Miscellany: On the scapegoat, art, science, and authenticity

On scapegoating in relation to the Passiontide narrative as it is depicted in the Gospel accounts:

I am delighted that you chose to take up this topic. It is the probably the most poignant topic and without a doubt the most dangerous one. I will offer a few comments and questions on what you wrote as invitations to think further on this immensely weighty theme.

You wrote, “sacrifice cannot merely be a symbol.” On the one hand, it might seem like a self-evident statement if you are contrasting symbol to reality, since sacrifice seems to be a fact. On the other hand, I think it is actually a conceit of materialism to juxtapose symbol to reality as though they were antithetical. Symbolism might just be the term we employ when opaque matter is suddenly shot through with the light of our intuition and reality is rendered transparent to our understanding. I might rather counterpose symbol to chaos or unintelligibility, and reserve the term “reality” for the state of symbolic order shining through the veil of material chaos. This is consistent with the Creation story in Genesis, when the Elohim sculpt the world from the tohu-bohu. It is also consistent with the New Testament narrative, in which Christ Incarnates as the “keystone” or “linchpin” of this universe and thereby fulfills the original covenant. Perhaps you are aware of this but symbolic is directly correlative to diabolic. Etymologically, they are contrarieties. Perhaps we can understand them as semantic contrarieties as well. Bolein means “to cast” or “to throw.” Thus, symbolein is “to throw together” and diabolein is “to cast asunder.”

I think it is a very insightful connection that you have hinted in the coincidence of violence and supreme love in the Crucifixion. The mystery of Christ has something to do with the reconciliation of all estrangement. Thus, Christ unites all opposites: the vertical and the horizontal, the spiritual and the material, the above and the below, the ox (Deuteronomically “clean”) and the ass (“unclean”), Jew and Gentile, God and man, divine and mortal, master and servant, glory and suffering, and so on. Countless images of this connuinctio oppositorum reveal themselves in the scenes of Scripture once we begin to look for them. Jesus’ triumphal entry into the Holy City on the back of donkey, his washing of the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, and the irony of the Latin inscription I.N.R.I. over the Cross at Calvary where Jesus was killed like a common criminal, which, interpreted, is Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” I have also seen the inscription to be interpreted as a reference to the Hebrew words for the four elements of traditional philosophy: Iam (Water), Noor (Light, or Fire), Ruach (Spirit, or Air), and Iabdeshah (Earth). Once again, the polarities are conjoined and reconciled in the Cross.

I also think it is a very perspicacious suggestion that hard-nosed materialism can be understood as a posture that one assumes to conceal a lack of courage to confront what is unknown or what is greater than ourselves. Believing in the reality of matter alone is a manner of reassuring oneself that—somewhat ironically—“nothing really matters” in the end. Everything that appears to have ultimate significance is really not what it seems: hidden behind this projected subjective overlay of significance can only be meaningless permutations of matter and energy. Since Plato’s day, philosophers have recognized the self-contradiction inherent in this way of thinking. To wit, if it were true, it would be impossible to know it since matter is an object and not a subject of knowledge. In this way, a person who affirms the materialist doctrine denies, by the same token, his own existence as a knowing subject. I have often wondered if this is what Jesus was alluding to by the “the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost [which] shall not be forgiven unto men” (Matthew 12:31). The Holy Ghost is the very spirit of logos and so the one who bends his share in the logos towards rejecting it cannot be forcibly overruled to forgive himself. This suggests that the “gates of Hades are locked from the inside,” as it were, and any of its denizens is there by dint of his own preference. I look forward to hear your further thoughts on this.

I would like to say a little bit about Girard’s argument. It is actually a tall order to say a little bit about it because it requires a certain groundwork to make sense of. I won’t try to lay all of that out here but I trust that you will inquire into it if it’s something that interests you. Girard described “the scapegoat mechanism” which accomplished an almost magical effect within a community of “cleansing” that community of its internal and reciprocal violence. Animosity was “siphoned off” and cast upon a single victim. This metaphorical language actually refers to the regrettably concrete experience of collective unanimity that follows the identification of a common enemy. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend,” it is said. Politicians are weaponizing this phenomenon today. Girard argued that myth served as a means of concealing this device behind images and rituals. It is invariably told from the perspective of the perpetrators and never the victim. Myth, to function, depends on not being understood. Girard saw the Psalms and other stories of the Old Testament as fundamentally sui generis amongst ancient cultural documents for their tendency to take the victim’s side in situations of oppression. For this reason, he described the Bible as an “anti-myth.” In principle, though for a different reason, Girard confirmed the teaching of the Church Fathers that the Cross was a “skeleton key,” as it were, to Biblical exegesis that was capable of unlocking all mysteries. For Girard, the Crucifixion of Christ laid bare, for all the see, the fundamental iniquity of scapegoating that had remained concealed until that point. We can see figures like Caiaphas who admonishes the chief priests and Pharisees to “consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not” (John 11:50) as exemplifying this impulse to scapegoat a single victim for the “greater good.” Jesus was the first of martyrs. Martyr is Greek for “witness.” Obviously, Christ’s example is the one that we should follow and yet it is the example that is hardest to follow, since we are all inclined to save ourselves and shift the blame to someone else. The Old Law permitted all manner of sacrifice because it was “expedient.” The New Law dictates that the only sacrifice we are permitted is ourselves. And fact, this is the sacrifice that is demanded of us if we wish to follow Christ: “he who shall lose his life for my sake shall preserve it alive.” The way to truth “which shall set you free” is called the Via dolorosa. Is it possible for me to love truth more than security? I know it is possible because Christ showed that it is possible. So the question instead is “can I be willing?” Does this seem right? 


