, two nuns, an alcoholic democrat, and a chunky prostitute (known as the Boule de Suif). At first, all the rich men and women feel scandalized having to share a coach with a prostitute. However, as the journey to their next stop takes longer than expected due to weather, their hunger gets the better of them and they all curse themselves for forgetting to pack provisions. Boule de Suif did remember to pack food, so she begins to eat in front of all her hungry companions. Eventually out of the kindness of her heart she shares her food with the others, which seems to change their opinions about her, declaring her a noble and kind-hearted person. They finally get to their first stop in another occupied town. The commanding officer in the town tries to proposition Boule de Suif, but she refuses to sleep with any Prussians due to her patriotic feelings. When they try to leave the next morning the commanding officer refuses to let them depart, wanting to sleep with Boule de Suif. Day after day this occurs, but Boule de Suif refuses on grounds of patriotism to sleep with the man. Her companions grow restless and accuse Boule de Suif of being selfish (after all, she’s slept with hundreds of men). They convince her to sleep with the Prussian officer using arguments that it will be a noble act of self-sacrifice that they will forever appreciate. She finally caves in and sleeps with the officer. The next day they leave, but once in the coach together everyone’s attitude is changed towards her, treating her likes she’s lower than dirt for having slept with the officer. This time she forgot to pack provisions. When dinner time rolls around, everyone eats their food, but nobody offers her any being a lowly prostitute and she begins to weep. This is without a doubt one of the best stories in this collection of Maupassant’s best stories. The obvious theme of this tale is hypocrisy. The rich treat her well when Boule de Suif has something to offer them. Her patriotism forms a stark contrast to their selfishness. They treat her as low as dirt for sleeping with the officer and plying her trade, despite being the ones to convince her to do so in the first place. They wouldn’t think of sharing their food with her, even though she shared all her food with them earlier.

“Two Friends” is a story about two friends living in Paris who haven’t seen each other since the Prussians invaded their country. One day they accidentally run into each other on the streets. They decide to go on one of their fishing trips by the lake. A French officer gives them a password to get in and out of Paris. While fishing they discuss the futility of war. They catch a lot of fish, but when they return to shore there are Prussian soldiers waiting for them. They bring them to an officer who accuses them of being spies. He threatens to kill them, unless they give him the password that will enable him to sneak troops into Paris. They refuse. He has them shot. The ending is actually extremely violent. This a story that notes how the innocent who only wish to mind their own business and do a little fishing with a friend get caught up in the war. Their discussion about war’s futility is paralleled by their ultimate fates; the Prussian General doesn’t get the password he wants and two innocent men are murdered. Nothing is gained, except death.

“Madame Tellier’s Establishment” is another story about prostitutes. In this tale, the men of the town are disappointed when they go to find the well-established brothel closed for a short time as Madame Tellier takes her employees to a neighboring village to visit her brother and celebrate her niece’s first communion. Maupassant explores similar themes as “Boule de Suif” but from a different angle. Maupassant is once again depicting the hypocrisy of society. Maupassant shows the prostitutes as having deep and genuine spirituality, suggesting even “lowly” prostitute who sell their bodies can have noble, virtuous and deeply religious sentiments. All the women in the church who aren’t aware that they’re prostitutes break down in tears before the deep spirituality and piousness of Madame Tellier and her girls. Meanwhile, if they knew they were prostitutes the women probably would’ve been scandalized. The upper class respectable citizens back home in town that society automatically assumes are more virtuous and respectable than prostitutes never exhibit pious feelings or noble emotions like the prostitutes, but instead worry about not being able to have their fun.

“Mademoiselle Fifi” is a fantasy revenge story in the similar vein as the recent Quentin Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds (i.e. A lowly person in society takes revenge on her foreign occupiers during a war.) Four Prussian officers living in an occupied chateau amuse themselves by blowing up the expensive art. Being cooped up too long after an extended stretch of bad weather, they decide to amuse themselves by inviting four prostitutes to entertain them. At dinner, Mademoiselle Fifi, a particularly cruel and sadistic officer, starts hurting his prostitute named Rachel by pinching her and blowing smoke from his tobacco into her face. Eventually as the men get drunker they grow bolder and start bragging about their victories over France. This enrages the women, especially Rachel, who murders Mademoiselle Fifi and then manages to escape from the officers. They search the countryside, but are unable to find her. Besides being a fantasy revenge story, Maupassant relies strongly on symbolic stereotypes. Once again we have the noble prostitute demonstrating their superior character to the rest of society. Rachel is not only a prostitute, but a Jewess. The obvious symbolism is that even the lowest of the low in French society (a prostitute and a Jew) are more virtuous, brave, and noble than these German officers. Mademoiselle Fifi and the other officers embody stereotypes about German; when they blow up the art, Maupassant is suggesting that they have no appreciation of art or culture, and they’re nothing more than uncivilized brutes given to violence, too much drink, and prostitutes (the bodily pleasures rather than the intellectual ones).

