Rousseau’s Noble Savage

Rousseau was a French philosopher who thought humans had become decadent through playing too much tennis and eating cucumber sandwichs on the lawn, instead of wrestling naked and invading other nations like the ancient Greeks.

He believed we had lost our ‘state of nature’ and have been corrupted by civilization. Man is no longer natural, but full of artifices and social politeness that disguises our original nature.

Rousseau believes that because we have lost our natural state, it cannot be observed. He forumulates his conception of human nature through a hypothetical reconstruction of history. He engages in armchair anthropology in order to strip away the artifices of civilized man, to separate what we have become through civilization from what we were  prior to this corruption.

Through this process, Rousseau envisages a ‘noble savage,’ man without society, alone amidst the elements. He thinks of original man as being a tough loner, healthy and robust, uncorrupted by the disease and decadence of modern society. Man was full of strength and vigour, living a hunter/gatherer lifestyle.

Rouseau said he (original man) had ‘rustic morals’, which I think means that he was impolite and would club other people over the head to get what he wants, but at least he didn’t lie and pretend that he was a nice person. This is the concept of a ‘noble savage’ – strong, determined, occasionally violent, rude but an open book, direct and honest. What you see is what you get.

Rousseau imagined that in this state man was entirely satisfied by his natural surroundings, eating fruit, drinking from the nearest stream, sleeping under the nearest tree. Because he hasn’t been corrupted by society he wants for nothing except food, water and shelter.

The question this raises is, if man were so satisfied in this state why would he change? Why did society and civilization come about? Why did people move into this supposedly inferior lifestyle?

Rousseau’s answer is that man underwent two social revolutions which lead to this corruption.

  1. The first social revolution occured as humans banded together to protect themselves from wild animals and other groups of people. They formed into tribal family units for strength in numbers. Rousseau saw man as still being largely uncorrupted by this first revolution. Some disputes over private property emerged, but man was still generally uncivilized.
  2. The second revolution brought about a huge change. Man developed agriculture and metallurgy which lead to a population explosion. This caused increased desire through comparison with neighbours and fighting over limited resources. People flocked into large cities for protection as well as acquisition of personal property. This was the beginning of civilization with division of labour and the origin of corrupt power structures.

The state of humanity following this second social revolution is similar to Hobbes’ state of nature, where people are in constant mutual enmity with each other competing for power and property. The difference is that Hobbes sees this as humans in a state of nature, whereas Rousseau views this as corrupted man. It is not, he argues, a natural state but a corruption.

Rousseau thought that we have lost our original state of nature and it can no longer be retrieved. We cannot go back.

He thought the best we could now do would be institute direct democracy amongst small republics (e.g. city sates) much like ancient Greece. Here the people enter into a social contract, like Hobbes’ Leviathan, but rather than accept sovereign rule they agree to follow the ‘general will’ of the society. The direct democracy establishes general will and people have to follow it. He says people are ‘forced to be free’.

Critique

In some ways Rousseau’s view of human nature is appealing. It’s a nice idea to think of ‘natural man’ frolicking in the garden of eden wanting nothing and living from nature. It’s also easy to side with the view that civilization corrupts people and can bring out the less appealing elements of humanity.

But I disagree that these elements are unnatural and not part of human nature.

The main issue I take with Rousseau’s philosophy is its entirely hypothetically method and difficult to analyze, as you end up debating with Rousseau’s imagination rather than observable patterns.

I also find it hard to imagine man in this original state as being entirely unsocial, not anti-social but devoid of sociality, as a complete loner. Humans seem, from what can be observed, to be entirely social animals, possibly the most social animal.

Rousseau would respond that man has become a social animal through corruption, that man passed through a pre-social stage of development and underwent some kind of fundemental change that lead to sociality.

However, to maintain this position then one would also need to explain the origins of language of society. This is something Rousseau, to my knowledge, never managed to do. If man was satisfied being this noble-savage loner, then why did language and society develop when he wouldn’t have needed or wanted either?

I believe language and society are evidence that man is and always has been a social animal. I disagree with his hypothetical reconstruction method, thinking it better to analyse human nature through observing history and unfolding development and patterns. From this method, it would seem that man is by nature social and has an ongoing desire for socialization, development and change.

Our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom, such chimpanzees, are entirely social animals even without developments like agriculture and metallurgy. I see no reason to think man would have been different.

The main fault I see in Rousseau’s theory of human nature is his idea of the unsocial man. Many of the things he views as artificial corruption through civilization I tend to see as evidence of human nature and more in line with Hobbes’ view – desire, competition, warfare.

