Chris Hedges, Abrahamic supremacism, Plato

Chris Hedges wrote in 2007 that…

“…individualism—the belief that we can exist as distinct beings from the tribe, or the crowd, and that we are called on as individuals to make moral decisions that at times defy the clamor of the tribe or the nation—is a gift of the Abrahamic faiths.”

He then goes on to give an analysis of a selection of scripture to support his view that the “Abrahamic faiths” do advocate this sort of individualism.  He however cannot rightly argue for the further point that this is somehow a unique contribution from this tradition, as any adequate comparison with other traditions would reveal counterexamples.

As one such counterexample, read what Plato wrote, in the voice of Socrates arguing against the sophist-in-training, Polus (Gorgias 472):

“And so now you will find almost everybody, Athenians and foreigners, in agreement with you on the points you state, if you like to bring forward witnesses against the truth of what I say: if you like, there is Nicias, son of Niceratus, with his brothers, whose tripods are standing in a row in the Dionysium; or else Aristocrates, son of Scellias, whose goodly offering again is well known at Delphi; or if you choose, there is the whole house of Pericles or any other family you may like to select in this place. But I, alone here before you, do not admit it, for you fail to convince me: you only attempt, by producing a number of false witnesses against me, to oust me from my reality, the truth. But if on my part I fail to produce yourself as my one witness to confirm what I say, I consider I have achieved nothing of any account towards the matter of our discussion, whatever it may be; nor have you either, I conceive, unless I act alone as your one witness, and you have nothing to do with all these others. Well now, this is one mode of refutation, as you and many other people understand it; but there is also another which I on my side understand. Let us therefore compare them with each other and consider if there is a difference between them. For indeed the points which we have at issue are by no means of slight importance: rather, one might say, they are matters on which it is most honorable to have knowledge, and most disgraceful to lack it; for in sum they involve our knowing or not knowing who is happy and who is not. To start at once with the point we are now debating, you consider it possible for a man to be happy while doing wrong, and as a wrongdoer, since you regard Archelaus as a wrongdoer, and yet happy.”

Is Plato here not representing the exact sort of individualism which Hedges credits to the “Abrahamic faiths”?  Socrates is saying that in order to determine matters of ethics, it matters not what the rest of society at large says, but that it only depends on what truth itself reveals.

I might suggest that Hedges is taking part in a bit of Abrahamic supremacism.  Hedges plays loose with the history of philosophy is order to make his point that Abrahamic monotheism is unique in the profundity of its moral rectitude, that without the Abrahamic “prophets” to teach them, all people would be at some ethical disadvantage. The example of many such as Plato, who were writing completely independently of any Abrahamic influence, are enough to refute this supremacism.

It would be interesting to look at the first part of Hedges argument as well:  That the scriptures actually teach this individualism as he claims. For example, Hedges says:

“God exists in the word and through the word, an unprecedented conception in the ancient world that required the highest order of abstract thinking.  “In the beginning,” the Gospel of John reads, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This is why the second of the Ten Commandments prohibits Israelites from making concrete images of God.”

So, the reason that that community in exile in Babylon which wrote the Book of Exodus did as they did, is because they shared the same conception of God that the author of the Gospel of John had?  That seems radically pseudo-historical.  Without some positive evidence for uniting two authors as if they had the same concerns and conceptions, it would be better to address each on their own terms.  Especially when these authors are vastly separated by time and place and language.

Perhaps Hedges places too much faith on a set of premises including his statement that “God is that mysterious force—and you can give it many names as other religions do—which works upon us and through us to seek and achieve truth, beauty and goodness.”  That is, perhaps Hedges is depending on the assumption that both of these authors (of John 1:1 and of Exodus 20:4) were worked upon by this “mysterious force” such that they were both brought to the same conception of this divine entity.  Perhaps he could give some argument for this hypothesis, but to use it as an unargued premise renders his argument very unconvincing to anyone who does not share his faith in such a holy spirit.

A final thought:  It seems that the ethical competitiveness of pagan Greek philosophy was well-recognized by antique “Abrahamic” thinkers.  And they too took part in pseudo-historical musings in order to ground their views of the supremacy of their own traditions.  Many Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian writers erroneously claimed that Plato had read the Pentateuch, including Josephus and Augustine. This claim is made in the fascinating Exhortation to the Greeks a probably fourth-century CE work by Pseudo-Justin (previously believed to be by Justin the Martyr, which actually may still be Roman Catholic doctrine).  In Exhortation to the Greeks literally every bad idea can be identified as coming from Homer or some other pagan source, and every good idea can be identified as coming from Moses or some other prophet, no matter how strained the arguments must become.

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