“Miss Harriet” is a story that begins with a frame. Some bored ladies on a coach ride asks an old painter known for having many love affairs to tell them a story about one of his affairs. He tells them a tale of an old spinster from England passionate about nature and her peculiar version of religion. This woman who has never loved any man accidentally falls in love with the painter, while admiring the beauty of his paintings and realizing he shares her passion for the beauties of nature. Just as her feelings are developing she catches him engaging in a clandestine affair with a younger servant girl, which drives her to commit suicide. It ends with a memorable scene in which the painter kisses the corpse, telling us, “I imprinted upon those lips a kiss, a long kiss–the first they had ever received.” Maupassant’s descriptions of the natural surroundings and his deft hand with language in this story outdo the lushness and sensualness of any painting.

“The Necklace” is one of the author’s most famous stories. A pretty young girl wishing for a more opulent life after marrying a lower middle-class clerk convinces her husband to attend a ball being held by the Minister of Public Instruction so she can live her Cinderella fantasy of being someone important and rich. She borrows a diamond-studded necklace from her rich friend. She enjoys herself at the ball, experiencing for a brief moment what it would be like to be a member of the rich upper-class, but on her way home she discovers she has lost her friend’s necklace. They do everything in their power to recover the lost item, but cannot locate it. Eventually they purchase a new one just like it in a jewelry store that costs an astronomical amount of money, requiring them to take loans. She and her husband take extra jobs. After ten years of doing grueling work, they manage to pay off their debts for the necklace. The life of toil has spoiled the pretty young girl’s beauty. She meets out in public her rich friend years later who doesn’t recognize her anymore because her appearance is so changed from her difficult life. She confesses to her friend that they replaced her necklace and speaks about her hard life, only for the friend to tell her that the necklace she lost was fake costume jewelry, not real diamonds, making the whole story one big ironic punch line. This woman suffers a difficult life of hardship and grueling work on the brink of poverty and financial ruin because she isn’t content to live a sparing, but comfortable lower middle-class life and must put on appearances to pretend to other for one night that she is rich. Whereas she is spoiled and ungrateful for the life she has, the husband sacrifices his desires (such as money for a hunting gun and later taking on all those loans) for the sake of his wife’s desires.

“The piece of String” is a story about a thrifty man who picks up a piece of string on the road only to be caught doing so by his rival. When it is discovered that another merchant has lost his purse full of money, the rival claims to have seen the thrifty man picking up the purse of money rather than the string. The thrifty man tells everybody that will listen that he only picked up a piece of string and it is all a misunderstanding, but everybody mocks him believing he is guilty. Eventually a different man returns the purse to the original owner. The thrifty man believes this will exonerate him and goes around once again to try and convince everybody of his innocence, only for people to mock him further and believe he conspired to return the purse after stealing it. He becomes obsessed with telling the real story about the string and trying to convince people of his innocence, until it drives him mad. It is a story that tells us reputation and hearsay matters more than truth; once you develop a bad reputation in the eyes of society, it is impossible to clear your name, and any evidence that might be brought forth to exonerate a person will only be twisted to implicate them further.

Other stories that appeared in the collection include “Claire de Lune,” “Mademoiselle Pearl,” “Madame Husson’s Rosier,” “That Pig of a Morin,” “Useless Beauty,” “The Olive Orchard,” “A Sale,” “Love,” “Two Little Soldiers” and “Happiness.” Although I’m not planning to write about all of them, all of these stories were very good. I liked every story in this collection and I can’t say that about too many writers.

On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

In his famous essay, John Stuart Mill defends the importance of individual liberty, which he suggests has been ignored in previous philosophical work. He explores the boundaries between our own individual liberty and society’s right to impede upon it, which Mill foresees as being “the vital question of the future.”

The major conclusion of the essay can be summarized like this: individuals should be free to make their own choices concerning themselves and their own interests without coercion from society or others, except if their choices harm others or society. Being able to consult our individual preference and ideas are a necessary ingredient for human happiness. People are at their best, happiest, and display their most admirable qualities when they are free to pursue their own interests. When society interferes and says you must do this and can’t do that in matters that only concern ourselves, people feel stifled and unhappy.