I also think his solution of direct democracy is an idealistic dream that is not practical and even potentially dangerous. A direct democracy, without the restrictions present in constitutional monrachy or representative democracy under a constitution, could easily lead to a tyranny of the masses. If the majority vote to oppress or attack a minority, this would in theory be deemed the general will and therefore acceptable.

Rousseau forms his political solution mainly through having a positive view of human morality and human nature. Man is generally good when left to his own devices in a ‘state of nature’, it is only corrupt power structures brought about through civilized society that are bad.

As I disagree with his theory of human nature and tend to side more with Hobbes’, although more towards the neutral than negative view, I don’t trust direct democracy and the inherent goodness of man. I think checks and balances are needed to prevent a tyranny of the masses of runaway mass hysteria, which I see as elements of human nature.

In summary, Rousseau basically thinks man was originally this good-guy noble savage who was by nature morally good and it’s only the evils of society that have corrupted us and made us bad. We cannot go back so the best solution now is direct democracy to allow this ineherently good nature to be expressed through the general will of the people. I think Rousseau’s concept is fatally flawed by denying the inherent sociability of man and tend to be less optimistic of humanity in ‘a state of nature’.

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Hobbes on Human Nature

Thomas Hobbes was an influential English philosopher with a very pessimistic view of human nature. This was due in part to being around during the English civil war, and witnessing the atrocities that come with a break down in law and order. He was shunned by several monarchs and at times feared for his life after being branded an atheist heretic due to his materialist, egoist philosophy.

Hobbes’ pessimistic view of human nature was built on his systematic, although in some instances erroneous,  philosophy of materialism and psychological egoism.

Materialism is the view that there is only matter and the world consists entirely of matter in motion.  It is linked to scientific views that everything can be explained through physics and cause/effect. It denies a spirit world or some non-material force working in the universe.

This was largely why Hobbes was branded a heretic atheist in his time, although it seems from his writing that he still held some religious belief or concept of God that he saw as reconcilable with materialism. Hobbes was a thoroughgoing materialist.

Where I think this philosophy, as applied by Hobbes, becomes unstuck are his applications around conciousness, imagination and memory. These aspects of Theory of Mind were and still are difficult territory for philosophers. As many say, the human mind is the last great unexplored territory of space.

Hobbes linked imagination and memory to external motion, thinking all human thought originated from external sense and was thereafter a decaying effect of the original motion. This is difficult to reconcile with modern views of creativity, artistic expression, memory and imagination.

Psychological egoism is the the view that people necessarily seek what is good for them. All desire is ultimately self-interest. Whatever a person tries to attain or achieve, they have deemed as good, otherwise they would not pursue it. This is often a controversial view as it leads to moral subjectivism.  It means there is no objective morality, no absolute or external morality. This was obviously a dangerous view to hold in a very religious time.

Man in a ‘State of Nature’

Hobbes believed humans were created relatively equal in their mental and physical faculties. He also believed humans had an unceasing desire for power after power.

So by combining these two views of humanity, it creates a state of animosity between people. People are always going to be competing with each other for power and resources. They have no guiding spiritual force (due to his materialist stance) and no objective moral code to hold them back. Hobbes saw this as a ‘state of nature,’ which humans descend into without an overarching power to impose law and order. This state of nature comes about during collapse in established order, such as civil war and natural disasters (think looting).

Hobbes saw this state of nature as entirely undesirable, because it prevents peace and prosperity through industry. Everyone is out to get each others stuff and living in fear of each other, which leads to escalation of militarism (e.g. arms race).

What I find interesting is that Hobbes denies objective good through egoism and moral subjectivism, yet seems to think people will naturally want to seek peace from anarchy. I see this as being somewhat of a conflict, for if he sees peace as being desirable to all then surely it throws a spanner in the egoist model of ‘good’? If peace is desirable by all, then we have at least one element of universal good.

the Leviathan

The only way Hobbes thought we could achieve this peace and avoid anarchy is by everyone entering a social contract and agreeing to the rule of a sovereign. This is outlined in his famous philosophical treatise that landed him in hot water: the Leviathan.

He saw the only way to establish objective good is by everyone agreeing to let a sovereign ruler impose law and order. Collective good is therefore defined as whatever the sovereign says is good (the law).