Why did Mary mistake the Risen Jesus for the gardener?

Mary, when confronted with something unknown or unexpected, was forced to seek amongst the concepts that were familiar to her for a concept that she thought would be adequate to understand what she was seeing. She had indeed experienced the resurrection of Lazarus but Jesus had performed it and she was not able to recognize the manner in which it had prefigured Jesus’ own resurrection. It can serve as an injunction to us to continually seek to increase our knowledge so that we will find ourselves possessed of concepts that are adequate to understand what confronts us and we will not be compelled to interpret our experience through inaccurate concepts. Allow me to suggest a couple more elements to consider in respect to this episode. In one sense, Mary’s concept was inadequate in that she did not recognize the risen Jesus. At the same time, however, her interpretation of the figure as a gardener may represent a sort of clairvoyant vision on her part in that Jesus is a gardener of souls. The same way in which a gardener provides for the life of his plants, and collects their seeds to bear them beyond death to new life, so Christ nourishes and takes care of the life of our souls in an analogous way. As a dream can reveal profound truth in the light of proper interpretation, so Mary’s vision might actually offer special insight to us if we are able to contemplate it in the proper manner. I also wonder if the reason that Mary did not recognize Jesus until he spoke to her is the same reason that I do not understand what you think about this prompt, for instance, until you reveal it to me. In other words, I can see what a person looks like with my eyes but I can only know who she is if she wishes to reveal herself to me. What do you think of these things? Perhaps you will wish to add something.


I’m curious about the sources for your concept of Jesus. It would be one thing if you were pointing out inconsistencies in Scripture or the testimony of Church Fathers etc. but it seems like you have just invented something out of your own imagination. For over a thousand years, Christians have seen no contradiction in calling the day of the Crucifixion “Good Friday.” Jesus himself never shied away from it, as is evident to anyone who has read one of the Gospel accounts: “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour.” In fact, following his apprehension by the Jewish authorities in the Garden of Gethsemane, he does not speak a single word in his own defense. I could never do this; I am always trying to justify myself especially to Pharisees and idiots. Jesus practically seems to invite the priests and the mob alike to sacrifice him for the sake of their own ambitions or the sustained suspension of their sense. And so they end by scapegoating the one who was perhaps the only innocent man to have ever lived. (I’m not saying I would have been any better than these people but I hope so and I try and I benefit by their negative example.)

On beauty and truth in art and science:

I enjoyed following your thoughts on this question very much. There is a very mysterious relationship between beauty and truth, though it seems that it is very difficult to capture in explicit terms. I think it has something to do with the soul opening up to what is beyond it. Thinking of it in this way helps me to comprehend the manner in which the state and quality of the soul conditions its ability to experience beauty and truth. An insensate or “brittle” soul will not find itself capable of becoming adequate to the experience of beauty or truth to the same degree that a more sensitive and “supple” soul would be able to do. It seems that this essential and ineluctable subjectivity—not in the sense that it is unreal but rather in the sense that it depends on a subject—of beauty and truth is easily overlooked. Knowledge, as a result, is conceptualized as the accumulation of facts rather then the attainment of understanding and beauty is regarded exclusively as an expression of personal preference. I don’t think this is right. Instead, I think the soul is an instrument, or organ of perception, which illuminates, colours, or conceals the objects of its perception according to its own nature. I have always regarded philosophy as a practice of exercising the soul to make it increasingly adequate to perceive beauty and truth with greater fidelity and of exorcising the soul of its disorderly elements, so that they will cease to distort its vision and thereby turn truth into its opposite and render it insensitive to beauty. Does this seem right?

The same relation between beauty and truth is, with greater or lesser fidelity, reflected in art and science. These can be seen as the social institutions that represent the principles of beauty and truth, respectively. And I think a similar “co-extension” can be seen in art and science as in beauty and truth, as you observed. Art can serve to illuminate truth just as science can reveal the beauty of nature. The connection is intuitive and yet difficult to pin down. Still, this tacit sense of their connection seems to be responsible for many of the greatest cultural achievements in the history of humanity. Consider the physicist Paul Dirac’s assertion that “It is more important to have beauty in one’s equations than to have them fit experiment.” This might seem somewhat eccentric and yet it expresses a very deeply-held conviction of many physicists. From the other side, I often think of the way in which a botanist is aided more in his attempts to identify a given species by an illustrator’s depiction of it than by a photograph. Despite that the latter may be more accurate in a certain sense, it is somehow less true because the artist is able to portray the example and not merely the instance; the type and not merely the specimen. And a fortiori, the artist capable of this sort of portrayal is evidently possessed of a great deal of objective knowledge about the species in question. A writer named Stephen Talbott articulated the relation of art and science in a way I especially appreciated:

Historically, of course, science traces its roots back to artisans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.  There is every reason to think that teaching arts and crafts to young children is not an alternative to science; properly done, it is science itself, at the stage where art and science have not yet split apart.  And whenever the split becomes too radical, there can be neither art nor science, but only arbitrary “self-expression” on the one side and mindless manipulative technique on the other.