The problem is that society often does try to shape our values and limit our freedom. One way society does this is through laws. Some laws are just and necessary in so far as they regulate situations where one person may harm another, but many laws try to control behavior, actions, or permissible thoughts of others that have no direct effect on other people. Even democratic representative governments can pose problems for individual liberty in so far as the political ruling class serves the tyranny of the majority. There is a danger in the majority of society or the current ruling class infringing upon personal liberty and forcing others to adopt their values.

People often want to legislate their own sense of morality. Mill argues that what they are really doing is consulting their own preferences and confusing them with objective reality. Our ideas of how we think others should act are often just our personal preferences. I think it is worth mention that this can also happen at an individual level and not only at the societal level. Think of everyday remarks such as someone who says in disgust “why would you want to eat sushi?” People who make remarks like this fail to acknowledge that people have diverse tastes and they’re not forcing you to eat sushi if you dislike it.

Another factor that prevents us from consulting our inclinations and embracing our individual liberty is custom. Often we ignore our own preferences in order to conform to customs of our social class, religion, or culture. Customs require no discernment or critical thinking; they are already there and all we must do is accept them. Again, I don’t believe Mill is claiming we should never follow a custom if they conform to our individual preferences. Instead I think he means we shouldn’t follow customs blindly; we shouldn’t practice a custom simply because everyone else does or without thinking about our own reasons. If a person considers why they follow a custom and decide they enjoy the custom, then in many cases this may be a sufficient reason for continuing to follow it.

One way people can push back against ideas they dislike or think are harmful for individuals is through free speech. Mill is a strong advocate of free speech. People should be free to convince others that their way of life or their ideas about a particular topic are wrong. His arguments against society infringing on personal liberty mostly pertain to laws or attempts of suppression of free speech. One reason to support free speech is that people should have the opportunity to hear both sides of an argument. Suppression is bad because it prevents us from hearing both sides. We shouldn’t silence opinions because they may be true and since humans are fallible we may miss an opportunity of learning the truth. If we silence those who have different ideas, we may fail to learn the reason why our own ideas are false and discover what is true. In some cases, it’s possible that neither side has the truth, but “a portion of truth.” It is only in “the collision of adverse opinions” that occurs during a debate that we can hope to identify the portion of truth in each position that is missing from the other. Mill conceptualizes history as short bursts of progress made from one age to another in which the succeeding age has discovered a portion of the truth and progressed further than its predecessor, but not all the way, which is why progress continues to be made as history moves forward. Free speech is a critical part in the beginning stages of this progress from age to age that benefits everyone. Another reason that free speech is so important is that in cases where a person has the truth, it is worthless as a truth if it is never tested in the arena of debate. In Mill’s view, a truth is worthless if we can’t explain why it is true. Truth, even when true, becomes a dogma without good reasons and evidence and tests in debate to back it up.  The wise man tests his opinions by seeing if they can survive the many objections they will encounter and corrects his own when necessary. It is this process of testing and accumulation over time that brings wisdom to society as a whole. The only time opinions or free speech should be limited is when it may cause someone to act violently to others. He also suggests that insults and intemperate language should be avoided in debates whenever possible. Insults and mockery typically are advantageous to received or accepted opinion, however, minority opinions should avoid it for practical purposes as it decreases the likelihood of getting a fair hearing from those in the majority. The ideal person in a discussion gives everyone a fair hearing, interprets everyone’s arguments fairly, and even calls out unfair debate tactics of people on his or her own side.

Defending the principle of personal liberty allows everyone who takes advantage of it to engage in that which will make them happiest and the best human being they can be. Those who don’t wish to take advantage of this liberty and are fine with the status quo or received traditions can still benefit from those who do. Freethinking individuals are in a good position to identify when old truths no longer suffice or have evidence to support them, while their originality of lifestyle can offer new models for society of ways to live. Without those who innovate, life and society would not progress. We would be in a “stagnant pool.” Society needs these free individuals to create progress and persons of genius thrive in an atmosphere of freedom.

At the same, we do have some obligations to society as members who benefit from it. We have a duty to society to provide help to others who are in danger (such as someone who is on the side of the road and injured in a car accident), serve on a jury in a trial, and be drafted for the nation’s defense. In its best form, society protects our interests, so we owe our service to society in these things as needed.

PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.


Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.


Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.


Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; others as an argument about why it is important to investigate the issue of God’s existence in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. You have more to gain in believing than not believing. We need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth. I think the opening of the wager section imploring us to investigate is fine. However, there are many objections to the Wager proper.