Through this philosophical and political argument he is advocating a form of monarchy. He sees a monarch as being the best sovereign ruler, because they hold supreme rule and also have one body. Which he then turns into this argument, which I see as a bit stretched, how if the ruler has one body it will more likely be cohesive and less divided rule.

Hobbes thinks that people will agree to a sovereign ruler because having this concentrated power to impose law and order will ensure peace, production and prosperity rather than anarchy. Much of this thought was a reaction to the events he saw during a bloody and brutal civil war. He saw the civil war as humanity in a ‘state of nature.’

Critique

While there is much of Hobbes’ philosophy I disagree with, I also think he is pretty close in his description of humans in a state of nature, as chaotic and unruly hordes all trying to loot each other’s stuff.

As said previously, I do not agree with his entirely materialist account for all human faculties. I reject the concept that conciousness and elements of theory of mind can all be explained as originating from external sense and essentially being external motion carried on and decaying in the mind.

I still agree with materialism in general (there is only matter/energy, there is no dualism), but I think these theory of mind questions are answered too simply by Hobbes’ account, as modern psychology and theory of mind has shown.

I tend to agree with psychological egoism, but have some reservations. I think Hobbes’ is too cynical in his view of humanity. While I think people can descend into chaotic, lawless states of anarchy, I also think he has totally underestimated the human capacity for empathy.

Hobbes would likely state there are no altruist acts, everyone acts in self-interest and even charity has benefits for the giver. Nietzsche said that empathy is the a person projecting their self onto the sufferer and thus empathy is about alleviating our own suffering.

It is hard to logically or systematically fault these views, but I still lean more towards the neutral side of human morality. I guess I’m just not that pessimistic, and part of my moral optimism would come from reading Primates and Philosophers by Franz De Waal. In his book he outlines examples of primates acting altruistically and morally, arguing that we have evolved a core morality, not just an egoist veneer.

Yet, I do think he has a point that without some sort of governing rule we will have lawless anarchy and not a blissful global hippie commune. I also think this state of anarchy would be undesirable, but I don’t think it would be undesirable to all, and therefore not necessitate universal good by accepting this.

Where I flatly disagree and reject his conclusion is that absolute monarchy is the best state of government. I think a constitutional monarchy with it’s democratic rule held in check by a monarch (who has more long-term vested interest in looking after their nation than an elected government… but that’s a whole other political science debate and a digression from human nature) is a viable alternative.

I also don’t think his ‘sovereign power’ necessarily needs to be a monarch. Hobbes would probably argue it does, due to the cohesive element, but I don’t accept that. I think there’s still just as much chance for power struggles and disrupted rule under monarchy as with a democracy created with a constitution.

A representative government could still, at least abstractly, be seen as one governing body. By having a representative government rather than direct democracy (governing body vs general will of people), it more closely fills the sovereign role. It also prevents, at least to some extent, a tyranny of the masses – a real threat under direct democracy.

By agreeing to follow the rules of the democratic system (referendums etc), people are agreeing to accept the commonly elected government. They are also then, at least generally, agreeing to accept the rule and laws on this government. So I don’t think the only conclusion to Hobbes’ state of nature is monarchy. Democracy can also establish and enforce ‘collective will’ or ‘collective good’.

Hobbes’ was a daring philosopher for his time expressing a cynical, materialist view in a devoutly religious time and place. His state of nature describes an anarchy where life is ‘poor, nasty, brutish and short’ [Leviathan], requiring a sovereign rule to prevent chaos, bloodshed and looting. Unfortunately, he seems to think a supremely powerful monarch is the only way on ensuring peace…. along with some wacky backwards ideas about the human mind.

Aristotle on Human Nature

Aristotle was a student of Plato but ended up teaching his own ideas which are quite different from Plato.

The human soul

Aristotle uses the word form too, but in a different way to Plato. He shows how something has matter and form. For example, a statue may be made out of bronze (it’s matter). But the shape the bronze has been caste into is its form. Thus matter is formed in a certain way and form is realized in matter.

Aristotle was possibly the world’s first biologist or zoologist. He takes a very biological, scientific view at first in explaining human nature. He says we must look not at the matter humans are made of (flesh, blood, bone) but at the form we have taken, the arrangement of our organs, circulation, reproductive system etc. The nature of a living thing is revealed through it’s progression and growth into it’s mature form.

A living thing’s soul is its form. Body and soul are one and the same, just as matter and form are one. Matter and form are just different aspects or descriptions of an object. A soul is a combination of certain abilities, with the make-up of abilities possessed defining the soul.