I think Talbott’s observation emphasizes something crucial to our consideration of this question: to wit, that our contact with beauty and truth is mediated by our experience. They are not abstract things. I wonder what you think of this.


When old age shall this generation waste,

             Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe

Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,

         “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all

             Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

—John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn”

It’s funny but I remember being in a poetry class as an undergraduate when “Ode on a Grecian Urn” came up. We progressed through the poem doing scansion and thematic analysis and so on. Then we came to the last couplet and my professor said, “I don’t know what to make of this so we are going to move on.” And that was the end of our study of Keats. It struck me as very strange and it has stayed with me. But perhaps the truly strange thing is that it struck me in this way because I’m not sure I could exactly “make something of it” myself.

And yet, the first time I read the lines (I was 13 I think), I recall a feeling of recognition, for lack of a better word. I think certain trends in philosophy and science have actually conspired to darken the eye of the soul. As a result, we tend to equate truth with facticity (positivism) or calculability (maths and science) or utility (technology). And yet each of these equations rests on a relation that is more fundamental. I could only describe it as an immediate “touching” or “seeing” of the reality of something. The soul reaches out and makes direct contact with the being of something, and that thing becomes a touchpoint for Being as such. In geometry, for example, I may be able to apply the Pythagorean theorem to effectively calculate a missing value. But if I trouble myself to place before me in the eye of my mind, squares along the edges of a triangle so as to depict the various ratios of the square of their lengths, then I have the possibility to really “touch” or “see” the reality of the relationship that the Pythagorean theorem represents. The square whose edge coincides with the hypotenuse of the triangle has the same area as the sum of the other two squares. There is something exquisitely harmonious about this vision. I think the experience of truth and the experience of beauty are like the north and south faces of a mountain that we call “reality” or “Being.” Below treeline, our visions is captivated by trivia and simple pleasures. But I believe an ascent on the path of beauty is possible, just like Plato described it in the Symposium, and I believe an ascent on the path of truth is possible, like Plato depicted in Republic. And I believe these paths draw together and converge at the summit. The Good is the most real of all and also the most beautiful and the most true. Put another way, when we experience beauty or truth, that is a sign that we have succeeded in penetrating to the heart of the world with our perception. When we experience things that are less-than-beautiful or less-than-true, this is a sign that we have yet to touch the reality of them. I picture a lens that is out of focus; in the same way, we have to calibrate the soul until it is adequate to the perception of reality. What do you think of this?

I appreciated that you brought up Roger Scruton in relation to this topic. I have actually read part of his book on beauty so I was happy to see that you were also familiar with his work. I am often struck by the discrepancy between the self-evidence of what he is saying and the fact that he seems to be amongst the few people capable of saying it today.

Finally, I would like to suggest a concrete example of the relationship between art and science. Illustrated bird books are always superior to photographic ones because the artist is able to exemplify the species while the photo can only capture instances of it. Reciprocally, the artist must herself have achieved a very high degree of accuracy and precision in her observation of the species as a condition for her to provide an adequate illustration of it. This example shows how art informs science and science enforms art.

On the etymology of “man” and “men” and whether they are examples of inherent sexism in the English language:

I think there are a sufficient number of strong arguments for women’s rights without relying on factitious etymologies. In fact, these kind of fallacious appeals regrettably serve to detract from rather than support the case for feminism. “Man” actually derives from the Proto-Indo-Europeans root for “mind.” I once studied yoga enough to learn a little bit of Sanskrit and indeed the term for “mind” in Sanskrit is none other than manas. In Latin, the word for mind is mens. This may be familiar to some from the phrase “mens sana in corpore sano. Someone can perhaps correct me if I am mistaken about this but I think—somewhat ironically, given the occasion—that mens is actually a feminine noun in Latin, as indicated by the inflection on “sana.” It certainly is in Spanish: “la mente.”

On authenticity and the two selves:

The distinction you made between the “two selves” intrigued me. You described an empirical self and an ideal self and then identified authenticity with the former. I understand this inclination but I am also left to wonder if the discrepancy between the empirical self and the ideal self is not just the distance we must travel in order to attain true authenticity. In other words, couldn’t the empirical self actually be seen as the ideal self minus our inauthenticity? I was drawn to consider this aspect after I reflected on the fact that each person’s notion of his or her ideal is something unique and immensely expressive of his or her conception of the highest good. What do you think of this?

On the so-called “Protagoras question”:

It’s an interesting question about whether virtue can be taught. It seems it can be learned, however. So in fact, we might wonder whether anything can be taught. This is close to my view of teaching: my responsibility is less to teach anything than to provide the conditions under which things can be learned.

Photo by Haley Black on Pexels.com

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