After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards)

Christine de Pizan is a rare example of a literary woman from the Medieval period. She was raised in the French Court after her Italian father took a job there as an astrologer and physician. There she achieved a high level of education that wouldn’t have been possible in the male-dominated arenas of the Italian City-States. Married at fifteen to a court official and widowed from her happy marriage, she attempted to support herself and her children through her writing.

The Book of the City of Ladies addresses the slander that women are by nature full of vice and evil. Ancient and contemporary writers often accused women of being lewd and unable to control their sexual desires, as being weak and cowardly, as being unfit for government or law, as unintelligent, who brought nothing but unhappiness to their husbands, and were the cause of humanity’s downfall through Eve.

“[J]udging from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators . . .  it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. They all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice (4).”

All of this anti-female discourse found in the great works fills Christine with low self-esteem, self-hated, and loathing of her own sex.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature (5).”

Christine is confronted by the female allegorical figures Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Like much medieval allegorical work, Christine is influenced by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in which Lady Philosophy arrives to comfort Boethius at the dawn of his execution and correct his mistaken views about divine justice. Like Lady Philosophy, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice have come to comfort Christine in her distress, challenge the lies of these male writers, and help her build a City of Ladies for future generations whose walls will defend the virtue of women.

“What more do you want me to tell you, my dear daughter? It seems to me that I have brought sufficient proof of my intention, which was to show you, through reasoning and example, that God has never held, nor now holds, the feminine sex—nor that of men—in reproach (97).”

Reason points out that those who blame Eve for humanity’s Fall ignore the more important contribution of the Virgin Mary who provided humanity’s salvation. Reason acknowledges that there may be some merit in attacking “lewd” women, but writers that do so often go beyond these reasonable boundaries and assume all women are dissolute. Reason tells Christine that these male writers attack women due to their own vices, jealousy, and enjoyment of slander.

In response to the claim that women should have no place in law, government, or dispensing justice, Reason offers many examples of women leaders who were known for their just rule such as Nicaula the Empress of Ethiopia and Fredegund the Queen of France. To counter the point that women are physically weaker, cowardly, and have less strength, Reason notes how nature often makes up for defects in one area by giving an advantage in another. Aristotle was misshapen physically, but had a first-rate mind. Alexander the Great was ugly and sickly, but his courageous heart and virtuous qualities made him a first-rate warrior and leader. Likewise, some strong men, far from being virtuous, have committed such heinous acts during war that they’ve damned their souls and would’ve been better off being born with weak feminine bodies. Reason goes on to list the many women who have demonstrated courage and strength in history. She mentions Semiramis of Nineveh who conquered Babylon, Assyria, Ethiopia, and India. Another exemplar is Queen Thamiramis of the Amazons who defeated the Persian King Cyrus, and then chopped off his head, and threw it into a bucket of blood as ridicule for his never-ending bloodlust. While the Amazon warriors Menalippe and Hippolyta unhorsed Hercules and Theseus in battle, and Penthesilea the Amazon took on whole armies of Greeks to avenge Hector’s death. She could only be stopped when Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, ambushed her with all his forces.

Reason next addresses whether women can be as clever and intelligent as men. The perception that women know less than men arises from lack of equal access to education and that women spend their days running a household rather than participating in a variety of human activities that would require of them and provide them with a broader education. Examples of educated women include Conficia who went to school with her brother and became a famous poet mentioned by both Saint Gregory and Boccaccio. While Proba mastered all seven liberal arts and knew all of Virgil’s works by heart. The Greek Sappho who also gets a mention was not only well-educated, but a celebrated poet. Reason elaborates on this claim further by pointing out that many women have invented new fields and technology. Nicostrata also called Carmentis was the first to institute laws in the Italian lands that would later become Rome. Minerva invented techniques for making armor. Indeed, she was so wise and so skilled that according to Reason the pagans mistook her for a goddess. Ceres invented the science of agriculture and farming, while Isis invented the art of gardening and planting.  The last part of Reason’s discussion involves prudence or the discipline to complete what needs to be done. Here Reason buttresses her argument by offering a gloss on the biblical proverbs. Some of her prudent women include Gaia Cirilla, Queen Dido, Opis, and Lavinia who marries Aeneas in the Aeneid.


Next it is Rectitude’s turn who calls out the foolishness of parents that desire sons over daughters. She argues that sons are more likely to resent their parent’s poverty or desire their parent’s death if their parents happen to be rich in order to inherit property quicker, while daughters tend to be more loyal. Rectitude then gives example of daughters loyal to parents through tough times. Next, Rectitude challenges the stereotype that marriage is filled with unhappiness for men because of controlling, disloyal wives. Indeed, often the opposite is true.