Anything that has a soul is alive, but there are different ways of being alive. Different organisms have different functional capacities. For example, plants have powers of growth and self-nutrition. Animals have mobility and sensations such as taste, hearing, smell, sight.

From this he creates a hierarchy of souls.

  • rational soul: humans; possess all other aspects listed below plus ability to reason in scientific, theoretical ways.
    • locomotive soul: animals; possess all other aspects listed below plus ability to move from place to place.
      • sensitive soul: has sensations but no movement.
        • nutritive soul: plants.

Humans have the same functional capacity as other souls but also the ability to reason, which sets us apart.

Aristotle breaks this down into two different kinds of reason (an interesting foreshadowing of Kant):

Scientific reasoning is the ability to form concepts and reason discursively.

Practical reasoning is means-ends reasoning, deliberation, finding practical steps to achieve a goal.

We are the only species that exercises scientific reasoning.

The goal of human life

Aristotle was all into his telos – a Greek philosophical term meaning end, purpose, divine order.  All human action is thought to aim at some end. If there were no ultimate goal, then all this striving for ends would be in vein, so there must be some ultimate goal to human life.

It is widely accepted that this ultimate goal is human happiness, which is identified with living well and doing well. The Greek word for this is eudaimonia, which has other meanings linking to prosperity and fortune. It is similar to the word flourishing.

  1. Someone is good at something if they perform it’s characteristic function well.
  2. Man’s characteristic function is reason.
  3. Human happiness is to live according to reason.

The argument is that man seeks to flourish. His characteristic function is reason. To use his characteristic function well, to reason excellently, is flourishing.

Man is also frequently corrupted by desire and excess. The answer to this is to achieve a mean, the concept of balance found in many religions.

For example, instead of being gluttonous or ascetic, practice temperance. Instead of being cowardly or rash, practice courage. We are to avoid the extremes of human emotion and action.

Aristotle thought there are two mains ways of achieving this:

Right desire comes by habituation, through good upbringing and living in a well-ordered society.

True reasoning through practical wisdom. From experience and deliberation we figure out what is the best way to respond to scenarios, what will promote excellence.

A continuation of Aristotle’s telos argument is that if happiness is the highest goal and achieved through excellence, then the most excellent life would be filled with our highest human function. This would be intellectual contemplation.

So basically, Aristotle thinks the highest form of human excellence is for people to think about science and philosophy and brainy stuff, as it uses our highest function.

Critique

I like much of Aristotle’s theory on human nature. I agree with the way he begins by looking at humans biologically, using his matter and form concept, to show what separates us from other animals is our advanced capacity for reason and intellectual deliberation.

The idea of human soul and body being one appeals to me. It is similar to a Zen view I guess, where the we are one mortal body, not dually split between spirit and body. When I say appeals, I mean sound convincing. I would rather have a spirit and be immortal but from a philosophical standpoint I think Aristotle’s view is more plausible.

I also agree, at least mostly, with the thoughts around achieving a mean of action and emotion. This is very much like the ‘middle path’ in Buddhism. However, if everyone followed this exactly to the letter we would live in a pretty boring world. Much of what the makes world interesting is deviation from means, outliers, quirks and basically not being ordinary.

Where I tend to disagree is thinking that human happiness comes from using our intellectual capacities most excellently. A common critique of Aristotle is that he is too intellectual, and places too much importance on intelligence and intelligent activity. I agree with this critique and think for many people happiness often comes from abandoning intellectual deliberation, embracing the physical and emotional world instead of the abstract thoughts of the mind.

Plato: the Tripartite Soul

The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” – Alfred Whitehead

So yeah, Plato’s pretty important to Western philosophy.

His view of human nature was explained through the tripartite soul, outlining three distinct elements of the soul: reason, passion and desire. The parts are to be harmonized so that we can transcend ordinary things and  gain knowledge of truth through the realm of forms.

Theory of Forms

One of the problems central to Western philosophy is that of the ‘one and the many,’ where there are many different instances of something which all belong to the same class. A common example is how there are many different types of chairs, but they all belong to a named class – they are all called chairs.

Plato’s answer to this was the theory of forms. He believed there are two realms:

  1. Ordinary things: these are things as they appear in the world; changing, perishable, imperfect, many and are becoming something.
  2. Forms or ideas: these are things which are not tangible in the world, they are archetypes; unchanging, eternal, perfect, one and being.

So in Plato’s conception, behind the many instances of the chair is a form or idea of a chair which is eternal, constant and perfect. It is a bit like a cookie-cutter or stamp.

The class of forms is also applied to abstract concepts, such as beauty, justice and virtue. The forms are of perfect beauty, complete justice, absolute virtue etc. The realm of forms encompasses more than just the perceivable.

I will come back to the theory of forms after explaining the tripartite soul and show how Plato links the two.

The Tripartite Soul

Plato believed that people have souls separate from their physical bodies. The soul was thought to be immortal. All living things were considered by Plato to have souls. Plato’s concept of the soul is very closely linked with the mind. He had a view where all learning was actually recollection from our soul of things known in previous lives. So while the body can die, the soul lives on and is reincarnated, continuously recollecting knowledge.

Plato’s tripartite soul is comprised of the following three parts:

Desire

  • This part of the soul is that which wants for things like food, sex and drink. It is the part that is responsible for hedonism and pleasure seeking, as well as survival and procreation. It is thought of as being the harder part of the soul to manage, being less biddable and more likely to rebel.

Passion

  • This part is seen as representing ambition, victory, achievement, honour, reputation. It is the part of the soul that feels righteous anger, that wants to uphold moral codes, the part which drives a person to fight for justice and valour. It is considered to be more biddable than desire and more likely to be tamed and subordinated to reason.

Reason

  • Reason, Plato says, is the part which utilizes knowledge. It wants to find truth and understanding. Reason is also responsible for subduing and directing desire and passion, so that neither runs away. Behind this is the reason part wanting harmony in the soul so it is not distracted by ordinary things and can pursue knowledge of the forms.

This is where knowledge of the forms comes back. The whole purpose of the soul, according to Plato, is to regain knowledge of the forms – truth, perfect beauty, justice, the good etc.

The tripartite soul is often alluded to as a chariot. Passion and desire are two horses fighting for control of the chariot, while reason is the charioteer seeking to tame the horses and drive the chariot. He wants to do this so he can steer the chariot towards knowledge of the forms.

Plato believed the soul was reincarnated, and the body it was reincarnated into dependent on previous knowledge gained of the forms. So by reason attaining this goal, the soul would be working its way into better reincarnations – climbing the reincarnation ladders. To be reincarnated as a human, having a human soul, meant one must possess at least some knowledge of the forms, which would equate to some ability to act virtuously, know some truth, recognize beauty etc.

The forms are thought to live in a heavenly realm, amongst the gods flying around in their winged chariots with clear, perfected knowledge of the forms.

Humans are wingless chariots, that have been caught up in worldly pursuits by allowing desire or passion to run away with the soul. Reason must conquer these parts in order to recollect perfect knowledge of the forms and once again fly around heaven in their crazy winged horse chariots like brainy gods.

Critique

Plato’s a pretty big name in Western philosophy, but I still think his conception of human nature is crazy.

His argument for an immortal soul falls back on some loose ideas about reincarnation and constant movement, that everything is always in motion and so the soul must be the same. He also tries to show that people already ‘know stuff’ and often recollect stuff we didn’t know we knew, some weird argument like that.

I tend to be a sceptic around these items. I don’t think he provides a convincing argument for the immortal soul. It seems entirely possible that our minds can just stop regardless of constant motion in the universe. I also think humans learn stuff really fast, which is mistaken for prior knowledge, a priori reason, a soul,  a spirit, divine knowledge.

I also don’t see the three parts as being distinct as Plato outlines them. Much of what is attributed to spirit is just the action of either reason or desire, or a competition between reason and desire. People normally experience righteous anger when something they desire is threatened, or they have reasoned something to be wrong for practical purposes.

Things like achievement, honour, victory, valour etc are all just abstracted desires. Sure they may be different from basic desires like food, drink and sex, but I still see it as being a form of desire. Thing like achievement and valour are often sought as tools or leverage so that desire can attain even more ‘ordinary things’, i.e. a pecking order or social status.

I don’t think passion is an entirely separate human expression to desire, it is normally just desires that are acted upon, or defended. I guess this partly arises through taking more of an egoist view, that people act morally out of self-interest. So that which is attributed to passion is often a form of reason working to subordinate immediate desires for a more long-term desire. These long term desires, like security, are more sensible ways of ensuring basic desires are constantly maintained.

It makes sense not to let someone steal all your food, not because it is passionately the ‘right’ thing to do in upholding a concept of justice, but because otherwise you’ll get hungry and being hungry sucks. Passion in terms of righteous anger or ambition is just long-term play at short-term desires like food, drink and sex.