“How many women are there actually, dear friend—and you yourself know—who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens? My God! How many harsh beatings—without cause and without reason—how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help? And consider all the women who die of hunger and grief with a home full of children, while their husbands carouse dissolutely or go on binges in every tavern all over town, and still the poor women are beaten by their husbands when they return, and that is their supper! (119).”

This denunciation against abusive husbands challenges the slander that women make men unhappy in marriage. In reality, it is men who often make women unhappy in marriage.  Still, women often remain loyal to their husbands, despite this mistreatment.

To challenge the claim that women are unfaithful, Rectitude turns to well-known mythological examples such as Dido’s loyalty to Aeneas, Medea’s loyalty to Jason, Thisbe to Pyramus, Hero to Leander, and the Griselda tale, which is such a prototypical tale of constancy in the Middle Ages, that it is retold in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s the Decameron as well. Rectitude tells of Portia who is so loyal to her husband, Brutus, that after he is defeated in battle during the Civil War that follows Julius Caesar’s assassination, she swallows burning coals to commit suicide in solidarity with her deceased spouse.  Rectitude also lists women who helped save their people from destruction or danger such as the biblical figures Mary, Judith, and Queen Esther. Rectitude shows that men are often happier or would be happier if they listened to their wives’ sound advice to keep them out of mischief. One such example is Veturia the wife of Cornelius who convinces her husband not to destroy Rome.

The final allegorical figure is Justice who comes to complete the city. The Virgin Mary is brought to reign as Queen of the City of Ladies. Justice speaks of female saints who suffer and survive many tortures at the hands of tyrannical Roman Emperors and zealous pagans. Christine saves these figures for last because they have the most unimpeachable virtue. She provides countless examples of saintly women who were chosen by God Himself to suffer in His name and convert the pagans. Any male writer who wishes to claim all women are nothing but vice and evil will struggle to rebut the many examples of female saints who represent the most virtuous of people in the Christian worldview and the exact opposite of their claims. Not only is Christine making a statement of who is most deserving to occupy the choicest places of her allegorical city, but seen in terms of a rhetorical strategy she is saving her best arguments for last.
Christine should be viewed as a proto-Feminist who focuses on women’s issues and questions the stereotypes men have of women, yet she is also a product of her times. It is inaccurate to envision her as a feminist in the modern sense fighting for complete liberation from patriarchal society or who supports free love. As Reason says earlier women who live dissolute lives should be criticized; in so far as this reflects Christine’s views, she is not someone who’s going to argue that women should be able to sleep with as many partners as they want. Her ideal women are chaste virgins who devote their lives to God, as shown by her female saints occupying the highest mansions of the City of Ladies, and those who do choose to get married she argues at various points should be subject to their husbands as St. Paul suggests. However, she does call out bad husbands explicitly and doesn’t shy away from challenging male authority when it is wrong or immoral by those same Christian standards. Her devotion to Christianity doesn’t come second to her advocating for women’s rights; the work is a synthesis of the two where the slander of men is wrong in part because women are often good Christians demonstrating virtuous behavior and productive members of society.

With her Christian beliefs in mind, Christine adopts a euhemerist model to handle her pagan mythological references. This view of mythology argues that the figures of myth are real historical figures, usually great men and women, whose actual history has become exaggerated, obscured, and transformed over time into myth. When she mentions Uranus and Vesta, they are no longer the progenitor sky and earth deities, but Uranus is reduced to “an extremely powerful man in Greece (95).” Saturn is not the King of the Titans anymore, but rather he is the King of Crete. Christine applies these assumptions with many other classical gods and goddess, claiming they were humans whose wisdom or excessive virtue led the pagans to incorrectly believe they were gods. In this vein, Rectitude talks about the ten sibyls. It was a medieval belief that one of the sibyls prophesied Jesus and spoke out against paganism. This bring us to an important point in Christine’s literary strategy. She wants to be able to use ancient sources steeped in paganism, but obviously can’t use them wholesale due to Christian social mores. So in the case of the sibyls she turns them into proto-Christians and in the case of the pagan deities she uses a euhemeristic understanding of mythology to make these exemplars more palatable to a Christian audience and reconcilable to her monotheistic beliefs.

This leaves us with the City itself, which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice help build with their arguments. The walls and structures of the city are built out of all the virtuous qualities the women of history, literature, the Bible, and mythology have shown. By erecting the city on these arguments, they are designed to protect women from future slander.