I also think the three parts do not universally explain human nature. From what I can see in the world, there seem to be many people who almost completely abandon reason to follow desire. Or people who have very little passion (as it is used in this context), with no ambitious drive. Alternatively, there are also people who don’t appear to be constantly caught up in having to subdue their desires, seeming to have naturally modest desires.

Plato doesn’t seem to focus on or explain free-will. He does paint this picture of reason trying to tame desire and passion,  but doesn’t acknowledge that some people will exercise free-will in choosing to chase desires over reason. A person may be fully aware of his theory of forms and reincarnation, yet still choose not to pursue knowledge. Plato rates reason as being the best ruling element, but from how people live their lives, many would seem to favour desire.

He breaks the soul into 3 parts and then attributes different aims or inclinations to each part. But where do these inclinations and aims come from? What drives the passion part of the soul to seek ambition, if not simply desire? Why does reason want to achieve knowledge of forms, if not to alleviate suffering… another form of desire?

I think Plato does well at describing a common conflict in humans, that between desire and reason. But I disagree that his tripartite soul, seeking knowledge of true forms, is a universal and fundamental explanation of human nature. It seems to neglect free-will and the balance between the parts of the soul, particularly passion, are not a universal explanation.

Human Nature

Philosophy and theories of human nature.

Here, the term nature is used differently than in everyday conversation, where nature is more typically used to mean particular features. In conversational terms, nature is described through a set of characteristics but not the fundamental nature itself.

In philosophical analysis, nature is meant as something universal. It is that which is  unique to our species and shared by most or all members. It must have “explanatory fundamentality,” which is just a fancy philosophical term that means we can explain the fundamentals of it. In the Western philosophical tradition, human nature is that which is “unique to our species and explains the most about us.”

So the basic criteria that human nature is assessed against is:

  • uniqueness
  • universality
  • fundamentally explainable

One question that arises is whether there is a common human nature to all beings, or are there several? Such as:

  • male vs female
  • eastern vs western
  • primitive vs modern
  • original vs recosntructed

Or is there no such thing as human nature?

If there is a human nature, where did it come from? God, evolution, one’s environment, one-self?

There are also broader questions like whether human nature has always been the same or can it change, and what would cause it to change? Evolution, culture, catastrophic event?

Do human beings have free-will or are our actions predetermined? Are humans morally good, bad or neutral? Can a human change their nature?

If there is a definable human nature, what does this mean for ethics and politics?

Over the next posts I will attempt to summarize the views of the following philosophers regarding human nature:

  • Plato & Aristotle
  • Hobbes & Rousseau
  • Immanuel Kant
  • Jean-Paul Sartre

And if left with enough time:

  • St Augustine
  • Evolutionary theories of human nature

Poverty & Theology

With the growing gap between the rich and poor in New Zealand, poverty is becoming an increasingly relevant issue. There is ongoing media coverage of issues like a living wage, the housing and property market, child poverty and food in schools.

Throughout the Bible there are many references towards poverty, often with instructions or critiques of different actions and views on the handling of poverty.

In the case study for this course, we looked at an article written by Steven Friesan which outlines four different approaches to poverty in the first century CE. Three of them are New Testament Biblical canon and one Biblical apocrypha. During this time much of the known world of the authors was under Roman control, an imperial and aristocratic power structure which channelled wealth up the pyramid.

1 – Revelation

The book of revelation is an apocalypse (disclosure or revelation of knowledge) written to seven specific assemblies in the Roman province of Asia Minor. It is rich in symbolism and allegory, from which some interesting interpretations can be drawn regarding poverty.

The text reveals a universal condemnation of Roman imperial power, international politics and commerce. It paints a picture of Rome as a great oppressor drunk on power and greed.

The 7-headed, 10-horned beast that comes from the earth represents the provinces of Rome, upholding the Empire’s power and enforcing economic injustice (Rev 13).

Later (in Rev 17) this same beast is carrying the prostitute of Babylon, often viewed as being Rome itself, the centre of the earth. The provinces prop up Rome’s power.

Rev. 18 shows how four different groups take part in this corruption and injustice: Rome, the kings of the earth, the merchants, and the people.

The theological view here is that Satan is behind Rome’s debauched drunken greed; the Empire is blasphemous because it claims to be ‘king of kings’ on earth. Satan controls the world through political alliances. The nations ally with Rome to maintain the power structure, and oppress and exploit the people. This political alliance favours the wealthy because it allows international trade and the free flow of goods around the Empire. Local leaders partake in corruption ensuring that the trade benefits the wealthy.

The people are awed, deceived or intimidated into compliance, which keeps the system going. Many are caught-up in participating through the illusion that they too can grasp power and fulfil their worldly desires, deceived by Satan into pursuing achievement within the corrupt system.

The theological action or instruction from this reading of Revelation is for a complete withdrawal and rejection of the Roman Empire, and its political and economic system. It is corrupt to the core and an abomination before God. John tells people to remove themselves from the system even if it means death, as this will be martyrdom and God will avenge their deaths in the end.

It is interesting to remember this piece was written in the 1st century CE, yet many parallels can (and have) been drawn with modern political and economic order. We live in an age of international politics, free-trade  and rampant consumerism. This resource driven greed has lead to military posturing in order to protect and maintain the hegemony of an economic system which keeps wealth flowing to the increasingly wealthy rulers.

What I found astounding is that several people in this class were totally unfamiliar with this interpretation of Revelation. They saw it entirely as a mystical vision of the end times, rather than a coded, symbolic condemnation of Rome’s might, economic power and worldly greed.

2 – The Letter or James

This letter is also an admonishing of the Roman economic system, but not as radically as in Revelation. Here the author is writing more in the vein of the traditional Hebrew prophets. He criticizes social status being built on wealth, the way the rich manipulate justice (James 2:1-2), and the exploitation of workers by landowners (5:1-6). This exploitation is viewed as disregarding human frailty and God’s sovereignty over the earth.

The theological response in this letter is:

  1. Renounce a system of prestige built on wealth (1:10-11).
  2. Practice mercy towards those who suffer (2:13) – “mercy triumphs over judgement.”
  3. Compassion for widows and orphans (the extremely poor in the context this was written in) (1:27).
  4. Patiently wait for God to act on their behalf at the end.

While James acknowledges inequality and injustice, he does not advocate complete withdrawal and rejection of Roman. Rather, he advocates that people refrain from acting corruptly. We are instructed to show compassion and mercy.

3 – The Acts of the Apostles

The book of Acts reveals some interesting points regarding poverty, as well as some discrepancies between Acts and the letters of Paul.

  1. There is no critique of the Roman system of inequality in this book. This is evident by the way Roman officers are portrayed as sympathetic characters, when in reality they were upholding the Roman system. It does not attribute poverty to systematic causes.
  2. The concept of economic sharing present in the early Christian community (Acts 2:42-45; 4:32-37) is relegated to an idealized past, and only in the community in Jerusalem.
  3. Acts seems to ignore, or perhaps even suppress, Paul’s collection of money for the poor. This is inconsistent with Paul’s letters, where this collection is described as a process of sharing.
  4. Christian communities are presented as wealthier than in Paul’s letters.

This reading of Acts sees it as being sympathetic to the Roman system. Acts seems far less focussed on poverty and sharing than what we can gather from Paul’s letters. It could even be argued that it hides the issue of poverty by overstating the wealth of the early church and its followers.

Rather than admonishing the Roman system and advocating communal sharing of wealth, the times of economic need it does acknowledge are to be taken care of through charity and hospitality.

4 – The Shepherd of Hermas

This book is Biblical apocrypha, meaning it is not in the Biblical canon. However, is was present in earlier codices and considered canonical scripture by early church fathers.

It is another apocalypse, containing allegories that clearly reveal their stated meaning. Like Acts, it does not analyse the causes of poverty nor condemn the economic system of its time. Inequality is treated as a fact of life.

Wealth is seen as an ambiguous gift from God, a blessing as in prosperity theology / prosperity gospel. It is an ambiguous gift because it can also lead to temptation and loss of faith (much like in Jesus’ Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13:22).

This letter advocates frugal self-sufficiency. Even if one is blessed with wealth beyond their needs, they should live simply. Their extra wealth is to be used to help others through charity.

This book deals with charity by focussing on the rich. It could be said to marginalize the poor. They are not discussed and it could be taken that are meant to demonstrate to the rich that they deserve charity, and not “opportunists who live on handouts.”

Friesan demonstrates four Christian scriptural responses that show a vast difference in perceptions and attitudes towards inequality. Yet all were written around a similar point in history and contextual background.

The Anthropological Model

Anthropology is the study of human kind, both past and present. On a continuum of different models, from past <—-> present, this model would be furthest to the ‘present’ side. The more past-focussed models place the most importance on Scripture and tradition. The anthropological model still values Scripture and tradition, but sees human experience as being of highest importance. Whether or not a particular expression of theology is genuine is assessed in light of human experience.

This model places great value on culture.  It focuses on a sympathetic identity with a people’s culture and engages “special concern for cultural identity.” It seeks to find inherent goodness in all humanity and looks for expressions of faith already present, expressions different from tradition but still viewed as genuine spiritual experiences. Rather than relationship to a particular message, this model looks at more generalized items such as life, wholeness, healing and relationships as the criteria for judging whether a spiritual expression is sound. It looks for revelation and self-manifestation of God within the values and patterns of context – the meta-picture of humanity. If something is generally good for the life, wholeness and well-being of people, it may well be a manifestation of God.

In this way, the anthropological model draws theologians into studying cultures and traditions that may seem strange or offensive in the context of Christian tradition. This is not done with a view of converting or fighting these cultural traditions (although this will be a goal for many missionaries), but to gain a deeper understanding of the gospel as it is expressed in other cultures. A common statement of this model is that “God has not left himself without a witness in any nation at any time.”

A person’s cultural identity is to be established and preserved. For example, this model would speak of a Christian Māori rather than Māori Christian. It is a subtle shift, but shows where cultural importance lies.

This model is perhaps the most liberal in response and change from previous colonial mission work, where Western culture was seen as identical to Christian culture. A common metaphor is used here where the more traditionally focused method was that of the ‘pearl merchant.’ The Anthropological model on the other hand has been described as the ‘treasure hunter.’

Pearl Merchant: this metaphor is saying that other traditional models (e.g. translational model) approached new cultures with something valuable to sell or export.

Treasure Hunter: here, the anthropological model is seen as one which explores and studies foreign cultures looking to find value already present there.

In this way, the model also acknowledges that Christian tradition can learn from other cultures too. It can find new and varied expressions of faith that support or improve life and wholeness, being of benefit to both wider culture and Christian tradition.

A common critique of this model is that it can turn into ‘cultural romanticism,’ where the culture being studied is exempted from critical thinking. Also, traditional views will argue that it compromises Christian Faith, particularly people who hold to orthodoxy (“right belief”), believing that they already have the truth and it is their role to teach it to others (e.g. the translational model).

Another model at the other end of the spectrum is the Counter-Cultural model. This model is very similar to the work of the Hebrew prophets. It is heaven focussed, seeing Christians as being ‘not of this world.’ It therefore views non-Christian cultural expression skeptically, often seeing it as worldly and to be rejected, criticized, and condemned. However, in line with traditional prophesy, the counter-cultural model looks at countering and critiquing one’s own culture,  rather than that of others.

Due to its focus on studying and exploring non-Western cultures, the anthropological model has been used for Māori theology in Aotearoa New Zealand. For example, Tui Cadogan has written in this model linking the similarities between scriptural ruling monarchs with their relationship to Yahweh and the traditional chiefly roles in Māoridom. Christian Māori movements such as the Ringatu and Rātana church were effectively practising this model before it was named and defined.

Māori spiritual leaders, particularly during rapid colonization and land wars, have identified with the kingly leadership of Hebrew testament characters and stories. For example, leaders such as Moses, Solomon and David, as well as the story of the Israelites lost in their own land, or the Exodus story of bondage and freedom. Perhaps this was because they saw the Hebrews as expressing values and views already present in their culture.

Tui Cadogan also links many elements of traditional Māori spirituality with Scripture and theology. She writes of the connection between tapu and the sacred, wairua and the spirit, wairua tapu and the Holy Spirit. The Māori importance on whakapapa, lines of ancestry, is also present in traditional Hebrew culture. Likewise with tapu  around handling the dead and ritual cleansing. Māori often speak of a sacred connection with whenua that shares similarities with Biblical themes about sacred lands, promised land, and tribal inheritance.

Another theme in the Bible is the concept of land as conditional grant; it has only been gifted by God so long as it is looked after and protected. If not, it may be lost. This ties in with Māori ecology where the land is a spiritual entity to be conserved and protected from exploitation, ruin and foreign or tribal conquest.

The anthropological is very much focussed on the present. It aims to explore spiritual expression in cultures, seeing human experience as not only important but a good indication of genuine religious expression. This model is perhaps the most removed from traditional mission work, as it wants to establish and maintain cultural identities rather than converting and assimilating cultures into Western Christian culture. It still looks to encourage Christian faith, but through cultural identification and the goodness of humanity, rather than exporting and espousing a particular culture as being correct.